Our Youth Pastor bought some donuts for the meeting and broke the ice by saying that he had considered getting an entire box of rainbow-sprinkled donuts, but thought it might have sent the wrong message. It was just what we needed—an acknowledgement that if we had any hope of making it through this together, we would have to be able to laugh a little. But that was pretty much the height of humour over the next two hours as we dove into what would become the first of many difficult conversations with people who had genuine concerns about what all of this meant for our church community.
(Note: This post is part of an ongoing series called The View From Here. Please follow this link and start reading at the oldest post, Fear and Trembling.)
Parents asked questions about the content planned for the Youth night, wondering which perspectives we would be sharing and whether we would be presenting a balanced view overall, regardless of what Eric’s experiences and beliefs were. They asked questions about what this meant for the church as a whole, and I did my best to let them know that we were committed to a process of listening and learning before jumping ahead to any conclusions about what this would mean for our community. The conversation inevitably wandered into territory I had hoped to avoid, where strong opinions were shared and emotions started to boil to the surface.
There were two key things I was reminded of during that conversation. The first was that there would be intellectual barriers to having generative dialogue as a congregation.
I’ve been studying these themes on and off for seventeen years and have read numerous books written from a variety of perspectives. I’ve listened to podcasts, read online articles (including the dreaded comments sections!), and have engaged in one-on-one conversations with people who are gay, straight, affirming, and non-affirming, and every combination of the above. There are plenty of people out there who have studied this much more than I have, but honestly, probably not more than two or three in my congregation.
What I realized in the course of that Thursday night parents’ meeting is that engaging this issue well will be intellectually demanding. I knew that from my own experience, but some of the comments I heard reminded me that some people really haven’t engaged some of the deeper questions around same-gender attraction and Christian faith before. To some, it’s just “The Bible says it’s wrong,” and anything else is compromise, heresy, or worse. To others, there is a lack of awareness that the Bible has anything to say about this at all, and if someone points that out, “Well, what does that matter anyway?”
The fact that our congregation has its roots in a student church bodes well for our ability to think critically about this or any other issue, but that’s not the case for everyone. And even if the capacity is there, everyone starts this conversation at a different place. It will be challenging but important for us to help as many people as possible track with us, while not losing people to either over-complicated exegesis or philosophical ideology on one hand, or dumbed-down rhetoric on the other.
The second thing I was reminded of was that people are people.
You can map out in your head how a conversation might go, and you can do everything you can to set things up for success and steer things in a healthy direction, but when people feel threatened, they have a tendency to revert to the worst version of themselves. I definitely witnessed some groupthink at that meeting, as the make-up of the conversation circle leaned heavily in the conservative direction. As the evening carried on, the boldness of certain parents grew, with comments becoming increasingly less graceful and much more emotive.
One of the parents expressed genuine concern that having a gay Youth leader could be problematic if their teen was struggling with questions around sexuality, as it would be more likely that they would decide to become gay themselves. At another point, it was suggested that, if we open the door to people with same-gender attraction now, it’s only a matter of time before we’re letting adults have sexual relationships with children. It was a serious wake-up call for me—the realization that people are going to say offensive things and are going to make hurtful comments, and that there is nothing that I or anyone else can do to prevent it.
The roll-out with a parent group is different than with the congregation as a whole, and that’s primarily because of the responsibility they feel for safeguarding their teens and ensuring that they are being led in a way that is congruent with their values and beliefs. In one of the early email responses I received, a parent used the word “protect” to describe how they felt they needed to respond after hearing that Eric would be sharing his story. Believing that parents shouldn’t feel protective about his issue won’t change the fact that some of them will, and through our mistakes, I’ve learned some things about the importance of honouring this unique group within the church:
1) Give more notice. For what it’s worth, at the advice of my wife we improved our notice, but only by two days. That was not enough time. More notice would have given parents time to let the news settle, to form some thoughtful questions, and to arrange a time to chat with their teen—if they chose to—with ample time to navigate any work- or school-related commitments.
2) Provide more information. In an attempt to avoid making this into more of an issue than it needed to be, we kept the email fairly low key and, as a result, failed to provide any real context that would have helped parents understand what was happening. I also discovered a blind spot in the area of language, where the phrase “openly gay” from the email was tied directly to a formal decision by the church to become affirming. It’s important to know what you mean when you use a loaded word or phrase and let the people you’re communicating with know what you have in mind.
3) Make yourself available to talk things through ahead of time. The parents’ meeting we threw together at the last minute was important for them, so I obviously think this is something we should have planned for in advance.
In one sense, I wish I could rewind all of this mess and have a do-over, but at the same time I’m kind of glad we made our mistakes on a smaller scale before opening the conversation up to the entire church. Besides, we all know there’s no moving backwards in life, so I’ll chalk it up to “lessons learned” and we’ll keep moving forward.