As more and more youth are coming out as LGBTQ or questioning at younger ages, Christian youth workers around the nation are faced with the question of, “How do I respond when a youth comes out to me?”
This is part two of a two-part post. The first post focused on the coming out moment. This post looks at the months/years after the youth comes out to you.
Below are some best practices and recommendations for Christian youth workers* who have LGBTQ and questioning youth in their church or Christian organization. Obviously each situation is different and every suggestion may not work for your unique group or denomination but remember that the stakes are high. Statistically LGBTQ youth commit suicide in higher numbers than heterosexual youth. LGBTQ youth also leave their faith in alarming numbers. If we err as Christian youth workers, let us err on the side of love.
Walking with your youth after they’ve come out:
One of the biggest mistakes that youth workers make after a youth comes out to them is to pretend it never happened. Yes, it’s uncomfortable. Yes, you’re busy and have a million other things to do. Yes, you may have no idea how to handle this situation. But whatever you do, don’t ignore it. Your silence sounds like rejection to a LGBTQ or questioning youth.
Continue to talk about and process this with the youth no matter how uncomfortable it makes you feel. Push through the awkwardness. Meet with them one on one on a regular basis if possible. Remember, most of the time a youth is just looking for someone to listen, not to solve all their problems.
Encourage the youth in their faith.** To a lot of youth, a Christian youth worker is a reflection of Christ in their lives. They are watching your reactions to see how God feels about them. If you express unconditional love then they will know that God loves them unconditionally. If you express judgment or condemnation they will feel that God condemns them as well.
Educate yourself. Seek additional support and resources. Read the books and the blogs. Watch the videos. Talk to theologians and pastors on both sides of the conversation. Meet some other LGBTQ Christians and ask them about their experiences. [Remember to protect this youth’s privacy when talking with other folks.] Never stop learning. Seek God’s guidance as you consider voices from all sides of the issue.
Talk with this youth without having an agenda. Listen with an open heart and mind. Continue to ask good questions. Be slow to give advice or counsel pointing the youth in one direction or another. Don’t try to fix or change a youth. Don’t try to force them to be heterosexual. Focus instead on who God wants that youth to be. Remember that no one, not even you the trusty youth worker, can truly know the condition of someone else’s relationship with Jesus. Advise them to continue to seek out and search for God’s will in their lives. Don’t try to manipulate what they hear from God.
If the youth is interested, study various interpretations of the verses in the Bible that mention this topic together. Look at original language, context, and cultural cues. Use more than one commentary. Read books and blogs from conservative, moderate, and progression voices and discuss how God speaks to both of you through these.
Pray for them. Pray with them. Pray that God will hold them close. Pray that they will keep their faith. Don’t pray for them to be straight; pray that God will show them what God wants for their life, sexuality, and/or gender identity.
Help them meet other youth who share their story. Connect them to Christian LGBTQ role models who have walked this path before them. If the youth wants to see a counselor or therapist, help them decide what type of counseling is best for them. [The Marin Foundation does not advocate any kind of reparative therapy.]
Help this youth make decisions about their coming out process. Encourage them to reflect on the positive and negative consequences of coming out to the important people in their lives. Help them weigh the pros and cons and determine if they are ready to handle all of the possible outcomes. Will they be safe at school? How do they think their parents will react? Do they have somewhere else to go if they are kicked out? Will they be accepted by your church/organization? Are they truly ready for other people to know? Do they feel called by God to come out? Would the youth like you to be there for support when they come out?
Observe how this youth is treated in your group. Watch for bullying or harassment. Be attentive to signs of depression or suicidal ideation. If you hear something [gay jokes, homophobic slurs, or even simple statements that show ignorance], address it without revealing this youth’s secret. Prayerfully consider starting a discussion around faith, sexuality, and gender identity in your church or group.
Hold this youth to the same standards and rules as every other youth in your organization. Don’t give them extra hurdles or barriers because of their sexuality/gender identity but don’t let them off the hook either. For example, if you have a policy that youth are not allowed to engage in romantic displays during youth functions then enforce this policy evenly for both heterosexual and LGBTQ youth in your group.
This youth chose you because they knew you were a safe person. Not everyone in a youth’s life is safe [unfortunately this may include their family]. Unless the youth is in danger or your organization’s policies require you to inform someone else you should probably keep this information confidential. If you do decide that you have to tell someone, let the youth know beforehand. Discuss the reasons why you feel that you must include this other person in the conversation.
Pray for yourself. Stay connected to God. Feed your own soul.
Finally, be patient. For most people, sexuality and gender identity is not something they discover and accept overnight. Be in this, with them, for the long haul. At the end of the day, if the youth makes a decision about their sexuality or gender identity that you don’t agree with, it is still your job to love them and walk alongside of them.
*For simplicity’s sake I will use the phrase “youth worker” to refer to anyone who works with youth as part of a church, Christian college or university, or Christian organization. This could be a youth pastor, a youth minister, a youth leader, a volunteer who works with youth, etc.
** For more information on helping LGBTQ youth in their faith, see this past blog post: Clearing the Path for Your Child’s Faith