Much was said about Revoice before the first talk took place in St. Louis on July 27-29, 2018. And much has been said since. As one who attended the conference and engaged with the speakers and attendees, here’s my perspective.

First, let me answer the question some people asked me: why would you attend this conference? Simple; given what I knew about it, I was concerned. Concerned, because the stated purpose of Revoice is provocative: it exists to “support, encourage, and empower gay, lesbian, same-sex-attracted, and other LGBT Christians so they can flourish while observing the historic, Christian doctrine of marriage and sexuality.” Concerned, because Revoice has the potential to influence many in the Church, leading Christians to rethink their understanding of sex, sexuality, gender, and sin.

As a seminary professor cautioned me many years ago, “Whenever someone comes up with a new understanding of Scripture, it needs to be examined very carefully. You can’t assume that 2,000 years of Spirit-led biblical interpretation has been wrong.” That’s wise counsel in any instance, but particularly in this one. From my perspective, Revoice is calling the Church to reconsider historic, orthodox understandings of personal identity and sin.

That’s serious, and it is a discussion that we must enter into with much prayer and discernment.

The workshops and plenary sessions presented a wide diversity of views from an array of presenters. Overall, the content seemed more an attempt to gather people together under a common banner than to advance one specific idea or concept. While some teaching was commendable, others were not so.

Here is what I found positive. Every speaker I heard stated that acting on same-sex attraction was sinful. This is consistent with the traditional, orthodox understanding of God’s design for sex and sexuality. A second positive message was that marriage is between one man and one woman, for life. Again, an affirmation of the biblical paradigm for marriage.

I also appreciated that many of the speakers asked good questions; questions about how the Church could better care for same-sex attracted Christians. These are questions the Church has not been asking, much less answering.

What are the options for relational and emotional fulfillment for followers of Christ who do not, and may never, consider marriage? How can the Church become a real, vital family for them, encouraging these brothers and sisters to likewise live for others in the Body? These questions, and how we answer them, are not inconsequential. They are difficult ones. They are not issues of accommodation or political correctness. They are about what it means to truly be the Body of Christ.

Now, here were the issues that concerned me. I’ll categorize them under three headings: identity, the Body of Christ, and the nature of change.

Identity. There was a theme throughout the conference calling for those who experience same-sex attraction to self-identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. A great deal has been written about what this means and doesn’t mean, and this post will not have the length to explain the nuanced positions (on both sides). So I will briefly mention two things that struck me about this contentious issue.

First, while Revoice says that using identity language is not saying that sexual orientation is the core part of one’s personhood, it nevertheless is a position that echoes the noise from our culture. Our post-Christian culture says that one’s sexual identity is the deepest core of personhood, hence the multiplicity of words and letters to describe oneself.

The speakers at Revoice would say that using the term is, at best, descriptive; it merely describes an enduring pattern of same-sex attraction. But the concern I cannot shake is that using self-identifying terminology such as this confuses, and in doing so it inevitably gets embedded in the culture’s understanding of gay or the LGBTQ+ acronym. Again, as used culturally, the language proclaims that one’s sexuality is a major, if not the predominant, understanding of human personhood. It is not unreasonable to assume that what is said now as merely descriptive will soon be only understood as a major category of being a Christian (see my comments on the Body of Christ below). That would be a significant error.

But, secondly, using these terms is more than merely descriptive. The historic, orthodox understanding of sexual desires that are outside of God’s design is sin. The speakers at Revoice are nuancing that perspective, calling same-sex attraction a way of looking at and experiencing the world and is only sinful when it is acted upon sexually. This is a significant theological change.

As I heard from my seminary professor, there is good reason to trust two millennia of biblical interpretation on this. Currently, there are passionate debates on whether same-sex attraction apart from same-sex sexual behavior is sin or not. (You can see Harvest USA’s position on same-sex attraction here.) Again, the length of my remarks here about my time at Revoice cannot adequately discuss these arguments.

Nevertheless, it is this issue where the biggest battles are going to be fought. And, as believers, and especially as church leaders and pastors, we need to study this carefully, adhering to Scripture and not human experience.

I’ve discussed some of this issue in my blog post Gay + Christian. My main point was that it is inappropriate for a Christian to self-identify according to any pattern of sin or struggle. Paul proclaims this astonishing news: “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). The compelling and controlling power of corrupted characteristics, desires, drives, and compulsions (sin) that used to characterize us begin to fall away in our union with Christ. No prior life, or identity, should redefine who we are in Christ, as Christians.

Revoice must realize that advocating for the use of such terms is not an insignificant thing. It is one charged with meaning, ripe for being continually misunderstood, and one which will encourage those who call themselves “gay” or “queer Christians” to further identify with, or long for, the broken and sinful characteristics associated with those labels.

The Body of Christ. Developing a separate queer culture within the Church undermines the unity of the Church. The seriousness of this issue cannot be overstated.

One of Christ’s chief desires for his Church is that we would be dynamically united to him and one another. We are to be “members [of the Body] one of another” (Ephesians 4:25), joined together by and through the power of Christ so that we might build up the entire Body to become increasingly like Christ, for the glory of God (4:15-16). Creating division or another category of believers within the Church through advocating for a separate subculture (queer or otherwise) detracts from that course.

One of the terms used repeatedly throughout the Revoice conference was “sexual minorities.” Here we find another term being promoted that is embedded in the language of our culture: “minorities,” people being described by their marginal status within the larger power structures of the majority.

What value is there to a Christian identifying as a sexual minority? How does that help him or her? How does it enhance the integrity and unity of the Church? How does it honor Christ? How does it help Christians who struggle with sexual or gender-related sin to walk in repentance? I can’t see the benefit, though I do understand the rationale for some of Revoice’s use of this term.

And it’s this: Brothers and sisters who experience same-sex attraction or struggle with their sense of gender have often been misunderstood, and at times mistreated, by the Church. The Church has often not been a place of hope and healing for men and women affected by sexual and relational brokenness.

But the answer is not to create a separate queer culture within the Church, where Christians who identify as LGBTQ+ can flourish. If the Church is called to unity, then this is an opportunity for the Church to repent and be increasingly sensitive and compassionate to those wounded by the power and effects of sin—and even wounded by the Church.

We must do better in this regard, for the glory of Christ. Churches must find ways to cultivate and provide appropriate, godly relational intimacy for people who might never be married. We must find ways to value singleness as a calling (as Paul does in 1 Corinthians 7), and include unmarried Christians in the full life of the Church. And, we must resist the longstanding temptation to name same-sex and gender-related sin patterns as worse than other patterns of sin. Our same-sex and gender-struggling brothers and sisters are sinners in need of the same grace as anyone else. No more, no less.

The Nature of Change. One side effect is that such labels tend to stick. It is a lie of the world to believe that same-sex attraction or gender dysphoria is innate and unchangeable. I am not for a moment stating that change in desire or attraction always happens. Many Christians have been hurt by that belief. But such change might happen. It’s a process completely under the sovereign purview of God.

Through taking on a “gay Christian” identity and retreating into a queer subculture, one is immersed in an environment where such change in affections might be discounted or rejected altogether. The camaraderie and connectedness that occurs within the isolation of the subculture can become life-giving. The pursuit of holiness and repentance can be abandoned in favor of relational comfort and companionship.

We live in a day when more people than ever before (particularly those under 40) self-identify as LGBTQ+. According to a 2016 Gallup survey, 7.3% of millennials self-identify as non-heterosexual.[i] That’s a marked increase over prior surveys and a much higher self-identification rate than other age groups in the U.S. adult population.

Now, the experience and feelings of same-sex attraction and gender-dysphoria are not unusual, particularly among adolescents and young adults. For example, one study shows that as many as 10.7% of adolescents are unsure of their sexual orientation.[ii] However, most of these individuals have not adopted a gay or lesbian identity upon entry into adulthood. The reason? They realized as they exited their teen years that they were not primarily sexually attracted to others of their own gender. In other words, they concluded that their experiences of such desires were not determinative.

Here’s the problem in using such labels: The Church will find itself aligning with the culture’s mantra that personal experiences and desires are identifying and determinative (core identities), even when experienced when one is young and still in the process of forming one’s identity and view of life. What hope will we give to young Christians who experience non-heteronormative feelings and desires? They will logically conclude that this is how God made me. And if God made me this way, then there is no connection between same-sex attraction and gender dysphoria and sin.

There’s no need for redemption, no need for change, no need for repentance.

The Church must always hold out the possibility of change for all people wrestling with all sorts of sin patterns. One can’t encounter the living God without being transformed. The transformation begins in the heart, and will inevitably lead to behavioral change. It may not be everything a struggling believer may hope for, but it will be a level of change that increasingly glorifies God and shapes that person into who God calls him to be.

For each Christian wrestling with same-sex attraction or gender struggles, that transformation will look different. At a minimum, it will include this perspective: that to embrace a gay or transgender identity, and the enticements that come with it, is antithetical to the new creation that person has become in Christ. If the Church communicates that there is not a need for sanctification in every aspect of the believer’s life, then it mishandles God’s Word and misleads God’s people.

Where do we go from here? The Church must commit to redemptively engage Christians who self-identify as LGBTQ+. The biblical paradigm for such engagement is speaking the truth in love. This is the process that Paul describes in Ephesians 4:11-16: a process in which various members of the Church play a role. It is a gracious process, rooted in the love of authentic friendship, wherein brothers and sisters compassionately confront each other’s sinful attitudes and acts, as well as assist one another towards obedience as they faithfully follow Christ in their struggles. Through engaging in this process, Paul tells us we not only build ourselves up but we also “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ…” (Ephesians 4:15).

This means that we must be willing to engage each other through authentic friendship. We must labor in love to understand every struggler and their personal history and take the time to prayerfully and thoughtfully help each one understand why they struggle in the ways they do. It means helping them grow in their comprehension of how the Person and Work of Jesus Christ is actually what they need more than anything else.

Responding to Revoice isn’t a single action. It isn’t a blog post, or a sermon, or a pastoral counseling session. It involves the often difficult and time-consuming work of getting to know the stories, the experiences, the joys and fears of Christians who wrestle with same-sex attraction and gender dysphoria. It involves the Church becoming a place of true refuge and help for them, as they grow (alongside the rest of us) into the places the Lord has made for them in his Body.

The Harvest USA website is full of resources you can use to grow in your understanding of how to engage Christians wrestling with all kinds of issues related to sex, sexuality, and gender. Our mission is partly to help the Church become a safe place for those dealing with sexual sin to walk in increasing faith and repentance. Contact us, and ask us how.

 

[i] Gary J. Gates, reporting for Gallup and citing the 2016 Gallup survey, news.gallup.com/poll/201731/lgbt-identification-rises.aspx, last accessed 03/16/2018

[ii] Remafedi, G., Resnick, M., Blum, R. & Harris, L. (1992). Demography of Sexual Orientation in Adolescents. Pediatrics, 89 (4), 714-721

A growing issue in the Church leads us at Harvest USA to leverage the insight and expertise we’ve gained ministering to same-sex attracted individuals for the last 35 years and speak up. That issue is this: should someone identify as a gay Christian?

This issue is related to two questions: Where does a Christian’s identity come from? From our desires and life experiences, or from our Creator and Redeemer God? The second question is this:  is the mere experience of same-sex attraction sinful, even if there is no acting upon those desires?

These two questions have a lot of emotion behind them. They are not just theological questions; they are personal questions, questions about people. For the person who lives with same-sex attraction, experienced as a growing awareness over a prolonged period, those feelings seem natural. Because same-sex strugglers never consciously chose same-sex desires while growing up, it might seem reasonable to conclude that he or she was born that way. And for the believer, it might seem a natural conclusion that such desire is part of God’s created order.

So, given the typical life experience of those with same-sex attraction that I just described, what’s the big deal about calling oneself a gay Christian as long as one is following the biblical sexual ethic?

Therein lies the problem. People experience both the saving grace of God and same-sex attraction. How are believers in Christ to resolve the tension of experiencing same-sex attraction, which they never sought or knowingly cultivated, and wondering whether this attraction is innate and connected to identity?

To understand the issue of living with something that is unchosen, we need to start with some basic Christian theology.

The experience of living with same-sex attraction, and the behavior that acts on that desire (in thought, word, or deed) is a distortion of God’s created intent for sex and sexuality. That distortion is the result of the Fall which has corrupted all aspects of human existence and experience.

Scripture asserts that all human behavior comes from our hearts and that our hearts are fallen. This means that every natural inclination of our heart, including our thoughts, emotions, desires, as well as our deeds, is corrupted by sin. All of us are in the same boat, as it were, when it comes to the effects of original sin. Within each one of us is an accumulation of countless desires, thoughts, and behaviors, some we didn’t choose but only discovered over time, and some which we do choose, and nurture, and develop, and act upon.

I think it is helpful when considering same-sex attraction to make the distinction between volitional sin (where someone chooses to respond to temptation by acting sinfully in thought, word, or deed) and the passive experience of same-sex attraction as a manifestation of indwelling sin.

How are believers in Christ to resolve the tension of experiencing same-sex attraction, which they never sought or knowingly cultivated, and wondering whether this attraction is innate and connected to identity?

Volitional sin, by its definition, is a purposeful, chosen action to rebel against God and his will. But the experience of same-sex attraction, as a passive state, can suddenly present itself, unchosen, as a relational, emotional, and sexual desire toward someone. That individual did not decide to be drawn toward that other person; in fact, he or she may not want that at all. But it happens.

That draw is the enduring power of the flesh. It is the “orientation” toward sin; the way that person’s heart interacts with his desires. But if that person does not act on those sinful desires, if he takes the “way of escape” described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:13, then he has actively turned from sin.

In short, the call of the same-sex attracted person who is in Christ is to not embrace an orientation toward sin, but instead to actively cultivate a heart that is increasingly oriented toward being made new, in the image of Jesus Christ.

Now we can turn toward the issue of identity.

Identity is important. Who we are and who we want to become is wrapped up in how we view our relationship to Christ.

Our identity comes entirely from God. We add nothing of genuine or enduring value to it. In Philippians 3:4-11, Paul lists his accomplishments: his well-earned pedigree, which by all accounts he should have cherished as his identity and the basis of his personal value. But instead of cherishing these things, he says: “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus as my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him…” (3:8-9).

Paul doesn’t subordinate some aspects of his identity to Christ. He doesn’t say that knowing Christ is one aspect of his identity or even the most important part of it. He says that everything else he would have once turned to for identity and value (his heritage, his birthright, his theological affiliation, his education, his record of obedience) is all rubbish. (The Bible translators were very delicate here; the word translated “rubbish” actually refers to entirely worthless things, like dung.)

In 2 Corinthians 5:17, Paul tells us about the transformation that takes place for the one who trusts in Jesus. He says, “…if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”

Identity is important. Who we are and who we want to become is wrapped up in how we view our relationship to Christ.

This passage is even more powerful regarding identity formation than the Philippians 3 passage. In 2 Corinthians 5, we see a radical wiping away of prior identity, initiated through Jesus’ death and made complete through his resurrection. In 2 Corinthians 5, everything that we’ve accreted to our personal identities, everything that once defined us, has been utterly wiped away by the power of Christ. Through his death, he took us with him into death. Through his resurrection, he has brought us through death into life everlasting. Here and now, we already partake (albeit, for a season, in very limited ways) of the new life we share with him forever. Paul tells us in Romans 6:4 that all this has happened so that we too (just like Jesus) “might walk in newness of life.”

That newness of life is our new identity. That now defines who we are.

Christ died to remove through his broken body and shed blood the power of sin and the power of death from his people, forever. Why would any Christian wish to name him or herself according to a pattern of sinful desire or behavior, such as “gay”? As our friend Rosaria Butterfield asks, why would any Christian want to limit the identity of “Christian” by modifying it with an adjective like “gay”?

Identity defines who we are and who we will become.  At Harvest USA, our ministry to individuals with same-sex attraction has shown us the imperative need to define oneself wholly by the work of Christ. A gay identity, at best, is confusing (there are, after all, those who use such a label and espouse same-sex relationships as being approved by God). But a greater danger we have seen is that it can be a slippery slope leading to sexual sin and for some a rejection of orthodox faith.

We at Harvest USA fully and humbly acknowledge that it is typical for the same-sex-attracted believer to experience fallen sexual desire for long periods of time—even a lifetime. For most, it doesn’t disappear. There are no easy explanations as to why that is. This is an area for the Church to grow in compassion, in patience, and in love for its people who struggle with same-sex attraction.

Again, the enduring nature of same-sex attraction should not be confused with the characteristics of personal identity. We encourage Christians who experience same-sex attraction to see that same-sex attraction is part of the fallen nature that is still visible, still palpable through the glorious veil of new life in Christ—yet not determinative.

That’s why Paul exhorts his hearers to “put to death…what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5). Believers must put such things “to death” for the precise reason that they are inconsistent with the believer’s new nature in Christ. 

There is nothing I could have gained in the past, in the gay life or identifying as a gay man, that could compare with the identity I have now as one who is securely cradled in the Lord’s embrace.

And, we would be remiss if we failed to mention that just a few verses later, Paul exhorts the same hearers to “Put on…compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another…” (3:12-13). The role of the rest of the Church is to be compassionate toward those who struggle with temptation and sin and to bear with them. Our call is to walk alongside brothers and sisters with same-sex attraction, helping them bear the very real burdens they face as they live out their new identity in Christ: finding community, intimacy, friendships, and completion, even as they struggle with feeling at times very different and alone.

And for my fellow believers who struggle with same-sex attraction, I humbly offer this. There is infinite joy and glory in submitting your life, your desires, your very identity to the lordship of Jesus Christ. Paul tells us in Philippians 3:9 that, for him, there is no greater joy than to be found in Christ; to derive all of his meaning, all of his identity, all of his hope from Jesus.

As one who has struggled with same-sex attraction, I know how difficult it is—and continues to be—to daily lay down my own accomplishments, my own identity, and submit myself to the Jesus who, as God, alone has the right to name me and thus give me my identity. This is the calling of every Christian. It’s something we grow into as we grow in faith over the course of a lifetime.

There is nothing I could have gained in the past, in the gay life or identifying as a gay man, that could compare with the identity I have now as one who is securely cradled in the Lord’s embrace. There’s nothing I could gain in the present, as a married man and father, as a minister in the Church, that could compare with knowing that I have not only a King and a Lord but a Brother in Jesus.

All that matters is being in Christ. I realize this requires a leap of faith. But as you leap, I think you’ll find that in Christ, the more you count as rubbish, the more you receive in real identity, real fellowship, real joy.

“Judge not, lest ye be judged!” – Matthew 7:1 is the Bible verse most commonly used to peg contemporary Christians as hypocrites. Those who claim to follow Jesus pass judgment on others as “sinners,” while Jesus stands by chiding anyone who judges.

When we hear this argument made by other students on our campus, how can we respond?

What does it mean to not judge?

Look at Matthew 7:1-5:

“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.

Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”

Jesus’ words are somewhat difficult to understand. But perhaps we can make sense of them through an example.

Imagine if the Christian student group on your campus were to condemn homosexual behavior publicly, but then the group made excuses when two students were having premarital sex. Something would be seriously wrong. The group would be condemned by their own standard if they were judged the way they judge others.

In the same way, one of the biggest mistakes we can make as Christians is spending our time thinking about the sins of people “out there,” while we turn a blind eye to the sin “in here,” in our hearts. This is Jesus’ first point: Remember that you will be judged by the same standard by which you judge others.

But does Jesus mean to say that we shouldn’t judge others at all? Take a careful look at the story of the log and the speck. Read again what Jesus says. What is his point? If Jesus’ point were that we shouldn’t judge at all, he would say that you shouldn’t take the speck out of your brother’s eye, ever. But that’s not his point, and it wouldn’t make sense if it were. Taking the speck out of your friend’s eye is a kindness to him.

Jesus’ point, as before, is that we will only be able to see clearly to judge our brother (in a good way) if we first examine ourselves to make sure we aren’t hypocrites.

Judging actions, not condemning people

There’s another careful distinction to make when it comes to judging. While we judge people’s actions, we do not condemn people.

The easiest way to understand this is to think about how Jesus treats us. Jesus clearly condemns all sin, all the actions we do that show that we love ourselves more than him. But Jesus doesn’t condemn us—that’s the point of the gospel! Instead of condemning us for our sins, Jesus forgives our sins.

But forgiveness doesn’t mean that Jesus stops judging that our actions are wrong. They are! That’s why our forgiveness cost his life! But forgiveness does let us escape from condemnation for our sins. Jesus still judges our sins as wrong, but he doesn’t condemn us for them.

The same is true for other people, even if they aren’t Christians. Jesus offers forgiveness to all, just as we should tell all people about the gospel. When we bear witness to the truth that certain actions are sinful, we are judging people’s actions, but we aren’t condemning them.

How, exactly, do we judge rightly?

What does this mean for Christians?

  1. We are no different than others! Even if someone’s behavior is wrong, we cannot condemn the person because we’re in the same boat! We’ve done what is wrong, but Christ forgave us. That person can be forgiven too by trusting in Jesus! He or she can’t be written off as a “reprobate” simply because of a particular sin.
  2. Remember the positive side to judging.  When we talk to people about their actions or others’ being wrong, we should always keep in mind, and mention, if possible, that the gospel offers forgiveness for sin. We are often afraid to share the gospel with people because many people don’t respect religious views. But if we don’t share the gospel, the only thing others will know about Christians is what we’re against.
  3. Our primary focus should be on our own sins. The sins we should be most concerned about are our own, not others’. If we don’t take care of our own sins, not only will people ignore us when we talk about others’ sins, we may actually find ourselves in the place of the Pharisees, outside of the Kingdom of repentance and faith in Jesus.
  4. Love for others must motivate us. We must show love to others as we bear witness about the truth. It can be easy to think that sharing truth is in conflict with loving people. Most of us are tempted to do only one or the other. But in fact, speaking the truth is an act of love, and love requires speaking the truth. When we come to others with Christ-like love, we don’t bash people over the head with truth, but neither do we paper over people’s sin.

Our sin is dangerous, and God does judge it as evil. But we must remember in our own lives, and in the lives of those to whom we speak, that God does not condemn a sinner who trusts in Jesus. Though our sin is worthy of judgment, and even condemnation, God offers forgiveness to us, and to all who will believe.

It’s so important for us teach young women that sex and sexuality are wonderful aspects of their created nature, but they aren’t ultimate. To learn more from Tim Geiger on this topic, read his blog, “On Being a Woman: A Father’s Words to His Daughter.”

If childhood sexual abuse (CSA) is part of your story, Penny Freeman offers three suggestions in this video that might help you move forward. To read more on this topic, read Juli Kellogg’s blog, “Sexual Abuse, Brokenness, and Redemption: A Journey of Healing and Seeing.

In our Spring 2018 issue of harvestusa magazine, guest writer Penny Freeman looks at the stresses of ministry for women leaders, and gives practical ways churches can better support them in the work they do. (You can read the entire magazine issue online: Women, Sexuality, and the Church)

As a 20-something on staff with Young Life, my supervisor gave me a six-page form to fill out that asked me hard questions about life and ministry. The questions were frighteningly personal and, I feared, would expose me as a ministry fraud.

I waited until the last minute to hand it in, confident I was going to be fired.  My big reveal? I didn’t have devotions every day. I struggled with depressing feelings. And God didn’t always make sense to me in moments that were hard or disappointing.

My wise supervisor sat me down, listened, and assured me my job and future with Young Life was secure, but she wanted to help me develop and grow. There was a sigh of relief when I found out I was safe under her care. Later that year, at a regional retreat for female staff, I found out that I was not alone. The sharing revealed:

  • We all struggled to believe the gospel when hard events were happening in our lives.
  • Ministry was rewarding but tended to create loneliness.
  • Praying felt difficult to practice.
  • We all often lost our tempers.
  • We all struggled with “imposter syndrome” and wondered about leaving ministry for “secular” jobs.
  • Most women had a counselor or “safe relationship”.

This was the important lesson learned for going forward in ministry: Ministry leaders needed a safe space to be honest about their hearts, their struggles, and their fears.

So, who shepherds the shepherdesses?

Women are working hard in many thriving churches and parachurch ministries as leaders, pastors’ wives, and other support staff, and we should care about their hearts and souls.

Women who are in ministry rarely take care of themselves or have avenues to do so.  While caring intentionally for others, many times they run on fumes themselves.

As a female leader, I have been equipped for ministry by the multiple mentors and caregivers who have poured into my life over 40 years. Here are some simple ways people have discipled and shepherded me, enabling me to both function more productively and flourish in ministry.

  • Ministry leaders need to practice self-care.

Women who are in ministry rarely take care of themselves or have avenues to do so. While caring intentionally for others, many times they run on fumes themselves. Moreover, most live on shoe-string budgets and rarely have the income to pay for things that might encourage their care. One concrete way to care for a woman in ministry would be to encourage regular time to herself.

Self-care for caretakers should not be optional. Burnout is a real thing. Invest in your female staff members and volunteers by providing movie passes, personal rest days where she can go away and reflect and rest, and any multiple ways she can step away from ministry to do something fun. Although these things may not seem very “spiritual” in nature, they help women gain and maintain a sense of health, enjoyment, and value for self and others.

  • Ministry leaders need safe listeners.

Text or call your ministry leader routinely and ask her how you can pray for her. Some of my best supporters are folks I can simply text “PRAY” to, knowing they are safe enough that I don’t have to explain all the details; they know the details of my life well enough to pray.

Spend time to earn her trust and let her unburden her heart on her own terms. Safe listening sometimes means no advice, no judgment, and no well-intentioned prying questions for more information. Just listen and validate your friend’s experience (you can validate her experience without agreeing with everything she says). Finally, be a “vault” listener. What she says stays in the vault (never gets repeated). You are a trusted source of confidence.

Being a safe listener is the only way she will come to you with deeply personal struggles, especially ones involving her sexuality. She may have a husband who she discovers is looking at porn; she might be struggling with that herself. Sexual issues and ministry are an explosive combination! Too many struggles stay hidden until they blow up, for reasons of shame and fear of losing one’s job. Being a safe listener invites others to ask for help and communicates that you will stick with her for her good.

  • Ministry leaders need hard conversations.

Our marriages, our kids, and our hearts are targets for the enemy. If ministry leaders fall hard, we potentially take a lot of folks down with us.

If you are a trusted friend, be willing to have hard conversations. Where is she tempted to compromise her biblical values or moral integrity? Is she living within her budget? Is she spending time on Facebook scrolling for old relationships because of marital disappointment? Is she gossiping on the phone about people who have hurt her or looking at websites she shouldn’t? Is she harboring bitterness about events she can’t resolve? Is she dealing with emotional or physical abuse in her relationships?

By all means ask these questions. And don’t be shocked if your ministry friend has far more in her life than you can shoulder; invite her to glean wisdom from others, and from professional counselors in your area. Help her with the cost if she needs it.

  • Ministry leaders need encouragement.

Most women ministry leaders walk around with a secret critic in their heads that renders null-and-void any praise they receive. But when they are affirmed in their character, God’s gifting in them, or how their ministry makes a difference in your eyes, they feel encouraged.

Send her to a conference or seminar where she will be fed spiritually and emotionally. Remind her that her relationship with God is more significant than what she accomplishes. Tell her what you see God doing in her, that she is his daughter and reflects him more every day.

These, then, are some concrete ways to watch over the hearts of those women who bear the mantle of gospel ministry. We need to thoughtfully and proactively support these women as they continue assisting others in growth and sanctification.


Penny Freeman talks more on this subject in the accompanying video: How Can Women in Ministry Guard Against Burnout? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.

In this videoPenny Freeman shares her life experience of 40 years in ministry, identifying what drains her life and what gives her life. You can read more of Penny’s thoughts in her blog, “Caring for the Shepherdesses: What Women Leaders Need.” You can also read the Spring 2018 issue of harvestusa magazine here where Penny’s article first appeared.

The Church is active in helping men who struggle sexually, but for too long it has failed to see that women are struggling just as much as men do. Dave talks about key steps the church can make to change this, and be the support Christian women need. And read Karen Hodge’s blog on the importance of women’s ministry in the church here.  And you can read the entire magazine online here.

In our Spring 2018 issue of harvestusa magazine, guest writer Karen Hodge shares her perspective, gained from many years of personal and professional experience, that women’s ministry is vitally needed in the church. And that vital need for women’s ministry is even more important today, as gender distinctions are being erased. (You can read the entire magazine issue online: Women, Sexuality, and the Church)

For many years our church hosted regional gatherings for church planters to encourage and equip them as they began their work. It was always my joy at these events to feed them as well. Several years ago, over a slice of Chicago deep-dish pizza, I listened to a young pastor tell me about the church he intended to plant. It would be relational and organic. There would primarily be small groups and absolutely no programs. He said he did not see the relevance of men’s or women’s ministry.

I asked him about his family. He told me all about his wife and three daughters. At this moment it probably would have been nice if I had informed this church planter that I was a church planter’s wife of 27 years as well as the Coordinator of Women’s Ministry for our denomination (PCA) because I am pretty sure he thought I was just the pizza lady. I then asked him, besides his wife, who would train his daughters about what it means to be a woman. He said the pulpit ministry and their teaching at home should be enough. I said maybe so, but I had recently reflected as my daughter got married that it took all kinds of women in the church to help Anna Grace understand who God was and who He was calling her to be as a woman.

One of the books of the Bible that captivated my heart as a young church planter’s wife was the book of Titus. Paul encouraged Titus that in order to plant a healthy church he should instruct the older men to train the younger men and the older women to train the younger women. These older and younger people lived together in Crete. Paul said of the Cretans, “(they) are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons” (Titus 1:12). It was a worldly and evil place. “They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work” (1:16). There was a fundamental disconnect between what they professed to believe and the way they lived their lives.

Crete sounded a lot like South Florida where we were planting a church. God was bringing so many women who did not know Christ to our fellowship. I knew programs were not the answer, but I found myself in a living room full of women. So I went scrambling for answers; I was eager to know the strategy.

The strategy is in the text: we are not called to necessarily start a stellar women’s ministry but rather to “teach what accords with sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1). To “teach what is good and so train the young women” (Titus 2:3-4). Older women (chronologically or spiritually speaking) are to train the younger women what sound doctrine has to do with all of life, including parenting, relationships, their marriages, and their personal character.

The word “train” means to show, unpack or demonstrate. This command implies proximity. You can’t show someone something unless you are near them. It is a call for life-on-life discipleship. The word “sound” means healthy or hygienic. I knew that the air I was breathing in South Florida all around me was polluted with unhygienic worldly thinking. So, Paul was telling me that sound doctrine was just what my heart and the hearts of the women around me needed. Sound doctrine makes sin-sick people healthy. Sound doctrine yields sound living, sound homes, and sound churches.

So why was I trying to persuade the pizza pastor that there needed to be some provision for gender-specific discipleship in his church and for his daughters? I believe gender distinctness was God’s very good plan.

“Let us make man in our image, after our likeness….
So, God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.

And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good”
(Genesis 1:26-27; 31).

In God’s design, both maleness and femaleness are necessary to image God. Maleness and femaleness are also essential to fulfill humanity’s purpose, to be fruitful and multiply and spread God’s glory to the ends of the earth. And it takes maleness and femaleness to be one flesh. “Therefore, man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). And yet maleness and femaleness image God regardless of marital status. In all of these dimensions, we see equality of being and yet a necessary diversity of function. Maleness and femaleness, no matter how hard we try to delete it or separate it from each other, remains inseparable. United as one, men and women are used by God to display the gospel story together.

I believe women’s ministry begins when a young woman is born: teaching, training, and showing her through our words and deeds what it means to be a woman who follows Christ in our sexually-chaotic age.

Furthermore, women are products of our theology. What we think about God and His Word profoundly shapes all our actions, attitudes, and thoughts. Because the Fall has distorted maleness and femaleness, I believe it is essential to train women to be keen theologians, showing them the hope of the gospel in light of the fact that all of us are sexually broken and teaching them to think biblically about all of God’s Word, including the implications of their gender.

I believe women’s ministry begins when a young woman is born: teaching, training, and showing her through our words and deeds what it means to be a woman who follows Christ in our sexually-chaotic age. We must be zealous in encouraging and equipping her to have a sound doctrine concerning her sexuality. While avoiding gender stereotypes, we must encourage her to fulfill her God-given calling as a woman. In a culture where gender is aggressively deconstructed, seen as being unnecessary for who we are as persons, we must come alongside her in the highs and lows of life and help her to delight in her femaleness as part of God’s good design. I believe it takes more than a mother to do this; it will need a community, the Body of Christ.

Fast forward to last year. I got a call from the pizza pastor. He planted a great church that had grown rapidly, but so had the issues his congregation was facing, especially those of the women. His women had begun to gather together and were looking for guidance and direction. He wondered if I would be willing to come and help the women begin to think biblically about womanhood, to encourage them both with sound doctrine and to not lose heart in this unhygienic world. I responded that I was delighted to come, and I even offered to bring the pizza.


You can watch David White talk some more about helping women in the accompanying video: How Can Church Leaders Help Women Who Struggle Sexually? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.

In the lead article in our Spring 2018 harvestusa magazine, Ellen Dykas discusses three blind spots the Church has about women and their sexuality.  What the Church doesn’t see, or what it chooses to ignore seeing, hurts women in their walk with Christ. Watch as Ellen raises these important issues, and then go read her article on what the Church needs to do here.


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