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Tag Archives: Mark Yarhouse

On Care for Those on the Margins

marginalizedA question I’m asked from time to time is some variation on the following: “Given that this is such a relatively small population, why do we allocate so much time and attention to it?”

I’ve had this question around sexual identity concerns, where roughly 6-8% of the population has at one time experienced same-sex attraction and 2-3% report a homosexual orientation. The question comes up a little more often when discussing gender dysphoria, which is quite rare, or even transgender persons, which is a broader umbrella, but still a smaller percentage than what is represented by gay and lesbian persons.

I usually acknowledge that more people in a given setting are navigating other concerns. For example, at a Christian college, far more students will be finding ways to respond to depression or anxiety or pornography than same-sex sexuality or gender dysphoria.

But the question seems to come out of a place of either inexperience or privilege. It’s typically asked by people who have no known connection to the topic or to persons represented by the topic.

I’ve never been asked that question by a Christian parent whose daughter has just come out. I’ve not been asked the question by a gay student who doesn’t know how to talk about his same-sex sexuality with anyone at his Christian college. Or a wife whose husband has announced he is a woman trapped in the body of a man.

For my point of view, we have to look at two things (at least). One thing to consider is that debates about sexuality and gender are imbued with significance both in the church and the broader culture. They have been front-and-center in the cultural wars and there have been mistakes made by many people who represent a range of stakeholders. We can all do better.

We can also consider whether it is simply the hallmark of the Christian to care about those at the margins. By definition, those at the margins will be underrepresented and a smaller overall number. But how we respond to them, how we find ways to identify their concerns and respond in a Christ-like manner is the stuff of Christianity. Whether we talk about the stranger in a strange land or the lost coin or the lost sheep or the lost son, it is part of what makes Christians Christ-like. It is in our DNA.

If these concerns are not your concerns, I can appreciate where you might raise this question. But can I invite you to get to know people for whom this is their concern? Would you consider spending some time with these folks and see if other questions come to mind?

Perhaps rather than ask why we spend time on a topic that represents a relatively small percent of people, you may find yourself asking why we haven’t spent time on this in the past, and why, when we have spent time on it, our efforts have not been nearly as constructive as perhaps they could have been.

 

 

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Caring for Others with Christ’s Love

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.

 
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Posted by on February 3, 2016 in chapel, Uncategorized

 

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Sexual Identity & The Question of Vocation

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.

 

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The Cultural Salience of Gender Dysphoria

thAs 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:

  1. to instruct morally and to strengthen ethical resolve;
  2. to instruct for the purposes of pastoral response and engagement;
  3. to engage pastorally with individuals, that person in need, and families who are affected;
  4. 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.

Gender Dysphoria coverIt’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.

 

 

 
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Posted by on December 28, 2015 in Gender Identity, Transgender

 

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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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Students & Alumni Navigating Sexual Identity on Christian College Campuses

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASeveral members of my research institute recently published a small, qualitative study of 18 students and alumni of Christian institutions of higher education. The students and alumni all identified as Christian; they all reported same-sex attraction or otherwise identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual (LGB).

We organized the findings around two themes: (1) experiences of attraction, orientation, identity, and associated milestone events, and (2) campus climate. I wanted to share a few impressions from the study–these are just some things that stood out to me.

We asked about specific milestone events in the formation of one’s sexual identity. Milestone events are commonly studied in research on sexual identity development. They refer to sign posts LGB adults recall as important in their own formation of an LGB identity. We ask about these even though we recognize that an LGB identity may not be an outcome for all Christians who are navigating same-sex sexuality and sexual identity considerations. In any case, first awareness of same-sex sexuality is a common milestone event. As you might anticipate, all of our participants reported first awareness of same-sex attractions–with an average age of awareness at about 11. It was interesting to me that those behaviors that are more volitional–those behaviors that a person has say about–were less commonly reported. For instance, only 50% reported a first same-sex relationship.

For good or for ill, there is a lot of discussion in Christian circles about identity labels. Is it okay to identify as gay and Christian?  We did not ask our participants about whether or not it was okay; rather, we asked whether they adopted a gay identity. About 44% identified themselves as gay (“took on the label of gay” was the actual wording). We also asked about disclosure, and each participant shared with someone else that they experienced same-sex attraction (“first disclosure of same-sex attraction” was the wording). But most of that disclosure was to just a few friends while they were students.

What about campus climate? It perhaps comes as no surprise that about half indicated a hesitancy on the part of their campus to discuss sexual identity. I thought it was interesting that about half indicated that their campus was open to discussion/progress in this area. Perhaps its a matter of perspective. Maybe there is greater variability among campuses. One student talked about compassion:

Our university really tries to push the issue to make it more known. Not from a specifically acceptable standpoint, but to say it’s a legitimate struggle just the same as everybody else in the sins that they have. They try to have a biblical view on it and just to encourage people to come alongside people with the struggle. I think it’s been something that’s been getting in motion. (p. 23)

I think as a research group we were also struck by what were referred to as “pockets of safety.” These are friendships or relationships that are places a person can be more honest and forthcoming. One student shared the following:

One group of friends I hung out with I chose very carefully and very intentionally because I realized that they were just a little bit more accepting in general… two of them I can think of didn’t agree that homosexuality was okay, but they still treated me like a human being, still had fun with me, still invited me to things, and my sexuality never defined me. (p. 23)

We asked what I thought was an interesting question toward the end of the study: What advice would you give to other Christian students on your campus who experience same-sex attraction?  The most common response by far was to find trustworthy people. One person shared, “Find at least one person you can be open with.”

When asked what the campus could do differently in this area, answers went in a few different directions, but one thing that was shared is something I hear quite often as a guest speaker at Christian colleges and universities: Provide us with some clarification about what we as students can and cannot do to be supportive of one another without putting ourselves at risk for discipline.

There was a lot more, of course. These are just some of the findings that stood out to me. Perhaps other findings would stand out to you. You can read the entire study here.

We have a separate study along these same lines that is currently underway. It is a larger study with more quantitative measures as well as qualitative interviews. We hope to have data analyzed soon.

 

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The Calvin College Talk on Gender Dysphoria

The AV staff at Calvin College have been working on a better quality video of the talk I gave titled Understanding Gender Dysphoria: Navigating Transgender Issues in a Changing Culture. Here is the video. It is about an hour with some Q&A from the audience:

Several transgender and gender variant people and families who have loved ones who are under the transgender umbrella have reached out to me following the talk. They are hungry for resources and for a way forward.  If I were to summarize the themes from those exchanges so far (and some are ongoing), I would say they are centered on (1) self understanding (How do I understand what I am going through?), (2) the faith community (How do I have more constructive discussions with pastors and others in my church?), and (3) How do I improve existing relationships with loved ones? In some ways these are similar to what we reported in our research with male-to-female transgender Christians a few years ago. I think these themes also line up with what I have seen in counseling individuals, couples, and families over the years.

These are important, significant discussions for every individual and family that is navigating this terrain. So many feel alone and unsure how to even begin a conversation. The section from the presentation on different “lenses” through which different stakeholders “see” the issues and people seemed especially promising to them. There is certainly much more that can be done to be a resource for responsible care in these three areas, and I hope that ongoing discussions and future discussions will be a part of seeing that come about.

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on February 11, 2015 in Gender Identity, Transgender

 

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