Most youth and college pastors may be striving against the cultural grain to equip their students to stand on biblical truth. And in some cases, especially when dealing with homosexuality, they might need to call a Christian counselor for help.
Frank Catanzaro, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary professor of education and Christian counseling, said most aspiring student pastors working toward their master of divinity do not take a course where a detailed discussion of counseling homosexuals is likely to be offered. Counseling courses are not required, he explained. For the master of Christian education degree, one course on Principles of Godly Character addresses aspects of all types of sin, he noted, adding that homosexuality would definitely be discussed in the introductory class.
Still, Catanzaro explained his support for the content offered in the two most popular degrees by stating, “We believe general biblical knowledge and careful exegesis and application by the power of the Spirit are what’s most needed” in equipping future pastors. Catanzaro said his reading of 2 Peter leads him to believe Scripture is sufficient for such tasks.
Grounded in biblical truth, ministers must engage the culture in which students live, he emphasized. One of the tests pastors face is familiarizing themselves with a new lexicon as it relates to homosexuality, including references to gays, lesbians, transgender, gender identity, homophobia and transphobia. Gone are the days of a simple same-sex attraction.
As barriers to self-expression fall, teens and young adults are losing their inhibition and publicly expressing their sexual identity. Organizations that support and affirm these students are establishing themselves on school campuses.
Harlie Raethel, high school associate at Houston’s First Baptist Church, has noticed homosexuality is becoming more accepted. He said his students are dealing with the issue in their own ways, or avoiding it altogether. Students have confessed their struggles with same-sex attraction to him or student minister Doug Bischoff in private conversations or blurted it out in a very public place, he recalled.
Raethel began serving the church during a 2005 internship. He said students are counseled by either pastor but both men understand when a student needs help beyond the student pastors’ capabilities. Furthermore, accredited counselors on staff at FBC Houston are available to students. If that occurs, Raethel and Bischoff remain connected, letting students struggling in this area know they care about their progress.
George Jacobus, college minister at Central Baptist Church in College Station, said he has not had to counsel any student about same-sex struggles, but he does not hesitate to help troubled students turn to more in-depth support if necessary. A 2009 master of divinity graduate of Southwestern Seminary, Jacobus said training in biblical counseling is useful.
The fact that youth ministers reported few or no counseling sessions with homosexuals does not surprise Catanzaro.
“The truth of the matter is that I’ve been in ministry over 30 years and I don’t know that I can count on two hands the number of people I’ve counseled who confessed to sin in this area.”
The issue more often is revealed in the midst of counseling a couple whose marriage is being destroyed by a partner deciding to pursue a homosexual relationship, he added.
Just because teenagers aren’t talking to ministers about sexual identity concerns doesn’t mean they are timid about publicly sharing their curiosity or experimentation with homosexuality, Catanzaro said. Some may even test the waters by announcing their identification with homosexuality on social networking sites or other venues, he explained.
According to a survey commissioned by LifeWay Research, only 26 percent of Southern Baptist pastors polled said they had received any training for helping struggling homosexuals. Only 8 percent of church staff members and laity had any such training.
Many ministers who were interviewed said students dealing with same-sex attraction and gender identity often have deep-seated emotional problems. Although advocates argue that individuals are born homosexual, there is no scientific evidence of that. Research does indicate that many of those who identify themselves as homosexual suffered some form of abuse, relational dysfunction or had an absentee parent.
Catanzaro, however, argues that it is biblical Christian counseling, grounded in Scripture, which most effectively meets the needs of students struggling with same-sex attractions. The Bible succinctly outlines the path to sin in James 1:14-16 and the road to recovery and glorification of God, he explained.
Such a solution seems too simple but that is the deception of Satan, Catanzaro said. Finding answers and healing from Scripture does not require an advanced degree and pastors well equipped in the Word can have significant results, he stated.
Ministers should equip students to shun temptation, he added. Furthermore, they should be aware of the spiritual maturity of their students and should value Scripture over perceived cultural relevance.
“The reason we don’t get more out of our students is because we don’t expect much of them,” Catanzaro said.
“Nothing can substitute for the truth and power of Scripture,” added Bob Stith, strategist for gender issues at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. “But it is so important to really listen to people, empathize with them, and then begin gently guiding. They are so used to feeling rejected, judged, etc., that if you start off quoting Scripture, they will usually just shut down.”
Stith said one of the ironies he has found in ministering to homosexuals is that anyone can come alongside and help someone walk out of this lifestyle. “But on the other hand, leaders really need to have some background to better understand how to counsel.” From his 37 years of pastoral ministry, Stith discovered the same advice will not always work the same with a different person. “It was really important to listen prayerfully before beginning to offer counsel,” he added.
He also cautions ministers and friends to exercise great care in who they recommend to do further counseling. Some counselors might endorse the idea that a homosexual must learn to live that way since that’s the way he was born, he added, effectively encouraging the individual to walk back into the lifestyle he was trying to escape.
Barna research cited in the book “unChristian” by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons found the vast majority of church-going young adults believe their churches have not prepared them to minister to their homosexual friends and co-workers.
“I’ve had several people tell me that when youth are polled this is almost always one of the top two issues they want to study,” added Stith. “I think every youth retreat, encampment, retreat center and SBC conference center should offer something on this,” Stith said. “It’s hugely important.”
At Houston’s First Baptist Church, Raethel said the subject of homosexuality is often discussed from the pulpit and in small groups.
“We challenge the kids to walk in a balance. Wide is the path, but don’t fall into the ditches,” he said. Like the pilgrim in “Pilgrim’s Progress,” students are encouraged to walk down the middle of the road and avoid falling into the ditches. In one ditch students never warn their friends and peers of the dangers ahead. From the other ditch, students voice agreement with homosexuality, he explained.
Fifteen years ago the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network sponsored a Day of Silence at the University of Virginia, passing out cards explaining their protest of bullying, name-calling and harassment of homosexual students. The effort was spread to public school campuses by “Gay-Straight Alliances” that are often the source of controversy in some school districts.
Day of Truth events followed a decade later as “an opportunity for students to respectfully present a different viewpoint,” according to one spokesman for the Alliance Defense Fund.
In 2008, a second alternative tagged the Golden Rule Pledge was held on the same day as the Day of Silence. Christian students responded to the distribution of pro-homosexual material with a different card, stating: “This is what I’m doing: I pledge to treat others the way I want to be treated. Will you join me in this pledge? ‘Do to others as you would have them do to you,’” a charge from Luke 6:31.
Stith commended the newer approach as both “proactive” and “redemptive.”
Jacobus said he urges students not to live up to the stereotype of being homophobic. According to the 2007 Barna study related in Unchurched, 91 percent of unchurched young adults describe the church as anti-homosexual. Among churched young adults, 80 percent agree with the characterization.
Urging the students not to be homophobic does not imply accepting homosexual acts as moral, Stith said. He makes a similar distinction in regard to the Barna stats noting, “The respondents aren’t saying the church believes homosexual acts are sinful. They believe we are ‘anti-people-who-are-homosexual.’”
“It is not an unpardonable sin,” Jacobus reminded. “Don’t shun them or isolate them. Speak the truth in love just as you would with any other sin.” Students can befriend gays and lesbians without affirming their homosexual acts, he added. By doing so Christian students can make gospel inroads.
“The goal is restoration,” he emphasized. “We see Jesus bringing truth to their lives. By not shunning them, we can be in relationship with them with the goal of God bringing restoration into their lives,” Jacobus said.
Testimonials printed in literature produced by Exodus International, a ministry to people wanting to leave homosexuality, indicate there is a factor in the healing of homosexuals that goes beyond counseling. Those struggling with same-sex attractions and gender identity have found a relationship with Christ and self-acceptance through healthy, godly relationships within the church. The love of Christ poured into the lives of those suffering spoke volumes.
In addition to showing genuine concern for those dealing with homosexuality, First Baptist Church of Dallas, like many other Texas congregations, refers individuals to ministries like Exodus International or Living Hope Ministries. (See resources box on page 10.)
Jacobus and Raethel understand their role as counselor to their students, no matter what the issue, has its limits. But neither has felt overwhelmed by the task, they said.
Raethel said his ability to give any counsel comes from God. It is in his prayers and “leaning to the side of grace” that he finds the answers.
“They are already convicted. They don’t need me to tell them about Sodom and Gomorrah.”