In my introductory post, I reminded us that we all have LGBTQ+ youth in our midst whether we are aware of them specifically or not. Now we are beginning to look at how to prepare our ministries to approach and respond to particular situations that may arise, and since this past Saturday was National Coming Out Day, I think it’s most appropriate to begin with how we respond when students come out to us. This blog will specifically look at a scenario where a youth chooses you as a safe person to come out to in a relatively private environment. Whether or not this has yet happened to you, as a youth leader you’ve had multiple opportunities to hear and speak into sensitive situations that your youth share with you. Being trustworthy comes with the job, and for me personally, this has always been my largest challenge and joy.
Recently I asked a group of LGBTQ+ youth if they had ever come out to their youth pastors, and if so, how it had gone. I know that not every youth pastor responds by opening their Bible to Leviticus, but certainly I heard stories where a kid’s honesty and vulnerability was met with some straight-up Levitical law. I will be sharing a few of their stories, and in doing so I do not mean to shame those who may have responded to youth in regretful ways. We have all made mistakes, and my hope is that throughout this blog series we might not only learn from our own mistakes, but from others’ as well, so that we might become better listeners, pastors and followers of Jesus. Here are some suggestions that I hope we can consider no matter where we stand theologically.
My first suggestion is simple. When a youth comes out to you, thank them. Recognize that the student has done a courageous thing by being honest with you about something vulnerable. I hope you might take it one step further and express how honoured you are by this student’s gift to you. If you are a self-proclaimed ally who is 100% affirming of same-sex relationships, remember to not shrug off this gift of someone’s story. If you have strong opinions about romantic relationships only being appropriate if between two people of opposite sexes, this teen will need you to put those convictions on the back burner, even just for a moment. Chances are they already have a guess about what you think about same-sex relationships, so hold off on presenting your position long enough to appreciate the courage this person had to share a vulnerable part of themselves.
Secondly, don’t make assumptions. You know that old cliche, “when you assume, you make an ass out of you and me?” In few other circumstances is this more true. Sweep away any stereotypes that come to mind. Listen carefully to the words your youth is using, and when you don’t understand something, ask for clarification. The simple act of allowing the teen to be your educator is both appropriate (they are the experts of their own experience) and dignifying. This does not mean that you never share your own opinion, but it does mean spending more time in this conversation attempting to understand rather than attempting to be understood. And this might mean waiting until you are directly asked for your opinion.
This includes your own previous thoughts or inklings about this teen’s sexuality or gender identity. One of the most common “frustrating” responses the youth I talked to had received was “Oh, I already knew you were gay!” Sometimes this was frustrating because the pastor claimed to “know” something about them before they even realized it themselves, and they felt stupid. Other times this was frustrating because the word “gay” was not, in fact, an accurate adjective for them, rather they described themselves as bisexual or transgender or something else that fit a little more comfortably. Even when my gaydar is ringing off the hook, one easy rule I try to abide by is to use the terms they use to describe themselves. If you are unsure about anything, for example, you don’t know what pronouns they would have you use, then ask them. (Genderqueer students may prefer the use of gender-neutral pronouns such as “they, them, and theirs”, and most would much rather be asked than misgendered).
At one point in my own journey I remember trying to tell a former youth pastor that I was attracted to my roommate and we were considering a celibate partnership/spiritual friendship. The only thing my pastor seemed to hear was that I was a lesbian (a word I had never used), and as an affirming person, this pastor jumped to the conclusion that I too embraced an affirming theology, and would eventually marry my (then) celibate partner. Now we’re able to laugh about that initial reaction, but at the time the conversation pushed me a little deeper into the closet with the belief that I would not be understood by my church community.
Avoiding assumptions is one way that so many of the coming-out stories I’ve heard could have gone much better. Over and over again I hear of youth pastors who jump to all kinds of conclusions. One pastor thought that his still-virginal bisexual teen was confessing to multiple sex partners simply by disclosing attraction to people of multiple genders. Try not to assume that someone’s sexual orientation is indicative of a theological stance, a particular faith journey, or a degree of sexual activity.
If a lot of this sounds new to you, and you realize how little you know when a teen comes out to you, it’s okay to delay your response. Admitting to your student that you don’t know what you think is far better than knee-jerk sharing that comes from fear or ignorance. Let them know you need time to process what they’ve shared with you, but then make sure you do eventually respond. I’ve heard so many stories of pastors ignoring a coming out, hoping it is a phase that will go away. Even if things do change for your student, your silence will have likely already made them feel insignificant.
It’s also good to pay attention to what your teen is asking of you in terms of a response. If you are unsure, ask them directly. Do they want to know what you think? Are they looking for advice? Do they just need someone to listen? Perhaps, like one young lesbian I spoke with, they are informing you because they need a bit of space from the community for a while. In that case, this teen received one of the best possible responses: “Take the space you need, but know that even when absent, you are a part of this church family and I’m here if you ever want to talk.”
Seek out resources that help you understand, as opposed to resources that tell you what to say. Consider reading some different Christian approaches to same-sex relationships and/or gender identity. I would highly recommend Justin Lee’s biography Torn, which gives one man’s perspective of what it was like to grow up gay in an evangelical church. I have learned so much already also from Austen Lionheart’s Youtube series Transgender and Christian, and recommend it to anyone who is thinking through the theology of gender identity.
As you continue to journey with this person, it is okay to let them know any concerns you may have, as long as it’s in the context of relationship. If you hope to be heard, make sure you are open to learning from them as well. One of the youth I spoke to said that his youth pastor was quick to invite him into debates about homosexuality in the Bible. At first he was honoured to have the opportunity to be heard by his pastor, but soon enough he realized that this youth pastor just wanted to make his own views clear. Nevertheless, their conversations gave this young gay man an opportunity to connect his sexuality and faith with scripture, even if the conclusions he came to were quite different than those of his youth pastor. Are we willing to dialogue about LGBTQ+ matters of faith without having to convince youth of our views? If a youth moves away from our theological viewpoint, are we willing to focus on other priorities, or must the youth in our congregations and groups agree with us on every doctrine? Do we believe that salvation depends on who we are attracted to, who we are in relationship with, or how we perform our gender identity? How can we continue to point to Christ, and encourage a student’s faith without overemphasizing agreement on secondary matters?
Your ministry or church may already have some policy that impacts how you respond to this situation. If coming out as LGBTQ+ affects a student’s ability to participate in leadership roles at your church, it would be helpful to let them know that for the sake of clarity. Most of the time churches have very strange and arbitrary rules about how LGBTQ+ people are allowed to serve in the congregation. At Hillsong United, LGBTQ+ folks can play on worship teams, but not be the official worship leader. In other churches LGBTQ+ people can be members, but they cannot represent the congregation on council. Another church I know asked a celibate gay man who operated the powerpoint to step down from this role after his theology shifted to allow for a potential partner.
Last but not least, whatever you do, do not “out” them. As many of us in youth ministry know, there are times when secrets cannot be kept (ie. when abuse is involved). This is not one of those times. If one of your youth confides in you that they are LGBTQ+, this is not their public coming-out, and it is not your story to tell. Do not talk about it with other youth leaders, other students, or anyone else in the church unless you first have the student’s permission.
If you need to seek advice about how to pastor this student, contact someone you trust who does not know the student. I am a big fan of youth pastors having outside support for instances such as this. Some of my favourite options are a professional counsellor, spiritual director, or a group of youth pastors who meet for prayer and accountability. I am also personally available and willing to chat about specific scenarios over skype or a coffee. To set up an appointment, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Part 2 is up now and shares some more specific thoughts on how to respond when a youth comes out in a more public fashion, such as online or to your whole youth group.