I was recently invited to speak at Virginia Wesleyan College on the topic of “The Challenges of Mediating and Discussing LGBTQ+ Experiences in the Church.” This talk was part of a religious studies course on Mediating Religious Conflict in the Center For the Study of Religious Freedom.
In developing a handout, I listed a few things I suggested students avoid (“vices”), along with some “virtues” to cultivate. Some vices included demanding respect, dehumanizing others, and setting exclusive goals. In contrast, I recommended building goodwill, seeing/relating to people, and identifying superordinate goals whenever possible. I shared a few examples of what we try to do in our research institute, including past volunteer work with local HIV/AIDS organizations (that are often staffed by LGBTQ+ persons) to work to reduce rates of infection in the local area.
When I talk about dehumanizing, I am thinking about ways in which we look past the person in order to convince others of the veracity of our position. People need to be seen by you, and one way you do that is by entering into a sustained relationship with those with whom you disagree. Along these lines, no one wants to be seen as a project. Even if you feel led to engage the topic, you are also engaging real people who represent that topic in the real world. Toward that end, it’s important to see the person in the exchange.
It has been helpful to move past winning an argument or entering into debate. It has been more productive to listen (more than talk), to enter into dialogue (more than debate), and to identify the moral logic in my own reasoning and that of those who are dialoguing with me. In fact, this was part of the “frame” of the talk: How do I become a better dialogue partner?
This question came out of a recent experience. This past year I was part of an event in Cincinnati hosted by LoveBoldly in which I was on a panel with a celibate gay Christian, a liberal or progressive gay Christian, and a transgender Christian. At the close of the event, one of the other panelists leaned over and said, “If you are ever looking for a dialogue partner, keep me in mind.” It had me thinking: What makes a good dialogue partner?
The kinds of suggestions I was offering to the students and guests at Virginia Wesleyan College were suggestions based on what I’ve learned over the years in becoming a better dialogue partner and what I look for in people I agree to be in dialogue with in front of an audience.
Here is the cover design for the second edition of Family Therapies: A Comprehensive Christian Appraisal. This was a fun book to revisit and update.
We looked at the various schools of family therapy and updated the research that has been conducted in support of the different approaches.
Our main focus was recognizing and reflecting the changing cultural landscape regarding family. The reader will pick this up throughout the book but especially in two new chapters. The first one is on cohabitation and how trends in living together before marriage (or just living together) affect relationship and family dynamics.
The other new chapter deals with LGBT+ couples and families and really expands how we interacted with sexual and gender identity experiences in the first edition of the book.
In any case, here is an overview of the book from the revised preface:
The book is divided into four parts. In part one (chaps. 1-2), we set the stage for the discussion of the first-generation models of family therapy. Chapter one is a discussion of a distinctively Christian perspective on the family. Chapter two is a discussion of the field of family therapy, how it developed and some key terms that will help the reader better understand the field.
Part two of the book (chaps. 3-12) devotes one chapter apiece to the major models of family therapy developed in what is sometimes referred to as the first generation of family therapists (e.g., structural family therapy). If each approach to family therapy is a “map” for getting families from a place of some kind of dysfunction to a place of better functioning, each chapter in this section contains an explanation of the map, followed by a discussion of the theoretical and philosophical assumptions and practical implications. We then focus on Christian critique and engagement of the theoretical and philosophical underpinnings and the practical issues involved in using specific techniques associated with that theory. We also provide brief reflections that tie back to the three foundational themes introduced in chapter one: family identity, family functioning and family relationships. In the closing chapter of this section of the book (chap. 12) we introduce a framework for integrative Christian family therapy.
Part three (chaps. 13-20) extends the discussion by taking topics that are commonly addressed in family therapy and inviting Christians to interact with the relevant materials. We introduce the reader to the issues (e.g., crisis and trauma, marital conflicts) and then review the literature in that area, followed by Christian engagement in light of what we see as particularly valuable from the first-generation models of family therapy and in light of what we propose for an integrative Christian family therapy. In the second edition we added a chapter on cohabitation and significantly revised the chapter on LGBT+ couples and families. We see cohabitation as an increasingly popular entryway into marriage as a a relationship status in and of itself. We want to help the reader grapple with that reality. An additional reality is the success of the marriage equality movement and the likelihood that Christian clinicians will work with LGBT+ couples and families in the years to come. We also want the reader to be familiar with those cultural shifts and to think deeply and well about some of the concerns that arise.
Part four (chap. 21) reflects our desire to cast a vision for integrative Christian family therapy/counseling/ministry. In particular, we see the need for local family therapy to be influenced by a shrinking, global world in which family therapists will need to expand their understanding of family structure and relationships. Societal and cultural changes will have an impact on our work and the ways in which we think about and engage the families in ministry and service.
Here is a talk I gave at Q Denver titled, What is Gender Dysphoria? It is being featured on Q Ideas. I try to explain the phenomenon, as well as provide a little background information on theories of etiology, prevalence, and management strategies. Also, check out the talk by Melinda Selmys, who shares about her own experiences with gender dyshporia.
After we both spoke, Gabe Lyons invited us to join him for a time to Q & A from the audience. This was a helpful opportunity to reflect further on gender dysphoria:
To give you a little background on Q Ideas, here is a description from their website:
Q was birthed out of Gabe Lyons’ vision to see Christians, especially leaders, recover a vision for their historic responsibility to renew and restore cultures. Inspired by Chuck Colson’s statement, “Christians are called to redeem entire cultures, not just individuals,” Gabe set out to reintroduce Christians to what had seemed missing in recent decades from an American expression of Christian faithfulness; valuing both personal and cultural renewal, not one over the other. Re-educating Christians to this orthodox and unifying concept has become central to the vision of Q.
Together, we explore topics that fall into four broad themes: culture, future, church, and gospel. Q facilitates the investigation of deeper engagement and responsibility in each of these areas. As we continue to work through these ideas on a deeper level, so grows our commitment to equipping innovators, social entrepreneurs, entertainers, artists, church-shapers, futurists, scientists, educators, historians, environmentalists, and everyday people to do extraordinary things. At Q Ideas, you’ll see a broad spectrum of content represented in our small group curriculum, essays, videos, blog articles, and podcasts. These are all contributed and commissioned to shed light on unique areas of culture and the church.
The latest Youth Worker Magazine includes an article by Julia, my research assistant, and me. We write about ministry to LGBT+ youth. We introduce and develop three ideas based on a metaphor of navigating difficult terrain: 1) Identify markers on the trail; 2) Communicate with base camp; and Help youth find God on the trail.
The markers on the trail refer to milestone events in the development or formation of sexual identity. These are common experiences that gay and lesbian adults tell us were a part of their own journey. Some of these are unchosen experiences, such as first awareness of same-sex sexuality, while other milestones are more of a decision, such as whether to enter into a same-sex relationship. Other milestones include ‘attributional search’ (or making meaning of one’s same-sex sexuality), disclosure to others, use of a private sexual identity label, and use of a public sexual identity label. Exploring the underlying meaning associated with various milestones can be helpful in ministry.
The parent-child relationship is the best predictor of a sexual minority’s emotional well-being over time. We discuss the importance of communicating with base camp (parents). Every significant climb has a base camp from which one directs the journey. Navigating sexual identity and faith is no exception.
Youth group can be the place where we help teens get to know Christ so He can help them discover who they are. It seems unlikely that they will ever get to know Him if His merciful love is not made crystal clear, in the very places where they feel most unworthy.
Lastly, we invite youth ministers to help LGBT+ youth find God on the trail. Youth have many questions and possibly fears or angst or confusion. Invite them to ask Christ those questions. Love them. Disciple them into an increasingly mature walk with Christ.
The call of a Christian is simple: to enter in and to remain… This is not a race, but an important journey on difficult terrain, that no on e should have to travel alone. That’s where you come in.
This image of hiking difficult terrain is developed more fully in the book, Understanding Sexual Identity: A Resource for Youth Ministry, published by Zondervan.
A new report is out on transgender health. It is the Report of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey published by the National Center for Transgender Equality. The web-based survey had over 27,000 respondents from all 50 states, D.C., American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and overseas U.S. military bases.
Let me highlight a couple of findings from the executive summary that have to do with family and faith.
- It was reported that over half (60%) of those who responded and who were out to their immediate family or family of origin indicated that their family was “generally supportive” of them as transgender. In contrast, 18% indicated that their family was “unsuppportive,” while 22% reported that their family wither “neither supportive nor unsupportive.”
- On psychological health, it was noted that 39% reported serious psychological distress the month prior to completing the survey, and 40% had attempted suicide at some point in their lives. This is much higher than the rate for the U.S. population, which the report puts at 4.6%.
- Having a family that was supportive was associated with being less likely to have negative health (e.g., attempting suicide) and economic concerns (e.g., homelessness).
- There were few questions on religion or religious faith. However, 19% of those who responded and who had been part of a religious community left that community due to rejection. Of those who left, 42% said they later found a more welcoming faith community.
Many social conservatives may see these findings as laying a foundation for various social and cultural changes they wish to oppose. I am not chiming in on that aspect of a report like this. That may very well be an important part of cultural engagement.
What I would like to see people of faith grapple with is how to respond in a more pastoral way to the experiences of transgender persons and how to position faith communities to respond in a dramatically changing cultural context. I have yet to see a fully-developed and thoughtful, Christian response. When I pitched my book to the editors at InterVarsity Press, I noted that the evangelical church is not prepared for a nuanced discussion of gender identity and transgender presentations.
Not much has changed in the year and a half since the book was first released.
I do see more Christian leaders and institutions asking questions about gender identity and transgender experiences. That is a start. But mostly I see a posture that will likely reflect more of a defense against an attack on institutions. This is more “culture war” than cultural engagement. More “defending turf” than coming alongside.
A short while ago the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) asked me to record a webinar titled “Pastoral Care of LGBT+ Persons and Their Families.” That webinar is now available at their web site here for a modest fee. Here is the description:
While the national debate surrounding bathroom policies for transgender persons continues, evangelicals consider how to best engage the topic and more generally how to care for the LGBT persons and their families in their midst.
In this one-hour webinar, psychologist Mark Yarhouse, author of “Understanding Gender Dysphoria” and founder of the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity at Regent University, shares tools for compassionate and biblically faithful ministry to LGBT persons and their families.