I have been blessed with a significant number of friends who are, or have been, Pastors and leaders within their churches. These are men and women that I respect and hold in high regard. Most of them are Canadian, and most of them are what I would term “moderate evangelicals”. My moderate I would mean that for the most part they are theologically conservative, not overly political, and have a Pastor’s heart to care for people.
A few weeks back, a reader commenting on Internet Monk asked a question along the lines of:
For those of us in churches that are fairly conservative theologically and who consider homosexual behavior to be sinful, what are you asking us to do?
So I asked my friends.
The responses that I got back have quite frankly been overwhelming. Overwhelming in the amount of material I received in response, and overwhelming in the sense that I wanted to be faithful to my friends who have answered me in good faith, and faithful to our reader who asked the questions, and not sure how to accomplish both.
I am not sure how to adequately convey the Pastor’s heart that was expressed in page after page of response. Many of them expressed that they were active in ministry to LGBTQ congregants within their own churches. As they were theologically conservative, they called for celibacy in their members who were same sex attracted. But they tried to do so in a way that was coming alongside that individual as a helper rather than a judge. Most of the pastors said that some one who was same sex attracted and trying to be celibate would not be restricted in ministry in any more than any other person in the church with similar gifts and desire to follow Christ.
Two of the Pastors pointed me to the same resource, and I upon reading it again I was reminded that another person had previously also pointed this out to me. It is written by a same-sex attracted celibate Christian. The article was originally posted on SpiritualFriendship.org and is reprinted with permission of that site.
I include it in its whole here because I think it does a wonderful job of answering the original question. “What are you asking us to do?”
Ministry That Helps
By Wesley Hill
Recently I gave a talk to a group of folks who work for a campus ministry. They had asked me to come and speak on the theme of ministering to LGBT students at colleges and universities. I get a lot of requests like this, and, truth be told, in the days leading up to the event, I was thinking I would simply dust off a talk I’d given a dozen times before. But the more I thought about it, the more I kept combing back through my memories of being a—deeply closeted—college student and of the kind of ministry that meant the most to me. After a few days pondering these memories, I took out a pad of paper and started to write a list. I wrote down the characteristics of the people and the gestures and the conversations that helped me find grace and hope when I most needed it. I came up with a list of ten points, and I’d like to share them here… And I’d love it if folks added to this list in the comment section.
The ministry that has helped me most has been:
- ministry that doesn’t underestimate the power of small gestures.
I recall listening to a sermon by John Piper on the word “everyone” in Romans 1:16 (“I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes”). And this is what he said:
O, what an exhilarating word to those of us in this room who feel that there is something about us that rules us out! Wrong family, wrong background, wrong education, wrong language, wrong race, wrong culture, wrong sexual preference, wrong moral track record. Then to hear the word, “Everyone who believes.” Everyone! One thing can rule you out: unbelief. Not trusting Jesus. But nothing else has to. The good news that Christ died for our sins, and that he rose from the dead to open eternal life, and that salvation is by grace through faith – all that is for everyone who believes. Not just Jews and not just Gentiles and no one race or social class or culture, but everyone who believes.
The only reference Piper made to sexuality in that sermon was that reference to “sexual preference”—to those in his congregation who might be ashamed of their same-sex attraction and who worried that it somehow disqualified them from living a Christian life. It was such a tiny, fleeting reference, but what it said to me was that this pastor was aware of gay folks in his congregation. They were on his mind and heart. They were visible to him, and he wanted them to hear the gospel as a word specifically for them. A small, almost minuscule gesture in the big scheme of things, but it landed powerfully on me at the time.
My friend Brent Bailey has described “safe people”—people with whom gay and lesbian Christians can be honest without fear of judgment or disgust—as people who aren’t afraid to raise the issue:
Without a doubt, someone’s willingness to broach LGBT issues in any sort of positive or empathetic tone is the clearest and most visible indicator they might be prepared to listen to me talk about my sexuality. They may do something as noticeable as leading a Bible study about homosexuality or as simple as posting a link on Facebook to a story about sexual minorities; but in environments where nontraditional sexuality receives no attention, even the tiniest statement of knowledge or interest can communicate a loud-and-clear message (accurate or not) that this person is the safest person in the room.
- ministry that avoids assumptions about the causes of same-sex attraction and my personal history.
I recall a particularly difficult time in my life when I was trying to make an initial appointment with a Christian counselor to talk about my homosexuality. As we were emailing and comparing calendars, he asked me to describe briefly what I hoped to discuss with him. When I said that I was gay and was experiencing a great deal of confusion in a particular friendship, he immediately wrote back and asked if I could bring my father along with me to our sessions since, he said, he had never met a gay man whose sexuality wasn’t, at root, about a deficit of masculine, fatherly affirmation. I was dismayed. This counselor had never met me, had not heard me try to articulate what was drawing me to seek counseling, and already he was offering a diagnosis. I felt hemmed in, confined, as if the multi-shaded threads of my story were being bleached to a monochrome. No matter that I felt my relationship with my father was a far cry from this typical “father wound” story the counselor presumed.
Melinda Selmys has written very powerfully about how hurtful it can be when straight Christians offer a one-size-fits-all narrative of the origins of same-sex desire:
Where the animosity [from LGBT people] comes in, is when people try to aggressively project such narratives onto others. It’s one thing to say “My mother really was smothering, my father really was absent, and that really did leave me in a headspace where I feel driven to have sex with men in order to reconnect with my damaged masculinity,” it’s another thing to say, “That guy over there is just saying that he had a perfectly normal childhood because he’s unwilling to confront the pain of the deep wounds which his parents left on his psyche.” That guy over there has an absolute and inalienable right, for as long as he is alive, to wrestle with his own experience in his own way, to seek the Truth of it within himself, and to construct whatever narratives he requires to provide for his own spiritual and psychological needs.
Ministry that’s helped me most has been ministry that begins with the assumption that my story is unique, that my gayness isn’t the same as anyone else’s, and that that uniqueness is worthy of attention and respect and dignity.
- ministry that recognizes that my sexual orientation affects everything about me, just like heterosexuality does for others.
I won’t belabor this point since I’ve written at length about it elsewhere. Suffice it to say, in the words of my friend Misty Irons, the ministry that has been most consoling and helpful in my life is ministry that recognizes that “the experience [of being gay or lesbian] is nearly parallel to finding oneself heterosexual.” If you want to know what it feels like to awaken, during or even before puberty, to being gay and to understand what it feels like to long for intimacy and companionship as a gay person, your best bet is to reflect deeply on what it feels like for you to be heterosexual. Just as your (straight) sexuality suffuses much more than your overt romantic encounters, attractions, or relationships, the same is true for a gay or lesbian person: our sexuality is more like a facet of our personalities than a separable piece of our behavior; it’s more like a trait than a habit, more like a sensibility than an action.
I still remember reading this older post by Eve Tushnet for the first time and immediately emailing it to a dozen friends. “This,” I said, “is what it feels like to be gay and Christian.”
My lesbianism is part of why I form the friendships I form. It’s part of why I volunteer at a pregnancy center. Not because I’m attracted to the women I counsel, but because my connection to other women does have an adoring and erotic component, and I wanted to find a way to express that connection through works of mercy. My lesbianism is part of why I love the authors I love. It’s inextricable from who I am and how I live in the world. Therefore I can’t help but think it’s inextricable from my vocation.
Experiencing same-sex sexual desire isn’t just about who you want to go to bed with; it shapes your entire way of being in the world.
- ministry that recognizes that my sexual orientation doesn’t define me.
Many traditionalist Christians have written in recent years on what it means for Christian ethics and pastoral care that sexual orientation as we know it is culturally constructed. In other words, same-sex attracted people throughout history have not always understood themselves as having fixed sexual “orientations” and cultural “identities,” nor will they go on doing so forever. Those things—those understandings of what “being gay” amounts to—are a particular reality of our cultural moment, and same-sex attracted people like me are having to figure out how to navigate it.
But how does that help, in terms of ministry to gay and lesbian people? Well, for starters, realizing that my gayness isn’t some fixed script that I must conform to has given me freedom to explore historic Christian, chaste ways to express my love for men. What my culture defines as “gay”—the story my world offers me for who I’m supposed to be and how I’m supposed to live—isn’t something I have to embrace, and there’s freedom in choosing to try to express my love for men through friendship and service rather than through marriage or romantic partnership. Granted, opting out of the dominant way of understanding “gay” can often feel more like martyrdom than freedom. But if traditional Christianity is true, then self-denial—taking up one’s cross and following Jesus—is, in fact, regardless of how it feels, real freedom.
- ministry that takes the risk of speaking up about the topic.
One of the most dangerous things you can do right now, ministry-wise, it seems, is broach the topic of homosexuality in a church or campus ministry. You’re almost guaranteed to offend dozens of people, on every “side” and end of the spectrum, and probably even cause a firestorm. But consider the alternative: what if you stay silent? What if you never preach a sermon on this, or lead a Bible study on it, or ever mention it in your prayer group? Andrew Sullivan has written about the deadly consequences of silence:
In my adolescence and young adulthood, the teaching of the Church was merely a silence, an increasingly hollow denial even of the existence of homosexuals, let alone a credible ethical guide as to how they should live their lives. It is still true that in over thirty years of weekly churchgoing, I have never heard a homily that attempted to explain how a gay man should live, or how his sexuality should be expressed. I have heard nothing but a vast and endless and embarrassed silence, an awkward, unexpressed desire for the simple nonexistence of such people, for their absence from the moral and physical universe, for a word or a phrase, like “objective disorder,” that could simply abolish the problem they represented and the diverse humanity they symbolized.
The ministry that has helped me most has been ministry that has ventured to say something about how I might live my life, how I might go about giving and receiving love. The times when a Christian friend or priest has offered me some concrete, hopeful possibility of how I might shape my life—those have been lifelines for me. But they’ve required my friends to take the risk of speaking up and of committing themselves to learning along with me.
- ministry that shows a passion to engage Scripture and Christian theology in a deep, rigorous way.
Talk to virtually any gay or lesbian believer, and I predict that within five minutes you’ll be hearing a tale about long, anguished wrestling with Scripture, with church tradition, with books of exegesis and psychology. Unlike some of our straight peers, we same-sex attracted folks don’t have the luxury of remaining neutral on “the issue.” We’ve had to make concrete choices about how to “glorify God in our bodies” (1 Corinthians 6:20). And many of us have therefore learned to crave serious, deep, searching engagement with Scripture and Christian theology. We’re impatient with hasty arguments and shallow Scriptural reasoning. We’re frustrated when our fellow Christians want to slap a quick answer on our questions. We want to know if the church’s historic opposition to gay sex is just about cultural prejudice or whether it really is rooted in the Bible’s basic view of human nature and redemption.
A while ago Rod Dreher published a letter from a millennial who left the church because of her church’s refusal or inability to offer a serious theological case for its ethical stance:
In all the years I was a member, my evangelical church made exactly one argument about SSM [same-sex marriage]. It’s the argument I like to call the Argument from Ickiness: Being gay is icky, and the people who are gay are the worst kind of sinner you can be. Period, done, amen, pass the casserole. When you have membership with no theological or doctrinal depth that you have neglected to equip with the tools to wrestle with hard issues, the moment ickiness no longer rings true with young believers, their faith is destroyed. This is why other young ex-evangelicals I know point as their “turning point” on gay marriage to the moment they first really got to know someone who was gay. If your belief on SSM is based on a learned disgust at the thought of a gay person, the moment a gay person, any gay person, ceases to disgust you, you have nothing left. In short, the anti-SSM side, and really the Christian side of the culture war in general, is responsible for its own collapse. It failed to train up the young people on its own side preferring instead to harness their energy while providing them no doctrinal depth by keeping them in a bubble of emotion dependent on their never engaging with the outside world on anything but warlike terms. Perhaps someday my fellow ex-evangelical Millennials and I will join other churches, but it will be as essentially new Christians with no religious heritage from our childhoods to fall back on.
The upshot? Theology matters. Serious, sustained reading of Scripture is vital to those of us who are trying to figure out what to do with our baptized bodies. We need ministry that recognizes that.
- ministry that tries to imagine the difficulty of being gay (regardless of one’s “position” on the issue) and the costliness of staying single.
The ministry that has meant the most to me is ministry that doesn’t try to whitewash or downplay the sheer difficulty of the discipleship I believe I’m called to. Sometimes straight Christians have tried to comfort me in my loneliness by reminding me that marriage is no cakewalk either—and, in many cases, marriage can exacerbate loneliness. “I’m in a very good and happy marriage,” a friend once said to me, “and I still battle loneliness.” I appreciate that perspective very much, and I need it, since I have an inveterate romantic streak that I’m always trying to temper. But, frankly, the more lasting consolations have come from people, like my friend David Mills, who are willing to say things like this:
We ask our homosexual brethren, and our divorced brethren without annulments, to deny themselves something almost everyone else can have: a marriage, two people forming a haven in a heartless world, with someone they actively desire, with all the pleasures of romance that sexual desire brings. We ask them to live as celibates in a sexually-sodden culture where they may never find the alternative of deep, committed friendships. We ask them to risk loneliness we don’t risk.
Naming and honestly facing the depths of the risks and the burdens I’m asked to shoulder is a hallmark of the ministry that’s meant the most to me. The way I’m trying to live often seems very hard, and I appreciate it when my fellow Christians acknowledge that.
- ministry that seeks to imagine and implement creative avenues to spiritual kinship and friendship.
The kind of ministry that has most consistently given me hope is ministry that doesn’t end with bemoaning the difficulty of celibacy, though, nor with a negative. It’s been ministry that majors on the positive: what kind of life, what kind of future, what kind of relationships am I being called towards? We’ve beaten this drum a lot here at SF, and no one has said it better than Eve Tushnet. “[I]nitially,” she’s written, “I conceived of my task, as a lgbt/ssa Catholic, as basically a) negative (don’t have gay sex) and b) intellectual (figure out why Church teaching is the way it is). I now think of it much more as the positive task of discerning vocation: discerning how God is calling me to pour out love to others.”
Part and parcel of this kind of ministry is a refusal to look down on celibacy as “second best.” Too often the possibility of chaste, committed friendship has gone unexplored because of our determination to get as far away as possible from singleness. If we’re on the left side of the spectrum, we want same-sex marriage rather than celibacy, and if we’re on the right, we’re often interested in ex-gay approaches that hold out the promise of opposite-sex coupling rather than celibacy. But ministry that has been the most helpful to me over the years is ministry that, without dishonoring marriage in the least, has encouraged me to imagine a single life overflowing with familial ties and hospitality and “thick” kinship commitments.
- ministry that seeks to recognize and nurture the gifts of gay and lesbian believers.
One of the dangers of the whole notion of “ministry to LGBT Christians” is that it neglects to talk much about the “ministry of LGBT Christians.” The kind of ministry that has been most important in my life has been ministry that doesn’t simply look on me as pitiable or “broken” or the perpetually needier, more fragile party in the relationship. Rather, it’s been ministry that sees me as a complex, in-the-process-of-being-redeemed person—a “glorious ruin” (in Francis Schaeffer’s fine phrase)—whose experiences of temptation, repentance, grace, and growth have equipped me with unique perspectives and have forged a certain sensitivity in me that can be drawn out for the good of the church.
Honestly, my gay and lesbian Christian friends are some of the deepest, most thoughtful, most compassionate believers I know, and the ministry I’ve received from them has been some of the most caring I’ve experienced. As Misty Irons has written,
So many times when I encounter a song, a performance, or a piece of art [or, I would add, an act of service or kindness in the church] that strikes me as so true and subtle and poignant and uplifting I feel almost a spiritual connection with it, I later learn the artist behind it is gay. It’s happened so often I now take it for granted. Maybe there’s something about being gay that enables an artist to see more clearly what it means to be human, to identify certain truths about us all. Maybe it is the ones who are forced to the margins who truly understand what it is we all have in common.
Maybe, as C. S. Lewis has said, there are “certain kinds of sympathy and understanding [and] a certain social role” that only gay people can play in the church. Maybe we are “called to otherness,” and the church’s ministry to us is in large measure about cultivating the ministry we can offer to the church.
- ministry that revolves around the basics of the gospel and the “normal means of grace.”
I often tell people that the best “gay ministry” I have benefitted from has been ministry that only rarely mentions anything “gay” at all. It hasn’t been a gay small group or support ministry or gay-themed Bible study or anything like that (as good as all those things may be for some people!). Rather, the ministry that has proved most stabilizing and encouraging has been garden-variety gospel preaching that has held the Cross and Resurrection constantly before me.
When I was in the throes of the coming out process and struggling with more loneliness than I felt before or since, I belonged to a church that emphasized, over and over again, how suffering and tears and struggle were normal parts of the Christian experience. As the New Testament scholar Richard Hays has written, commenting on Romans 8:23 (“not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies”), “Anyone who does not recognize this as a description of authentic Christian existence has never struggled seriously with the imperatives of the gospel, which challenge and frustrate our ‘natural’ impulses in countless ways.” More than anything else, it was that kind of ministry that provided the framework, the plausibility structure, if you like, that made my own frustration and struggles seem bearable and maybe even beautiful.
As I’ve gone on in this “gay Christian” life, I’ve come to see that the kind of ministry I most crave, the kind that most helps, is the regular, bog-standard ministry of Word and Sacrament. Sitting under preaching that points me to Jesus and receiving Communion (which is “Jesus placing himself in our hands so we know exactly where to find him,” as one of my Lutheran colleagues has put it)—that’s the kind of ministry I need. Kneeling at the altar rail is where I receive the strength I need to keep going on this journey.
I am afraid that I still haven’t been able to coalesce the material that my pastoral friends wrote. Next week I will be using a fair bit of it as I look at how traditional churches respond to same sex couples. I do think that this article at least partially answers the original question that was asked. I will finally (phew) conclude the following week with my own thoughts on the matter. As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome. I repeat Wesley’s request: “I’d love it if folks added to this list in the comment section.”