Jackson, age 15, opened up with his youth ministry leader, Cora, about his same-sex sexuality. “I think I’m gay,” shared Jackson, diverting his eyes a little and waiting for a reply.
Cora’s mind was racing. She had a dozen questions enter her mind all at once: Have I ever said hurtful things about gay people in front of you? When did this start? How did it start? Were you sexually abused? Do you have a boyfriend? Do your parents know? Cora didn’t vocalize any of these questions. She was overwhelmed by the number of questions that came to mind and the feeling that she was inadequate to the task of ministering to Jackson in this moment.
Many youth ministers may have more questions than answers and may wonder how equipped they are to respond when a youth comes out to them. Where do we even begin when thinking about this?
When we encounter a teen navigating questions about sexual identity and faith, it has been helpful to use a metaphor of this experience as a kind of trail that a person is hiking. This is a difficult hike. The terrain is not all that smooth, and there are many challenges a young person faces.
What is the role of the youth minister here? How can they locate themselves on the trail? What does it look like to map out the youth ministry terrain?
We offer three suggestions: be familiar with common markers on the trail, recognize the importance of communicating with base camp, and find ways to help youth find God on the trail.
Identify Markers on the Trail
For about 15 years now we have been conducting research on the experiences of Christians who are navigating sexual identity and faith and who have shared with us about their experiences of key markers on the trail of sexual identity development. Common milestones include first awareness of one’s same-sex sexuality, first initial attribution (“What does this mean about me—does this mean I’m gay?”), first disclosure of same-sex sexuality to another, first experience of sexual behavior, first labeling of oneself as gay, first ongoing same-sex relationship, and first declaration of a public gay identity.
What has perhaps been most interesting is that most Christians we have surveyed and interviewed do not report experiences within each of these milestones, particularly those that seem to involve more of a sense of choice.
What we find, then, is that “being gay” is not a single event. It cannot possibly be captured by a single phrase. It is a developmental process. We liken it to hiking a trail. Along the way, a person notices these different markers, all the while exploring what their same-sex sexuality means to them.
Also, not everyone participates in every milestone along the trail. Many Christians simply do not engage in activities that other people might pursue. Or they may delay participation because of their personal faith and values.
Regardless of decisions a person may or may not make, what many youth ministers find helpful is to explore the possible meanings associated with each marker on the trail. For example, first same-sex attraction and initial attributions made by this experience get at meaning and purpose found in the attraction. A young person is exploring the question, What does my same-sex sexuality mean about me? Some people conclude their sexuality reflects “who they are,” while others describe their same-sex sexuality as marked by the Fall in some way.
The question about whether to adopt a private sexual identity label as gay or lesbian (how a person thinks about themselves) or whether to adopt a public sexual identity label (how a person is known by others) is also helpful to explore. How do I think of myself? How am I to be known by others? Now is the time to learn about the different labels that resonate with a teen, although it can be tempting to tell them what label is and is not acceptable in your youth group. Understanding what is helpful about some labels, and what is off-putting about others, can open up the door for more conversations in the future.
Recognize the Importance of Communicating with Base Camp
“Base camp” here refers to a teenager’s parents. We aren’t recommending you automatically share a teen’s story with his or her parents. What we are saying is that the parent-child relationship is the most important relationship for this teen’s well-being over time. It is a relationship that cannot be neglected. You can help with that!
Youth ministers know that the relationship they have with parents as youth ministers is critical to the success of their ministry. They may spend hours fostering relationships with parents and have a good idea of how a parent would respond to their teen coming out. The challenge is this—most media portrayals of Christian parents do not highlight the times when Christian parents have been receptive to the disclosure of same-sex attraction. Most teens are hesitant to trust their parents with this information, and are probably even hesitant to trust you.
So what is the youth minister’s role in fostering communication with base camp, with parents? In fostering relationships, you can model open communication with parents. You can encourage a teen to grow in authenticity in their relationship with their parents. You can bridge the gap between the teen’s fears about how their parents would respond and a realistic awareness of the benefits and drawbacks and the timing of sharing this experience. This information may come as a surprise to their parents, and parents often feel that they are “catching up”, but this can and often does coexist with love for the teen. Disclosure with parents is vulnerable, and does not often happen overnight, even if they have been wanting to tell their parents for years. Some teens have found it helpful to be descriptive with the language they use so that parents are not drawing radical conclusions when the teen shares this experience. Understanding the teen’s fears that parents may not believe them, that the blame will be put on them, or worse, that their parents will blame themselves is helpful. These fears are common barriers to openness with basecamp. Thankfully, in telling you first, they no longer have to overcome these barriers alone.
Help Youth Find God on the Trail
This teen is telling you because they trust you. Jackson told Cora because he was looking for help, figuring out how to make sense of this, and wondering what his parents would think and do when they find out. Jackson feared that sharing this piece of his experience would change everything.
Many teens are wondering Why me? They have tried to “pray the gay away.” They have asked God many questions: Why did you do this to me? What is wrong with me? Could I ever belong in the church? If same-sex sexual relationships are unacceptable, am I also unacceptable?
Or worse, teens do not ask God anything. They fear His answer.
When they open up to you, know that they also fear your answer.
This is a critical moment. If you are feeling the heat, you are feeling a semblance of what this teen has felt for months, maybe years.
What is the youth minister’s role in fostering a walk with Christ? How can you help them find God on the trail? Remain with them, exactly where they are. A look of love can pierce through the overwhelming confusion they may feel. You are the representative of Christ to them. What you do and say matters more than you know. This is especially true if they have not ever turned to God in prayer with this experience.
In that moment, when they are looking for answers, you may find that answers are not what they really need. Often, it has been helpful to validate their fears, validate their questions, their angst, and their confusion. Thank them for telling you and thank them for trusting you with this, because if they told you, they do trust you! Assuring them that you do not reject them, and more importantly, that God does not reject them, can alleviate the fear that keeps so many teens silent. Next, listen. Invite them to share more, beginning with the common markers they have noticed on their trail. Some teens have been comforted by the offer to pray with them in that moment, especially if they feel like their experience distances them from God. Finally, commit to hike the trail with them. Assure them that they are not alone, and that it would be an honor to come alongside them as they navigate such difficult terrain.
What does it look like to encourage discipleship and Christlikeness in LGBT+ youth?
When you talk with LGBT+ youth, does your posture communicate that they are a valuable member of your faith community, a beloved child of God, who is capable of a life of virtue? Is youth group an environment that is open for dialogue as they learn what it means to be a follower of Christ? You may have answers for this teen. How do you offer your answers? Is it in the context of a lecture or a relationship? Listening and learning from the teen about their walk with God is a good place to start.
Youth group can be the place where we help teens get to know Christ so He can help them discover who they are. It seems unlikely that they will ever get to know him if His merciful love is not made crystal clear, in the very places where they feel most unworthy. Invite them to ask Christ their questions. Invite them to the possibility that Christ is not surprised by their experience of same-sex attraction. Reflect by your posture that God is truly good, that He is faithful, and that He can be trusted with the desires they have.
Cora realized something in that moment. As her whirlwind of thoughts slowed, she looked up at Jackson, like she had so many times before. But something was different. She was different. She was changed, realizing that all her hours of building relationships were bearing fruit in the most unexpected of ways. She realized that Jackson trusted her. He was entrusting a part of himself to her, hoping that she would prove trustworthy. Her role was suddenly crystal clear: to reveal the heart of God, who can be trusted with every bit of our human experience. She said with absolute confidence and sincerity, “I am so glad you told me. I want to know more, and I imagine there is so much to tell. Thank you so much for sharing this with me. I am not sure what this experience has been like for you, but I would love to come alongside you and learn about it with you. I am here to help, however I can.”
Jackson stared back at Cora, with seriousness and disbelief. “You are glad I told you? Are you sure?”
“Yes,” Cora assured him.” I would love to know more, too, if you are willing to share more.
This, Cora realized, is the gift of youth ministry. Surprising and captivating a teenager with the love that has been so freely given to us. Representing that unconditional Love with which we have first been loved. This love flows from an encounter with a God who pursues us relentlessly, piercing through our feelings of inadequacy and fear; An encounter with Divine Mercy that remains with us in the very places that we feel most unworthy of His Presence. Life in Christ frees us to enter into the experience of another person, especially into the hard places, that so few have looked at, that this teen has likely tried to ignore. The call of Christian is simple: to enter in and to remain. We do well to recognize that this trail is a hard one. We can offer an oasis, where the teen can pause long enough to catch their breath. This is not a race, but an important journey on difficult terrain, that no one should have to travel alone. That’s where you come in.
Mark A. Yarhouse, Psy.D., is the Rosemarie S. Hughes Endowed Chair and Professor of Psychology at Regent University, where he serves as executive director of the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity. He is author of Understanding Sexual Identity: A Resource for Youth Ministry, published by Zondervan.
Julia Sadusky is in her third year in the Doctoral Program in Clinical Psychology. She is a Research Assistant for the Institute for the Study of Sexual Identity and recently completed a clinical rotation in the Sexual and Gender Identity Clinic.