Sunday, March 5, 2017

To LDS Ward Leaders: How to Minister to your LGBT members

I am often asked by church leaders "How can we help you?" or "How can we better serve our LGBT members?" I typically explain that there isn't a simple answer to address the needs of each individual who falls into this category, but that love, empathy, and meekness is required. I acknowledge that I can't speak for all of my brothers and sisters, but I do know that the Spirit is capable of directing leaders when they set aside their preconceptions and related solutions (my first bishop suggested that I start taking testosterone supplements to cure my attractions *hahaha* Don't do that).

 I found this post on facebook and thought it might be of help:


"Three years ago, as a new YSA Bishop, I sat down with a member of our ward from the LGBT community.  I had no training on what I should or shouldn’t say to this good man who bravely walked into my office ... the first time meeting with a bishop in years.  This wonderful man was in a same-sex relationship, bravely putting a drug addiction behind him, and trying to find emotional stability. While I felt the support of Heavenly Father as I met with him, I also knew I lacked the tools and expertise to effectively minister to him.  

Since that meeting, I’ve gone on a “deep dive” to learn all I can to effectively minister to the LGBT community.  That “deep dive” included reading and meeting with people (both in and outside of the church) who have LGBT expertise and spending a lot of time listening to and understanding members of the LGBT community.  Many of the stories from my LGBT friends were deeply troubling as well-meaning leaders without any LGBT training added to their burdens and pains.

While I’m still learning ... don’t have all the answers and will continue to make mistakes ... I wanted to share with others what I’ve learned in hopes it may be helpful to Stake/Ward leaders and also parents or to anyone who wants to do a better job of ministering to their LGBT brothers and sisters. These are my thoughts only ... I do not speak for the Mormon Church.

1.  Affirm vs Agenda:  The word “affirm” is a word I’ve heard for a lifetime ... but it is only in the past year has this word has taken on an expanded meaning.  In the case of the LGBT community, affirm means I don’t have a specific agenda, path, or outcome for those who I meet with ... but rather I recognize there are different roads for different people and I need to support (affirm) the direction each person takes in their life.  So I first spend a lot of time listening and understanding ... then I try to get a feeling of where they want to go ... what their hopes are ... where their dreams are ... what they feel is their path.  Some are at a fork in the road and need a trusted leader to help them see down each path to help them make a more informed decision and maybe a priesthood blessing to hear from Heavenly Father (more below on Priesthood Blessings).  Some are past the fork in the road and have committed to a path.  For the LGBT community, one path can be to stay a member of the church and live its teaching ... another path (maybe temporary or permanent) can be a path not consistent with church teachings.  While serving as a bishop (I’m now released), I would always teach the doctrines of the church and invite everyone to follow those teachings.  However, at times I would meet with someone committed to a path not consistent with church teachings.  At first my natural tendency was to correct them, preach to them, give them a conference talk, and remind them of the consequences of their decision ... I gently did some of this.  However, I often felt Heavenly Father asking me to “walk with” these good LGBT brothers and sisters. They usually knew all the “preaching” things I could say.  What they needed was a trusted adult in their lives and my role was to love, support and sustain them.  As some chose a path not consistent with the church, we both knew they could no longer attend the temple or fully participate in the church ... but I could still “walk with them” ... unconditionally love and “minister” to them ... my role in their life didn’t change if they went down a road not consistent with church teachings ... I meet with them just as frequently as any of my ward members.  My time and love for each ward member was not tied into any specific outcome ... and I learned not to measure my “success” by a specific outcome or measurable goal.  I also learned it is OK as a leader to say “I don’t know” when asked questions from my LGBT members as I met with them.  For example, I think few Bishops would know the right things to say meeting with a transgender member for the first time ... I Googled the term (and cisgender)  ... most enjoy hearing “I don’t know, but I will walk with you and we will figure this out together”.  Priesthood leaders/parents are not supposed to have all the answers right now to be effective. 

I’ve had many conversations with parents of gay children.  In these private tender moments, some of these good parents told me they eventually came to the conclusion that their hope for their child is a committed same-sex relationship.  At first this surprised me ... almost wanting to remind them what the church taught ... but then I listened as these good parents put on their “what is best for my child emotionally” glasses as they strongly believe (and I affirm) that their child is going to have better emotional health and happier lives in a committed long-term same sex relationship to a person who shares similar standards and values ... often they hope their child will find someone with similar background in the Mormon church.  They understand the difference between a committed same sex relationship versus having multiple partners and the sexual and emotional abuse that can occur with that unsafe lifestyle.  They want their sons and daughters to be emotionally safe and stable.  Now saying this, I’m not advocating this path ... and I realize there are many in the LGBT community working hard to stay aligned with church teachings which I support ... but simply state that everyone’s path is unique.  There is something about the heart of a parent and their ability to know what is best for their child that I value, respect and honor.  I believe they can do this and be fully square with Heavenly Father and the church.  One of my favorite examples of this is Sara and Bryce Cook ... active LDS parents of two wonderful gay sons.  They outline wonderful principals of effective parenting as they’ve had to wrestle deeply with these issues.  Please read their story here http://tinyurl.com/gndsggb

So like the Cooks and many others, I “affirm” the individual choices made by those in the LGBT community ... I will walk with you ... without agenda ... and support you on your individual journey ... I hope I’m humble enough to realize I don’t have revelation for anyone’s path except my own.  And I will leave final judgement to a Heavenly Father and His Son and their perfect understanding.  

2.  Tendency to Fix:  I think most leaders in general and maybe men in particular want to fix things. Sometimes my wonderful wife wants to me fix something ... but sometimes she just wants me to listen to her ... there is nothing to solve or fix.  After 25+ years of marriage, I’m still working on this one.  I think we Bishop’s see ourselves as problem solvers ... we want to “fix” the person we are meeting with.  True, this is a part of being a Bishop ... helping someone repent, heal from a difficult situations, improve their testimony, access the atonement of Jesus Christ, and/or prepare for a mission/temple marriage ... but sometimes I worry we let our “fix it mentality” keep us from effectively ministering.   Bishop’s may be under pressure to “fix” a situation as they may be close friends with the parents of a child they are working with and feel the pressure to “deliver” the desired outcome ... or may feel an obligation to the church who has trusted them with this sacred calling to deliver desired results.  This is not a LGBT example, but I remember meeting a couple of incredible young men in my YSA Ward who felt their path was not a mission.  They were kind of “beat up” from meeting with their prior church leaders ... they felt the conversations were pretty one-sided about the “priesthood duty” of serving a mission ... without much chance to open up and share how they felt ... causing them to feel increasingly marginalized in the church in spite of rock solid testimonies.  I did a lot of listening in these situations ... felt deeply spiritual and committed men ... and supported their decision not to serve a mission as they didn’t feel a desire to serve ... D&C 4:3 does say “if you have a desires to serve God ye are called to the work."  I trust that they have a strong enough relationship with Heavenly Father to know their path.  In one situation, it became dramatically clear why a young man felt prompted to not serve ... he was clearly acting on impressions from Heavenly Father that were unique to his situation.  I solute these good men for being true to themselves and trusting in personal revelation.  I pray they can survive the sometimes brutal culture for great men who do not serve missions.

3.  First “Coming Out” conversation:  The more time I’ve spent with my LGBT friends, the more I realize that first “coming out” conversation may be one of the hardest things anyone does in mortality.  Seriously.  Many have thought about having this conversation for years ... even decades ... but are so fearful of rejection and/or bringing pain into the lives of those they love.   I’ve never had the honor of someone “coming out” to me as the first person they have told.  I would now consider that an honor ... because it would reflect someone’s deep trust in me.   I think Bishops need to train themselves for these conversations ... prepared in advance to be ready to listen, love, validate, and give hope ... while maintaining eye contact and not showing disappointment (because they shouldn’t be disappointed!).  I think anyone that confides sometime to the Bishop is a hero and needs to be told this.  I tell people my respect and admiration for them only increases as they share deeply personal stuff.  I think a lot of listening by asking open ended questions without judgement can be helpful (“let me know more about how long you have felt this way,” “what caused you to finally want to talk about it”, “how I can help you”, “what impressions do you get from Heavenly Father”).  I think other questions/statements can be hurtful and are just plain wrong (“why did you choose this,” “how are you going to fix this,” “this isn’t consistent with the proclamation on the family,” “what did you do to cause this,” or anything that makes them feel broken).  This first conversation should not turn into a repentance interview ...asking about porn, masturbation (which the church once incorrectly taught causes homosexuality ... masturbation does not cause or change sexual orientation...), sexual relationships, etc ... because it reinforces the completely incorrect idea that there is a connection between sin and being a member of the LGBT community.  That is not true!  This first conversation is probably not the time to remind them the church’s stance against gay sex or gay marriage ... I bet they are keenly aware of that message.  I hope well over 50% of this first conversation is listening (most of my interviews were mostly listening).  I also believe there should be no pressure for anyone to “come out."  There is safety in the closet ... everyone needs to figure out for themselves the time to “come out."  Further, “coming out” needs to be viewed as a healthy step as (ideally) unconditional support and love can fully take effect once known ... having other trusted people “walking with you.” Once out to a church leader, someone may feel a desire to come out to the entire congregation (I never encourage or discourage this ... totally up to the individual).  I ask myself why they want to do this?  I’ve felt strongly the answer is they need the emotional support of having people “walk with them” on this difficult road ... it is not out of rebellion, wanting to challenge church doctrine, or to find a partner ... but rather they recognize they need to be authentic and have people accept them for who they are and the accompanying (and much needed) emotional healing/stability.  Some want to come out in testimony meeting, in the Relief Society and/or Elder Quorum meetings ... maybe others in social media ... I leave it up to them to make this decision and let them know they have my support ... but also point out there will be some pain as some will pull back from them.

4.  Ward/Stake LGBT culture:  I think Stake and Ward leaders need to create a culture of LGBT safely for those who have not “come out."  Go on the assumption that there are some desperately looking for the courage to talk to someone about their sexual identity as the emotional trauma of being on this road alone is unsustainable ... with the possibility that some are considering suicide. Best estimates are that 2-7% of each ward are members of the LGBT community (that is about 1 in 20) ... with most becoming aware of their orientation during early adolescence.  While I never did this, I think YSA Bishops should talk to the Elders and Sisters in their group meetings and tell them how he’d handle their “coming out” conversation and Home Ward Bishops to do this separately in Y/W and Y/M meetings and also talk some of the factors to consider in deciding the right time to “come out” ... including giving permission to not “come out” at this time (and feel no guilt or shame for this).  I think this “opens the door” for these much needed individual conversations.  I don’t think this first “coming out” conversation needs to be to a Bishop ... it could be to one or both parents ... a therapist ... but creating a supportive ward culture increases the likelihood a ward member will come out to a trusted adult.   

Further, our entire culture (religious institutions, families, society) needs to be loving, nurturing, and accepting the LGBT community ... which can be done without changing doctrine ... so our sons and daughters will feel safe coming out and not worried that being gay/transgender will shame or embarrass their family.  They need to be able to turn to the most important and trusted people in their lives in their moment of greatest need.  I’ve been told by my LDS LGBT experts this is the best booklet to help families with LGBT children (http://tinyurl.com/hsyc9vp).  I’ve read it and I encourage all parents and religious leaders to read it.  I’ve also been told that some will not read/consider it because there isn’t a church logo on it ... but those C.S. Lewis books don’t have church logo either 😊.

5.  Not broken:  Members of the LGBT community need to feel that they are not broken ... they do not need to be fixed ... they are members of the LGBT community because of a divine plan from Heavenly parents.  Yes, it can be a brutally difficult road to walk ... but I no longer like to use the term “struggling” or “struggling with same sex attraction."  Most just want to be called gay (when my generation hears “gay” it usually means in a same-sex relationship ... but now it means orientation ... so yes we have temple worthy gay men and women in our church).  We need to honor, cherish and sustain members of the LGBT community.  Our LGBT friends do not exist as appendages to their straight friends ... in some junior or supporting role ... but as equals ... wonderful, whole, and complete ... that somehow in a divine plan that includes pre-earth, earth life, and the next life ... their divine nature as a member of the LGBT community should be honored as equal children of Heavenly Parents ... in our limited vision we are only seeing the middle act of a three act play ... that once we see the whole plan we will better understand the divine mission of our LGBT brothers and sisters. We should not broadly teach that the resurrection will “fix” our LGBT brothers and sisters in the next life to be straight.  While individual LGBT members may have hope in this concept, I know of no scripture that supports this and it makes our LGBT brothers and sisters feel broken.  I love meeting members of the LGBT community who, with tears in their eyes, are glad they are who they are ... yes the road is brutally difficult at times ... but the lessons they are learning and their unique ability to love, accept and serve others is worth it.  That if God gave them a button to push to change them into straight people they would not push it.  Wow.  That is sure a good spot to be in emotionally. Unfortunately, because of our society many of my LGBT friends do not feel this way.  I pray our culture will improve and more members of the LGBT community will fell at peace with their sexual identity ... that is one of my goals as a LGBT ally.   

6.  Church Needs LGBT Community:  While participating on a panel for the student group comprised of BYU students called Understanding Same Gender Attraction (USGA), I made the statement “The Mormon Church needs the LGBT community to become a better Church."   I think it was the first time I’ve made that statement ... but it is a statement I highly support and stand by.  Christ’s mission was really about ministering to everyone ... especially those rejected by those in power like the leapers, poor, physically/emotionally broken ... those that the people in power thought Christ shouldn’t be ministering to.  I believe the LGBT community brings a unique perspective on how to effectively minister ... they are some of the most loving, accepting and Christlike people I know ... with unique ability to identify, reach out, and walk with the one.  I believe they can help us as a church (they certainly have helped me) to minister in a way more consistent with Christ’s own ministry.  So yes, the church need the LGBT community to more effectively implement the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  

7.  Kinsey Scale:  I encourage leaders to become familiar with this scale with 0 being exclusively heterosexual and 6 being exclusively homosexual.  (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kinsey_scale).  For some this can be a helpful tool to understand their sexual orientation (but is just a tool ... each person has the ‘final say” on their path ... a priesthood leader shouldn’t prescribe a specific path based on this scale).  For example, I’ve met with many that are a 6 ... and believe I’d be making a big mistake as a priesthood leader suggesting any kind heterosexual relationship ... or long discarded practices of conversion/reparative therapy to change sexual orientation.  I’ve heard some disturbing stories of leaders suggesting “messing up” in a heterosexual relationship to “get fixed."  In the end, I believe it is up to the individual to decide the best road for them working closely with Heavenly Father ... sometimes they will know that road and spend the rest of their life on that road ... sometimes they will be on one road and learn that is not the right road for them and will find a different road.  I believe Heavenly Father will guide each of us to find “our road”.   

8.  Priesthood Blessings:  In my assignment, I end each interview with “would you like a priesthood blessing or are you OK”?  About 40% asked for a blessing ... I probably gave 1,500+ blessings over the past three years.  I firmly testify to the truthfulness of priesthood blessings ... yes I’d fall on a sword in my testimony of this.  Heavenly Father said things through me to their sons and daughters that I could never have said on my own.   Some of my most sacred and spiritual experiences are these priesthood blessings.  As mentioned above, in my interviews I rarely recommended a course of action ... my purpose was to lay our principals, show options, refer to scriptures or scripture stories, and help one see down the path they were considering ... in short a better framework for making a decision.   However, in a priesthood blessing I am speaking for Heavenly Father ... with that comes a sacred responsibility to not use this trusted position to reflect my will or a my personally preferred outcome.  Sometimes in these blessings, I gave very specific guidance from Heavenly Father ... the exact decision to make or path to follow. However, sometimes the blessing from Heavenly Father is to validate a decision someone is making (or made) that was not consistent with my initial feelings.  I was recently told of an experience of a young man whose Bishop felt he was not ready for his endowment recommend (hadn’t done the assigned homework), but then, to be sure, gave him a blessing and wept as it became clear Heavenly Father wanted him to have his recommend and be endowed.  Lots of good principals in that story.  As I give blessings to those in the LGBT community, I universally feel Heavenly Father’s love for them ... yes I feel that love equally for those aligned and not aligned with church teachings.  I feel as part of His wonderful and perfect plan they are meant to be members of the LGBT community.  I hope everyone priesthood leader gets the chance to give multiple blessings to those in the LGBT community ... it has been transforming for me.   

However, as I’ve met with many in the LGBT community they have shared with me painful priesthood blessings that they have received.  Brutal stories of commanding the evil “gay” spirit to be cast out,  promises to read, pray and be “fixed," linking sin to LGBT orientation, etc.  I consider this to be a form of spiritual abuse.  I share these not to criticize well-meaning leaders ... but to help all leaders be more effective ministers in their sacred callings.

9.  “But Are They Acting On It.”  I’m concerned that our society, when discussing a LGBT person, inappropriately asks/thinks “but is he/she acting on it.”  It seems this way of “seeing” happens much more quickly in the LGBT community than in the straight community.  For example, when we sit in church and hear a talk from a single straight 23-year-old person do we wonder if he/she is acting on their heterosexual orientation?  Probably not.  Would we extend the same courtesy to a 23-year-old LGBT person giving a talk?  I hope so.  I think we need to deprogram ourselves from “seeing” LGBT people this way.  Instead let’s see them (and everyone) for their Christlike attributes.   

10. “Hope”:  I think the best thing a priesthood leader/parent can do is to bring hope into the life of a LGBT person.  Hope is about my favorite word.  It is the idea that better days are ahead ... hang in there ... take a day at a time ... it may be brutally difficult right now ... but there are better days ahead.  Hope comes from Heavenly Parents that love their LGBT children ... their identity is part of a unique and important plan.  Hope comes from people who will “walk with them” ... unconditionally loving and supporting them.  Hope comes from better seeing one’s ability to bless and help the lives of others.  Hope comes from seeing the Mormon Church’s relationship with its LGBT members as a book with more “chapters” to be written.

I hope this is helpful to some.  I love, sustain and support my wonderful church leaders and my LGBT brothers and sisters.  They are some of the best men and women I know and I’m grateful for the things they are teaching me to be a better following of Christ."


1 comment:

  1. This understanding is so needed. Thank you for sharing it with us. May I print off and share with a few leaders who may benefit?

    ReplyDelete