NEXT STEPS: What Do LGBTQ People Want–And NOT Want–From a Parish?

Today’s post is the sixth installment of New Ways Ministry’s online series, “Next Steps: Developing Catholic LGBTQ Ministry.” To find out more information and a registration form for this multi-part series, please click here

To find the first five installments, please click here.

All of the resources in this series are copyrighted to New Ways Ministry. Permission is granted to use them for educational and ministerial purposes provided that you cite New Ways Ministry as the source.

In the last installment of this series, we asked you to examine and analyze your parish community to see how ready it might be for starting or further developing LGBTQ ministry projects.  That’s an important step to take in your discernment of a pastoral plan because that will help to give you an understanding of the unique situation of your parish.  As we have been stressing, LGBTQ ministry is going to vary from place to place, depending on the variety of factors which were discussed in the last installment.  Yet, no matter where your parish may be in terms of LGBTQ people and topics, it is always possible for it to take one step further, even if the step is a small step or a basic step.

In this installment, we are going to shift from looking at your community to take a look at LGBTQ people themselves to get a better understanding on how parish communities, which tend to be mostly heterosexual and cisgender, can let LGBTQ people know there is a place for them at the community’s table.

Because LGBTQ people are as diverse as the general population, in one sense, it is impossible to make any generalization about what “they” want or need from a parish.  The complexity of this segment of the population is made even more complicated by that fact that LGBTQ people may have had an intricate relationship to the institutional church.  They are likely to have had more negative messages and painful experiences than other Catholics have had, sometimes (but not always!) having taken a break from church life for varying amounts of time.

Like all other people, when they show up to a parish, it is because their spiritual journey has led them to seek a closer relationship with God through communal worship, service, and fellowship. They want a place to share and grow in their faith.  They want what other people in the Catholic Church want:  acceptance, affirmation, understanding.

To help with your planning for LGBTQ parish ministry, it may be helpful to see what LGBTQ people want from a parish by looking through the lens of what LGBTQ people do NOT want in a parish:

  1. They are not looking to be stereotyped

Stereotypes about LGBTQ people abound in our culture and in our church.  Many of these have to do with gender roles and sexuality, e.g., gay men are interested in traditionally feminine things, such as decorating; lesbian women like physical activity such as sports; transgender, bisexual, and queer people can’t make up their minds about their identities.  Another group of stereotypes is that LGBTQ people are all sexually active—and usually promiscuously so, predatory, and pedophiles.

As a minister, you would never assume that all heterosexual people are alike.  You would treat each of them as a unique individual and try to get to know their gifts, struggles, and shortcomings.  The same should be true for LGBTQ people.

     2. They do not want condescension

Another stereotype about LGBTQ people is that they are all lonely, rejected, and depressed.  LGBTQ people do not want to be pitied.  While some may, in fact, be feeling these emotions, it would be wrong to assume that all are.  LGBTQ people often lead happy, successful, fulfilling lives which are, of course, filled with the same challenges, ups and downs, and stumbling blocks as anyone else.  Resist treating them all as if they have lived a life of misery.  Learn first about their unique situations before assuming the worst.

      3. They do not want their decisions about sexual expression to be the focus of ministry with them

Some church leaders believe that the primary aim of LGBTQ ministry is to persuade people to accept the church’s doctrine on sexuality and gender.  Yet, while all human beings are sexual, no other group has the church’s ministry focused on sex.  Even youth, who arguably are most in need of guidance about sexuality since they are only first experiencing it, are not ministered to primarily about sex.  Other things like personal identity, career path, relationships, family life, vocation are often the issues of youth ministry.

When LGBTQ people come to the church, they already know the doctrine about sexual identity and gender very well.  It would be surprising if they didn’t because too often that is the only part of church teaching on LGBTQ people that too many church leaders proclaim.  So most LGBTQ people who want to be part of a parish have either decided to live the church’s teaching or have made their peace through a conscience decision that God has called them not to live this teaching.

People in prison ministry do not focus on an incarcerated person’s wrongdoings and how those did not fulfill church teaching.  Neither do hospital chaplains focus on the way that patients have not cared for themselves.   Ministers in the business community do not emphasize greed.  So, LGBTQ ministry should not focus on what church doctrine disapproves of, but with the other facets of people’s lives.

As all LGBTQ people know, being LGBTQ is more than just sexuality and gender identity.  It is often about overcoming stigma, perhaps struggling for acceptance, experiencing discrimination, and so much more. Ministry with this group should focus on the totality of a person’s life and spiritual experiences, not a narrow or primary focus on sex.

     4. They do not want to be treated differently by other parishioners and parish staff

LGBTQ people seek equality.  They do not seek preferential treatment.  In fact, preferential treatment is often uncomfortable for them.  They do not want to be made into a token. They do not want to be considered the representative of the entire LGBTQ community.

They want to be treated equally.  No better or no worse than any other group or individuals in the parish.  As with many distinct groups in a parish community, they may appreciate an opportunity to celebrate their identity, either through an event or a group where they can connect with others from their background.  Parishes already do that with various ethnic groups, hobbyists, age groups, and other ways that people identify.

They do not want to be excluded from any ministry that is appropriate to others in their age-peer group. If there is a bereavement group, would they welcome an LGBTQ person who lost a spouse or significant other?  If they have children, would they be welcome in parish groups and events for families?  Are LGBTQ people allowed to join young adult (20s-30s) organizations?

     5. They do not want their issues ignored or their identities to be considered “off limits.”

LGBTQ people will vary greatly about how public they want to be about their identity.  Some are more reserved, while others are more public.  Regardless of their level of comfortability with being “out,”  almost all LGBTQ people will feel affirmed and accepted if they see and hear that the community cares about their issues, and that their identities are acknowledged.

So, if an LGBTQ individual in your city has been the victim of a hate crime which is reported by the news media, and no mention is made about it in the church, the LGBTQ people in your parish will very likely feel a strong sense of alienation.

Mentioning LGBTQ people and using words like “gay,” “lesbian,” “transgender” are ways of showing the members of a parish that the community cares for them.   While this is true for people of almost every identity who want to hear that identity named and recognized, it is especially true for the LGBTQ community, who have often learned their lesson that their identities are off limits for discussion, particularly in church circles.  Silence can sometimes be as deadly as violence.

One of the simplest, yet most powerful example of LGBTQ parish welcome I heard of was when a pastoral minister simply put up a small rainbow flag sticker on her door.  No words.  No other message.  But that small sticker loudly spoke volumes to LGBTQ parishioners and those who had LGBTQ people in their families.  The floodgates opened, and people came to talk with her, and those discussions developed into an extremely successful parish ministry.

For journal writing:

Click here to find a short list of questions for journaling, reflecting,  and planning.  Write down your answers to as many questions as you can.  You may want to return to these questions in these coming weeks if you gather more information or make further observations.  The purpose of this, and all the writing exercises in this program, is so that you will have some ideas to look back on at the end of this series when you will be encouraged and guided to develop a plan of pastoral action for your parish or faith community.

Next Installment of Next Steps Series: What Do LGBTQ People Bring to a Parish or Faith Community

To find the first five installments of the “Next Steps” series, as well as more information about the program and a registration form, please click here.

Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, October 5, 2020

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