4 Ways to Care for LGBTQIA Students in Youth Ministry

Chris Schaffner
November 19th, 2020

Hair, face, eyes, ears, nose, chin, lips, teeth, back, breasts, stomach, waist, hips, butt, arms, hands, fingernails, thighs, knees, calves, ankles, feet, toes, body hair, pimples, scars, freckles, moles, birth marks, skin, sound of our voice, what we say, what we do, what we wear, what music we listen to, the list goes on and on and on. Don’t forget sexual orientation, gender and gender roles. These are also things that adolescents can focus on when determining what makes them acceptable to their peers.

Self-image is a complex beast.

If we have a distorted image of ourselves it becomes very easy to fill our thoughts with feelings of disgust and worthlessness. This is better known as shame and it can fundamentally change the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and the world we live in.

Dr. Brene` Brown, in her book I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t): Telling the Truth about Perfectionism, Inadequacy, and Power explains her research on the subject of shame as a study on the power of connection and the dangers of disconnection. When one considers the “process to the product” that is self-image, as individual we must first understand that our primary drive is to be connected. The longing to belong serves many purposes; survival, fulfillment, success, and procreation.

Growing up as blank slates our families, environments, and culture shape how we “learn” to connect. We are taught skills and styles of connecting to others. Sometimes the means are healthy and affirming, and God honoring, placing God at the helm and others accordingly. Other time we are not taught healthy ways of connecting. We are taught that violence, aggression, manipulation and other illegitimate means are what are necessary to get what you need and want. We are also taught that how we present to the world (immediate peer group) has everything to do with being accepted and therefore belonging.

When we are not affirmed as worthy of being connected to others we learn to see ourselves as deficient, broken, not valuable, insignificant, etc., but our need for connection doesn’t leave us, we simply learn other ways to get what we need.

Dr. Brown goes on to say in her book that when we don’t attach in healthy ways we develop an accompanying belief system that is shame based and tells us things like,

  • “Something is wrong with you”
  • “You are defective”
  • “You don’t measure up”
  • “Why can’t you be like….”

When we believe these to be true it becomes impossible to be “real” with others. Shame begets shame.

She states:

“When we sacrifice authenticity in an effort to manage how we are being perceived by others, we often get caught in a dangerous and debilitating cycle: Shame, or the fear of being shamed, moves us away from our true selves.”

The theological starting point for understanding mankind is the Imago Dei, which is the image of God within us. Sin, rejection, shame, marginalization, and abuse or neglect all move us away from this central starting point of our identity.

When we fail to see the Imago Dei in ourselves, our vision becomes distorted and we can’t see clearly.

This is like the differences between having bad eye-sight and wearing corrective glasses or contacts. For those of us with bad eyes think about how many important details we miss when we aren’t wearing our corrective lenses. Think about the risk we are at for hurting ourselves or others while driving. The same kind of blurry vision clouds our ability to see ourselves clearly as children of God that are more precious than gold.

As we work with LGBTQIA+ students it is important to know that they likely have a fractured image of who they are created to be because of damaging and negative messages about their identity. These messages have often come from the church and how we interact with them can push them one way or the other regarding their ability to see themselves the way their heavenly Father sees them. For the adolescent, image is everything and as youth workers we must have a solid theology of image that regularly challenges the cultural messages our students receive. We must help our LGBTQIA+ students and their families recapture the perspective of the Imago Dei.

In her book “Redeeming Sex”, Debra Hirsch reminds us that we will win these kids with our 1 Cor. 13 kind of love, NOT our exegesis of the six passages in scripture on the subject.

Here are a few thoughts on how we can be better news than we have been to LGBTQIA+ students and families:

Be pastoral.

There is a strong temptation to be the guardian of doctrine and right theology but we often do so to the detriment of the people we are called to serve. LGBTQIA+ youth are at higher risk for running away from home—and that means they’re more likely to experience homelessness and sexual exploitation.

They are frequently depressed and suffer from substance abuse, due in part to the isolation and silence associated with being gay. LGBTQIA+ kids represent almost a third of all teen suicides, and are three times more likely to attempt suicide than their non-gay peers. A pastoral response should always trump our need to be right. Jesus leads with compassion for the marginalized over and over again. LGBTQIA+ youth are often sheep without a shepherd. Be a good shepherd.

Culture matters.

If you were to prepare for mission in an undeveloped country, you would first need to learn about that culture; language, customs, rituals, traditions, history, etc. If you don’t do your due diligence to learn about this foreign culture, you increase the likelihood of doing damage and harm. It is responsible stewardship of our call to learn as much as we can about the LGBT culture.

Do you know what pansexual means? Do you know what it means to be gender fluid? Do you know about the Stonewall Riots? Do you know the student’s story? Contempt, prior to investigation will leave us in ignorance. Doing our homework often will grant us permission to speak into the lives of marginalized youth. It says we really care, that we care enough to do the hard work of understanding.

Third Way Ministry.

Truth is important—it defines us as a tribe. Or does it? After washing his disciples’ feet, predicting his betrayal, and foreshadowing Peter’s denial of him, Jesus tells his friends that they’ll be known by their love for each other (John 13:35). Apparently, Jesus believes love is our defining characteristic. This is a huge for a people that have spent their lives focused on the rules-and-regulations of holy living.

When truth is our starting point, then truth is the only entry point for others outside of that truth.

By default, others must agree with our truth in order to be in right relationship with us. When we elevate relationship above truth, we can be tempted to withhold the truth in order to preserve the relational connection. What if there is another way…a third way?

What if innovative disruption was our new framework?

What if we were willing to be led beyond our binary of black or white ministry? What if we let the Spirit reveal to us creative ways to partner with LGBTQIA+ youth and their families and trust the Spirit to do the work of change? What if we focused on spiritual formation instead of behavioral modification? What is we gave ALL our kids tools they could use to draw closer to the Giver and Sustainer of all lives? What if, like Jesus, we moved towards the lost sheep like a shepherd instead of choosing who is in the flock and who is not? What if…?

It is important to remember that Jesus spent a considerable amount of time on earth outside of the cities, in the garbage dumps. This is where many of the “undesirables” ended up after they’d been rejected and ostracized. He was drawn to the sinful, the sick, and the possessed and they were drawn to him. He liked to hang out with the marginalized and the vulnerable, the harassed and the helpless, and the exploited and the powerless and they liked being with him. What has happened in the last 2000 years that those who need His message the most are now afraid of Him and His people?

4 Ways to Care for LGBTQIA+ Students in Youth Ministry

[bctt tweet=”Jesus moved toward the marginalized in radical ways.” username=”ys_scoop”]

He touched the unclean, spoke to those who had no business talking to him, and even subjugated himself to power structures that had no real authority over him. In the end, he allowed himself to be killed by the ruling government. When we love Jesus and are led by his Spirit, we’ll move toward LGBT students the way he would. We’ll create sanctuaries for them to belong. Here’s a few suggestions that have worked for us as we try to walk alongside LGBTQIA+ students and love them like Jesus loved us:

  1. Offer them pastoral care.

    Give them a listening and caring ear, and join them on their spiritual journey. Be fully present. Arrange for mentoring or developmental relationships. Train your staffers or adult volunteers to listen and honor their stories.

  1. Educate yourself and others.

    We often struggle to talk about sex without infusing it with shame or fear. So learn about the process of coming out, and the unique stressors LGBT students live with. Equip yourself to better minister to them.

  1. Give opportunities to express themselves through rituals, art, and prayer.

    Create space for gay teens to encounter Jesus through your tradition’s formal or informal “liturgical” practices, or through creative artistic expressions. Find places they can feel safe and invited into self-expression.

  1. Walk with their parents.

    Parents of LGBT kids need guidance and companionship as they navigate an uncertain future. They fear disconnection from important relationships or that others will mistreat their child. You can offer profound help by starting a support group for these parents.

Overshadowed by the culture wars that have sprung up around LGBT issues, there are thousands of teenagers struggling just to make it through another day. The church can either push them further into the darkness or reclaim its role as the proclaimer of Good News.

Which way will you choose?

Chris Schaffner

Chris Schaffner is a veteran youth worker and certified counselor. He is also the founder of CONVERSATIONS ON THE FRINGE. CotF is an organization seeking creative and innovative ways to bridge the gap between the mental health community and those entities (particularly schools and churches) that serve youth in contemporary society.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.