How Circle Pie Saved Our Church

Do you ever wonder if there are better ways to have conversations about same-sex relationships in church? Have you felt, as I have, that the debate has reached the end of its usefulness after decades of arguing? Opposing sides have squared off with their proof texts and their arguments from tradition and experience and science. And yet, many of us have failed to convince our “opponents.”

What if we shifted our expectations away from reaching the same conclusion and focused our attention on the conversation itself? What if we valued the quality of the discernment process as much as (or more than) the conclusion? What if the conversation could be a form of spiritual discipline in which we learned to practice patience, kindness, truth-telling, trust, hope, and perseverance (1 Cor 13)? What would that look like?

Presbyterians have been having a lot of conversations these past several years as changes to the Book of Order regarding the ordination of LGBT members and the marriage of same-sex couples have been proposed and passed. Whether they happen loudly in worship, quietly in the local coffee shop, or confidentially in the pastor’s office, they are almost always difficult conversations.

Sometimes, we are hurt by what others say. Sometimes, we regret what we ourselves have said, or the way we have said it. We alienate each other. And the pain that we feel shapes the way that we talk about – or avoid talking about – same-sex relationships in the church.

The temptation to avoid the conversation was a strong one in my church because the potential for conflict was so high. Since its inception, our church’s theology had been decidedly evangelical in flavor. Although evangelical interpretation of Scripture often upholds traditional views of human sexuality, our church also held a missional commitment to welcoming everyone into community – which resulted in a diverse congregation where LGBT people often held leadership positions. Thus, members held a wide range of opinions about the extent to which Hot Metal should affirm same-sex relationships.

Even the pastors didn’t agree with each other!

As we struggled to plan a format for our church’s conversation, we experienced a breakthrough when an excellent book was recommended to us. A Time To Embrace: Same-Gender Relationships in Religion, Law, and Politics was written by William Stacy Johnson, an ordained Presbyterian pastor, lawyer, and professor at Princeton Theological Seminary. In it, he identifies, explains, and analyzes a spectrum of seven different opinions that Christians hold regarding LGBT Christians in the church . These range from prohibition to toleration to celebration to consecration of same-sex relationships.

Screen Shot 2015-04-17 at 4.46.36 PM

Recognizing that there were more options than being simply “for” or “against” was liberating and gave us the theological foundation for the conversation. It allowed us to account for the nuances of people’s beliefs rather than trying to box everyone into either one position or the other. It discouraged adversarial debate and encouraged listening. And it ultimately inspired a unique format for our conversation in the mind of Rev. Jim Walker (a United Methodist pastor who co-founded the church with Rev. Jeff Eddings).

We called it, “Circle Pie.”

Circle Pie was introduced at an all-church meeting. We drew a large circle on the floor and divided it into seven parts that corresponded to the positions outlined in the book. Beforehand, a few people representing a range of views had agreed to participate in the demonstration. After I explained the seven positions to the group, these volunteers were called to the circle one at a time by Jim who guided them through the circle using a series of questions. Screen Shot 2015-04-17 at 4.46.23 PM

The questions varied from person to person, but some examples are: In which slice did you grow up? Where are you now? What led you to that position? Where do you wish you were? Stand in the slice that you disagree with most; why do you think someone would choose to stand here?

The format of questions and answers, led with sensitivity by a pastor, created a safe environment where people could share honestly without fear. By eliminating the opportunity for debate, we freed the participants to really listen, rather than plan their counterarguments. It was an environment of empathy in which we were forced to consider the viewpoints of others.

After the large group demonstration, people signed up for smaller gatherings in members’ homes throughout the city. The format was the same, but everyone who attended had to participate.

These smaller gatherings recreated the safe environment of the large group and added an element of intimacy that lent itself to truth-telling. A few participants came out to their groups as gay or lesbian or bisexual. Some bravely shared horrific stories of discrimination and outright abuse. Others had reservations about affirming same-sex relationships and it was safe for them, too, to express their theological commitments. Although not everyone agreed, everyone was heard.

I don’t want to gloss over the difficulty of these conversations. Know that there were many hard moments. There was frustration. Bitter comments were made. Tears were shed. Anger was felt and expressed. So you may be wondering: what makes me think this conversation brought us closer together?

Some time after these conversations occurred, our session made the decision to ordain LGBT members to be deacons and elders in our church. In some churches, this may have resulted in division or a mass exodus from the church. And a few people did break fellowship with us over this decision. But it’s my belief that the way the conversation was framed helped our liberal and conservative members to remain committed to each other in the midst of disagreement.

Circle Pie helped us see that the conversation was not simply about abstract principles, but about people.

It revealed that our interpretation of Scripture is not only the result of careful contemplation of the text, but that our beliefs are shaped by relationships: by the people we know, the experiences we’ve had, our friends, our families, and our faith communities. This is hard for some people to accept. But I believe that a faith community hears God speak when it gathers around the Bible to talk.

More recently, I’ve enjoyed coffee with church members who expressed concern about the decision of our pastors and session to bless same-sex marriages in our church. They don’t affirm the decision. But what they did affirm, again and again, is that their reservations about same-sex marriages would not break their relationship with the church.

Of course, not every church that opens up this kind of dialogue will reach the same decisions regarding ordination and marriage that ours has. But, I am inspired by the people in my church who model this kind of unity in the midst of disagreement. It gives me hope that we can all live it out together in our presbyteries and the denomination as a whole!

Mike Holohan is an associate pastor at Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community in Pittsburgh, PA.

12 Responses
  • Justin Observer on April 20, 2015

    But Christianity is not about saving “our church” – rather, our purpose is to glorify God and, in the process of doing so and accepting and relying upon Christ, our souls are saved. Those on various sides of the issue can debate the Truth, and whether or not we can agree on what the Truth is (and hopefully treat one another graciously and with love, as God would have us do), there is certainly Truth on this issue. Clouding an issue because it is difficult does not necessarily lead to truth. Here, if the diagram as it is shown in this article was used as the circle pie, then its very terms in the diagram simply begged the question from the very beginning and, while supposedly embracing or encouraging all views to be shared, suggested the appropriate position to have. If you accept homosexuality or gay marriage as acceptable or to be encouraged, than one is “welcoming” and “affirming,” but if one believes the homosexuality or gay marriage are contrary to God’s will, than he/she is “non-affirming” or, presumably, not welcoming, This hardly appears to be “opening up dialogue” as the church here suggests, but, rather, directing dialogue and the direction of the church. In other words, a decision was not reached by use of the “Circle Pie,” but already predetermined.

  • Bev BElkowski on April 20, 2015

    I remember this exercise. I thought it was very powerful and thought provoking. I also felt glad to be part of a church that was open enough to do something like this!

  • Jean Miller on April 23, 2015

    Once again…. It’s not about “fleshly opinion”….but GOD’S WORD…. & as believers of HIS WORD there should be no need for debate….. or “pies”….JESUS turned over tables because of sin…. sin is sin…for all of you who say “who are we to judge”. You’re totally correct….GOD is our only judge…. HIS opinion is all that matters… GOD & GOD alone…Not some “man-made” drawing of a pie!!!!

  • michael flores on April 29, 2015

    I AM SADDENED AND DISSAPOINTED THAT YOU ARE TOLERATING, AND LEGITIMIZING is abomination.I pray you co.e to your senses and reaffirm yourself to God’s laws.I respect your decision but cannot support a ministry that gives legitimacy to what scripture clearly condemns….

  • Ginger on April 30, 2015


  • Ging r on April 30, 2015

    Read the WORD..

  • Mary Jo Dorsey on May 3, 2015

    Have you naysayers even read the article? Have you listened to Mike’s message here? This is not an invitation for hate and debate but a lovely essay on an exercise that one church used to evaluate it’s member’s past and present conceptions of receiving our LGBT brothers and sisters into a communion of service to God. This is a forum of experience not a playground for what is right OR what is wrong in your eyes. You naysayer in judgement are all missing the very meaning of Mike’s article. Calm down and listen to what is being said here. Hot Metal Faith Community Church is a graceful blend of tolerance and acceptance. Maybe we all just need a place to worship without judgement. Maybe, just maybe it is as simple as that. Please don’t complicate Hot Metal’s mission to serve and love EVERYONE with your bitter motives to condemn.

  • Pastor Duke Bennett on May 4, 2015

    Hot Metal “church”, great name because I can see the fires of Hell being stoked here. By condoning, accepting and “celebrating” the perversions of a small minority at the expense of the Word of God, you are in essence asking “Hath God truly said?” I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes as you stand before the Almighty and try to explain why you thought twisting His word to please sexual deviants sounded like a good idea at the time.

  • Mike on May 5, 2015

    Thank you for taking the time to read and comment on my post. I really appreciate your participation in this discussion. I’d like to address the two main points that I believe you have made.

    First, if I understood you correctly you believe that the title “How Circle Pie Saved Our Church” suggests that our focus was misplaced, that we were more concerned about preserving our church than hearing the truth. I hope it’s clear from my storytelling that the intention was not just to “save our church” but to engage in a sensitive conversation without alienating each other. The title reflects the anxiety felt by many people – whether “conservative” or “liberal” – that a conversation about LGBT Christians will disrupt our most valued relationships. The title simply communicates the sincere desire to speak honestly to each other (and listen to each other!) without damaging our relationships unnecessarily. I hope that all people of goodwill can agree that is a worthy goal, not matter what their views on sexuality and the Bible.

    Second, I have to push back on the characterization that Johnson’s seven viewpoints “cloud the issue.” To the contrary, it’s been my experience that they bring clarity to the conversation. In fact, it is when we box everyone into the categories of “For” and “Against” that the conversation really becomes clouded because our actual views are almost always more complicated than that.

    Would you say more about the idea that William Stacy Johnson’s framework of seven viewpoints predisposes the conversation to certain conclusions? That’s a criticism I’ve heard before. But in our case, at the end of the conversation not everyone agreed with the “welcoming and affirming” positions. So I have a difficult time agreeing with that criticism. Also, I wonder if you could suggest alternative labels for the positions that would be more satisfactory for you?

  • Mike on May 5, 2015

    Jean, thank you for reading and commenting. You’ve said that there should be no need for debate. But can’t we agree that our scriptures require interpretation? When we look to see what the Bible has to say about more settled issues – like divorce or slavery, for example – we find that some statements seem to be in tension with each other. For instance, how do we make sense of the teaching of Jesus on divorce when he seems to prohibit it entirely in Mark and Luke while permitting it in the case of “unchastity” in Matthew? Or what should we conclude about the biblical position on slavery when Paul urges the slave-owner Philemon to release Onesimus while the letter to Titus demands that slaves continue to obey their masters? In a similar way, many of us find in the scriptures a liberating message to LGBT people which is in tension with unaffirming passages such as Romans 1. I don’t necessarily want to have a debate about that, either, but I would love to have a conversation about it.

  • Mike on May 5, 2015

    Hi Michael. Although it feels like you are yelling at me by typing in all capital letters, and I would not appreciate that in a personal conversation, it still means a lot to me that you respect my views and the decisions that our church has made. Especially since you clearly do not agree with them! It lets me know that we could have a good conversation.

    It’s clear to me that, for you, same-sex relationships and Christianity are not compatible. And, as you’ve probably seen in the Circle Pie graphic, there are three different positions which share that viewpoint: Prohibition, Toleration, and Accommodation. However, each of them has a slightly different way of acting on this opinion. Which of the three comes closest to matching your personal convictions?

  • Mike on May 5, 2015

    Duke – your comment is a valuable contribution to this discussion because it illustrates the very great need in the Church for healthy conversations about Christian sexuality. Labeling LGBT folks as “deviants” and dismissing them as a “small minority” is dehumanizing and contrary to the words, deeds, and spirit of Jesus. Similarly, were someone to label those who do not affirm same-sex relationships as “bigots” it would be unwise for the same reasons.

    I believe that LGBT folks should be affirmed and their marriages blessed by their churches, However, I also believe that it is possible for those who are not affirming to express themselves more grace-fully than has happened in your comment. I learned this, in part, by participating in Circle Pie. And I hope that others will have similar experiences.

Comment on this post