Ministry with Gender Non-Conforming Youth

Mar 23, 2016 | From Our Founder

Too many words…just let them see what we do.

Mother Theresa

Three years ago, I visited Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago for the first PYM conference. Among youth workers and amazing theologians, I affirmed my call to ministry and have been on a journey ever since.

This year, I was excited to meet old and new friends in my very own backyard in Dallas, Texas. The Progressive Youth Ministry conference has been like a yearly family reunion. Most of us follow each other on social media and stay connected to exchange ideas and encourage each other in our callings. We count the days to the time when we will be singing at a Homebrewed Christianity celebration and coming together to learn from amazing speakers and each other.

This year, I was honored to facilitate a workshop on what it means to minister to LGBQ and Transgender youth. I separated the LGBQ from the T because it is time to challenge our thinking about what it means to be open and affirming to gender nonconforming young people.

Many of us embrace the rainbow and welcome everyone to our youth programs, yet there are youth ministries that continue to use phrases like “pink is for girls” and “blue is for boys” and tell youth that there will be “no purpling.” Even as a gender nonconforming individual, I didn’t hear it until an unchurched student pointed it out to me. Raised in the church, I understood that “no purpling” refers to sexual activity between the two genders. Unfortunately, what this student heard was that they were in the wrong color and that to be a mix of colors was out of the question.

Although open and affirming youth ministries certainly don’t intend to, we sometimes make things uncomfortable for our youth without realizing it. We continue to use vocabulary and phrases like the color analogy, program gender-exclusive games and events, and forget that not every person fits in a traditional box.

As youth ministers, we must evaluate our own fears about working with transgender and nonconforming youth. We must resolve to treat everyone equally with respect, love, and affirmation. Everyone on the team needs to be on the same page. We cannot wait until we have an identifying transgender or gender nonconforming youth to articulate our approach and commitment to equality. I have known many young people who are closeted or are still trying to figure out if they will belong when they fully embrace their identity. Will they be celebrated or merely tolerated?

Being a safe and brave space for youth ministry takes preparation and determination. Above all, it takes commitment. As youth ministers, we must remember that our language, our behavior, and our actions must truly show that all are welcome at the table.

As Mother Teresa once said: “Too many words…just let them see what we do.”