Something remarkable is happening at The First Church in Sterling, Federated. In the past four years, this multi-denominational congregation – one of 75 or so in the state – has seen seen membership grow by an astounding 140 members, with another 40 potential members in the wings.
Did becoming Open and Affirming make that happen?
The Reverend Robin Bartlett, Senior Pastor of the church, attributed the growth to a very active and involved congregation. She also jokingly added that because they are in a small town they have a captive audience who wants to attend church events because there is nothing else to do. But on a more serious note, she explains that it is the truly extravagant welcome they offer that brings in the community.
The First Church website describes the church as a microcosm of New England church history, and “in its unity contains a wonderful breadth and richness that is both in their heritage from the past and their hope for the future.” It is a theologically diverse community in association with the United Church of Christ (UCC), the Unitarian Universalist Association (UU) and the American Baptist Church (ABC). Her predecessor of 31 years was an American Baptist minister, and so was the minister before him. Bartlett is the first called woman, and the first Unitarian minister who has served the church since they federated in 1941. Presently the congregation varies in its diverse theological and ideological belief systems, but they share the unifying, deeply-held belief that God is Love.
Bartlett gives a lot of credit for their theological unity to her predecessor, The Rev. Dr. Jonathan Wright-Gray, a liberal American Baptist pastor who in 2004 started marrying gay people in the church. At that time, this was a very controversial move and it resulted in a big exodus of beloved church members and leaders who felt strongly that same gender marriage was inconsistent with Biblical morality. On the flipside, people who thought the church should be more vocal about their support of the LBGTQ community also left.
Bartlett (who holds dual standing in the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ) arrived a decade later, and when interviewing for the job, was told that one of the biggest goals of the church was to become Open and Affirming (ONA). Since this is a progressive Christian congregation associated with the UUA and the UCC, Bartlett thought the congregation would be very supportive and it wouldn’t be a problem to shepherd the congregation through the official ONA process. She was sure it would be like crossing t’s and dotting i’s. That task, however, proved to be harder than she predicted. In fact, it took two years of preparation and conversation before the congregation would vote.
Church Learns What ONA Really Means
“It was necessary to have a lot of help and support throughout the process,” said Bartlett. “I had to remind some members that one of the reasons they called me was to have more people like me – people in my generation with young families – come back to the graying church. I tried to remind them they can’t be all things to all people and that being clear about their mission is what results in growth. I also explained that I couldn’t lead a church that was not welcoming to all, because I couldn’t betray my understanding of who God is in that way.”
According to Associate Conference Minister Kelly Gallagher of the Massachusetts Conference “the spirit of ONA is more than affirming people of all sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions. The meaning of an ONA declaration should be the commitment to affirm every person because they are children of God – those of any age, ability, race, culture and ethnicity, family configuration, health status, immigration status, whether with children or not, as well as any other description that might separate us. A true welcome respects and honors every person, their story, their gifts and their needs. A welcome to some but not others is no real welcome.”
A Two-Year Preparation
During the two years of preparation, Bartlett utilized ONA materials offered by the UCC, including the Open and Affirming Planning Guide. “The UCC resources were very helpful,” said Bartlett. “Most UU churches no longer use the Bible as their foundational text anymore, but my folks need the Bible to ground their faith statements. So we utilized the resources, did Bible studies on the subject, had listening circles to pray for the church to hear and understand what the spirit was saying and remind us that God is still speaking. It was very powerful.”
First Church also utilized pub theology events, and their “Eat Pray Learn” monthly community forums to discuss and delve more deeply into the ONA subject. They contacted Kathie Carpenter, Chair of the Massachusetts Conference ONA Ministry Team, who helped them form a lay-led Open and Affirming team, to help move through the process. Carpenter was also one of the speakers at the community forum.
“After I began working with First Church Federated in Sterling on ONA in September 2015, I pointed out to them how the language on their website describing the church and its mission already showed Open and Affirming thinking. The pastor was already using a welcoming statement to begin every worship service. These were good indicators that they were clear about who they wanted to be and were ready to do an intentional study of becoming an Open and Affirming congregation,” said Carpenter.
Carpenter suggested their task team read the Open and Affirming Coalition’s ONA Starter Toolkit and the ONA Planning Guide, to help them begin to learn how to be capable and sensitive leaders of the process. Those learnings included how to conduct one-on-one conversations and visits and be a responsive and graceful conversation partner. She also recommended a pre-assessment of how advanced the congregation’s knowledge and experience were regarding things LGBTQ.
“I trusted them to work their own. They tailored my advice to match their own identity, style and needs. That made the congregation’s investment deeper and the process more successful,” said Carpenter. Seven months later, they invited her and three others to share their personal stories and tell why ONA was important to them. Carpenter also shared some of the context, history and meaning of the ONA program, and why making this kind of public covenant was so vital to the lives and well-being of so many who have been distanced from or damaged by the Church.
A Watershed Moment
In January of 2017, at a meeting of record attendance, First Church in Sterling voted unanimously to become an Open and Affirming, Welcoming Congregation to the LGBTQ community.
“This was a big deal for our congregation because they tried for 20 years to become Open and Affirming and it was painful. Members suffered from memories of that earlier split of the church, so of course their biggest fear was that people would leave the church again,” said Bartlett. "After the vote there was a big sense of relief. This was a moment of redemption that cannot be quantified.”
“Having the support of the Conference was very helpful,” she said. We had the people power and the resources, but we especially needed the support of the denomination to cheer us on, because people had been demoralized by conversations spanning the past decades.”
“There were many reasons that First Church Federated in Sterling conducted a faithful and successful process,” said Carpenter. “They took ownership of their ONA process. They listened to advice and adapted the advice to their setting. They also had among their members people who are gay and transgender and they saw making this promise as a way to live as Christians. Their vote to adopt a wide-ranging covenant of welcome speaks not only about their full promise of affirmation, but also about their commitment to continuing to see that it is alive and real in the future.”
Did an ONA Status Help Grow This Church?
So this leads us back to the question, did becoming Open and Affirming help attract those 140 members? As the church prepares to mark their two-year anniversary of ONA status next month, Bartlett says yes, but there’s a lot more to it. There’s a magic combination of all kinds of reasons, including having a grace-filled and vibrant community, plenty of activities for members and the community, dedicated full time ministers for children, youth and families and adult religious education, and the funds to be able to offer the programs to support the 350-member congregation.
That being said, she believes a lot of the growth comes from the extravagant welcome people feel when they walk through the door. If the church was not ONA she believes they would have a serious integrity problem. Now Bartlett feels she can really mean it when she says “there are no barriers to this table,” when she welcomes people to communion.
“We have two ministers who are LGBTQ, and there are a few LGBTQ folks in the church now. We also offer the Our Whole Lives program to twenty-five 7th-9th grade kids from the local middle school and high school as a service to the community.
We were really clear at the beginning saying that the goal was not that we would suddenly attract every gay person in the area; the goal is instead to communicate who we believe God to be: Love. That is what is most appealing to people here… and so nothing but extravagant welcome will do. In fact, we have attracted a lot of straight people because of this covenant. Like me, they can’t imagine being a part of a church in which their beloved friends and family members are not welcome to be exactly who they are.”
Advice for Other Churches
The biggest advice Bartlett offers is to be brave. "William Sloane Coffins says that ‘the world is now too small to exhibit anything but truth, and too dangerous for anything but love.’ There’s no point in trying to be casual or weak in your welcome or in your faith. We don’t have much time to build the kingdom on earth. We will all be gone someday, so be bold while you’re here if you want to grow. There’s no purpose in trying to make everyone happy. It’s not what we are called to do.”
You can contact Rev. Robin Bartlett at the church office: (978) 422-6657 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow them on Facebook at www.facebook.com/FirstChurchSterling
Bartlett offers the text of her welcome statement and their covenant below, and a gallery of photos from Open and Affirming Sunday.
[Photo caption above: The vote. The people who don't have their hands raised are not members yet, but wanted to witness this historic moment. Several told Rev. Bartlett afterward that they want to become members now. — at First Church in Sterling.]
Celebrate 35 years of Open and Affirming churches in the Massachusetts Conference!
Saturday, June 15, 2019 at 9:00 AM to 3:00 PM
Location and program TBD.
Contact Kathie Carpenter, ONA Ministry Team Chair, with questions: email@example.com
More info on MACUCC ONA and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Concerns: www.macucc.org/lgbt
This welcome statement is said at the beginning of every worship service at First Church in Sterling:
Welcome to First Church in Sterling, where we are gathered in the spirit of Jesus, committed to creating heaven on earth. Welcome to all who need a church home, and for all who call this church home already. Welcome to people from all towns and cities and states and countries. Welcome to all who want to follow Christ, have doubts, and do not believe. Welcome to people of all ages, races, nationalities, abilities, sexualities and gender expressions. Welcome to single, partnered and married people. Welcome to believers, questioners and questioning believers. Welcome to everyone.
We welcome you to come as you are, and to meet this God who challenges us to be more than we think we can be. We welcome you if you are not perfect, because neither are we. We know that the Church at times has rejected difference and denied God's promises for itself and others. Which is why we say, without reservation, we welcome you because God welcomes you, as a beloved child.
Our Open and Affirming Covenant
This is the open and affirming covenant (voted on in Jan 2017) for First Church of Sterling:
We, the First Church in Sterling, value and welcome a diverse congregation. We are an Open and Affirming (ONA) church, believing that each of us is created in God’s image. We celebrate everyone, including people of all ages, races, cultures, sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions, family configurations, economic circumstances, physical, cognitive or emotional abilities, education, or spiritual and religious traditions. We recognize that the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer) community has been the target of discrimination and judgment and we consciously choose to renounce any discrimination and judgment, by declaring ourselves an open and affirming church, embracing justice and welcoming all people, including people of diverse sexual and gender orientation into the full communion of our church and our friendship. As we gather in the spirit of Jesus, we commit ourselves to the ongoing work of being an Open and Affirming congregation, one that lives out the belief that God is still speaking. With God’s grace, we endeavor to create heaven on earth.