Here is a chapel address I gave at Wheaton College recently. The topic I was asked to address was what it looks like to care for others in a pluralistic world with Christ’s love.
Vocation is an interesting word. It isn’t a word you hear tossed around that much today, outside of religious settings. Even there, the word has fallen out of common usage. If you google it, you get the idea that people have a resolve toward a career or activity of some kind: “a summons or strong inclination to a particular state or course of action; especially: a divine call to the religious life.”
I suppose dissertations could be written on the meaning and place of vocation in the life of the believer. I’m unable to get into all of those nuances, but I am intrigued by the word and its place in the life of the Christian. It certainly seems to entail purpose and meaning in ways that are often overlooked in many cultural discussions and debates about sexuality and sexual behavior.
In any case, I was invited to give a lecture series at Southeastern Baptist Seminary in the fall of last year. A part of that time together was giving a chapel address to the seminary students. I organized the chapel message around a letter that C.S. Lewis wrote to Sheldon and Davy VanAuken that raises the question of vocation.
As we come to the close of 2015, let me take a moment to reflect on what has been a rather remarkable year with respect to gender dyshporia. For about 16 years now, I have seen individuals, couples, and families where a person was navigating gender dysphoria. It is not my primary area of research and clinical practice; that would be sexual identity. Gender dysphoria is thought to be a rare phenomenon, but conservative estimates have frequently come from the number of people seeking out specialty clinics in Europe. More recent approaches have been through national studies and the inclusion of “transgender” as a category option. Neither of these is a particularly accurate measure of prevalence. “Transgender” is itself an umbrella term for any number of experiences of gender identity that do not match those that align with one’s biological or birth sex. Those who experience gender dysphoria would be a subset of people who identify as transgender.
Earlier this year I was asked by the editor of Christianity Today (CT) to write a featured article on gender dysphoria for their magazine. The editor had watched a talk I gave at Calvin College in February and was looking for an article that would help the CT readership come to a better understanding of the topic. I had also just completed a book that was scheduled for publication by InterVarsity Press Academic in June/July, so that timing was actually pretty good. I agreed to write the article.
The CT article on gender dysphoria was recently listed as one of the most-read CT articles of 2015. The article has not been without its critics, however. One theologian wrote a critical response to it in First Things. The editors allowed me to write a reply, which you can read here. (The most insightful review I’ve read is here.)
As I have been thinking through the nature of the critiques, one acquaintance approached me with a typology that he thought might be helpful. He said it was not original to him, but he was sharing that there may be different callings and audiences in the mix. He offered a taxonomy of purposes and corresponding audiences:
- to instruct morally and to strengthen ethical resolve;
- to instruct for the purposes of pastoral response and engagement;
- to engage pastorally with individuals, that person in need, and families who are affected;
- to respond to the gay/gender activists, sometimes within the liberal church, and often those outside the church.
The thought that was being shared is that perhaps my article and primary area of work has been in #2 and #3, whereas conservative Christians who have raised concerns have as their primary role #1 and/or #4.
It’s an interesting thought, and one I will leave to the reader to discern. Part of where I think Christians who have raised concerns and I are potentially speaking past one another is that I am focusing on gender dysphoria and the management of the distress experienced by the person navigating gender identity conflicts. Some of my critics are tackling the entire transgender umbrella with many or all of its presentations. We are at times simply not discussing the same thing.
In any case, I do provide clinical services in this area and continue to work closely with individuals, couples, and families navigating gender identity concerns. I typically recommend people go to more comprehensive clinics with larger, multidisciplinary teams, but in many cases people prefer to see a Christian, and so I am willing to meet with those individuals/families. So #3 is certainly a part of my professional work. Also, the CT article itself was geared toward helping Christians have a more compassionate response to a complex phenomenon, so in that sense #2 seems quite relevant.
About two years ago I thought that gender dysphoria would represent a wave that would crest on evangelical Christians and that the church was not prepared for it. This dawned on my through a series of talks to youth ministers who increasingly faced complex ministry challenges associated with gender identity questions. These encounters were why I approached IVP Academic about the book. However, it would have been difficult to predict just how culturally salient gender dyshporia and the transgender experience would become (with multiple reality TV shows, prominent award-recipients, and so on).
As we head into 2016 it will be interesting to track just how salient these topics will become, what they will symbolize in our culture, and how the Christian community will respond. There are no easy answers. What I recommend is a thoughtful, prayerful approach, one characterized by humility about what we know and do not know, and a response that embodies conviction, civility, and compassion in all our exchanges within the Body of Christ and beyond.
Icebergs are formed from the ice that breaks off of a larger body of ice, typically a glacier. The analogy of the iceberg is a familiar one. The idea is that there is so much under the surface that goes unnoticed. Our focus tends to be on what we see, on what is above the surface. But what is above the surface doesn’t tell the whole story. What is particularly noteworthy is what lies beneath.
I recently used this analogy to talk with youth ministers about how Christians often respond to identity labels and gender atypical expression. Identity labels or sexual identity refers to terms like gay, lesbian, bisexual, bi-curious, queer, and so on. Gender atypical expression might be in hairstyle or clothing or mannerisms associated with the other gender.
Many people in ministry react to the label or expression rather than to what needs or questions may reside under the surface. What might those needs and questions be?
In a recent workshop with youth ministers, Julie Rodgers and I discussed what we see as the most frequently asked question teens wonder about. That question is: “Do you want me here?” There are many ways in which those in ministry and fellow youth may essentially answer that question with a “No,” primarily because they react to identity labels and gender atypical expression rather than to the question or the needs. The answer “Yes” may raise more questions than answers for those in ministry, and we discussed those at length with those in attendance. I would say by far most of the people we worked with wanted to answer “Yes” to that foundational question.
If one of the most frequently asked questions that is under the surface is, “Do you want me here?,” what are some of the common needs and other questions that may arise? I think the needs include a need for intimacy – to be known and to know others. A need for community. A place to land and belong. A place to explore questions about faith and God. “Does God love me?” and the more emotionally loaded question, “Does God like me?” Of course, these are questions many youth are asking. The questions become more complicated for those navigating sexual and gender identity questions, particularly if they have reason to believe they will be rejected by Christians.
Those providing ministry will not have an opportunity to minister to these questions and needs that are under the surface if their primary point of reaction is to what is going on above the surface. That doesn’t mean that identity labels and gender expression are unimportant. But a hypervigilance these things can create a set of conditions that may not reflect your heart and vision for ministry.
Even well-intended, seasoned ministry folks face the additional challenge of creating a ministry climate that reflects their heart and vision to minister to what is beneath the surface.
A youth minister once shared with me how he was trying to reach LGBT+ youth in his community. He was trying to be missional in his approach. A missional approach looks like this: Belong – Believe – Become. This is in contrast to models that focus on Behave – Believe – Belong, in which behavioral compliance is communicated on the front end and is ultimately a condition for belonging. (This is not original with me; I discuss it and the source in Understanding Gender Dysphoria.)
So this youth minister was working on a missional approach in which all young people would be welcomed (belong), and in which all would have an opportunity to learn about Christ (believe). Only later would ministry focus on discipleship with a focus on Christlikeness (become). He then has to think deeply and well about what it means to become more Christlike and navigate sexual identity and gender identity questions.
One evening as they were getting going in youth group, a visitor to the group came dressed in androgynous attire and it was unclear whether the person was male or female or transgender. The youth minister struck up a conversation and was making an initial connection. But this is a large youth group, and he was pulled away to attend to an admin issue that arose for programming that night. He was gone for literally 3-4 minutes. In that time, a group of guys from the youth group went up to the visiting teen and made derogatory comments about the person’s attire and joked in a way that set the message (apparently), “You aren’t really in the right place.” The teen was gone when the youth minister returned.
There are two recommendations here. First, my encouragement to those in ministry is to think of the analogy of the iceberg. To react not to what is presented above the surface but to take time to explore what may be beneath the surface. A second recommendation is to develop a ministry climate that reflects your vision. This includes training adult volunteers and key students in what you are trying to do and how, so that they understand their role in key moments of hospitality. This is especially important insofar as you may wish to take a more missional approach to people who may be curious about faith and have normal, fundamental needs regarding intimacy and community.
When I moved to Virginia about 17 years ago, I learned that at Thanksgiving it’s not uncommon to fry your turkey. Deep fry. I thought, “Ok, that’s going to be a lot of oil.” Then I thought, “Ok, I can do this.” So I watched many videos on “how to fry your turkey” and discovered that most of them were warnings based on people setting fire to their garage.
I was reminded of how easy it is to add fuel to the fire when I recently spoke at a Christian university in Canada and the news coverage that led up to and followed the event.
There is so much that could be written about how news coverage is done today. I have seen very good and accurate coverage, and I have read material that makes me scratch my head. I don’t have time and interest in delving into a full-blown discussion of this topic, but I did want to share an interesting development.
One reporter wrote an article about me coming to speak at the university. It actually begins with a premise from a study I conducted that sets the article in the wrong direction at the outset. The article frames the discussion as though I am discussing or advocating conversion therapy to the undergraduates there. So on the one hand the coverage does not reflect more recent, documented concerns on my part about conversion therapy with minors. I since sent more current information to the reporter for her future reference. On the other hand, for what it’s worth, the focus of my public presentations in chapel and in the community were on gender dysphoria. I was surprised this wasn’t even mentioned in the article and I think would have been readily accessible. (As an aside, the person who is quoted expressing concerns about me being on campus is a self-proclaimed activist and perhaps one of the least likely to provide an objective perspective.)
To the reporter’s credit, she did reach out to me, and I can get behind the idea that she wanted to offer a balanced article. However, my experience has been that reporters often let me know what they are writing about, and given the number of requests from media received here, I do not always reply, especially if I do not know what they are covering. As I mentioned, I sent her more information that might help her have a clearer picture of who I am and the work I do, the various lines of research that I have going, and so on, which often does not fit neatly into the current cultural and political polarization surrounding sexual and gender identity concerns.
After I left campus, another article surfaced about my time there. I thought, “Ok, at least now this will be news coverage about what I actually said rather than coverage in anticipation of what people think I will say.” But I was wrong. The story reads like a rehashing of the first story. This is interesting only because presumably any member of the journal’s editorial board who contributed to the piece would have had a chance to hear either chapel address or attend the community talk. None of these sessions was on conversion therapy. I was invited to speak on gender dysphoria. The comment from a student (in the comment section below the article) was telling:
There is a lot of misinformation in this article. I sat in on Mark Yarhouse’s sessions at TWU and never once did portray transgender people in such a light. The BIGGEST thing I was able to take from it was to be more compassionate and loving towards transgender communities. But I guess pegging an institution as homophobic in order to boost your image of political correctness can be tempting.
I am not particularly surprised by all of this, but misinformation and poor (or no) coverage of events should at least be noted when it occurs.
Of course, in the larger landscape, these pieces can be read as adding more fuel to the fire of the cultural wars that have been so polarizing to so many, and it’s not turkeys or garages that get burned; it’s families, churches, universities, and broader communities. Reporters can and should do better.
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.
In 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.
Below is a post from 2013 in which I introduced a dissertation by one of my students. The study was eventually published as a journal article. I am posting it again now because it is one of the studies I’ll be discussing this week at the American Association of Christian Counselor’s World Conference in Nashville.
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.
What 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.