Written by:
Carl Gladstone (NCJ & NEJ)

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Creating Welcoming Youth Ministries With Transgender Young People

"Taking an active stance in society is nothing new for followers of John Wesley. He set the example for us to combine personal and social piety. Ever since predecessor churches to United Methodism flourished in the United States, we have been known as a denomination involved with people's lives, with political and social struggles, having local to international mission implications. Such involvement is an expression of the personal change we experience in our baptism and conversion.”

“The United Methodist Church believes God's love for the world is an active and engaged love, a love seeking justice and liberty. We cannot just be observers. So we care enough about people's lives to risk interpreting God's love, to take a stand, to call each of us into a response, no matter how controversial or complex. The church helps us think and act out a faith perspective, not just responding to all the other 'mind-makers-up' that exist in our society."

Excerpt from The Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church 2012. Copyright © 2012 by The United Methodist Publishing House.
 

Youth ministers everywhere are working to follow our United Methodist Book of Discipline. While some view this book as just a list of rules, it is actually full of many important statements. These statements in the Book of Discipline help define what it is to be “United Methodist.” This text calls us to help all persons experience the grace of God in Christian community. Consider the following paragraph:

“We affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God. All persons need the ministry of the Church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self.”  - The United Methodist Book of Discipline, ¶161.

This blog post shares wisdom from active youth ministry leaders about ministry with transgender young people. To say that all persons are of sacred worth, and to demonstrate that in community are two different challenges. This is becoming a more pressing matter in many local youth ministry settings, particularly in parts of the United States and Europe. So, we offer these suggestions for discerning a healthy and holy way forward. The tips listed here are a combination of recommendations and practices in use today at a variety of churches. We hope they will help you, as a mature disciple of Jesus Christ, welcome youth on the margins of society who are questioning and formulating their gender identity.

RECOGNIZE THE SHARED AWKWARDNESS

The leaders we talked with initially recognized their own unfamiliarity and awkwardness. They hadn't necessarily trained for conversations with youth about discovering or changing gender identities and expressions! But they tried to create an atmosphere of hospitality by promising to learn along the way. They also invited young people to be honest and open. Finally, they reminded each young person that their church loved them unconditionally.

From that starting place of respect and love, leaders pursued a relational way forward. They crafted a welcoming environment for transgender young people by avoiding “issue-oriented” approaches.

SMALL, SAFE CONVERSATIONS

The typical introduction of a transgender youth into a local ministry came from regular participants, youth or adult. These regulars knew that their church would be "cool with the youth participating.” They invited transgender friends to a low-risk gathering – like one focused on missions, service, or fellowship. This entry point launched a conversation between that youth, their transgender friend, and the youth leader. These discussions engaged parents of the youth involved when appropriate due to the sensitive nature of the subject.  

The key goals of this series of small conversations were:

A)  Remind all participants of our church's commitment to the sacred worth of all youth,

B)  Help youth dealing with gender identity issues feel safe in this community, and

C)  Help all youth move from a baseline of safety to feeling comfortable in this community. Then help them feel nurtured in their pursuit of Jesus Christ.

Note that these youth leaders adopted an engagement plan like that of Jesus and the Disciples. First comes an invitation and willingness to walk together. Then come moments of sharing and deep listening, which lead to a grace-filled community. They didn't begin with a whole church policy referendum on transgender persons or expressions. 

Leaders have also learned that, “the kids we work with are already there on this issue.” In other words, for many of these youth, having transgender friends is a new normal. Now they are inviting the church to bring its gifts into similar relationships.

PRACTICAL PLANS

Practical plans can emerge when a relationship of trust is built. In this process the youth leaders maintain their decision-making prerogative. They serve as the theological leaders for youth ministries. So, they choose careful steps in creating welcoming environments. They can suggest slow, growing conversations among “need to know” individuals. This nurtures a deep understanding of the individual and unique situations that ministry with transgender youth can create. It also encourages informed persons in making decisions to organize for the inclusion of all participants. 

First, regular youth group meetings (usually) already welcome youth from different walks of life. Diversity of economy, education, etc are expected. Therefore, youth group expectations need not change much in order to welcome transgender youth.   

Avoiding segregated discussion groups by gender was mentioned as one possible practice to reconsider. Transgender youth, by definition, have a difficult time figuring out where to go if a class or game is split into “guys and girls.” Clear access to single-use bathrooms with non-gendered signage was another suggested addition. In general, youth leaders we talked to didn’t see too much difficulty creating “welcome” during regular youth gatherings.

Planning for overnight events did need development of some new practices of hospitality. So, youth leaders suggested groups start with retreats only involving youth from their church. Planning for multi-group gatherings like a week of camp would come later.

With imperfect facilities and people, youth leaders asked these key questions about overnight events (like retreats, camps, service trips, etc):

A)  How would the transgender youth be most comfortable with sleeping arrangements, bathrooms, etc?

B)  How will these preferences affect those who don’t know?

When situations required broader conversations, youth leaders brought in other parents and youth. They pursued their relational strategy with that slightly larger group. These broader conversations were not designed for to determine the level of participation of an individual youth. This was instead a slow, growing conversation designed to develop deep practices of hospitality. It was a practice of a community dedicated to sharing the love of Jesus Christ together.

Bigger events involving many youth groups create additional layers of complexity for youth leaders. Conversations for these kind of events included camp deans, conference organizers, or other persons designing programs and logistics. In one instance, a surprise came when camp leaders reported they had already developed some welcoming practices. In particular, a camp had developed practices and policies for welcoming persons with varying personal needs, including those identifying as transgender. So the details of welcoming transgender youth was not much of a stretch for this particular camp.

BOLD STATEMENTS, EXPRESSED LIGHTLY

Youth leaders we talked to reminded us that work with transgender youth will be more prevalent in the future. They encourage authentic relationships as we discern our ministries with these young people. Also, they reminded us that most youth group activities are designed as safe and nurturing for all involved. Most programming is designed to encourage youth to develop spiritually, emotionally, or intellectually – regardless of a youth's gender expression.

The leaders suggested avoiding programs that present gender identity as a “hot topic.” Remember, it might not be controversial for many of the youth in our ministries, even if it feels controversial for adults! Rather, we should engage with transgender young people as disciples of Jesus first. Then we are free to pursue other issues of theology and discipleship with them. Welcoming a transgender young person can happen through Christ-centered relationships. It doesn’t need to be a controversial issue if the ministry organizes well for it. With some careful conversations we can “say a lot, without saying a lot.” We can create communities that present Jesus' invitation for all to follow him for the transformation of the world.

The United Methodist Church is not of one mind regarding human sexuality, including gender expression. This reality has been given voice by many in the UMC over the past several years. In November of 2014, the Bishops of the United Methodist Church called for prayer in a statement on human sexuality:

“As bishops of The United Methodist Church, our hearts break because of the divisions that exist within the church. We have been in constant prayer and conversation and affirm our consecration vow “to guard the faith, to seek the unity and to exercise the discipline of the whole church.” We recognize that we are one church in a variety of contexts around the world and that bishops and the church are not of one mind about human sexuality. Despite our differences, we are united in our commitment to be in ministry for and with all people. We are also united in our resolve to lead the church together to fulfill its mandate—to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. As we do so, we call on all United Methodists to pray for us and for one another.”

That statement from 2014 continues to be true in 2016. While there are disagreements about human sexuality, those disagreements should not paralyze the church from opportunities to be in ministry with and for all people. The church is united in its purpose, to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.