“Every region has those who affirm LGBTQIA+ people and some want to but aren’t sure how to,” said the Rev. Brian Ellison, CNP’s executive director. “These events are being offered to bring these communities together.”

On Saturday, November 13, the Covenant Network of Presbyterians held its first in-person Covenant Conversation since before the COVID-19 pandemic. with worship, workshops and a lively panel discussion. Held at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, the hybrid Covenant Conversation included participants viewing the livestream, a first for CNP. “I know these conversations will continue in pulpits and pews beyond this space,” Ellison said at the conclusion of the event.

Thanks to sponsors at Presbytery of CharlotteFirst Presbyterian Church of CharlotteDavidson College Presbyterian Church in Davidson, North Carolina, and Caldwell Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, this event brought together a wide variety of voices for educational and relational opportunities.

“Welcome can be a tricky word, especially for LGBTQIA+ people,” said Ellison. “Today is about what we as a church need to do to get there.”

The four panelists describing their work toward full LGBTQIA+ inclusion in church life included, the Rev. Dr. Mark Achtemeier, a Presbyterian pastor and theologian who wrote “The Bible’s Yes to Same-Sex Marriage,” Jonathan Hardin, a licensed clinical mental health counselor associate, the Rev. Leslie Oliver, a womanist theologian, and Heather McKee, a seminarian who left her studies when anti-LGBTQIA+ arguments circulated in the PC(USA) during the 1990s. The Presbyterian Mission Agency provided full bios in their writeup of the event.

Jonathan Hardin

Hardin spoke to his experiences of a “conditional welcome” and the “mixed messages” that cause him and many other LGBTQIA+ people to continually check their surroundings for safety, while McKee spoke to her desire for authenticity as a reason to leave seminary at time when LGBTQIA+ could not serve the Church with openness about their identities. For McKee, affirmation later came in the form of laying hands when her congregation ordained and installed her as a deacon.

She added that her church’s membership has grown with all types of new members, not only LGBTQIA+ people, after the church adopted an openly affirming stance. “People want to be part of congregations that are affirming, and they want their children raised in a faith community where they can see the wonderfulness of all God’s children.”

Achtemeier said, “Given the state of the church generally in the United States, I think lesbian and gay people coming into the door have every reason to assume they are not welcome [in your church] until you say it to the contrary.”

Heather McKee

He also spoke to his change of heart to affirm same-sex relationships after earlier opposition, saying, “God has afforded me the opportunity to undo some of the damage I did in the denomination.” This change of heart came at a cost, with Achtemeier sharing, “I got kicked off the speaking circuit and kicked off boards,” adding that the Covenant Network of Presbyterians welcomed him in spite of his previous opposition to LGBTQIA+ affirmation.

The Rev. Dr. Mark Achtemeier

“Have those real conversations about why the church is here in the first place — to love people, to honor the Shema,” Oliver said. “People are watching us, mainly the youth. You can say, ‘I don’t understand you all the way, but I love you.’ We can start there.”

The Rev. Leslie Oliver

Presbyterian News Service will report on workshops from Covenant Conversation: Charlotte later this week.