" 'Change' Ministries"
|"'Change' Ministries" - some
psychological and theological insights
During the 215th General Assembly, the "Three Sisters" - More
Light Presbyterians, That All May Freely Serve and the Shower of Stoles
Project - sponsored an "educational" luncheon as that did in 2002. This year
the focus was on the topic "Gay to
Straight: Bad Theology, Bad Medicine."
One of the panelists was Dr. Jennifer Stone, who holds an
M.Div. Degree and a Ph.D., and is currently serving as a counselor in
Memphis, Tennessee. She is also an new at-large member of the Witherspoon
Society Executive Committee.
Her presentation focused on "the
perceptual processes by which groups marginalized often get increasingly
marginalized, even demonized, by dominant cultures." She believes her views
are relevant not just to issues of "gay to straight" change 'ministries,"
but to marginalized groups in general.
Here are a few excerpts from her talk.
First, let me acknowledge that for many
people, when they talk about gay people, unfortunately they believe they are
already talking about sex. Thus, for you who are gay if you express the pain
you feel from mistreatment, or attempt to be in a "genuine" community for
people to "know you," this is experienced by many as "inflicting your
'sexuality' on them." You may have noticed how it feels to be considered a
walking "sex object," by which your sole presence is viewed an infringement
of good "living room" manners, let alone "church manners." No wonder so many
gay people accept this message and try to disappear - into a closet, into
another "orientation," or into death. How many times have we heard even well
meaning people at this assembly refer to the committees dealing with the
ordination of gay persons as the "sex" committees?
As a gay person at times you are given the message that your presence itself
is inappropriate and "out of place," furthermore that for many your very
presence is a sleazy, polluting, contagious impurity. So understandably many
gay people take the next step to believe they are "bad" or at least that
their wish for relational closeness is bad. Gay people are told in all
levels of messages they are persons from whom children, churches, holy
places, and certainly the pulpits should be protected.
For the fact of course is, that when we talk about gay people we are no more
talking about sex than when we talk about straight people. So how could it
have possibly come about that gay people are seen so differently? I suspect
it has to do with the habit of dominant viewpoints. For me, logs and specks
come to mind. But so also does Jung's idea of the "shadow." Various
psychological ideas suggest that what dominant groups often see is not just
a speck in the eye of another, but the "projection" of the log in one's own
eye … into the eye of another. Beauty is not the only thing in the eye of
the beholder! Projection is a disowning of unacknowledged aspects of
oneself; in a sense it is the opposite of confession: putting one's
confession on the other and then attacking it. I suspect you have noticed
lot of "straight" people, a lot of people, have issues about sex. And those
disowned concerns about sexuality are easy ones to "project."
So when we find our culture starting with the question regarding gay people
"well, can you change?" or "why aren't you 'straight'"? - we have probably
already gone about five turns too many without examining our assumptions.
The questions of "why are people gay?" or "can't you change?" are not
appropriate starting places! Since we are specifically discussing gay
people's sexuality today, then let's acknowledge some of the steps of
consideration we have skipped. If we haven't noticed already the previous
assumptions through which we have arrived at this question, then let's
commit at some point to notice and examine the turns we, or at least some,
have already made to get to this question.
First, some major points:
1) In the view of many, our having to deal with today's concerns at all is
viewed as the fault of gay people, for "bringing these concerns up."
2) It is not hard to get someone who is actually a bisexual person to be a
bisexual person. (More on that in a minute.)
3) Regarding their sexual attraction, humans come in more than two
4) If you tell people that they are bad or sleazy often enough,
unfortunately, most people will tend to believe it.
5) Practitioners and ministers should be clear to themselves and clear with
the persons with whom they are coming into contact as to whether they
understand themselves to be doing "psychotherapy or "faith healing." In
either case their practice should conform to any relevant professional and
6) The first professional guideline for all health professions is to first
"do no harm."
7) Regarding today's topics, most gay people in many regards are already
They/you/I have been "treasuring these
questions up in their hearts" for a long time. It is not a new idea for most
gay people to consider what behavior God wants from them regarding their
relationships. Or how they fit into the spectrum of relationships regarding
gender. If is often newer for straight people to consider deeply over the
decades of their lives, all aspects of their own sexuality, let alone their
attitudes toward gay people. When negative stereotypes are sent toward a
person, it is adaptive for that person to do a great deal of psychic and
spiritual "work" in dealing with those stereotypes in order to, in a healthy
way, survive. If you don't believe this just ask African-Americans, Latinas
and Latinos, the poor, those wheelchair bound, and the list could go on and
on…… to include so many minority and frequently marginalized people
Now to further elaborate my points:
I would suggest to you that not only are some of these dynamics of attitudes
we see toward gay people based in society's fear of reflecting on its own
sexuality, but that at the core these "value" issues reflect concerns of
gender and power. That is, if we have attached our sense of identity or
sense of security to power and gender assumptions about the world then any
alternate maps will feel threatening to our personal sense of power and our
sense of security. And if our "image" of God is intertwined with our power
and gender maps, then it will feel to us as if God also has been assaulted.
I use the word "image" here very intentionally. I am not referring to the
flowing energy of God, impossible to pin down; I am referring to the
possibly limited graven mental images of God that humans tend to make and
then may worship instead of God. This process in defense of our concretized
"images" may explain not only much of the emotional heat many people feel in
their first year of seminary, but also may explain some of the reactions you
will see at this assembly, either overt or covert.
Things aren't as simple as a person being
either gay or straight. All the major research studies say that sexual
attraction is on a continuum. Human research indicates that some people are
attracted to men or women period, but most people have some attraction to
both genders, most more attraction to one gender than another. This
self-report is not typically shouted from rooftops, but under confidential
conditions has been reported consistently.
Thus, it is not hard to have a "bisexual" person appear "changed" to a
straight person. The word to note here is "appear." Since Grecian times we
have tended to think in dichotomies and this worldview tends to seemingly
"clarify" and yet also oversimplifies, even distorts, our perceptions of the
world. This "twosome" thinking as well often leads us to think in terms of
"gay" or "straight" and to forget that "bisexuals" exist. So, when a
bisexual is mislabeled as "gay" - it may appear that that person's
attraction was changed - when the range of people to whom he or she is
attracted changed not at all. ... Neither are there only three categories of
persons, or orientations or only a one-dimensional line of realities
regarding sexual attraction, let alone sexual identity. There exist,
including in this room, some who are transgender persons. ... But it is
important to acknowledge these persons, for all persons have lives, spirits,
and need to be "seen" for who they are, rather than seen as marginal because
they are "too different to count." This suggests the pain that can be caused
when we look for people to fit our pre-existing "images," and then "fix"
people, rather than discern each person's distinct, God-given, reality. Each
different human perspective has something special to offer us if we really
aspire to appreciate God's "gifts differing." … And if we have the patience
and the faith to "see."
Perhaps the false images placed onto gay people are, in this case, a "demon"
with which we have to wrestle before we get our blessing. You will hear many
straight people too, who feel they obtained a blessing from wrestling along
with us against these "demons" of false, hurtful, labeling. May ours be a
blessing that we can share more widely, and be shared even among privileged
straight people who now don't want to know about us, and who still want to
"change" us. May they too learn to treasure us, and may we all learn to
treasure each other.
Some blogs worth visiting
Mitch Trigger, PVJ's
Secretary/Communicator, has created a Facebook page where
Witherspoon members and others can gather to exchange news and
views. Mitch and a few others have posted bits of news, both
personal and organizational. But there’s room for more!
You can post your own news and views,
or initiate a conversation about a topic of interest to you.
for Life" website
Long-time and stimulating blogger John Shuck,
a Presbyterian minister currently
serving as pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Elizabethton,
Tenn., writes about spirituality, culture, religion (both organized
and disorganized), life, evolution, literature, Jesus, and
Click here for his blog posts.
Click here for podcasts of his radio program, which "explores
the intersection of religion, social justice and public life."
John Harris’ Summit to
Theological and philosophical
reflections on everything between summit to shore, including
kayaking, climbing, religion, spirituality, philosophy, theology,
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), New York City and the Queens
neighborhood of Ridgewood -- by a progressive New York City
Presbyterian Pastor. John is a former member of the Witherspoon
board, and is designated pastor of North Presbyterian Church in
Voices of Sophia blog
Heather Reichgott, who has created
this new blog for Voices of Sophia, introduces it:
After fifteen years of scholarship
and activism, Voices of Sophia presents a blog. Here, we present the
voices of feminist theologians of all stripes: scholars, clergy,
students, exiles, missionaries, workers, thinkers, artists, lovers
and devotees, from many parts of the world, all children of the God
in whose image women are made. .... This blog seeks to glorify God
through prayer, work, art, and intellectual reflection. Through
articles and ensuing discussion we hope to become an active and
Got more blogs to recommend?
send a note, and we'll see what we can do!