Gay marriage is now the official law of the land. Regardless of this historic decision by the United States Supreme Court, many pastors and their churches will still struggle with their response to gay couples in their congregations. What will we say to the gay couple who wants to get married in our sanctuary? And even more daunting, what kind of marriage counseling is appropriate for these brides or grooms? Based on my own research into the unique conflict structures that exist in same-sex relationships, and with data gathered from gay couples I have counseled in my churches, I published a book a few years ago entitled Committed to Love: Caring for Same-Sex Christian Couples. This post is a very short introduction to that research, which includes steps for further study and exploration for pastors and their congregations who have faced, or will confront, these situations. It also provides practical steps for same-sex couples to engage in pre-marital reflection.
The role of a pastoral (or congregational) care ministry is to be one of the vehicles by which God’s love is affirmed and shared. There are five principles that identify the nature of psycho-systematic caregiving: organicity, simultaneity, conscientization, advocacy, and adventure. Organicity describes the interconnections that extend backwards in family and culture and outward to the multiple influences in one’s world. Simultaneity demands a response to the organic relationships that exists between persons and their worlds simultaneously. Conscientization seeks awareness of the impact that social order has on one’s difficulties and assists strategic actions to neutralize, change or transform destructive elements in that social order. Advocacy reshapes public policies to promote a positive environment for the careseeker. Adventure recognizes that God’s presence in this transformation is an expected gift of grace and fruit of hope.
A psycho-systematic model for care and counseling identifies a ministry that is purposed to increase the love of self, God, and neighbor by developing the capacity to work for a just social order in partnership with the natural order of life. It provides the context for victims and perpetrators of lovelessness, injustice and environmental disorder to engage the destructive forces of their lives in a way that brings healing, sustenance, guidance and liberation to their souls. This model promises both an internal diagnostic for the care of persons, and an external view of caring for the world. It is dynamic, holistic and inclusive in its approach. It has been a framework that has significantly impacted my research, study, and formation of this pastoral care and counseling ministry for gay and lesbian persons.
Homophobia and heterosexism define the fundamental impediments to effective pastoral care and counseling with gays and lesbians. The literal meaning and the contemporary meaning of homophobia are quite contradictory. Homophobia literally means the “fear of sameness,” but is commonly understood as “same sex.” It has become synonymous with prejudice, anger, hatred and discrimination. Society has been organized by heterosexuality. This societal structure and its subsequent support systems have been constructed to serve the majority heterosexual populace. It’s not surprising then that anything that is a minority in this system, whether it be defined by race, class, culture or sexual orientation, will be considered different and abnormal. The intensity of homophobia might lessen with justice and reform; but social ostracism, the lack of desire to understand or be close, exclusiveness, and discriminatory laws continue to separate and create barriers. Gays and lesbians continue to experience these attitudes in their daily lives by society, family, and church. This is heterosexism.
It is well for pastors and congregations to realize that at some times we may declare the Bible as authoritative on a particular issue as a means of our own self-protection. The pastor or church who relates to people in an authoritarian manner cannot compel change in persons, even when he or she asserts the authority of the Bible. Our convictions can be a help or a hindrance to effective care, depending on how we express them and on the quality of our relationship with the person for whom we are caring. Therefore, the most helpful beginning point in any act of care is an invitation to the other person to express the most pressing feelings and/or needs of which she or he is aware right at the present moment. We put away any preconceptions of the other person that we might have. We then observe perceptively and listen intently both to the precise words and their explicit meanings as well as to any possible implicit meaning.
Clergy that feel or believe that they cannot, or won’t, counsel with gay and lesbian persons, couples, and families must ask themselves then, “What is the Christian response?” What must be maintained in our minds is this fundamental truth: God loves everyone and pastors represent to gays and lesbians the God of love as revealed in Jesus the Christ. We are all called as pastors to reflect that truth; and that truth must be reflected without condemnation, even though our beliefs and feelings might be disapproving. This truth of God’s love may be evidenced through knowing and recommending resources in the community or by referring counselees to competent and experienced pastors or professional psychotherapists. The truth of God’s love begins by answering the call to help anyone in need within the range of our abilities. That truth can bring freedom to do God’s work, whether it be in or through us.
David K. Switzer, Pastoral Care of Gays, Lesbians, and Their Families (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999), 66.