The Government is consulting on a ban on conversion therapy in an attempt to prevent abuse of those who are same-sex attracted or have questions about their gender identity. Andrew has written a helpful reflection on how this would impact same-sex attracted Christians, but it should also prompt those of us involved in pastoral care to reflect on our pastoral practice. How do we make sure that our care for those who are same-sex attracted or struggle with questions of gender identity is beneficial and not abusive?
I’ve been both a recipient and giver of pastoral care over the years. Across three posts, I want to share some lessons that I have learnt. For these posts, my assumption is that we are seeking to help somebody who is largely sympathetic to the biblical position that marriage is between a man and a woman. What we want is for them is to experience life in all its fulness through Jesus as they steward their sexuality in line with biblical teaching.
Open questions and good listening
It shouldn’t have happened, but my first couple of attempts at pastoring people who experience same-sex attraction were far from ideal. As soon as the individuals mentioned same-sex attraction I immediately assumed that their experiences were the same as mine and merrily set about dispensing my wisdom. At various levels my advice ended up missing the mark.
Same-sex attraction manifests itself in various forms, so it is always worth taking the time to ask good questions to find out the person’s own experience. After all, if somebody has asked to speak to you about their sexuality it is because they want to talk. It may well be that an awful lot has been bottled up for a long time. Asking a series of open questions gives people the gift of allowing them to pour out their heart to you. Here are some possibilities that may be useful depending on how the conversation goes:
How long have you been aware of experiencing same-sex attraction?
What’s your perspective on it?
Are there times when you find it hard? What are they like? What prompts them?
Is there anything that encourages you?
Feel free to be honest – do you accept the biblical position on sexuality or are there times when you are not sure?
Would you say you are exclusively same-sex attracted or is it more fluid than that?
Have you been able to tell others about it? How have they responded?
What do you think God’s attitude to you is?
And the last question might well be:
Is there anything else you want to tell me?
Obviously this is not designed to be an interrogation – it should all be very gentle! But the purpose is twofold. Firstly, it is a way of allowing somebody to share issues they have been carrying around, possibly on their own. And secondly, you are only going to be able to help as you discover what is going on in their heart and mind rather than assuming you already know.
Asking good questions is vital. The best pastoral care I have received personally has come as church leaders and friends have shown love in listening patiently without being quick to dispense advice.
Affirmation and reassurance
As I listen to people, I tend not to offer thoughts and advice initially. But I do want to be providing affirmation and reassurance where I can. For some who are same-sex attracted there might be an unnecessary sense of shame and fear of rejection by God or others. That can be crippling, and we want to do all that we can to alleviate it. I have been on the receiving end of some really good pastoral care which has assured me of God’s love for me and other’s love for me. Here are the type of comments that can mean a huge amount to those wrestling with sexuality issues:
Thank you so much for talking to me. That’s a real privilege. I want to assure right from the outset that God loves you lots and I/we as a church (depending on what feels appropriate!) love you lots.
I actually find your story really encouraging. You have faced real challenges, but you want to live for Jesus. That’s fantastic. That’s a sign that the Holy Spirit is at work in you. I think more, not less of you at the moment.
I can see the way God has used this in your life to make you more humble and sensitive to the pain of others.
Somebody who is talking about their sexuality for the first time will inevitably feel vulnerable. Anything we can say to provide reassurance will be appreciated.
These two lessons should help the start of a pastoral conversation. What next? We’ll consider that in the next post.