We Need to Focus on Pastoral Care - Part 3
by Brandon Haan
This is the third in a series of articles about pastoral care for LGBTQ+ people. Read Part 2
Fifty Years Ago
Fifty years ago our denomination had the chance to do something beautiful, powerful, and winsome for the Gospel.
In 1973 the CRC said we were going to maintain a traditional position on human sexuality. But, we said, we were also going to adopt a welcoming, hospitable, loving posture towards those who identify as LGBTQ+, enfolding them into our churches, caring for them pastorally, and encouraging them to use their gifts and talents at all levels of our congregations and communities.
By and large, we haven’t done that.
I firmly believe that if we had, we wouldn’t have found ourselves in our current position of needing yet another study committee, yet another report, yet another contentious Synod, yet another post-Synod fall-out, and now, yet again, another Synod (or Synods, plural) to sort it all out.
But here we are. And if we want to avoid being here again in another fifty years (though I think it would likely take much less time to get back here), I believe it’s time for us to finally begin thinking seriously and practically about how our denomination can make the shift towards loving and caring for LGBTQ+ people.
First things first. This will not be the work of our denomination in a formal sense. It will not be the offices, employees, or departments of 3475 Mainway or 1700 28th Street who do this work. That’s not their job, nor should it be.
Instead, it’s ours. It’s the job of everyday pastors, elders, deacons, and CRC members, on the ground, in our local communities and contexts, interacting with those we meet and know who are LGBTQ+. That’s who needs to go about this work of making a shift into a more pastoral posture—us.
To that end, then, here are a few “ways forward” for our congregations and communities to consider:
Get to know some LGBTQ+ people in your congregation and community. This is step one. If you don’t know LGBTQ+ people, you can’t care for LGBTQ+ people. And if you don’t know any LGBTQ+ people in your church or community, it doesn’t mean they’re not there. It just means that they probably don’t see you as a safe space. Statistically, there are LGBTQ+ people in every church and community (just like statistically there are people violating the confessional aspects of the Human Sexuality Report in other ways in every church and community too—adultery, pornography, extramarital sex, etc.). I would encourage you to get to know them.
Have LGBTQ+ people over to your house for a meal. After you get to know LGBTQ+ people, have them over to your house. A decade’s worth of ministry has taught me that there are few things as legitimizing for marginalized people as being invited to their pastor, elder, or deacon’s home. My wife, Sarah, and I have personally chosen to do this on Sundays for lunch. As you get to know LGBTQ+ people, tangibly express their welcome in your congregation by having them over to your house to share a meal with you and your family.
Read Greg Johnson’s book Still Time to Care. This book is an excellent overview of the historical shift in North American Christianity from a paradigm of care towards LGBTQ+ people (Johnson cites such luminaries as C.S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, Billy Graham, and John Stott as examples) towards a paradigm of cure (Johnson cites the various Exodus International affiliates). Johnson makes a compelling case that what’s needed now is a shift back towards a Gospel-centered paradigm of care.
Have your Council read and discuss Preston Sprinkle’s book People to be Loved (or use the companion Grace//Truth video curriculum). Sprinkle’s book is an excellent resource for traditional churches, because he comes at the topic of sexuality and gender from a traditional Biblical and theological perspective, but he also holds the Church’s feet to the fire for not taking the time to see and care for LGBTQ+ people the way God has called us to.
Invite Posture Shift Ministries to consult with your church. Bill Henson and Posture Shift Ministries have done excellent work on thinking through how traditional churches and ministries can missionally and evangelistically reach out to LGBTQ+ people in loving and gracious ways. They do various seminars, intensives, and consulting for churches to help them move towards a more pastoral posture.
Join the Foundry’s Sexuality and Gender Pastors’ Learning Cohort. Run by Branson Parler, Jeff Fisher, and Sarah Behm, the Foundry is a ministry formation organization based in Grand Rapids, MI. They recently ran a cohort for traditional pastors on how to shift into a more pastoral approach towards LGBTQ+ people. A second cohort is planned for the fall of 2023 with both in-person and online options available.
Host the CRC’s “Challenging Conversations” Listening Circles in your church. While I’m not personally a fan of the updated material, the first version of the Listening Circles (based on people reading through the CRC’s Human Sexuality Report and discussing it) was a beneficial exercise and got people on different sides of the debate in the same room where they could talk, listen, and work towards understanding each other.
Form a group to go through the Colossian Forum Sexuality curriculum. Similar to the CRC’s Listening Circles, the Colossian Forum’s Sexuality curriculum is aimed at helping people on different sides of the issue come together and understand each other.
Meet with the guidance counselors at your local middle school and high school. In many ways our schools are on the front lines of the cultural shifts around sexuality and gender. It might be good to meet with the guidance counselors at your local schools to see what they’re encountering and how you can be a support or potential reference for them.
Preach or teach on the difference between being hospitable and fully affirming. Fully affirming LGBTQ+ people means accepting their sexual or gender identities as Biblically permissible and the pursuit of same-sex relationships and sexual activity as God-honoring. As traditional churches, we cannot do this. But we can (and should) be hospitable and welcoming towards LGBTQ+ people, just as we are toward any other kind of person. Preaching or teaching on that difference is important, because it helps our congregations understand that while we may not fully affirm someone’s sexual identity, as Christians we are still called to welcome and care for them unconditionally.
Begin a support group for LGBTQ+ members in your church. Again, whether you know them or not, you have LGBTQ+ members in your church. If you don’t know them, see point one again. But if you do, meet with them and ask if they would find a support group beneficial (or even if they would be willing to organize one themselves). One of the biggest problems LGBTQ+ people struggle with (especially in the Church) is isolation. The more we can eliminate isolation for our LGBTQ+ members, the more we can care for them.
Begin a support group for parents of LGBTQ+ kids in your church. Parents of LGBTQ+ kids often struggle in the Church just as much as LGBTQ+ people themselves. Ask a parent of an LGBTQ+ person you know if they would appreciate a support group or be willing to start one. There are numerous curricula and resources for such groups. Two I’ve heard of from parents of LGBTQ+ kids in the congregation I serve are Harbor Here and Embracing the Journey. Posture Shift Ministries also has resources for parents and family members of LGBTQ+ loved ones.
Begin a support group for LGBTQ+ people in your community. If you live in an area that has few or no resources for LGBTQ+ people, consider forming a support group for them. Again, isolation is one of the biggest problems LGBTQ+ people face. Having a safe, caring environment is crucial. And if they end up connecting with you as a Christian, all the better!
Begin a support group for LGBTQ+ students at your local middle school or high school. Again, young people are at the forefront of this debate. Many LGBTQ+ youth face incredible pressure, stigma, and bullying. They also experience homelessness and houselessness at higher rates than other kids their age (at least partially due to traditional or conservative parents kicking them out). Creating a safe space for such students to connect and support each other goes a long way. It also goes a long way for them to have a caring Christian adult they can trust and who they know loves and cares about them unconditionally.
Be proactive on teaching about sex and sexuality. It sounds simple, but if the Church doesn’t teach on sex and sexuality, the culture will. I see this over and over with the couples I do premarital counseling for. Because the Church has historically remained silent on what the Bible says about sex and sexuality (other than the mantra of “wait for marriage”), too many young Christians grow up with a perspective on sex and sexuality formed and shaped by our culture more than the Bible. If we want to raise disciples of Jesus Christ, then we need to disciple them (and not just about homosexuality, but sexuality in general). We need to do a better job in our churches of offering a fully-orbed, Biblical, Gospel-centered perspective on sex and sexuality. Doing so is the only way that people will come to see the Christian sexual ethic for what it really is: good news that leads to life.
Full disclosure: I have not personally tried all of these recommendations. But I have tried many of them, and I know pastors and churches who have tried others too. They have been successful to varying degrees. Some of these will work in certain contexts and communities, and some won’t. Each community is different, so there’s no one-size-fits-all approach.
That said, the goal isn’t to try and be perfect. The goal is simply to try. Try to be pastoral. Try to be caring. Try to do what we said we would do in 1973. And maybe, just maybe, if enough of us do, we’ll finally be able to become the kind of church we said we would be fifty years ago.