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.

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

Convicted Civility

Here 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.

Several years ago I came across a phrase that has helped me in my professional role as a psychologist who studies sexual identity issues from a Christian worldview. The phrase is “convicted civility.” It comes from Richard Mouw, President of Fuller Theological Seminary. I recently spoke at Fuller and had the opportunity to talk with Mouw at length. He credited Martin Marty for the phrase. Its origin was tied to the observation that we have far too many Christians who are strong on convictions but do not represent Christ in a way that is respectful of others. At the same time, we have Christians who are so concerned not to offend anyone that it is hard to know what they hold convictions about. So the phrase “convicted civility” reflects a balance between holding convictions as a Christian and communicating those convictions with civility.

zondervanGiven the controversial topic of sexual identity, I’ve adopted “convicted civility” as my professional brand.  This has helped me make decisions about speaking engagements, consultation opportunities, writing projects, bridge-building, working with others to meet superordinate goals, and so on.

For example, a few years ago I was presenting data from a seven-year longitudinal study that considered whether sexual orientation could change through involvement in a Christian ministry. This is not a question that is of interest to the mainstream field of psychology; and it is a question that is offensive to ask within the mainstream of the LGBT community. But for some conventionally religious people, such as conservative Christians, it is a relevant question. So I was co-principal investigator of a study that examined the question of change and also of harm. It was published in book form in 2007 and as a peer-reviewed journal article in 2011 (Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy).

When I was asked to present the findings at a colloquium at Regent several years ago, a local person who identified himself as an activist, put out a call for others in the LGBT community to join him in staring down this “son of a [gun]” in protest of the study. The stage was being set for a rather heated encounter.

What does someone who is committed to “convicted civility” as a brand do in these moments?

I called him.

We spoke by phone a couple of days before the event, and I invited him to be my guest. (He was coming anyway, so extending an invitation did not seem too risky.) We shook hands and met before the presentation, and I met several of the other protesters. The filled the first couple of rows and indeed did stare at us as my co-presenter and I went through the data and implications for those in attendance.

We spoke again immediately after the presentation and actually several times after that. I’ve also met with others who came that day. Those exchanges led to an invitation to speak in Norfolk to a gathering of LGBT individuals on the topic. In the intervening weeks, I remember having coffee with one of the other protesters. He said, “You are nothing like what I expected. From what I had heard about you, I expected to see horns growing out of your head, and I thought you might have steam coming out of your nostrils.” He smiled. No steam here.

This exchange, and many others like it, is the fruit of convicted civility. If we agreed on everything, we would have nothing to talk about. We would likely try to find another common enemy. But in disagreeing on some topics, we can still communicate about the nature of that disagreement. That is only achieved by treating one another with respect, by being civil in our exchanges.

I am not particularly invested in the question of whether sexual orientation can change through Christian ministries. In my own clinical practice, I do not provide reorientation therapy; rather, I help people explore their sexual identity so that they can live a life that is consistent with their beliefs and values. Also, most of my research is centered on how sexual identity develops and how people navigate the conflict they sometimes feel between their same-sex sexuality and their religious faith. By far, most of my research is on the experiences of sexual minorities who are navigating that terrain.

However, I am committed to identifying and researching topics of importance to the Christian community. We need psychologists who will ask the questions that are of concern to the Body of Christ. We cannot expect the broader, secular field of psychology to ask those same questions or have those same interests. Further, we need to ask those questions using the methods and procedures used by our peers in the mainstream of psychology. We have to allow good research to help us translate Christian considerations into meaningful points of dialogue with those in the mainstream of psychology and also the broader culture.

My point is this: How we discuss Christian considerations will be just as important as having those distinctively Christian questions and convictions. “Convicted civility” is one brand that might help us do just that.

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

Sexual Identity & Youth Ministry

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

I share the following story in the opening chapter to set the tone. My argument is that compassion is an important starting point for youth ministers. The importance of compassion is underscored in later chapters as I will draw a contrast between various competing groups. For now, let me share the opening story:

Several years ago my wife and I attended a meet and greet luncheon for adoptive parents in one of the suburbs of Chicago. While I was parking the car, my wife went in to find us a spot at one of the tables. She sat down with a group of women and didn’t give that fact much thought. When I joined her and the other guests, we realized that I was the only guy at the table. Then it dawned on us that the women at our table were all same-sex couples, and we were the only heterosexual couple at the table. It was a little awkward at first; we felt we had crashed the party, or at least I had. However, as prospective adoptive parents, we sat with the women at our table and the many other couples in the room who shared a similar interest in learning more about the process.

After the luncheon was over, we went out to our car only to find that it wouldn’t start. It wouldn’t turn over. As a man I had been taught to lift up the hood and take a look, but I didn’t really have any knowledge of what to do after that. So after assessing both the situation and reflecting on my overall competence with automotive repair, I proceeded to give the universal sign for “help” by leaving the hood of the car up.

car batteryThe next several minutes were interesting. I looked under the hood occasionally—just because it was something I could do to retain the impression that I knew something about cars. I moved some things around, and I was beginning to suspect it was the car battery. Other luncheon attendees walked by us on their way to their cars. Let’s just say that there was a steady stream. For several minutes nobody stopped. Then a guy walked by with his wife, and I asked him for a hand giving the battery a jump. He actually said, “Oh, sorry, I have to get to a meeting at church.” Um, ok, what?

Then one of the lesbian couples from our table walked up to us—the one woman offered to take a look. She quickly confirmed that the problem was the battery. “I agree; I think you just need a jump,” she said. “Let me get our car, we’ll put up right here and take care of it.” And they did.

I couldn’t help but think of the story Jesus told of the Good Samaritan. It is recorded in Luke 10:25-37. My pastor recently put it this way: God puts in our lives people each of us has a hard time picturing God loving. We have a hard time seeing them in all of their complexity because of positions the church holds. For many in the church today, gay, lesbian, and bisexual people are the “other”, the group of folks who are difficult for us to see with compassion.

Before anyone runs with the analogy between ethnicity and sexual identity, I am not saying that just as Jews of that day thought of Samaritans, Christians today think of gays. However, we have a cultural context today in which we have local communities of faith in which the climate is such that young people who are navigating this terrain cannot find any compassion. In fact, we may inadvertently push people toward the mainstream gay community precisely because we share the same tendency to reduce complexity to culture war. There are times we appear to prefer politics to pastoral care.

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