Letter to members about the membership vote

November 14, 2016

Good day, good friends:

As promised, I am writing to inform you of the results of our important congregational vote that concluded yesterday. The motion to affirm that the church bylaws recognize a single class of membership, which would allow for all members to be treated equally, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, with respect to leadership, ordination, baby dedications and marriage, PASSED by a 61% favorable vote.

This result culminates a 14-month process of discernment in our church that included intense study, fervent prayer, vigorous conversation, sincere disagreement and record participation. Here is a rundown on the numbers: 948 ballots cast, 577 in favor, 367 not in favor, 4 abstentions.

This is the largest voter participation in recent memory. By comparison, when the church voted in 1991 to allow for the ordination of women, there were fewer than 450 votes cast, and the motion passed by a 67% majority. The vote to call me as pastor of Wilshire in 1989 totaled 901 ballots cast (with a 92% majority). This unprecedented level of engagement is heartening in that it demonstrates at the most basic level the interest of members in seeking God’s will for the church.

We owe appreciation to many who gave themselves tirelessly to the Lord and to the church during these months. The deacon officers of the past two years—Kathy Alverson, Jill Granberry, Charles Yarbrough, Sam Tinsley and Pat Austin, along with the deacon secretary, Jeff Hampton—as well as all our deacons deserve great thanks. We are indebted to James Perry, who chaired the deacon officer-appointed Inclusion and Diversity Study Group, along with the other 18 members of that group, for countless hours of study and prayer. The church staff, especially associate pastor Mark Wingfield, has been faithful in ministry service throughout.   

When Wilshire adopted its vision and values statements during our Vision 20/20 strategic planning process, INCLUSION was the highest value listed by church respondents. Many wondered what that meant and whether it extended to the full participation of members who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT). The answer to that is now YES, and LGBT Christian friends inside and outside our church will see this as a sign of deep acceptance by the people of God.

“Acceptance” is a key word. The truth is that Wilshire already was an accepting church of LGBT Christians before this vote. While I cannot read the minds of all who voted against the motion, I believe I know their hearts. Their greatest concern in voting NO was that they be falsely cast as being unloving toward gay persons. It will be important going forward now to make clear that we trust each other’s hearts and believe the best about each other. Those who voted NO did so, I believe, out of sincere concern for the church and for their conscience before God about the scope of participation of LGBT members, not about the salvation or membership or even character of Christians because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Those who voted YES also did so from equal concerns for these things, but they believed that while acceptance does not have to mean affirmation, it should not come with qualifications on participation that do not apply equally to all.

Wilshire next Sunday will look much like Wilshire last Sunday. We will still worship, learn, give and serve together as we build a community of faith shaped by the Spirit of Jesus Christ. Extending full privileges and equal responsibilities to LGBT Christians does not mean restricting or marginalizing anyone else, including those who disagree. Wilshire’s history shows that being found in Christ is the chief way we look upon one another in the church. All other modifiers come after that. We will not allow our church to become focused on this one issue. We will continue to pursue our whole mission together, along with our vision to be a bold witness for the way of Christ in our time.

The outcome of this vote puts our church’s historic 65-year partnership with the Baptist General Convention of Texas (BGCT) in question. The BGCT has made public what we have sought to keep a church matter out of respect for them and for those who have struggled with the process within our church. We will take up the matter of our relationship to the BGCT on our own terms in the near future, as cooperation with such bodies is voluntary and springs primarily from the church to the convention, rather than the other way round.

Because of the now public nature of the church’s decision, we will be responding publicly as well. We would prefer to bear witness in our own words instead of simply having others talk about us. Among the things we will acknowledge is that we are not alone in taking this direction. Baptist churches all over the country, many affiliated as we are with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, others that are former BGCT-related churches, and several local Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopal, Lutheran and United Church of Christ churches, to name a few, have preceded us in this journey. We are grateful for their partnership in witness to the gospel that is open to all and closed to none.

I received an email from someone in the community today whom I do not know. His message read: When I see Wilshire Baptist Church, I see the face of Jesus! I am not a member of Wilshire, nor a Baptist. I am a Christian. I have seen over the past couple of years your outreach to God's children, whether they be gay, grieving, displaced, sick (Ebola), etc. You are what I believe the Bible expects of the Christian Church. Admittedly, not all reviews will be as charitable as this, but we should be grateful if this were to characterize for many our witness in the community at large.

 There is work yet to be done among us. The Apostle Paul gives us good counsel for this moment: Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15). The news of this decision will bring great joy to many. Some will share it among us and beyond us through social media as an expression of enormous gratitude. The same news will be a cause for grief among other members. They may also choose to express themselves in similar venues, albeit with opposite emotions. My encouragement to all is to remember each other as you do, to be sensitive to your sisters and brothers in all things. In another place, Paul told us to be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you (Ephesians 4:32).

Some of our cherished friends and longtime members have made or will now make the decision to leave our church. Others will struggle with how they will find their place among us in the future, while holding a different view. Still others will be coming to us, eager to participate in a church that welcomes them and their family members or friends who are LGBT Christians. The challenge before us is what it has always been: to love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor (Romans 12:10).

Unity, harmony, healing: these are good words to guide us in the days ahead. #OneWilshire is the hashtag I keep repeating to myself. Let’s make that more than a virtual reality. We can begin by showing up next Sunday for worship, a Sunday of Thanksgiving for all of God’s blessings to us. And we are so very blessed to share this beloved community with one another.

Gratefully and expectantly,

 George Mason

 

Information for called church conference

All Wilshire members are encouraged to participate in a called vote on a resolution put forward by the deacon body that states: “RESOLVED, that the membership of Wilshire Baptist Church affirms its existing bylaws, which provide for a single class of membership.” Voting will take place on Sunday morning, Nov. 6, and Sunday morning, Nov. 13. 

Read details about the resolution and the voting process in this Tapestry article.

A Letter from the Chair of Deacons

July 28, 2016

Dear Wilshire Family,

I’m writing to the entire membership as this year’s chair of deacons to update you on the work of our Inclusion and Diversity Study Group, which was appointed by last year’s deacon officers.

The deacon officers received a package of documents from the Study Group, which then was shared with our active deacons and the Fellowship of the Ordained (inactive deacons and ordained clergy within the church). On Monday night, July 25, about 130 deacons and members of the Fellowship of the Ordained met to review and discuss the Study Group documents.

The deacon body has authorized me to distribute this package of documents from the Study Group to the congregation for informational purposes in a spirit of transparency. It is our hope that each Wilshire member will read these documents and join us in a season of prayer and discernment.

The active deacons will resume conversation about this topic at a September 26 meeting, including what actions, if any, to recommend to the congregation. Our August deacons’ meeting will be dedicated to a missions focus with a guest speaker already scheduled.

Because of the complexity and sensitivity of this information, it is important for the congregation to have time to read and study and pray together. You may access the full set of documents to read or download here. What you will see is a cover letter from James Perry, Study Group chair; Majority and Minority Reports from the Study Group; and a pastoral letter from George Mason.

Thank you for your participation in the work of the Study Group through the Information Seminars and Roundtable Dialogues and for your active support of Wilshire and its mission to build a community of faith shaped by the Spirit of Jesus Christ.

Peace be with you, 

Jill Granberry

Chair of Deacons

 

DIGITAL RESOURCES AND DOWNLOADS:

Find the Study Group's report package here.

Find the Study Group's interactive bibliography here.

Find the Study Group's Information Seminar manuscript here.

Find the Study Group's Information Seminar Powerpoint slides here.

Find the Study Group's Information Session video below or here on youtube

History of Inclusion and Diversity Study

In the fall of 2015, Wilshire's deacon officers appointed an Inclusion and Diversity Study Group to give guidance to church leadership on a range of issues related to sexual orientation and the life of the church.

Kathy Alverson, then chairwoman of deacons, announced the creation of the ad hoc group at the Sept. 21 deacons’ meeting, noting such a group follows the pattern used previously at Wilshire to study difficult issues. Previous examples cited include ad hoc groups appointed by deacon officers to consider whether women and divorced persons could serve as deacons and to consider whether to receive into full membership individuals baptized in other Christian traditions.

The 19-member group is chaired by James Perry, who previously chaired the Personnel Committee and Finance Committee and serves on the Vision 20/20 Coordinating Council. He is a deacon and director of Seekers Class.

“Over the (2015) summer months, deacon officers have been working to respond to two related threads of inquiry that have come to our attention,” Kathy reported to deacons. “The Deacon Nominating Committee has made a request to the deacon officers for guidance in its work, specifically asking to know if a member’s sexual orientation should be a consideration in eligibility for deacon service. In addition, the senior pastor has asked for guidance on how the church should respond to the recent Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage, believing this needs to be a deliberate and open decision process of the church. These two things, although separate in origin, have combined at this moment in time to require special study by the congregation, beginning with the deacons.”

Currently, there is no language in Wilshire’s bylaws to provide any instruction—either pro or con—on these issues.

Senior Pastor George Mason noted that questions have been asked about what is meant by the emphasis on “inclusion” and “diversity” that ranked at the top of the Vision 20/20 member-input process in 2013. “It seems apparent that while we as a congregation highly valued these concepts, we do not all mean the same thing when we use the same words. The present moment seems like an appropriate time to answer this question,” he said.

The Inclusion and Diversity Study Group has been tasked with studying four questions: (1) What limitations, if any, should be placed on deacon service and other leadership roles in the church; (2) What limitations, if any, should be placed on ordination to the gospel ministry; (3) What limitations, if any, should be placed on marriages performed at Wilshire and/or officiated by Wilshire staff members; and (4) What limitations, if any, should be placed on family dedications performed at Wilshire.

The committee has been asked to report back to the deacon body as soon as feasible but to take time for all necessary study, prayer and research. As chairman, James said the earliest likely report would come in spring 2016 and that the process could take longer than that. While the study group will seek input from the congregation and will offer periodic updates, most of its initial work will focus on information gathering and study.

“There are no pre-determined outcomes for this process,” George told the deacons. Members of the study group were chosen because they are not identified as strong proponents on either side of the questions and because they are respected individuals within the congregation who have the capacity to learn and adapt.

Regardless of the outcome of the study, there is no desire to change Wilshire’s identity in the community to become a one-issue church, he added. “Attitudes about sexual orientation should not be our primary identity.”

This study is not merely a reaction to the summer Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage, George explained. That “sea change” in American culture added urgency to questions already being asked within the congregation.

“This is about our spiritual response to take seriously the people in our family and in our pews who have same-sex attractions. We are seeking the find the way of Christ in our time.”

Specifically, the Deacon Nominating Committee has wrestled for at least five years with the question of whether a gay person could be nominated for deacon ordination. And now, Wilshire’s pastoral staff needs guidance on marriages, family dedications, clergy ordinations.

“This is an opportunity to determine how we as a church should respond to changes in culture,” George said. “This flows from our Vision 20/20 identity. Now, we need to ask whether there are any limitations when we say ‘inclusion.’”

Wilshire is ideally suited to take on a study process like this, Kathy told the deacons. “We’re really good at this. We know we have to take baby steps. We know we have to communicate.”

When enlisting members of the study group, “people jumped at the opportunity to have this discussion,” she added. “Not because this is going to be easy, but because they love this church.”

In addition to James Perry, chairman, the study group members are Jill Allor, Rob Banta, Drew Bird, Gail Brookshire, Kile Brown, Barry Buchanan, Lillie Campbell, Diana Early, Rebecca Francis, Gary E. Griffith, Mary Ann Hill, Jared Jaggers, Mary Lu Spreier, Henry Stone, Don Tittle, Rhonda Walton, Wendy Warden and Paula Woodbury.

George Mason serves as a non-voting theology resource to the group. Associate Pastor Mark Wingfield serves as a non-voting staff liaison and logistical resource to the group. 

Bibliography released

An annotated bibliography of resources has been released by Wilshire’s Inclusion and Diversity Study Group.

The bibliography (download interactive PDF here) includes 35 books, articles and online publications representing a diversity of viewpoints about Christianity and persons who experience same-sex attractions. The resources explore Scripture, genetics, sociology, medicine, culture and personal experience.

“We encourage the congregation to investigate multiple resources from this list and to read from differing perspectives for greater understanding,” said Chairman James Perry. “There is danger in only reading books that reinforce one’s existing viewpoint. Our goal is to create understanding even among people with opposing viewpoints.”

Printed copies of the bibliography are available in the Wilshire Library and in the front office.

Education seminars and dialogue groups

The Inclusion and Diversity Study Group hosted a series of two kinds of gatherings in spring 2016 to invite the congregation into the learning and dialogue process. Adults and youth were encouraged to participate in both information sessions and roundtable dialoges.

“One of the first things the Inclusion and Diversity Study Group has learned is that most of us, even though well-educated people, are not well educated on matters of human sexuality and especially on matters of same-sex relationships,” Chairman James Perry said. “In our work, we quickly discovered there was more we did not know than we did know, and we learned that our actual knowledge of biblical texts related to sexuality was fairly thin. At one of our meetings, someone asked the group, “How many of you have ever studied these verses before?” And the majority of the room quickly agreed they had heard much more passing commentary about the biblical verses on homosexuality than actual study of the biblical texts and backgrounds.