Lay minister Ann McDonald is gathering her strength for what she expects will be "a heavy night" at St. Bernadette Catholic Church in Severn.

Three dozen gay men and lesbians are waiting for her to lead a discussion in the conference room. The topic: "What do you need to know, to believe and to hear in order to reclaim your place in the church?"

McDonald belongs to a denomination whose highest officials have called homosexuality "objectively disordered." But at this meeting, part of a six-week program that she is offering with the support of her pastor and the Archdiocese of Baltimore, she will apologize to these Catholics for the way they have been treated, listen to their stories of exclusion and tell them they are welcome to return to the fold.

"We have people who haven't received Communion for 40 years, who were told they were sinful, that they couldn't receive [the] Eucharist. That was wrong," she says.

It remains easy to feel excluded, McDonald says. But she insists on a larger context: "God is big."

McDonald's outreach is part of a movement spreading in most U.S. Christian denominations as an increasing number of churches are taking steps to show that they welcome gay men and lesbians and will treat them as equals in all aspects of congregational life.

Some churches are blessing same-sex unions or appointing gay ministers in defiance of their denomination's official policies. Others are making subtle changes, such as adding welcoming language to their mission statements, displaying literature about gay community concerns, listing same-sex couples together in church directories and sponsoring reading groups for parishioners who want to learn more about gay issues.

Open Hands, an ecumenical quarterly published by a Chicago-based group that supports the trend, listed as gay-welcoming 1,567 congregations nationwide last year, compared with the 291 congregations it listed a decade earlier. There is no breakdown for the Washington area, but a measure of the movement's growth locally is the two full pages of small-type listings in the spiritual calendar of the Washington Blade, a gay newspaper -- offerings that range from Masses at mainstream Episcopal churches to Buddhist changing groups.

Opponents of the inclusiveness movement argue that although churches should be open to everyone, the emphasis on reaching out to gay men and lesbians often takes the form of endorsing a lifestyle that they say the Bible condemns.

The conflict has engulfed most mainline Protestant denominations and caused bitter debates at national meetings and in church courts. United Methodists, for example, are divided over same-sex unions, ordainment of practicing homosexuals and language in church doctrine that says the practice of homosexuality is "incompatible with Christian teaching." They also are trying to stop local flocks from identifying themselves as members of Reconciling Ministries Network, one of several networks of liberal Protestant congregations that disagree with their denomination's stance on participation of gay members.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is debating same-sex unions and the ordaining of gay men and lesbians in committed sexual partnerships. And just last week, conservative Presbyterians engaged in a petition campaign to force a showdown with congregations that are not following the denomination's ban on gay clergy.

Many gay men and lesbians have accepted the open invitation to join mainstream congregations, even as the separate religious communities they formed years ago -- such as the gay Catholic group Dignity/USA and the fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches -- continue to thrive.

Pastors at several churches that have affirmed openness to gay participation say their main purpose is to make current gay members and their families feel at home, regardless of whether it increases gay membership.

Members of Abiding Savior Evangelical Lutheran Church in Columbia held a long, intense Bible study on the issue of welcoming gay men and lesbians about three years ago. Some people supported the idea on the grounds that homosexuals "belong in church so they will amend their evil ways," recalled Pastor Marie Bunt, who told them that was the wrong way to think about it. "They [gay men and lesbians] are created in God's image," she said she told the group.

Following the study, three-quarters of the membership voted in favor of becoming a "Reconciling in Christ" congregation, open to "all believers . . . as full members, regardless of their sexual orientation."

New members have not flocked to the small church, Bunt says. There is no sign outside declaring the welcome. But gay and lesbian members can receive the sacraments and hold church office, Bunt says.

"It's a deep issue we need to open our hearts and minds about," she said.

Bible study often is part of the process through which congregations formulate positions on gay participation, looking at the issue through a theological lens. Literal readers of the Bible point to passages such as letters of the apostle Paul to the Corinthians that list "sodomites" along with thieves and drunkards as among those who will "not inherit the kingdom of God."

The gay-welcoming church movement seems to be apologizing for those who would uphold such interpretations of the Bible's teachings on homosexuality, said William Ilgenfritz, a spokesman for Forward in Faith North America, an organization of Episcopalians that opposes the ordination of women and non-celibate homosexuals.

"I think it assumes that parishes and clergy who maintain a Biblical view of sexuality . . . would somehow mistreat homosexuals," he said. "That's an erroneous assumption."

Others say that the Biblical passages reflect the prejudices of their times and that God's teaching compels Christians to reach out to those who are isolated. They also argue that inviting homosexuals to join the church while condemning what they practice would send the message that they are welcome as long as they remain silent about their sexual orientation.

At St. Bernadette, McDonald says she believes there is room for all in the church's social justice teachings. About 100 gay and lesbian people have been through the parish's six-week Reclaim program and many, from as far away as Washington and Mount Airy, Md., have become active in the parish.

When St. Bernadette first extended its welcome to gay and lesbian worshipers seven years ago, a few people left the parish, McDonald recalled. However, she said, new worshippers, both heterosexual and homosexual, have been attracted to the church by its energy and open-mindedness.

"The parish always has had a social justice component," said McDonald, "but our welcome is such a part of who we've become."

Eileen W. Lindner, deputy general secretary of the National Council of Churches, said the decision to become open and affirming toward gay men and lesbians can bring about unexpected changes in a congregation.

"They may not have any more gays and lesbians, but their behavior changes, and their perception of who they are welcoming takes them in different directions," such as creating a ministry to work with immigrants or another oppressed group, she said. "It's a fascinating thing."

The Church of the Resurrection in Alexandria, part of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, is "welcoming in a kind of low-key way," said its rector, Anne Ritchie. No official affirming statement has been issued, but the church has a listing in the Blade and its teachings reflect the message that "we are all children of God," she said.

The diocese does not allow the blessing of same-sex unions, but the church's clergy has performed blessings of same-sex couples' homes.

Dumbarton United Methodist Church in Northwest Washington has circumvented its denomination's ban on same-sex unions by having the whole congregation gather to celebrate partnerships instead of holding a commitment service at which the pastor presides.

"The blessing became a community event," said Dumbarton Pastor Mary Kraus. Such ceremonies have resulted in some heterosexual couples asking for a group blessing during their weddings.

At Christ Congregational Church in Silver Spring, the church's "open and affirming committee" has moved beyond the welcoming of gay, lesbian and bisexual members and taken on a new issue. A longtime member of the congregation wrote recently in the church newsletter that he hoped to begin attending services as a woman.

"My aim is not to put anyone down, or shock anyone," he wrote, "but just to be myself."

Last month, the committee discussed whether the church should react by adopting language welcoming transgendered people.

"What does it mean to be a transgendered person when there is no formal statement yet?" choir director John Touchton asked the group. "Is there shame and embarassment?"

Committee members agreed that the congregation would need time for prayer and contemplation before voting on such a resolution.

McDonald says she takes satisfaction seeing the crowd of about 25 people who went through St. Bernadette's Reclaim program showing up for 9 a.m. Mass before going out for breakfast together.

One of the Reclaim graduates, Katie Davis, helps lead current sessions. Davis recalled looking out the window of St. Bernadette on the day of her confirmation ceremony three years ago.

"There was a huge rainbow spread across the sky," Davis said. "I knew this was the place I was supposed to be."

At Christ Congregational Church in Silver Spring, congregation members affirmed welcoming gay, lesbian and bisexual members and are considering other issues of inclusion.Ann McDonald, lay minister at St. Bernadette Catholic Church in Severn, runs a discussion group in which gay and lesbian Catholics are encouraged to return to church and become active participants.Christ Congregational Church's choir director John Touchton is on a committee considering whether the church should publicly welcome transgendered people.