This blog post is about what (not) to do when someone comes out to you in a church context. It is for pastors, lay leaders, prayer ministry teams and anyone in a pastoral position. It is also for anyone who is a Christian and want to respond in a Godly, appropriate way to LGBT people in their church and beyond. I am not a pastor, just a gay Christian who has had too many bad experiences and has heard too many stories where coming out has gone wrong at church.This is for all Christians, whether “liberal” or “conservative”, whether in inclusive churches or churches that “toe the line” with regards to a traditional understanding of homosexuality in the Bible. The reason this is for everyone is because everyone needs to know how to treat someone with respect, compassion and human kindness. Everyone needs to know which words are inappropriate and which will wound beyond belief.
He is sitting in front of you, hands clasping and unclasping, desperate to speak.
She has asked you for prayer but so far has just wept, unable to say anything.
They are glancing uncomfortably at one another, wondering who will be the first to say it.
Finally, from somewhere comes enough courage:
Pastor, I think I might be….
I need prayer because….
We need your help with…
Coming out at lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, telling someone you have desires (wanted or unwanted) towards members of the same sex, or potentially telling someone about your same-sex relationship, is nerve-wracking in any situation. And in a church context it is worse. There is so much riding on this. Our churches are our families in Christ and we want to be loved, held, listened to. And we are very scared. We remember every single word you have ever spoken up front about homosexuality. We remember it and we have internalised it.
If you want to truly love us and respond appropriately, then remember the following when someone is sitting in front of you and doing one of the bravest things of their lives:
The person sitting in front of you is pouring their heart out. They have chosen to trust you with their story. So, first of all, listen. Don’t interrupt, don’t ask questions, just let that person tell their story until they’re done. They’ll tell you exactly what they needed to tell you, no more, no less. If you have training in active listening skills, use it.
2. Listen again
When you are listening, take (mental) notes. Are there words that the person is repeating over and over? Are there clues about what this person believes about their situation? More importantly, are there clues about what this person thinks that you, or your church, believes about their situation? Are they calm or anxious? Are they happy with their sexuality or unhappy? Are they “confessing” or are they “telling”? Do they expect to be rejected or welcomed? Don’t be surprised when you hear your own words on the matter echoed back at you: how do they sound coming out of someone else’s mouth?
3. Say thank you. And smile 🙂
When the story has been told, thank the person. Thank them for sharing it with you. Simple as that. Let them know how much you respect their journey and that they have trusted you with this. Smile. This is an instant signal to the person that they are not “in trouble”.
4. Control your reactions
Do not allow yourself a knee-jerk reaction. Leave a pause before you respond. Yes, this might have come as a shock to you. You might have a million questions. You might even feel angry, because this person has been “holding this back from you.” But this isn’t about you.
5. Tell the person that they are welcome in your church and that God loves them
It doesn’t matter what you or your church thinks about homosexuality, these things should be a given. We know that nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8: 38-39). And we know that God takes us as we are (Romans 5:8). Who are we to say any differently? Tell the person. Remember that active listening? You will have guessed if that person was expecting to be rejected by the language they used. Tell them they are not rejected. Not by you, not by your church, not by God. If you can’t do this, then you are way off the mark about the Good News. Listen out especially for the damage done by other churches and tell them that the damaging behaviour was not ok. This is massively healing in and of itself – I cried buckets the first time someone told me that what had happened to me at other churches was wrong and not Christlike.
6. Give them the whole picture (before you give them your opinion.)
A lot of the LGBT Christians I talk to had no idea that there were different opinions about homosexuality within mainstream Christianity. Many of them repeat the words they were given by the Pastor they came out to. I would argue that it is your moral duty to give people the whole picture. Tell them that there are different opinions – point them towards good resources on all sides of the debate and encourage them to pray, study and seek God about the whole issue. This is their issue, not yours. They are children of God who can hear from God. Give them a chance to explore and especially to pray about it before coming back for another chat.
7. Give your opinion only when asked.
You’ve given them the whole picture. They may well be content to go home and start exploring for themselves. But its likely they want to know your opinion first. If they ask, tell them. Don’t lie if you are struggling too or you are unsure or there is a mixture of opinions in your church. Use language carefully. Especially DO NOT use any of the following:
It’s a choice. Most LGBT Christians do not feel they have made a choice. Many have tried very hard not to have same-sex attractions. The only choice is how they are going to deal with the situation. This is their choice, not yours.
God heals gay people. I am not here to argue this one. It is possible that you know of stories of LGBT people who have “changed”, even married heterosexually. But many others have not had this experience. Do not set up a false hope or expectation.
Love the sinner, hate the sin. If you gave me a pound for every time I have heard this, I would be a millionaire. It is not a helpful statement. Sexuality is very bound up in identity. It is difficult to separate the “sinner” and the “sin” and basically it comes across as “I love you but with massive conditions”. Contrary to popular belief, it is not a phrase used in the Bible.
Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve. This is a massive oversimplification and utterly unhelpful. How does it help anyone? It doesn’t. Particularly when delivered with a faint smirk (it’s also not really that funny.)
Leviticus says…(equally “Romans says…”) The person probably knows the biblical passages believed to be about homosexuality better than you. They have agonised over them, possibly for years. Don’t quote unless asked.
8. Also DO NOT:
Ask them for details of their sex lives or relationships past or present. Would you think its appropriate to share the gritty details of your sex life with someone from church? No. They have had time to tell you exactly what they wanted to tell you. Anything else is simply not your business.
Attempt to “pray away the gay.” One of the most traumatic experiences I have had is someone praying for me like this without warning and without me asking them to. It is basically spiritual abuse of the worst kind. Never forget that you have power in this situation. Do not use it in this way.
Treat them differently. When you see that person at church, at social events, in the school car park – wherever – treat them exactly as you always have.
Out them to anyone else in the church. They trusted you with their story. It is not yours to share and doing so could cause irrecoverable damage.
9. DO Point them towards resources and give them details of a suitable counsellor if it would be helpful.
A suitable counsellor is not a biased counsellor. A suitable counsellor is accredited and will help the person deal with the situation on their terms.
10. DO Pray with them.
Encourage them to speak to God about their situation. Pray using encouraging words. Affirm that they are a child of God. Ask God to be present and to help them in their questioning. Don’t try to “pray away the gay” or use prayer time as an opportunity to give opinions about homosexuality. Constantly affirm that God knows them and will not abandon them at this time.
A special note for inclusive churches:
Much of the above also applies to you. Listen to the person, to their doubts and fears. They will still possibly need to go on that journey of discovery for themselves. Avoid simplistic statements (“God loves you as you are so don’t worry!”) if the person has expressed doubts. Its like putting a sticking plaster on a broken leg. It won’t heal. Be there for them, give them resources and encourage them to seek God, where healing lies. Be aware that too much happy Pride rainbowy stuff can be scary and off putting rather than welcoming. Meet with the person where they’re at and listen, listen, listen.
Have I missed anything? LGBT Christians: what would be helpful to add to this list? Pastors: have I missed something important? What are your experiences with this situation?
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