Magazine article The Christian Century

Climate of Care: Pastoral Ministry to Gays and Lesbians

Magazine article The Christian Century

Climate of Care: Pastoral Ministry to Gays and Lesbians

Article excerpt

THERE IS NO END in sight to the mainline denominations' debates over whether gays and lesbians will be fully integrated into the life and leadership of their churches. While that debate is important, so too is the need for congregations to meet the immediate pastoral needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, as well as people who are questioning their sexual orientation. "Care involves structured and intentional organization in response to specific educational, relational, and existential needs," says Larry Kent Graham (Discovering Images of God: Narratives of Care Among Lesbians and Gays). A ministry of inclusion and affirmation involves providing an intentional welcome to the gifts that LGBT people bring to the faith community.

First and foremost, such a ministry involves understanding the spiritual wounds of LGBT people and the mistrust that they have of religious institutions. Pastoral leaders need to understand how the dominant culture fosters doubt and self-hatred among LGBT people, which makes their coming-out process complex and risky.

So creating a climate of care begins with listening. LGBT people should define their needs and set the agenda; otherwise, care slips into being paternalistic or patronizing. Too many well-intentioned pastoral care providers are like Job's comforters: full of traditional ideas that fail to address deep concerns. Job's friends were invited to be in solidarity with Job's plight, but they could not hear his deep groaning. Care not rooted in authentic listening has no integrity.

Some unique issues in the gay community present specific challenges and opportunities for pastoral care. One such issue is the coming-out process. In most cases, coming out constitutes a crisis. In coming out, one realizes that one is going to be excluded from heterosexual privileges. Also, as one comes out, the old support systems fall away at a time when new ones are not yet in place. The result can be fear, anger, guilt, shame and confusion.

The hard work of coming out is a lifelong process. People are at many differing points in their coming-out journeys. The community that seeks to be welcoming does not push people on these journeys but gives them permission to be where they are. A community can honor different journeys and at the same time be a place where LGBT people are fully affirmed.

The long internalization of traditional gender expectations shapes people's consciousness even as they begin to reject or live beyond those expectations. Gender socialization informs our sexual expressions, professional choices, emotional attachments, imagined futures and perceptions of social norms and expectations. Congregations of care offer support as people move beyond traditional expectations.

Communities of care will recognize that LGBT people experience a special kind of loneliness. For single heterosexuals, every social event carries the possibility for meeting a potential date. The social system supports an informal process of inquiring about another's relationship status. Not so for LGBT people. They live in a world in which they may be ridiculed or threatened if a hunch about another person is acted upon or an inquiry is made about a potential date.

When gays and lesbians form committed partnerships, they face another set of unique challenges. For example, gay couples may need help navigating medical, financial and legal issues. No one working in an emergency room would think to ask a husband to prove his marriage to his unconscious wife before surgery. The institution of marriage is assumed, and a spouse is permitted to make critical medical decisions. But when a gay or lesbian couple arrives at the emergency room, few hospital staff will assume that a "next of kin" relationship exists, and they may exclude one partner from any interaction or decision making regarding the other partner. The couple should possess power-of-attorney-for-health-care documents to ensure that each partner can make crucial decisions if the other partner cannot. …

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