The Next Chapter

In my role as a clinical psychologist I often think about the people I serve as having a life made up of many chapters. When I meet with them, I listen for how the chapters that have already been written have affected them, and I think about how our work together will be a chapter, too, and how what we do together will in some small way contribute to the many chapters that are yet to be written.

My own life has had many chapters, and one of those professional chapters is coming to a close, just as a new chapter is about to be written.

It was announced earlier this week that I’ve accepted a new position at Wheaton College. This transition will take place in July of 2019. Here is a write up about it. We are excited about this next chapter, but it is also hard to leave a community we have grown to love over the past 20 years. We have time to prepare for this transition and are grateful for that.

I anticipate that while this is a new vocational assignment, I will continue to research in LGBTQ+ studies. That has been and will likely continue to be my main area of integration scholarship.

Along those lines, I have two books scheduled for release in 2019. One is on how clinicians can work in therapy when clients report a conflict between their sexuality and faith. The other book is titled Costly Obedience, and it is a research-informed look at the experiences of celibate gay Christians. I’m currently working on a book tentatively titled, Emerging Gender Identities, scheduled for publication in 2020.

 

Thoughts on “Boy Erased”

boy erasedThis past weekend I had the chance to take in the movie Boy Erased with some of the students from my research team. It wasn’t quite what I expected. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting, but it was an engaging movie–sad in many ways and potentially triggering for people who have experienced religious trauma. I also thought it could lead to better discussions about faith and sexuality if we can find a way to press into the challenges we face in entering into difficult dialogues.

The movie is based on a true story, but I suppose I may have expected an ‘over-the-top’ portrayal of Christianity, a caricature that would be unrecognizable to me, as so often happens in movies that attempt to portray the Christian faith. A caricature can be readily dismissed.

But that didn’t happen. I’ve seen many clients over 20 years of practice who have had really difficult experiences with fundamentalist church settings and associated ministries. Some have been blamed for their same-sex sexuality; they were told it was “willful disobedience” to have the attractions they have had since puberty. Others have been told they don’t have enough faith or haven’t put in enough effort to truly change. So while people may disagree about how representative the experiences in the movie are of different families, churches and ministries they know, I don’t think there is any doubt that what was portrayed reflects some people’s experiences with those who represent Christ, as heartbreaking as that is.

Here are a few things that came to mind as I watched the movie. Think of these as related to FAQs Christians often have about same-sex sexuality and faith:

  • Just as straight people find themselves attracted to the opposite sex, a percentage of people will find themselves attracted to the same sex; they do not choose to have same-sex attractions. When Christian leaders or others discuss having same-sex attractions as “willful disobedience,” we are already so off course in our care that we are likely to do great harm to someone navigating this terrain.
  • It is unusual for same-sex sexuality to go away through ministry interventions. I was co-principal investigator on a 7-year longitudinal study of attempted change through such ministries. I don’t think any of the ministries we approached practiced what was portrayed in the movie; rather, the participants in our study indicated that the ministries generally provided small group discussion, Bible study, prayer, corporate worship, and so on. In any case, while many people did report diminished same-sex behavior and the decision to dis-identify with a gay identity, fewer experienced diminished same-sex attractions, and categorical change from gay to straight was even less likely.
  • On a related point, a person can take practical steps to foster their relationship with God and grow in Christlikeness and not report a corresponding change in their sexual orientation. These two things should not be treated as though there is a necessary relationship between them.
  • There is potential for great harm from those who are in spiritual authority as they wield that authority with a person who is vulnerable and navigating same-sex sexuality and faith. Those in authority ought to glean an important lesson in walking with greater humility and gentleness as they shepherd people in their spiritual journey.
  • Parents count on spiritual leaders to provide them guidance. All the more reason to guide with humility about what we know and don’t know about same-sex sexuality.
  • Also, the parent-child relationship is one of the best predictors of a loved one’s well-being over time. It is important to foster that relationship if at all possible. One way to help with that (among many) is to be precise when we discuss what is volitional.
  • In the research we have been conducting on a data set of 200 Christian parents whose loved one came out to them as gay or transgender, we have found that many parents do not change their belief about whether same-sex behavior is morally permissible (although some question that belief and still others do change their belief), but they are struggling with how to love their child and also be faithful to what they believe Scripture teaches. Greater sensitivity to the challenges they face would be another take-away.
  • A friend of mine who runs a ministry for Christian parents whose child has come out once said, “When a loved one comes out of the closet, the parents go into the closet.” It would be helpful to remove the shame associated with navigating same-sex sexuality and faith, for the loved one and for the parents.
  • Parents can also become polarized when they face such stressors. One parent can become a caricature of positive emotions (e.g., love, protection) for their loved one, while the other can become a caricature of negative emotions (e.g., confusion, anger). It has been helpful for both parents to feel, express, and work through a range of emotions so that they do not experience a restricted range of emotions that limits how they relate to their loved one.

What I think was missing as I left the movie was a path forward for Christians who have reached the conclusion that same-sex behavior is morally impermissible. It’s unclear what their options are, and it’s unclear how the movie would move them toward a place of resolution. There was a zero/sum quality about the ending that left the viewer, I think, wanting more of a discussion about different pathways. I think that left some people reacting against the movie and missing some of the better parts of it, some of the lessons that can be gleaned from it.

Laying a Foundation

I recently had the opportunity to provide staff training at a church that wants to engage the topics of sexual and gender identity in a way that is faithful to Scripture and holds a high view of LGBTQ+/same-sex attracted persons.

Let me say a word about the different formats. We began our time together by having me provide leadership training, which was made available to elders, youth ministry staff, adult volunteers, and so on. It is essential that as a church considers how to best engage with a controversial topic, that they have their leaders poised to learn and to lead.

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Then I provided a public talk in a more intimate setting. They call this the Underground Sessions, which have been done for awhile now and have covered topics meant to challenge and stretch attendees regardless of their position on the subject matter. This may have been the most moving experience for me, as it was more of a TED-like talk with no PowerPoint or other aids–with the exception of a “walk-up video” which is an interesting idea. I don’t know about walk-up videos, but I do like the idea of a more relaxed setting and time to share a little from the heart. So I spoke here for like 18-20 minutes and then we had Q&A for 40 min and took a break and then took questions from the audience for another 40 min or so.

Then they had me in the pulpit to preach! This is not me “living my best life,” as the kids these days say, but I don’t mind giving it a try from time to time. I always have a more appreciation for pastors who preach week in and week out. It’s so humbling and not at all the same as developing a class lecture.

In any case, I wanted to point out how much I appreciate when churches take these kinds of steps to help their congregation thing more deeply about difficult topics. I  know many LGBTQ+/same-sex attracted Christians who would be extremely grateful to know that a church is taking these practical steps to love them better.

The most poignant moment for me: One young man came up to me after one of the talks and asked about what gay Christians bring to the church. He was referencing a comment I made about the gifts I’ve seen among friends of mine who are gay. I shared some of the findings from our forthcoming book, Costly Obedience, in which we discuss some of the unique experiences of celibate gay Christians and how those unique experiences can potentially lead to qualities that may ultimately enhance the Body of Christ. He said he was in tears listening to the idea that he might bring something of value to the church, that by stewarding his same-sex sexuality he might not only derive a personal Christian history of God’s provision in his life, but he too could have something of great value to offer other Christians.

Coming Attractions

IMG_6212Academics measure time in semesters. As the summer comes to a close and we anticipate the start of the fall semester, I wanted to provide an update on two writing projects. These are “coming attractions,” if you will. A few weeks ago I hit “send” on two book-length manuscripts. One was going to Zondervan and the other to Templeton Press. (By the way, this may be the first time I worked on two larger projects at the same time. I try to do one book at a time and write-up articles or develop presentations rather than try to work on another project of that size. But poor planning on my part and an unexpected invitation led to these projects being on my plate at the same time.) Let me tell you about both.

The manuscript that went to Zondervan has the working title of Costly Obedience. It is a book-length treatment of several studies we have been conducting on the experiences of celibate gay Christians. While several studies provide valuable information throughout the book, the central study is of 300 celibate gay Christians who provided information on their psychological well-being, their experience in churches, their sexual identity development, and religiosity. If I do say so myself, it is a fascinating look at the lives and experiences of Christians who are navigating sexual identity and faith and who wish to abide by a traditional Christian sexual ethic. We include the voices of celibate gay Christians in the form of a smaller qualitative study in which we pull quotes on their experiences, and you read about them all throughout the manuscript. Also, I asked several friends and acquaintances of mine if they would share their personal experiences or recommendations for the church, and their voices are also interspersed throughout.

The other manuscript–the one that went to Templeton Press–has the working title of Sexual Identity and Faith. It is a book for clinicians about how to provide therapy to people of faith who are navigating the difficult terrain of sexual and religious identity conflicts. In other words, for some sexual minorities of faith, their same-sex sexuality and their Christian commitments collide in a way that is very difficult for them. When they enter professional therapy, they have historically been offered two broad options: one is to change their sexual orientation; the other is gay affirmative therapy. For about 20 years I and others have been providing therapy that is a “third way” model that tries to be client-centered and identity-focused. It is not a change therapy; rather, it has to do with helping clients achieve congruence so that they can live their lives and form an identity in keeping with their beliefs and values. In 2006, Warren Throckmorton and I wrote a framework for providing such therapy called the Sexual Identity Therapy Framework.

In any case, the book is fairly comprehensive, as it covers advanced informed consent, assessment, and approaches I take in therapy from a more narrative and cognitive-behavioral perspective. So it has to do with the stories that have been told about people, the stories that are currently being told, and the chapters that the person in therapy is writing and will be writing in the years to come–a story about who they are in light of their same-sex sexuality and Christian faith.

Publishing is like farming. You plant a seed (or hit “send”) and find that the harvest is months away. You can look for both of these resources in the summer of 2019.

On Listening…

Listening to Sexual Minorities Cover smOur latest book, Listening to Sexual Minorities: A Study of Sexual Identity and Faith on Christian College Campuses, was released just this week. We have been pleased by many gracious endorsements from a range of perspectives. For example, Pat Griffin offered the following endorsement:

This groundbreaking book is a must-read for all who care about faith-based schools and the LGBTQ students who are a part of these communities. – Pat Griffin, Professor Emerita at University of Massachusetts Amherst and member of the NCAA Seeking Common Ground Leadership Team

From another perspective, consider the endorsement from Shirley Mullen at Houghton College:

This is exactly the kind of book to serve as a catalyst for discussion in the Christian community, especially on college campuses. Its power comes in large part from its concreteness and its foundation in empirical experience, and it brings to life a category that many in the Christian community (and perhaps even in the LGB+ community) are not fully aware of: individuals who fully own their identity as Christians and their identity as sexual minorities. The students’ own stories draw attention to ways in which our policies and our theology—as currently articulated—are not rich enough to encompass reality. So, by beginning with lived experience rather than theology or policy, the book humanizes the issues and requires something of us that an abstract discussion does not. It is also a book that focuses on ministering to the needs of these students. By seriously reckoning with the pastoral dimension of these issues, readers may take greater courage to move beyond and enter into other dimensions of the situation. Finally, this book is an implicit call for more work to be done. From those who believe there is something of deep importance in the traditional Christian understanding of sexual ethics, more work needs to be done to explain that importance in terms that make sense within a broader conversation. I believe we owe this to those who are the subject of this book—and who are currently left alone to work out the painful tension they feel between two identities they truly own. I believe we owe this to those in the LGB+ community who want to understand why many conservative Christians seem willing to risk relationships and community for what appears to be an abstract doctrine. I believe we owe this as a matter of faithful witness to the gospel—in a culture that increasingly sees religious freedom as simply code or cover for bigotry.  – Shirley Mullen, president of Houghton College

I am encouraged when I read both of these quotes. When I read Pat Griffith’s quote, I think of the multiple stakeholders in these discussions and what we can potentially gain in those rare moments when we can identify and work toward superordinate goals.

When I read this quote from Shirley, I was particularly drawn to the idea of “an implicit call for more work to be done.” For all of us invested in these institutions and these students, the questions that comes up for us are, What is that work? What the best ways to go about the task at hand?

In my experience in this space–that is, the cultural and ecclesiastical discussions surrounding norms regarding sex and gender–is that the tendency to talk past one another is rather remarkable. The current political climate seems to be only taking us further away from an ability to listen and take ‘next steps.’ So as you read through the book, let’s begin to think together about the work that needs to be done and the best approaches to the task at hand.