Made, Known, Loved: Developing LGBTQ-Inclusive Youth Ministry

Made, Known, Loved: Developing LGBTQ-Inclusive Youth Ministry April 21, 2021

A new book by Ross Murray

A Review

Ross Murray is well-known for his founding and directing of The Naming Project, a faith-based camp for LGBTQ youth and their allies. This book is a reflection on the many practical and spiritual learnings he has gleaned from doing such cutting edge and needed work.

Ross is a deacon in our denomination, the ELCA. His clear spiritual gift is the consideration of how the living and active word of God applies in specific forms of service in the world.

This is what makes his book such a joy to read. Although it is definitely a sort of memoir-to-date of his work developing and leading the camp, it’s also structured much like a how-to. Each chapter title is incredibly practical: What if I encounter resistance establishing LGBTQ Youth Ministry? What rituals exist for personal LGBTQ Milestones? What is the big deal about names?

I’ll admit, reading this book right now is a lifeline for me. Our congregation is planning a Queer Camp taking place this summer. So far about 80 LGBTQ youth have registered. We have volunteers coming out of the woodwork.

Look for the helpers, they say. Well, we’re discovering the helpers.

But this means as a pastor and camp planner, I have all sorts of very practical questions. Ross totally gets this, and organizes the book as a way of holding sacred space for such practical questions.

But of course, many practical questions are incredibly spiritual.

For example, at one point Ross reflects on photographs taken at camp, a question we ourselves have had as well since there is a lot of media interest in the camp. He writes, “Photography was our entry into consent culture, perhaps because it was a something that was fairly concrete and understandable to our community.”

The conversation on photograph consent allowed for space with campers and adults about the topic of consent more generally.

Here’s another one: “Believing what youth tell us about themselves has become a standard practice for The Naming Project.” Ross acknowledges (and I agree) that believing youth is sometimes hard for adults. Yet he notes how important it is for youth to be heard and listened to and believed, LGBTQ youth in particular, as some are discovering more about their identity every day that is new to them that they are processing.

But perhaps a favorite passage comes earlier in the chapter on holy days, and I quote it in full, because it explains so well why it has been incredibly important to our congregation these past many years to walk in the Pride parade as a congregation:

“Holy days such as Pride are secular events that were created at a time when most religious groups were ignoring or actively persecuting the LGBTQ community. So don’t look for inherent Christian language in the lead-up to or on the day itself. But do look for storytelling and ritual. Look for naming and claiming. Look for people sharing with the world a piece of who they are. And look for others surrounding them and letting them know they are accepted and loved, at least by their own community. And look for straight people observing and listening, tentatively participating alongside their loved ones, using the holy days to gain a better understanding of their friends and family.”

Honestly, I love books like this, handbooks that offer a frank examination of the process, the trials and the joys, the failures and the successes. Ross is remarkably up front and honest about some of his bigger failures. This also is a hallmark of the book. This is not one of those books (of which there are far too many) where the ministry leader tells you how they did all these amazing things (by the grace of God, of course), and you can succeed too if you just read his book.

This book recounts poignant and even embarrassing missteps. That kind of vulnerability I trust. It sounds like Christianity to me.

The story of The Naming Project, and the development of LGBTQ youth ministry more generally, needs to be heard and told widely. The reality is that although we’ve made considerable progress on LGBTQ inclusion in some parts of the church, we lag far behind when it comes to youth. And yet it is precisely during childhood and the teen years that issues of gender, identity, belonging, are so very crucial. This is the right time to focus on inclusion and create space for conversations.

And it’s literally life-saving. “Having just one supportive adult in their life can reduce the likelihood that an LGBTQ youth will attempt suicide by 40 percent.”

Ross does not devote any attention in this book to making the argument for why the church should be inclusive. He already simply believes and lives out of the inclusive perspective, and directs readers to other resources if they need to reflect on the theological and biblical perspectives on inclusion.

But he does periodically offer insights we should all consider. For example, he points out how important naming is in the Bible. As I was reading this section, I was pondering how remarkable it is that supposedly Christian leaders in our state are attempting to pass laws allowing teachers to not call students by their preferred names, while in the biblical texts themselves frequently God or Christ give people new names. Name-changing is a biblical value, you could say.

“Most LGBTQ youth, especially transgender youth, can relate to biblical stories of name changes soon a deep and personal level. A name change for transgender youth is a milestone, one that marks the transition from the person they have been perceived as to the person they are discovering themselves to be.”

As we are forming Queer Camp for this summer, and more generally as our congregation welcomes more and more families and youth who are LGBTQIA+, I realize how true an early claim is in Ross’s book:

“You may come to find that your congregation could be a necessary ‘safe space’ for LGBTQ youth in your community and that the ministry will be sorely needed as a way for youth to recharge and center themselves in the midst of a hostile environment.”

Setting up camp. Indeed.

As we have been planning our camp, we have continued to keep as our focus that although our camp is a Queer Camp, it will simply not be the case that everything at the camp will be focused on gender identity or sexual orientation. As Murray notes, “Keep in mind that LGBTQ people do not believe that their sexual orientation or gender identity is their exhaustive identity as a person–as is true of other people too. Sexual orientation and gender identity have always been two of the many aspects of us but parts that engage with the rest of our identity. For those of us LGBTQ people who also identify as Christian, we believe that the source of our identity is in God. We believe that God created us with our whole identity and set us I a world in which that identity is played out relationally with the rest of the world.”

I literally have only one quibble with the book, easily rectified by simply naming it here. In his great list of resources in the appendix for additional reading, he doesn’t mention Liz Edman’s Queer Virtue. I happen to think it’s essential, so when you buy his book, just write her book and name into that section and order any or all the books mentioned there that will help you learn and grow.

After all, one point Ross makes in his amazing chapter on queering youth ministry is this one: “Perhaps the biggest way that you can queer a youth ministry program is to empower members of your community to share the queer wisdom they have learned in their lives.”

Amen.

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