Over the past two years I’ve been speaking with colleagues at the National Youth Worker’s Convention. This past year I was speaking with Julie Rodgers who works in the chaplain’s office at Wheaton College. We typically co-present a 5-hour intensive, followed by a 1.5 hour breakout workshop and a 30 min interview at the Idea Lab. It has been interesting to reflect on the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) that come up in these settings. What are youth ministers really dealing with? What questions do they have? When we conducted a recent study of youth ministers, we did hear interest in learning more about theories of causation and change; however, we asked if they were interested in those questions. What I find interesting is to conduct a workshop and hear what those in attendance actually have on their minds. We did receive a couple of questions like that, but I would say that one common and fascinating theme was actually not about homosexuality or sexual identity. It was about transgender issues and gender variant behaviors.
The question would be something like this: “Our youth group frequently breaks up into smaller groups with guys in one room and girls in another. Well, we recently had a teen visit our youth group who was born male but identifies as female. This teen’s preference is to break out with the females. What should we do?”
The prevalence estimates on transgenderism put it at quite a bit less frequent than sexual identity based on self-report of attractions, behavior, or even identity labels. As we discussed it afterward, it may be more of a reflection of the anxiety of the presentation than the actual frequency of the presentation. However, in one session, this was the actual question asked, so it has occurred in at least one of the youth groups represented at the conference.
I resist the temptation to offer “three easy steps” to navigating gender identity questions that arise in youth group. Transgender and gender variant presentations are going to be a challenge for the church moving forward. It is clearly going to be the next cultural wave that will crest soon over conventionally religious people in a way that will stretch them to think through their own views of the topic, how best to create a place for young people who are navigating that terrain, and how they wish to relate to a broader culture that does not support their presuppositions.
There is a calculus that is involved that is difficult to calculate. One the one hand the Christian community wants to be able to affirm male and female distinctions rooted in the creation narrative and thought to be part of a larger theological anthropology. Evangelical theologians tend to cite these distinctions as important for a Christian ethic centered on both sexual behavior and gender identity, although these are two different discussions in some important ways.
Having acknowledged the challenge, let me say that youth ministers want answers. What do we do? This is part of the reason why I am drawn to speak at these events. No fluff. I think the most thoughtful accounts from the Christian community will balance both teaching and ministry; theology and pastoral care–in a cultural context that will increasingly not share an identical point of reference with respect to sex and gender norms. As I said to the group in attendance, I don’t have a list of what you should do. I would fall back on a more careful assessment of what is being presented and what is being requested. And churches vary considerably in how they intend to approach divisive topics, how they relate to their local community, and so on. These differences are due to location, theological assumptions, personnel, and key stakeholders. For example, I know of many churches in southern California, for instance, that are trying to be missional in their attempts to accommodate a range of requests that might come from transgender and gender variant persons. Certainly if your youth group is taking that posture in the context of a larger church that has more of a missional approach, such a stance will inform your options and interests in that moment.
A little background: transgender is an umbrella word for many ways in which people might experience themselves as different than those who biological sex and gender identity correspond to establish a kind of congruence. A person could have a strong cross-gender identification with a desire to cross-dress; some may cross-dress to manage dysphoria while others to express their sense of self; still others might experience their gender identity as residing along a continuum rather than a cross-gender identification (a person might think of themselves as genderfluid or genderqueer). Those who are transgender who experience significant gender dysphoria have a serious condition that would likely have brought them under the care of a mental health professional (and possible multidisciplinary professional team including medical professionals). This condition is quite rare and I would want to seek some consultation from those who are working closely with the teen who is demonstrating a preference for one break out group over another (or whatever the question is that we are discussing).
So the place to begin is actually not in offering a definitive answer to where the person should go during a breakout. A place to begin might be, How well do you know the person and how do you best understand the request in the context of your larger mission? That will require a relationship–a sustained relationship in which discussions take place about the experience navigating gender identity questions or concerns. I could imagine working out different solutions with different youth given a number of potentially important variables. Do those in ministry (and parents who support them) have the patience for that kind of ministry care? I hope so. If the church hopes to provide a place for young people to navigate difficult issues in a changing culture, we will have to be rather thoughtful and mature in our responses.
For those who are interested: I have been working on a book on the topic of transgender and gender variant persons that is due out in 2015. It has been fascinating to conduct background research in this area, as well as to draw upon clinical experiences over the years. I hope it will at least provide information and an integrated framework that will inform how a youth minister or pastor responds to transgender and gender variant people in a culture that is changing in terms of attitudes toward sex and gender norms and presentations. I’ll do a few posts on the topic as we get closer to the release date.