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    December 22, 2006

    One small step for closeted ministers

    Posted by: Chris

    Haggardpoints_3 Apparently the hot topic among conservative Christian seminary presidents these days is how to avoid the kind of scandals that engulfed Ted Haggard and Paul Barnes, two Colorado evangelicals who resigned after admitting they'd battled all their lives with being gay. Their solution isn't rethinking whether homosexuality is a choice, much less a sin.  But to give struggling ministers an outlet to talk through their problems:

    Seminary professors, Christian counselors and veteran clergy say the best way to help pastors fight temptation is to get them talking — even about their most shameful secrets. They don't want a sordid tell-all from the pulpit each Sunday. But they would like pastors to bare their weaknesses and admit their lapses before a small group of "accountability partners" — friends committed to listen with empathy, then rebuke or advise as needed.

    "Our current environment demands perfection of pastors," said Craig Williford, president of the Denver Seminary. "It doesn't allow leaders to struggle, to be human, to deal with their issues without fear of losing their ministry. We need to help them find safe harbors."

    Because these conservatives buy in to their own theology-as-psychology, they view same-sex attraction as just one sinful temptation among dozens, including pornography, drug addiction, alcoholism and the like.  So the problem in their minds is that these closeted gay pastors are struggling in silence and need some counseling to stay on a moral path.

    Still, bringing homosexuality out into the open, even among a small group of advisers read with their "rebuke," is a very positive step that will likely have unintended consequences if acted upon.  As any gay person can testify, once the genie is out of the bottle and being dealt with directly, even those of us from very conservative religious traditions can move fairly quickly toward acceptance that being gay is a natural part of who we are, as morally neutral as heterosexuality. Gay journalist Gabriel Rotello has it right:

    The biggest weapon in the historical arsenal against gay dignity has always been shame. The desire to avoid the shame that our culture heaps on people with a homosexual orientation is what causes them to often resort to the secrecy, the hiding and the destructive double lives that characterize the Closet.

    Coming out, in the form of admitting homosexual desire, whether you have ever acted on that desire or not, is immensely liberating. The vast majority of people who come out are transformed. They no longer harbor a desire to repress their love because they have faced the enemy — shame — and have survived.

    Rotello goes on to suggest that these closeted pastors come out to their congregations, though that's certainly not likely, nor what the conservatives are actually proposing.  It's also unnecessary at this point.  The first time I acknowledged my struggle with same-sex attraction — to a minister, actually — I set in motion a chain of events that almost inevitably led me out of the closet.  That won't be the case for everyone, since the habits of self-deception can be hard to break, but for most who are willing to take an honest look at themselves and their feelings, that first act of coming out is by far the most crucial.



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    1. KJ on Dec 22, 2006 11:27:16 AM:

      In evangelical circles, there is the complication of emphasis on ex-gay ministries, a potentially deadly land mine -- a land mine that I had the good fortune to walk around. But, I believe your analysis is accurate. As soon as I learned that I was not the only Christian gay man in all of the world, there was no looking back.

    1. jimbo on Dec 22, 2006 12:38:20 PM:

      If liberation from shame is a step out of the closet, I think people of some religions get that step a little easier than others. Guilt/shame is not a big component of the ELCA synod of the Lutheran Church. I don't recall being particularly guilt-ridden about discovering I was gay. I mainly had to overcome the invisible spectre of cluelessness. At first I thought I was just fascinated with guys, not realizing it was sexual in origin.

    1. Citizen Crain on Dec 22, 2006 5:27:41 PM:

      Actually, KJ, as much as I wouldn't wish the "ex-gay" experience on anyone, there's a significant up-side to putting these ministers through those programs as well. I have zero faith in the effectiveness of such "ministries," and the more pastors put through the ringer themselves, the faster such programs will be discredited.

      I've often wondered if anti-gay religious leaders ever seriously considered what kind of life they claim the Bible calls gay people to lead, whether one of chastity (Catholicism) or "ex-gay" (fundamentalist Protestants). It's only fair that gays at the leadership level in those faiths practice what they preach for awhile, so their ultimate message of redemption and acceptance will carry more credibility and weight down the road.

    1. KJ on Dec 22, 2006 6:35:08 PM:

      We are in agreement. My partner and I have friends who have benefited from ex-gay therapy in that they recognized the "intervention" was focused at a non-disorder and they moved on with the rest of their lives. However, we have other friends for whom the process of accepting themselves became nearly impossible through "reparative" therapy, bringing them to the point of harming themselves. There certainly would be benefit from evangelical church leaders going through such a futile process, and I bet I'm safe in guessing that there are many who currenlty are.

      However, leaders have to come to the point of acknowledging their sexual orientation, History shows us that usually does not happen in conservative Christian settings, and the secret is revealed only after maladaptive behaviors are exposed -- Behaviors that are used to confirm erroneous beliefs.

      Having grown up in an evangelical faith setting, I don't think we'll see change come from the top down. It will be due to the everyday faithful taking a stand of acknowledging their full-self to the faith community, causing that community to attempt to resolve what they believe about homosexuality with the person they know.

      Been there; done that. It was all blessing -- Well, mostly blessing.

    1. C-Squared on Dec 23, 2006 9:32:28 AM:

      You may be right, KJ, but I see a few hopeful developments that point in a more positive direction for even the leaders of the evangelical movement.

      Evangelical Christian involvement in U.S. politics tends to be a cyclical thing and we're now 25 years into the current cycle of intense involvement (dating back to Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority in the early '80s).

      As it becomes clearer that progress on the true hot-button social issues like abortion rights and acceptance of gay people is irreversible, evangelical leaders may move away from the political frontlines, at least on those issues. The process may be accelerated by the graying of the pre-Boomer generation; opposing women's choice and gay rights won't put Baby Boomers and GenXers in the pews (passing offering plates).

      Instead, we may see that a new generation of evangelical leaders focuses on environmental issues and other, less divisive topics, and may retreat from the inner sanctum of the Republican Party. Perhaps it's wishful thinking, but the early signs are there.

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