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Pardon the length of this piece, but we really need to talk.
It’s become inevitable that I’ll get a call or email once or twice a month asking to consult with a church on a lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender-questioning dialogue. Most often, I’m grateful that churches seek to be more informed, engaged and conversant. But this essay is not about the LGBTQ conversation necessarily. It’s about the first question I ask when I’m invited in: “How does your church talk about sexuality in general around here?”
We’re prone to hide, and our fig-leaved strategies are endless.
This is often met with a blank stare. Sometimes there is an honest, “We just don’t.” I might hear about a sermon series on faithful marriage or a small group of men talking about pornography, but that’s about it.
So we need to talk.
STATE OF MARRIAGE
What is the state of marriage in your church? I bet it’s not very different than anywhere else. If you’re an evangelical Christian, statistics shows that your marriage is less apt to make it than a marriage between atheists. Why aren’t we talking about why this is? Why do we seem more concerned with who sells and buys wedding cakes? I do marriage conferences and I pastored for many years, and I’ve counseled hundreds of couples, and (I hope I don’t need to convince you) there is great pain in many, many couples in your church. Abuse and unfaithfulness and sometimes plain, old disconnection erode trust, yet many couples in churches tuck their pain away on Sunday morning. Emotional disconnection and sexual dissatisfaction are addressed with coping strategies – a little too much alcohol, a titillating show to watch, the drama of Facebook. We’re prone to hide, and our fig-leaved strategies are endless. And (may I say it?) the self-help Christian books with their principles and platitudes don’t seem to touch the depth of pain. Many couples who stay together find a tolerable dance to do to keep the peace.
Yes, we need to talk.
STATE OF SINGLENESS
Single folks in your church are hurting too. They’re not sure at all what to do with their singleness, with cultural and ecclesial expectations around marriage “completing” someone, with their own single sexuality, with their need for intimacy and belonging. Sometimes church is the toughest space to navigate in their week as they watch those smiling couples embrace their children. Often, our only advice to singles is “Don’t have sex before you’re married.” Perhaps we’ll create a singles’ ministry for them. But their questions are bigger than this. As one late-30s single woman said to me, “Am I supposed to neatly tuck away my longing for sexual connection like a nun?” I discussed this with a pastor and asked him recently, “What would it look like for your church to have an honest conversation about masturbation?” He blushed a bit and said with a chuckle, “Justification. Sanctification. But no, not masturbation.” We default to humor when we’re uncomfortable.
STATE OF OUR CHILDREN
Let’s talk about your middle- and high-schoolers. Are we naming the questions and realities they are facing? The Bible seems more honest about teenage lust than do most pastors. That erotic tale tucked away in the middle of your Bible is a sexually charged journey of two young teenagers exploring their bodies, awakening to their desires. That’ll preach. Or maybe not. When I preached Song of Solomon years ago in an evening service, I invited parents of middle- and high-schoolers. They came the first week, but many didn’t come back. It hits too close to home.
What kind of conversation about sexuality is your church engaging in?
It’s easy to talk about “those people,” you know – those people you’ve never met or don’t think attend your church. It’s easy to talk about the “LGBTQ issue,” depersonalizing it as a “topic.” But as I say to many pastors, Maybe we should start with you. Maybe we should name the very real, on-the-ground realities that everyone in your church faces before going down the path of talking about “those people.” Maybe the “other” we need to face is the “other within,” our cut-off shadow selves that lurk in secret and fear being found out. Maybe cultivating greater honesty and self-compassion in a context of cross-centered grace is necessary before we start talking about someone else’s life.
Maybe we should name things.
STATE OF OUR OWN SEXUALITY
Maybe we should name the elephant in the room – the reality that mental health professionals like me now assume people are addicted to porn. It’s not the exception, it’s the norm. Yes, men who’ve been formed in the sexualized liturgy of our culture are stuffing the shame and pretending to be okay when it’s not okay. But this may be a shocker: Women are looking at porn too. And for many women (take a deep breath before continuing to read) same-sex images and stories are most provocative. Can I name that in Perspectives? Is it OK to tell our secrets, fellow Christians? Can I tell how many women and men have said to me, “I started experimenting a bit in middle school – looking at images, masturbating – but no one ever talked about this, not my parents, not my school, not my youth group and never, ever, my pastor.”
And perhaps now it’s time to take seriously what #MeToo and #ChurchToo are highlighting – that sexual harassment and abuse are right-here, right-now realities in your church, among your people. That men have too long blamed women and what they do or wear instead of doing honest work. The church has too long been a context where men can groom and prey on women. That many men, even accomplished men with degrees and titles like me, are stuck emotionally at 12 years old. That women are tired of living in a world of immature boys led by a president who confesses that when it comes to assaulting a woman he just can’t help himself. That misogyny is the cultural water we swim in. That churches don’t really know how to invite men to do the important emotional work necessary to grow up. That there are few, if any, wise sages and elders to mentor us. That this isn’t a conservative or liberal issue, it’s not about Hollywood or DC, it’s not about being a traditional or progressive Christian: It’s about all of us, as news reports are reminding us every day.
THIS IS NEVER EASY
A personal story: I’ve told the story elsewhere about how I hit an emotional wall in seminary and jumped into the seminary’s masters-in-counseling program. Like many, I hoped for a quick and painless cure for my anxiety and depression. But in that community of honest peers and teachers, I learned what John Calvin surely must have meant by “self-knowledge” – my awareness of my arrogance, abusiveness and emotional/relational unintelligence came into full view.
One particularly important moment was on an evening I was counseling a young woman in her early 20s. She had the kind of timeless, simple beauty that made my heart start beating fast just as soon as I saw her. A neurochemical sexual cocktail coursed through my body, but I had to ignore it because I was a good Christian guy, I was her therapist and we had a session to do. I sat with her for 50 minutes, asking questions about her life and interests. We found common ground and laughed. Behind the observation window sat my female supervisor and several female classmates observing my magic. When we were done, she smiled, and I smiled, and she asked for a hug. I made my way back to my supervisor’s office to debrief, expecting them to congratulate me on a life-changing session.
“How do you think that went?” my supervisor asked. She had a kind of wry smile as she asked it. Have you seen that wry smile on a therapist? It’s generally not a good sign.
“Really good,” I said. “I think we built a lot trust today. I think she feels very comfortable with me. I think we’re doing good work.” I was already starting to master therapist jargon.
My supervisor sat quietly for just a moment. Her wry smile disappeared. She looked me directly in the eyes and said, “Well, oh, OK, if you call flirting for 50 minutes a good counseling session then I guess so.”
She asked my female peers if they agreed. I recall their faces, mixed with anxiety and anger. Each one nodded. Then my defenses went up. I battled for a few minutes, but before long my supervisor was making connections in my life that only a Jedi-therapist like her could make. And then she said, “I wonder how your wife experiences being married to an emotional 12-year-old?”
I learned in that two years to name things that I never, ever dared imagine I’d say out loud. I learned to repent. I learned to grieve. I began to see women and be seen. I sometimes felt like my shame was the grave I’d be buried in and at other times experienced the joy of being known in a way I’d never experienced before. Coming out of hiding, the game we played in our marriage couldn’t last – and so what we thought we were had to die, just four years in. The next few years were filled with pain as my wife took her own journey. But from the ashes something new and honest could be born. Jesus writes redemption stories that require crucifixion along the way.
We need to talk, friends. We need to come out of hiding. We need to tell our secrets.
FACING THE TRUTH
Let me end it with this: A few years ago, I got the call and question, like I often do – “Will you help us talk through this LGBTQ issue?” I met with the pastor, and we had the bigger conversation about engaging sexuality, intimacy, shame, pornography, misogyny, abuse and more. It was a full and deep conversation, and he walked away fairly overwhelmed. I didn’t hear back for some time. When I did see him at an event a year later, he asked for a few minutes to catch up. He told me that he decided to get therapy after speaking with me. Tears welled up as he talked about years of porn addiction and marital dissatisfaction. He told me that before he could engage any kind of conversation about someone else’s life that he needed to face his own. His own inner work prompted a larger conversation among the leadership team, most of whom seemed compelled by their pastor’s transformation and longed for their own.
He told me that he couldn’t imagine engaging any conversation on sexuality from the place where he was previously. “Chuck, I was clueless to my own stuff. Now I can engage others with empathy and curiosity. Facing my own brokenness allows me to see another human being as human, as a person with pain, with a story, in need of Jesus.”
Church, we’ve got work to do. All of us. The work of inner transformation is vital, not as an excuse to avoid the hard conversations but precisely because we must have hard conversations as mature adults. If our political culture has taught us anything in the past year, perhaps it has taught us that character matters, that growing in emotional health and intelligence is critical for leadership, that empathy for another requires us to grow in empathy for our own splintered selves, broken as they are. Perhaps we’ve learned that we can never, ever love the “other” if we don’t love what is “other” about us.
Jesus can handle our brokenness. Jesus can handle our hard conversations. Jesus can meet us in places of disruption. Jesus can love what is “other” in us. Jesus can’t meet us when we’re hiding.
It’s time to talk.
Chuck DeGroat teaches pastoral care at Western Theological Seminary, Holland, Michigan. This essay originally appeared in Perspectives’ blog, The Twelve.