Mediating and Discussing LGBTQ+ Experiences in the Church

VWCI 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.

Ukraine Reflections – Part 1

book in RussianI just returned from a trip to Ukraine. I was part of a larger team that was there to train pastors in basic skills of counseling and more advanced skills associated with trauma care and sexual issues. The team I took taught all morning for the week we were there and then did several activities in the afternoon to get better acquainted with the city. We taught on sexual issues in counseling based on a textbook I had co-authored with Erica S. N. Tan. That book was actually sponsored by several organizations to be translated into Russian before our trip, so that students could get the most out of it. That was exciting to see.

We also participated in a conference on sexuality at one of the prestigious universities in Kiev on Saturday and Sunday. I offered a plenary address on some of the changes in approaches to sexual minorities over the years (kind of updating a 2002 publication that created a typology of sorts around this topic) and the convergence of the APA’s position on client-affirmative care and Sexual Identity Therapy. I also conducted a workshop on SIT in individual and in group therapy contexts. The co-director of the institute gave another plenary address and students led workshops on body image and female sexual addiction, as well as poster sessions on recent empirical work we have been doing. It was an extraordinary 11 days to be honest with you.

kievI thought I might offer a few reflections on my time there. My thoughts are a bit scattered today, however, so this may be of little use to anyone. I’ve never taught using a translator. That was an extraordinary experience. I’ve taught while someone signed my class to a deaf student, but I had not taught in another language and had to work out the pace of teaching and allowing for translation. You get roughly 1/2 of the time to move through the material. I learned quite a bit about my lack of patience.

It was also striking to me how hungry people are in Ukraine for training. You can forget that they are at war right now, and that any training that helps them, any training that is practical and skills-based can be immediately of help to them. We tried to keep things very practical. In fact, I turned more toward clinical demonstrations of skills toward the end of the week (whereas I had been more lecture-based and theory oriented toward the beginning of the week).

Gender Identity Issues

Here is an interesting video we are viewing in preparation for a training on Gender Identity issues at the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity:

If you are curious about how we approach training, let me begin by saying we follow many of the leading mainstream LGBT researchers and theorists; they are the one’s doing the majority (by far) of the research. There are few Christians doing serious scholarship in this area, and to limit our understanding of gender identity, for instance, to just what is produced by Christian psychologists (or Christians from other disciplines), would put us at a severe disadvantage.

Some of the strengths of this video include exposing the viewer to the ways in which the word “transgender” functions as an umbrella term. We may say this all the time, but it can be helpful to “meet” various people who prefer different ways of describing themselves and their experiences, such as transman or female-to-male transsexual. There is also some interesting perspective offered on key terms, such as biological sex, gender role, gender identity, and sexual orientation. Just the discussion of the common ways people think of differences and the ways in which the folks in the video think of differences is informative. There are also some helpful suggestions on how to approach a person – how to talk with them in a way that would be respectful given how they experience themselves.

It would have been helpful to have additional information on developmental perspectives on gender identity, as well as information on some of the issues that lead people to seek counseling/therapy services. But that was not the purpose of the video; the video was meant to be introductory and essentially a primer.

You can imagine that there are many issues that arise for those interested in integration of a Christian worldview with the study of gender identity. I won’t be able to do them justice here, but there are important questions about the relationship between biological sex and gender identity, the nature of the Fall, and how best to respond to such concerns from either a mental health or pastoral care perspective.

Scaffolding around Sexuality

In the mid 1980s Universal Building Supplies, Inc., was contracted to create a scaffolding for work that was to be done on the Statue of Liberty. At their web site, the company offers some unique perspective on how they responded to several of the challenges they faced in taking on such a daunting task.

This past week I spoke at a local church that had just completed a series on sexuality. They asked if I would do a training with their staff on how to respond to issues that arise within the local Body of Christ. The image I drew upon was that of scaffolding, an intentional framework that is set in place around a structure so that work can be done to restore that structure to its original design. When the scaffolding is removed, the structure stands on its own. One limitation in this metaphor is that the Body of Christ need not be absent in the life and struggle of the individual congregant. Rather, a scaffold can always be in place. But there are times when people benefit form more structure, more support, as they work through an issue in their life.

We first discussed the kinds of issues that are being seen in the local church. These include issues with pornography, affairs, sexual addiction, sexual identity concerns, gender identity concerns, and other issues. A similar list could be generated at nearly every large church in the U.S., I imagine.Whenever a church does a series on sexuality, there is inevitably a “flare up” of issues. Not that these are new, but rather that they come to the surface as the topic has been discussed. People may seek help for the first time. People may see this as a time to finally make some headway in an area where they have previously felt stuck.

We then discussed the common fears congregants have around even talking with a staff member about sexual issues. The include fear that no one can help them (which is fundamentally a question about competence – can YOU help ME?), fear of exposing secrets (an affair, for example), fears related to sharing one’s values (and the subsequent fear of being judged), and fear that they are talking about a topic that “no one will understand” (for example, an issue that they believe is rare, such as perhaps a fetish or other concern).

I then did a little teaching on a biopsychosocial/spiritual perspective on sexual concerns, identifying ways in which each of these can be “weighted” differently for different people and different concerns. Unfortunately, mental health fields often emphasize biopsychosocial considerations to the neglect of spiritual considerations. The opposite can also be true: churches emphasize spirituality to the neglect of biological, psychological, and/or sociocultural considerations. Good science in this area complements a Christian worldview. So not only is there complexity here in presentation that should be understood and discerned, but how a staff person thinks about an issue and the language that the staff person uses may be important.

We then discussed local community resources, including those within this specific church. We discussed local clinicians who provide individual, couple, family, and group therapy options. We discussed local ministry options.

We also talked about practical ways in which you meet someone where they are, recognize the nature of the struggle, use “parts” language to identify their ambivalence (as most people have mixed feelings about “giving up” something that has met their felt needs), and then help to “grow” the part of them that is wanting to make meaningful changes in this part of their life.

Scaffolding around sexuality means providing structured support. The local church community is in a unique position to do this and to work with others in the community to offer a framework for recovery, healing, and restoration in many areas related to sexuality.

Christian Sex Therapy Training

Richmont Graduate University in Atlanta is host to the Institute for Sexual Wholeness, a group led by Doug Rosenau, Michael Sytsma, and Deb Taylor that offers post graduate level in sexuality related issues. Graduates of the training program meet criteria for certification by the American Board of Christian Sex Therapists. The training this weekend is the Basic Issues in Sex Therapy training. This is offered every other year, and they have asked me to join Michael and Doug in teaching it the last few times its been offered. This is a lot of fun, although providing a training like this over a weekend is fairly draining. My part of the training for the weekend included information on ethics in sex therapy, research in sexuality related areas, theological perspectives on sexuality, and gender and sexual identity. Other topics covered by Michael and Doug included multicultural perspectives, assessment and history taking, sex therapy theories, and sex therapy history. I was reminded once again how important it is for the church to address matters of sexuality within our own communities, how difficult it is to do so, and the challenges in providing good and accurate information that can really improve this important area for individuals, couples and families.