Being a youth pastor comes with significant responsibility. In our attempt to foster life-long disciples, there’s this underlying fear that we’re going to mess it all up and build a permanent barrier between a student and God. Obviously, God is bigger than our mistakes, but we must be self-aware enough to minimize harmful attitudes and maximize God’s ability to transform the hearts and lives of our students.
LGBTQ students in our ministries are actually at a higher risk of suicide than their non-religiously affiliated LGBTQ peers. In a study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine in March 2018, “lesbian and gay youth who said that religion was important to them were 38 percent more likely to have had recent suicidal thoughts… Religiosity among lesbians alone was linked to a 52 percent increased chance of recent suicidal ideation.” (Huffington Post) We have a role to protect not only the spiritual health but the physical wellbeing of the teens that step foot in our doors. Churches are places for all of God’s children to live in community with others and the Divine. So how can we become less so God can do more?
Validate their worth exactly as they are.
We live in a culture of disposability, from the packaging of our food to the entertainment we consume. An adolescent internalizes that culture and can easily believe that they, too, are disposable even to God. Verses like Psalm 139:14 (I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Your works are wonderful, I know that full well) can speak powerful value to a teenager. Just as they are before God in this place, they are known, they are loved, and they are of value. Whatever work the Holy Spirit may do will come, but that doesn’t change God’s view of that teen in this exact moment, and we are responsible for reinforcing that.
Assume a posture of grace.
Remember that one time we kicked a guy out for insisting the earth rotated around the Sun? As a church, we can’t claim to have the answers to everything. But we do know that God’s grace is available to all people at all times in all places. In our Wesleyan understanding of grace, we’re on a constant spiral of transformation throughout our lives. We encounter prevenient grace, receive justifying grace, and live in sanctifying grace over and over again until the Spirit’s work has refined us into Christian perfection. Prevenient grace exists before we even begin to change. There is no requirement to renounce sin, no expectation of changing behavior, no punishments; if that is how God works, then why would we not do the same?
We need to name the damage we’ve already done and apologize.
Historically, the church has been on the forefront of the anti-LGBTQ campaign. With conversion therapy, Pray-The-Gay-Away, and fire and brimstone sermons, persons speaking on behalf of God have caused significant harm to queer people. Whether we have actively worked against the gay community or not, by serving in a broken church, we have been part of a system of abuse. When we as faith leaders take ownership of our part in the system, we can apologize to our students and stop pretending it’s not happening. Teenagers can smell a fake a mile away – own your mess (our mess) and say sorry.
Above all, err on the side of love.
We worship a God that so fiercely loved God’s people that even though they broke their covenants and rebelled as a nation, God put on flesh and walked in our midst. God even died and rose three days later so that the doors to the Kingdom were thrown open for all of mankind. This God we choose didn’t kill everyone because they broke the rules; instead, the Divine acted in sacrificial love, atoning for our mistakes and brokenness. As ministers to teens, we are an extension of that love and we must act on it and in it.
No one is beyond the redeeming quality of God’s grace. As we pastor our young people who are LGBTQ, we must live in love and act in grace.
For more information, please check out the following resources:
- 4 Views on Pastoring LGBTQ Teens – a book from The Youth Cartel
Chilling Study Sums Up Link Between Religion and Suicide for Queer Youth – article by Huffington Post
- Talk About It Dallas – human sexuality resources for parents, teens, and community leaders (a Faith Leaders section coming soon)
- The Trevor Project – crisis and suicide prevention for LGBTQ persons under 25
- Matthew Shepard Foundation – resources to address hate towards LGBTQ young people in schools, neighborhoods, and homes