This post provides reflections on ministry with LGBTQ youth in a general sense, and it also contains specific references for youth ministries in the United Methodist Church. The United Methodist Church gathers a legislative body in order to speak officially on behalf of the church, and many of the recent gatherings have hosted an ongoing debate about human sexuality, same-sex marriage, and the ability to ordain those who do not fit traditional definitions of gender or sexuality.
(If this opening paragraph hasn’t scared you, please read on! It really is good! Also, I realize that I am a white, married, cisgender male, father of two – and that I don’t know everything. In fact, I have family members who revel in reminding me of that regularly!)
This post is not designed to change your mind. I write this with no liberal, nor conservative, theological agenda. The only explicit or implicit agenda set forth in this post is as follows: To help the church become (or remain) a safe place for youth. Many youth workers identify safety as one of the top priorities of their ministry. Teenagers all struggle with sexuality, as hormones turn on and off, teens experience new world of power dynamics, pleasures, dangers, and identity questions that they did not know about in childhood. Teenagers also all experience bullying in different degrees.
Bullying, Suicide, and Self Harm
Teenagers struggling with their sexuality or gender experience a higher than average amount of bullying, which can lead to the increased reports of depression, self-harm, and suicide (both considered and completed). If you are in ministry with LGBTQ youth, please be familiar with these resources before you read on. For too many gay and trans teens, the church may not be a place where they feel safe.
Some of the most essential resources for helping LGBTQ teens who are struggling with bullying and/or depression:
Integrity is Key
There is more than one way to do this! Every person and situation is unique, therefore responses by you and the church will be unique as well.
Integrity ought to matter to Christians, if we say that we are all made in the image of God, that does mean everyone! If we say that we all fall short of Christian perfection and need grace, that means everyone! If we say we all sin, that means everyone! (You get the idea here) Integrity informs our ability to empathize and look for the face of Christ in another. As you come to know any youth, it is important to affirm them as also made in the image of God. This may be a new, or unexpected message that you can give to an LGBTQ youth.
Responding When a Teen Comes Out to You
If an LGBTQ youth comes to you to share about their sexual orientation, struggles to define gender, or even with simpler questions, recognize the courage it took that young person to approach you in the first place. Thank them for that trust and recognize that it means that the youth probably views you as someone with authority and power. They have come to you because they (or their parents) feel safe enough to do so! If they share a deeply personal truth with you, remember to thank them for their trust and honesty…especially before jumping in to try and “fix” anything! Be a champion for them by caring for them with integrity.
Thank you so much for sharing this with me. I appreciate that it takes a lot of courage to share something of yourself, and I am thrilled and honored you chose to share this with me. Know that God already is present to this information; he knows you and he loves you, and here we know you and we love you, and this information doesn’t change that. I’m not sure what everyone else thinks or what discussions around this have already happened, so I don’t have all the answers to all the specifics right now. But if you want, we can find out together.”
You Don’t Have to be the Expert
Don’t feel as though you need to be the expert or provide all the answers. Sometimes, conversations with lots of questions form a better relationship of support in the long term. You as a youth minister know people, you can connect yourself and this youth (and their family!) with others who have more knowledge, experience, or training than we do ourselves. You do not compromise anyone’s personal nor social holiness by seeking help or support outside of the church!
Study and share lessons on just how radical Jesus’ ministry was for its time, and how radical it would be today for that matter! These stories could include any interactions those whom his own religion sought to exclude. The physical touching (and being touched by) women, lepers, and children. Sharing meals with tax collectors and other outcasts. Jesus had ministry that happened at the margins of society.
Minister in solidarity. That means that even if there are larger structures that want to impose values or behaviors on a youth, trust that the trusting/safe relationship between you can lead to a transformation.
Share in all the regular wins and struggles like you would with any other teen in your ministry. Share theological resources, books, or even autobiographies to help that youth understand that there are Christians who share some of that youth’s unique experiences.
Affirm student behavior for the good things, as opposed to always correcting them on things that your church doesn’t consider appropriate.
Your Language and Their Identity in Christ
Be careful with your language, and only say things that you really mean. When sitting down with a youth remember that these are not “issues” – this is a person. When a church or youth minister says something like “Homosexuality is a sin” or “Same sex relationships are wrong” often an LGBTQ youth will hear “I am wrong” or “I am bad” If you refer to things like Mark 9:42, a youth may hear that as a literal threat from a church to drown them because of their sin, as opposed to Jesus using hyperbole or an allegory. For many teens, separating behavior from identity is difficult, so a rejection of behavior feels like a rejection of the self. Speak with care about God, when using pronouns or other names. Our default is often to use male pronouns for God. Which is fine, but we can do better. Psalm 131:2; and Matthew 23:37 use mother imagery for God. God is bigger than any pronoun or name!
Help young people recognize that their identity is rooted in Christ, and not their sexuality or gender. This may come from the ability of your ministry or church to state and offer radical hospitality, using specific language. Help them move beyond the idea that people have to meet certain conditions before they are welcomed by your church.
General Conference 2019 Discussion Guide
For specific resources, and ongoing awareness for developments in the United Methodist Church after General Conference 2019, please go to https://umcyoungpeople.org/about/prayforward
There you will find outlines of the 3 plans that were considered at GC2019, information about ongoing prayer efforts, as well as connectional opportunities to further engage in the conversation.
For discussions in your youth ministry, consider any of the following:
- The legislative body at GC2019 passed the Traditional Plan 53% to 47% – while that simple majority was enough to pass the plan, it is clear that everyone is not of one mind. That would be fair to say for any of the 3 plans that were presented
- Did you know that the United Methodist Church has a Constitution? It can be found in the Book of Discipline. Parts of the Traditional Plan that were passed have already been identified as “in conflict with the constitution.” So that means even though the Traditional Plan was passed, it cannot take effect until a review by a judicial committee. That will happen in April. All that is to say, officially the UMC is in status quo until at least April.
- The Baptismal vows, Membership vows, and language used in Confirmation did not change in anything that was discussed at General Conference. Be in conversation with your youth about the language in those vows, and how each of you and your ministry can better live into them.
- Read and discuss the 2019 Young People’s Statement from General Conference 2019. What parts of the statement resonate within your ministry setting? What parts are challenging for youth? What are pieces that you would add that are important in your church context?
Use the resources and videos available at https://umcyoungpeople.org/about/prayforward , particularly the discussion questions in #3 of the “Invitations to Act” Many of these ask youth to reflect on the representative system used by the UMC (and many other democracies around the world)
- Where do others make decisions that you have to live by?
- Have you been in a situation where you had to rely on someone else representing you? How did that feel? How did that go?
- When have you made decisions for others? What was their response? How did it feel to have the responsibility of representing others?
- For you, what are essential Christian beliefs and practices?
- When have you felt “of one mind” with someone else? When have you felt “of one heart” with someone? What did those experiences feel like?
- Describe a moment when you’ve worked alongside someone who believed differently than you? On what were you able to work together?
- When have you witnessed a community making healthy and holy decisions through a healthy and holy process?
- With whom have you had tough conversations leading you past disagreement and toward reconciliation?
- How can the church move beyond the disagreements that we have with one another?
In specific conversations with those concerned with the rights and wellbeing of LGBTQ youth, consider the following guiding questions:
- “How can you tell if someone is a Christian?”
- What do you think our church thinks about the LGBTQ community? What do you think the worldwide United Methodist Church thinks about the LGBTQ community? What do you think other faith groups (Christian and non-Christian) think about the LGBTQ community?
- Have you ever experienced bullying at church? In our youth ministry? Have you ever known someone that was connected to our church, but left? If so, do you know their reasons? (Follow these up with reassurances something like “We will fight to protect you here.” Be sensitive to give other youth a safe place to express concerns and ask questions, not for intimidation.)
- How might we create safe spaces in our church for LGBTQ youth? (Learning preferred pronouns? Designating family or gender-neutral bathrooms?Behavior covenants?
Discuss, agree or disagree:
- “Nothing that happens changes who God is or how God responds to me. Everything that happens can change who I am and how I respond to God.”
- “The Bible clearly condemns homosexuality.” Paul says so in Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 6, and 1 Timothy 1.
- Unity is more important than uniformity.
- Welcoming people in the name of Christ more about me changing the way that I act than asking another person to change the way that they act.
Explore the United Methodist Social Principles and Social Creed and the Book of Discipline, looking for passages that call us to action, or create tension because of a difference in the ideals stated versus the world that we live in.
Other resources to consider reviewing in preparation for conversation and lessons: