It’s not easy being a religious queer person.
It’s even harder while part of a congregation that spews homophobia in pulpits and prevents LGBT people from attaining positions of leadership. Other churches go as far to deny sacraments like communion or other religious rites because of what they deem as “deviant” and “ungodly” lifestyles. And for those called to ministry, the roadblocks are plenty.
Though, in my own experience of reconciling my faith and sexuality, it took time for me to understand my own sense of spirituality. When I first came to terms with my identity as a gay man, there was hardly a night that I wasn’t anxious about how it may impact my faith beliefs and how I engaged church. So, in a quest to find answers, I rummaged dozens of websites and covertly found books in libraries to try and make sense of things.
Perhaps the most liberating aspect of that journey was that I found a new freedom — a freedom to explore my spirituality.
For the first time in my young life, I had to break free from being completely dependent on church sermons and ministers. And it wasn’t an easy process. In fact, it took years before I felt spiritually healthy and it’s still a work in progress.
I’m sure many others are embarking on a similar journey. And wherever you may be in that quest, here are some things to keep in mind while reconciling faith, queerness and participation in faith communities:
1. Have open conversations with friends and opinion leaders that you trust in the church.
If you’re not out in your congregation, or at least to a select few people, getting to this step may be a bit difficult. But if you can identify a few people you trust or who at least would be receptive to discussing issues of religion, sexuality and gender, go for it. You may even be able to build a stronger relationship or identify a supportive ally who could help affect change in your faith community of choice.
2. Reexamine your church affiliation.
Sometimes having an open conversation won’t be enough for people to truly understand your thoughts or concerns. It may take them more time to process their feelings, which can prolong any existing feelings of isolation and even tax your reserves of patience. If it seems that no one will listen, perhaps it’s time to weigh the pros and cons of your church membership.
3. Leave the congregation if the environment is too toxic.
For some, it’s easier to grin and bear or work against the current for positive change. For others, a more supportive and spiritually nurturing environment may be necessary. If you find yourself falling into the latter category, it may not be a bad idea to take time away or completely leave the congregation altogether. It’s an exercise in self-preservation that will allow some time for you to personally reflect and take a new path on your spiritual journey.
4. Remember to preserve the positive relationships fostered in your church community.
If you’ve chosen to part ways with a religious community, you may very well have friendships and other bonds worth preserving. In time, some people who needed space to examine their faith beliefs pertaining to sexuality and gender may come around. If you’re able and willing, continue remaining in touch with these folks. They may even be of help during this important time of transition.
5. Take as long as you need to reflect on your spiritual journey.
It may take weeks, months or even years of self-examination or therapy to reconcile your beliefs and heal from negative experiences. Feel empowered to continue on without adding any undue pressure to quickly recover or come to a conclusion.
6. If organized religion is too pressuring, find new ways to channel your spirituality.
Perhaps the pressure of belonging to a faith community is too much to bear. It’s not an experience everyone feels comfortable with, as you may wish to approach your spiritual life in a more private manner. You might even otherwise feel that adopting a more humanist, atheist or agnostic belief system is best.
7. If you still desire to be part of a church community, identify support groups and congregations welcoming to queer people.
Of course, this depends on whether or not these are within reasonable proximity, or if such groups even exist in your area. If so, consider attending some of these gatherings and get to know a new faith community. It may prove essential to your ability to fully heal from past hurts.
8. Share as much as you feel comfortable about your past experiences. It’s okay.
Being guarded isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s quite normal to withhold certain details as a healthy defense mechanism. However, when possible, let your guard down a bit and speak openly about where you are in your journey. You may discover that others are having similar struggles and even identify new sources of support.
9. Immerse yourself into a new faith community.
If the fit is right and you feel comfortable, go ahead and dive in. You may find that you’re now able to fully engage in parts of the community where previously you encountered challenges.
10. Continue periodically reflecting on how much you “fit” within the congregation.
No single community is perfect. Though you may encounter new challenges, feel encouraged that you’ve taken an active role in your spiritual health. Regularly evaluate where you are in your journey and how you feel about participating in a faith community. Honesty with yourself is the best policy.