Category Archives: Sexual identity and youth

Establishing Boundaries

I returned recently from the American Association of Christian Counselors World Conference in Nashville. I was able to do a pre-conference workshop on different lenses for “seeing” sexual and gender identity concerns. I also conducted a regular workshop on counseling Christian parents whose children have come out. At the end of both sessions I received a lot of positive feedback. Many professionals and actual parents came up after the second session to say what they had gained from the workshop for counseling Christian parents.

boundariesIn addition to these positive responses, I also had a couple of people challenge the posture I took toward Christian parents around topics like whether to open their homes to a gay son or daughter, whether to attend important events (e.g., graduations, weddings), and so on. I think of this as establishing boundaries, which is a common challenge most Christian parents face as they respond to a child who has come out. Generally speaking, I work with parents to identify options for responding and setting boundaries and help them think through the potential benefits and drawbacks (to them, their child, and their relationship) of each option.

The main concern expressed to me by those critical of what I shared was the idea that in Scripture the apostle Paul writes about not even associating with someone who is engaged in immoral activity while professing to be a Christian. The admonition occurs in 1 Corinthians 5:11: “But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.” One person quoted this passage; another quoted the passage in which Jesus says, “But he replied to the man who told him, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’” (Matthew 12:48-50). The person said, “Whoever does the will of my Father is the person I am to associate with; not someone who does not do the will of the Father.”

I wanted to take a few minutes to ‘think out loud’ about some of the feedback from those critical of the posture I took. My position in response to invitations to dinner, hosting meals, special occasions, and so on was to acknowledge that Christian parents have not reached consensus on what to do; they do not all do one thing. Indeed, there is great diversity in how Christian parents respond, and the posture I take is to create an environment for parents to weigh options and decide on boundaries in light of that thoughtful reflection. Among the one or two people who voiced a concern seemed to be the wish that I would tell the parents what they had to do as Christians. This is simply not the posture I take in counseling. The parent-child relationship is one of the most important relationships for the well-being of the child, and I want to help parents weight options and land on strategies after due consideration and prayerful reflection. In response to a wedding invitation, which I see as a little different than some of the other examples, I also discussed helping the parents think through what their concerns are, which usually has to do with having a Christian witness to their son/daughter, and which course of action best helps them communicate what they hope to communicate.

Part of what I was sharing was that there are essentially two tasks Christian parents have shared with us in different studies we have conducted: (1) seeking help/information/resources and (2) maintaining a relationship with their loved one. It is in the context of these two tasks that parents face questions about whether to participate in various activities and whether to host an adult child and his or her partner or spouse.

I do not know anyone who views Jesus’ comments as reflecting a posture you are to take toward family members–as though it was meant as detailed instruction for how to talk with an adult child about the decisions they face or have made. The passage from 1 Corinthians is perhaps more relevant at first glance, but I still do not see it as intending to provide instruction for how parents are to respond to a loved one. It may be that a family is part of a church that provides church discipline and that some behavior may warrant such oversight. But it seems to me that under those conditions any church discipline is carried out not by parents but by leadership in the church. Also, I hope that such church discipline occurs consistently across multiple areas of concern (and not exclusively associated with same-sex behavior) and with appropriate humility and with an eye for restoration of the person. I think it is a misreading of Paul to cut/paste verse 11 and apply it to parents who are responding to a child who has identifies as gay.

I also think it is an unhelpful posture to take toward counseling to simply tell parents how to relate to a loved one. These are very difficulty, weighty, and sometimes quite painful decisions, and such decisions warrant ample time, attention, and respectful engagement as parents consider which boundaries to draw.


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Transgender & Gender Variant Youth

flower-in-stonesOver 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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHaving 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.



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NYWC in Atlanta

atlantaThis week I’ll be joined by Julie Rodgers to speak at the National Youth Workers Convention (NYWC) in Atlanta. We did this earlier this fall in Sacramento. In California, we provided a 5-hour pre-conference workshop titled, “Sexual Identity and the Youth Minister: Walking with LGBT Youth.” We’ll do the same in Atlanta. We plan to go back and forth explaining research conducted through the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity of some of the key considerations for Christian youth who are navigating sexual and gender identity questions. Julie will share from her own experience and connect the dots from what others tell us in surveys and interviews and the lived reality as someone who has been navigating this terrain for many years.

The developmental context is probably the most important thing I try to help youth ministers understand. There are specific milestone events that many LGBT adults identify as important in their own journey. We discuss those, as well as opportunities to explore meaning-making during this stage of life. We will also cover social support and healthy coping. We will try to stay practical and focused on the specific needs of those who are attending.

We also plan to open with a little data from a survey we conducted of youth ministers and how they approach the topic. There is a lot I could say about that study, but it was interesting the young people want to talk about sexual identity. They want to be able to approach youth ministers. As a youth minister, you don’t have to be a certain age or have certain life experiences or hold a certain theological position or have sufficient schooling/education for a young person to come to you. None of those things were connected to having youth come forward to share their same-sex sexuality or gender identity.

The second talk is an abbreviated version of the 5-hour talk. It is titled, “Teens and Sexual Identity.” This is a much less ambitious workshop that goes about 1.5 hours. We’ll discuss the conflict between religious identity (as a Christian) and sexual identity (in light of same-sex sexuality) that a percentage of young people experience. We will again discuss the context of identity development, as well as the messages that a young person hears about identity and community from their faith community and from the LGBT community.

Much of what we share comes from content published in Understanding Sexual Identity: A Guide for Youth Ministry (Zondervan). In fact, this book was written in conjunction with talks given at this same conference last fall. So if you are looking for information on the topic of sexual identity and Christian youth, you might find that book helpful.


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National Youth Workers Convention

Later this week I will be heading out to Nashville to speak at the National Youth Workers Convention. I had the opportunity to speak earlier this fall in San Diego with the same team and organization and to what we might think of as the west coast youth workers. They are an incredible group. Not only are they full of energy and a passion to serve Christ, but they love the kids they work with and have a heart for the church in this next generation.

When I was in San Diego, though, I participated in several activities outside of the convention (meetings at churches, meetings at universities), so I was away from the convention more than I was there. In Nashville, I plan to sit in on some of the sessions with folks who are showcasing their talents. It would be great to hear Amena Brown bring spoken word to the stage, as well as Rend Collective Experiment and Propaganda.

Before we go on, let’s take a moment to check out Amena Brown:

That’s pretty good spoken word.

The other treat for me is the opportunity to present with two former students who are now developing their own careers as psychologists. Experiences like this highlight one of the real blessings of being in academics for a little while; you get the opportunity to see students excel in the field and in their own sense of purpose and calling. There is not much that I enjoy more than looking over and seeing a former student making a presentation that truly enhances how people are going to work with youth in the weeks and months and years to come.

zondervanWe will be presenting 7-hours worth of material in two pre-conference workshops on sexual identity and youth ministry. These presentations will draw in part from my book, Understanding Sexual Identity and cover what we know and do not know about sexual orientation, particularly in the areas of etiology and change, as well as research on sexual identity development and synthesis, working with parents (and some of the unique challenges they face, including evangelical subculture shame), addressing co-occurring issues for youth (for example, depression), how to foster coping skills in teens, and so on.

We will also participate in a panel discussion the one evening. In San Diego, that was a good experience with several interesting questions for each of us, and that provided a more relaxed atmosphere for us to think through some things together and with those who were hungry for more. Then we will do a breakout session for those in attendance who did not do the pre-con. That session provides a kind of general overview of research on sexual identity, milestone events, and the challenges young people in the church face as they navigate various messages from the church they are raised in as well as from the mainstream gay community. In any case, it promises to be a great couple of days in Nashville.


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“My Gay Breaking Point”

I was reading over a dissertation completed by one of my former students–I know, I know, I need to find a decent hobby–but I was struck by her work. She had conducted in-depth interviews with 12 Christian parents whose son or daughter had come out. It was a study that that captured many of the challenges and nuances families face at and following disclosure.

parents-praying11What caught my attention when she proposed her research idea was the focus on Christian parents. Much of the research and discussion to date is on the experience of the gay child (the adolescent or young adult), which is obviously important. As a field, we have learned a lot about the experiences of those who disclose their same-sex sexuality, and yet we have so much more to learn. At the same time, I see fewer studies of parental reactions, and fewer studies still of Christian parents. Since I work with a lot of Christian parents, the idea of interviewing them and hearing their stories was compelling.

Although I am unable to go into all the details here (dissertations are LONG), I will note that she offered in the discussion section of her dissertation a tentative model of post-disclosure that emerged from the interviews she conducted with these parents: (1) Initial awareness and worldview response; (2) Navigation period–help-seeking; (3) Navigation period–maintaining relationship with child; and (4) Acceptance of reality.

Initial awareness and worldview response. The first issue deals with first becoming aware and responding to the disclosure of same-sex sexuality. Responses to disclosure or discovery of a gay identity were frequently tied to conventionally religious morals, values, and beliefs that were seen as incompatible with a gay identity. Parents here reported ambiguous loss, negative emotions (e.g., shock, anger, concern, fear, shame), and strained relationships with their child.

One parent shared her initial response. I won’t offer an extended quote here, but suffice it to say she spoke of her daughter making this choice (“that kind of choice”–“why would she want to be like that?”), which suggests the view that this pattern of attraction is volitional.  This automatically sets the parent and child against one another, because the child knows he or she did not choose to experience same-sex attractions. The assumption that this is just a poor choice has them speaking past one another. I wish that were a rare report, but it isn’t in my experience.

Navigation period–help-seeking. The next response entails gaining information from multiple sources. In this study it was often from counselors, the church, pastors, ministries, and so on. In terms of meaning-making, parents reported turning to and trusting God, finding support from family/community, and spending time in prayer and in Scripture. Marital conflict was not uncommon, and many parents reported a kind of shame as they tried to relate to and share with people in their local faith community.

One parent shared how hard it was to find information, resources, and support. “We couldn’t find anyone” is a typical response, as is the decision not to take this disclosure to the local church. The common assumption and experience is that the local church is not “safe” in terms of gossip, making it all the more difficult, as parents often sort through painful and confusing emotions in isolation.

Navigation period–maintaining relationship with child. At the same time as parents are seeking help, they are also trying to maintain a relationship with their son or daughter. There were strained relationships, to be sure, but also a commitment to maintaining some contact, arranging ways to see their son or daughter, and so on. This commitment was typically a reflection of love.

One mother who eventually moved toward what she saw as a good, healthy relationship with her son, recounted her “gay breaking point” at an earlier stage: it was when her son wanted to get a pedicure with her. It sent her spinning. My initial response to that language was that it was kind of off-putting or even offensive, but as I thought about it, I got what she was saying, at least I think I got it. I actually see her gay breaking point as tied in important ways to acceptance of reality, to coming to terms with the reality of having a son or daughter who is gay. Sometimes parents move from a fantasy that this whole thing will work itself out or dissipate or resolve or whatever… perhaps the breaking point tells them there is something real here, something that they have to deal with seriously and in a meaningful way.

Acceptance of reality. This involves really coming to terms with a gay son or daughter in the sense of how the relationship with that child has changed. It could still involve negotiating boundaries, but it also often entails changing expectations. What is often reflected here is a greater respect for one another and one’s decisions.

I would have to say that this study reflects the experiences of a small number of Christian parents, it does reflect pretty closely much of what I have seen in my work with parents over the years. There is definitely a time of first awareness and associated feelings, such as confusion, anger, disappointment, and anticipatory grief. Also, since I frequently work with Christian parents, I have seen the clash of worldviews and the difficulty finding a way forward. Parents then do navigate getting help while simultaneously trying to make a way to stay in relationship with their son or daughter. Often attempts to stay in touch are in the hopes that this will go away or be easily resolved or be a phase their son or daughter is going through. That’s what makes the other stage meaningful–coming to terms with the reality of what has been shared and finding a way forward based on this new reality.

One thing about models is that they do not capture the complexities faced by each and every parent. If you are reading this and say, “That doesn’t quite fit my experience,” that’s understandable. There is no one experience everyone shares. At the same time, these observations provides a framework for understanding some of the experiences reported by some Christian parents. It also gives those in the church who wish to provide support an idea of what parents may be navigating in the months and years following disclosure.


Youth Ministry, Sexual Identity & Shame

zondervanHere is an excerpt from my new book, Understanding Sexual Identity: A Resource for Youth Ministry. The book can be pre-ordered here and will be available from Zondervan in October.

When people experience guilt, they understand, “I should not have done that.” Shame, on the other hand, says to them “I should not be that.” Guilt is about what we do that we should not do; shame is feeling bad about who we are. It is “the emotion resulting from self-condemnation along with a fear of condemnation from others” (Johnson & Yarhouse, 2013).

When people feel shame, they tend to withdraw from and avoid others. They may experience anger or blame others. Unfortunately, the responses of hiding, deflecting, and blaming do not really help alleviate the shame they feel—they perpetuate it. According to Veronica Johnson, there is a three-step formula that describes how people develop shame:

Step 1: A person is raised in a culture in which various standards, rules, and goals are conveyed

Step 2: That person does not live up to these standards/rules/goals (perceived failure)

Step 3: The person then believes that not living up to these standards is the result of personal deficiencies or shortcomings (negative global attribution)

We can apply this formula to the young person in the church who is experiencing same-sex attraction.  He grows up in a faith community with specific standards, rules, and goals regarding sexuality. The standard communicated to him is that no one should ever experience same-sex attractions, that experiencing such attractions is sinful. If the church is not clear about how to understand these experiences, he will quickly surmise that it is wrong for him to experience these attractions, even if he did not make the choice, even if he does not want them.  He may try to follow the advice given, praying and asking God to remove his attractions or change his feelings. If he does not experience success here, this will likely confirm in his mind (and to others) that he has failed. Because he cannot live up to the standards, rules, and goals of the Christian community, he experiences shame.


Adapted from Understanding Sexual Identity: A Resource for Youth Ministry. Pre-order your copy today!


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Out of the Darkness

OoD5Earlier today I had the opportunity to participate in the Out of the Darkness community walk to raise awareness around depression and suicide and to promote good mental health. The local walk is sponsored by the Hampton Roads Survivors of Suicide Support Group. These walks take place around the country, and ours has been well-attended over the past few years.

After the opening program, the walk begins by having participants actually walk through the cranes in the picture. Here is a little background on the symbolism:

OoD3Shortly after the end of World War II, the folded origami cranes also came to symbolize a hope for peace through Sadako Sasaki and her unforgettable story of perseverance. Diagnosed with leukemia after being exposed to radiation after the bombing of Hiroshima, Sadako became determined to fold 1,000 cranes in hopes of recovering good health, happiness, and a world of eternal peace. Although she completed 644 before she died, her classmates folded the remaining 356 to honor her. A statue was raised in the Hiroshima Peace Park to commemorate her strong spirit.

Today this practice of folding 1,000 cranes represents a form of healing and hope during challenging times. After the events of September 11, as a gesture of support and healing, thousands of cranes were folded and linked together in chains and sent to fire and police stations, museums, and churches throughout New York City.

Traditionally, flocks of 1,000 cranes are offered at shrines or temples with prayer, based on the belief that the effort to fold such a large number will surely be rewarded. Chains are often given to someone suffering from illness, as a prayer for their recovery, as a wish for happiness, and as an expression of sympathy and peace.

My research team has gone for the last two years to recognize the difficulties faced by sexual minorities who are at greater risk for both depression and suicide.

We spoke afterwards about some of the challenges we face as Christians who conduct research in this area, particularly in light of the desire to help the church improve the climate for people sorting out sexual identity questions. I know there are those who would say that the church needs to change its doctrinal teaching in this area–that change in doctrine around sexual ethics is the only way climate will improve for sexual minorities. I understand that perspective.

At present, we face the challenge of providing resources to the Christian community that holds to a traditional Christian sexual ethic. How can those communities of faith improve the climate or atmosphere for those who are navigating sexual identity issues in their lives? What are the experiences of more conservative sexual minorities? What about Side B gay Christians and others who hold a similar worldview? What would they recommend to the local church? Those have been interesting and challenging questions to explore.


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