by Chuck DeGroat

Pardon the length of this piece, but we really need to talk.

It’s become inevitable that I’ll get a call or email once or twice a month asking to consult with a church on an LGBTQ dialogue. Most often, I’m grateful that churches seek to be more informed, engaged and conversant. But this blog is not about the LGBTQ conversation necessarily…it’s about the first question I ask when I’m invited in: “How does your church talk about sexuality in general around here?”

This is often met with a blank stare. Sometimes there is an honest, “We just don’t.” I might hear about a sermon series on faithful marriage or a small group of men talking about pornography, but that’s about it.

We need to talk.

What is the state of marriage in your church? I bet it’s not very different than anywhere else. If you’re an evangelical Christian, statistics shows that your marriage is less apt to make it than a marriage between atheists. Why aren’t we talking about why this is? Why do we seem more concerned with who sells and buys wedding cakes? I do marriage conferences and I pastored for many years and I’ve counseled hundreds of couples and (I hope I don’t need to convince you) there is great pain in many, many couples in your church. Abuse and unfaithfulness and sometimes plain-old disconnection erode trust, yet many couples in churches tuck their pain away on Sunday morning. Emotional disconnection and sexual dissatisfaction are addressed with coping strategies – a little too much alcohol, a titallating show to watch, the drama of Facebook. We’re prone to hide and our fig-leaved strategies are endless. And (can I say it?) the self-help Christian books with their principles and platitudes don’t seem to touch the depth of pain. Many couples that stay together find a tolerable dance to do to keep the peace.

Yes, we need to talk.

Single folks in your church are hurting too. They’re not sure at all what to do with their singleness, with cultural and ecclesial expectations around marriage “completing” someone, with their own single sexuality, with their need for intimacy and belonging. Sometimes church is the toughest space to navigate in their week as they watch those smiling couples embrace their children. Often, our only advice to singles is “Don’t have sex before you’re married.” Perhaps we’ll create a “Single’s Ministry” for them. But, their questions are bigger than this. As one late 30’s single woman said to me, “Am I supposed to neatly tuck away my longing for sexual connection like a nun?” I discussed this with a pastor and asked him recently, “What would it look like for your church to have an honest conversation about masturbation?” He blushed a bit and said with a chuckle, “Justification. Sanctification. But no, not masturbation.” We default to humor when we’re uncomfortable.

Let’s talk.

Let’s talk about your middle and high schoolers. Are we naming the questions and realities they are facing? The Bible seems more honest about teenage lust than most pastors. That erotic tale tucked away in the middle of your Bible is a sexually-charged journey of two young teenagers, exploring their bodies, awakening to their desires. That’ll preach. Or maybe not. When I preached Song of Solomon years ago in an evening service, I invited parents of middle and high schoolers. They came the first week, but many didn’t come back. It hits too close to home.

What kind of conversation about sexuality is your church engaging in?

It’s easy to talk about “those people,” you know…those people you’ve never met or don’t think attend your church. It’s easy to talk about the “LGBTQ issue,” depersonalizing it as a “topic.” But as I say to many pastors – maybe we should start with you. Maybe we should name the very real, on-the-ground realities that everyone in your church faces before going down the path of talking about “those people.” Maybe the “other” we need to face is the “other within,” our cut off shadow-selves that lurk in secret and fear being found out. Maybe cultivating greater honesty and self-compassion in a context of cross-centered grace is necessary before we start talking about someone else’s life.

Maybe we should name things.

Maybe we should name the elephant in the room – the reality that mental health professionals like me now assume people are addicted to porn. It’s not the exception, it’s the norm. Yes, men who’ve been formed in the sexualized liturgy of our culture are stuffing the shame and pretending to be ok when it’s not ok. But, this may be a shocker. Women are looking at porn too. And for many women (take a deep breath before continuing to read…) same sex images and stories are most provocative. Can I name that on The Twelve? Is it ok to tell our secrets, fellow Christians? Can I tell how how many women and men have said to me, “I started experimenting a bit in middle school – looking at images, masturbating – but no one ever talked about this, not my parents, not my school, not my youth group, and never, ever my pastor.”

And perhaps now it’s time to take seriously what #MeToo and #ChurchToo is highlighting – that sexual harassment and abuse are right here, right now realities in your church, among your people. That men have too long blamed women and what they do or wear instead of doing honest work. The church has too-long been a context where men can groom and prey on women. That many men, even accomplished men with degrees and titles like me, are stuck emotionally at 12 years old. That women are tired of living in a world of immature boys led by a President who confesses that when it comes to assaulting a woman he just can’t help himself. That mysogyny is the cultural water we swim in. That churches don’t really know how to invite men to do the important emotional work necessary to grow up. That there are few, if any, wise sages and elders to mentor us. That this isn’t a conservative or liberal issue, it’s not about Hollywood or DC, it’s not about being a traditional or progressive Christian – it’s about all of us – as news reports are reminding us every day.

A personal story. I’ve told the story elsewhere about how I hit an emotional wall in seminary, and jumped into a MA Counseling program at the seminary. Like many, I hoped for a quick and painless cure for my anxiety and depression. But in that community of honest peers and teachers I learned what John Calvin surely must have meant by “self-knowledge” – my awareness of my arrogance, abusiveness, and emotional/relational unintelligence came into full view.

One particularly important moment was on an evening I was counseling a young woman in her early twenties. She had the kind of timeless, simple beauty that made my heart start beating fast just as soon as I saw her. A neuro-chemical sexual cocktail coursed through my body, but I had to ignore it because I was a good Christian guy, I was her therapist, and we had a session to do. I sat with her for 50 minutes, asking questions about her life and interests. We found common ground and laughed. Behind the observation window sat my female supervisor and several female classmates observing my magic. When we were done, she smiled and I smiled and she asked for a hug. I made my way back to my supervisor’s office to debrief, expecting them to congratulate me on a life-changing session.

“How do you think that went?” my supervisor asked. She had a kind of wry smile as she asked it. Have you seen that wry smile on a therapist? It’s generally not a good sign.

“Really good,” I said. “I think we built a lot trust today. I think she feels very comfortable with me. I think we’re doing good work.” I was already starting to master therapist jargon.

My supervisor sat quietly for just a moment. Her wry smile disappeared. She looked me directly in the eyes and said, “Well, oh, ok, if you call flirting for 50 minutes a good counseling session then I guess so.”

She asked my female peers if they agreed. I recall their faces, mixed with anxiety and anger. Each one nodded. Then my defenses went up. I battled for a few minutes, but before long my supervisor was making connections in my life that only a Jedi-therapist like her could make. And then she said, “I wonder how your wife experiences being married to an emotional 12 year old?”

I learned in that two years to name things that I never, ever dared imagine I’d say out loud. I learned to repent. I learned to grieve. I began to see women, and be seen. I sometimes felt like my shame was the grave I’d be buried in, and at other times experienced the joy of being known in a way I’d never experienced before. Coming out of hiding, the game we played in our marriage couldn’t last – and so what we thought we were had to die, just 4 years in. The next few years were filled with pain as my wife took her own journey. But from the ashes something new and honest could be born. Jesus writes redemption stories that require crucifixion along the way.

We need to talk, friends. We need to come out of hiding. We need to tell our secrets.

Let me end it with this: A few years ago, I got the call and question, like I often do – “Will you help us talk through this LGBTQ issue?” I met with the pastor and we had the bigger conversation about engaging sexuality, intimacy, shame, pornography, misogyny, abuse, and more. It was a full and deep conversation, and he walked away fairly overwhelmed. I didn’t hear back for some time. When I did see him at an event a year later, he asked for a few minutes to catch up. He told me that he decided to get therapy after speaking with me. Tears welled up as he talked about years of porn addiction and marital dissatisfaction. He told me that before he could engage any kind of conversation about someone else’s life that he needed to face his own. His own inner work prompted a larger conversation among the leadership team, most of whom seemed compelled by their pastor’s transformation and longed for their own.

He told me that he couldn’t imagine engaging any conversation on sexuality from the place where he was previously. “Chuck, I was clueless to my own stuff. Now I can engage others with empathy and curiosity. Facing my own brokenness allows me to see another human being as human, as a person with pain, with a story, in need of Jesus.”

Church, we’ve got work to do. All of us. The work of inner transformation is vital, not as an excuse to avoid the hard conversations but precisely because we must have hard conversations as mature adults. If our political culture has taught us anything in the past year, perhaps it has taught us that character matters, that growing in emotional health and intelligence is critical for leadership, that empathy for another requires us to grow in empathy for our own splintered selves, broken as they are. Perhaps we’ve learned that we can never, ever love the “other” if we don’t love what is “other” about us.

Jesus can handle our brokenness. Jesus can handle our hard conversations. Jesus can meet us in places of disruption. Jesus can love what is “other” in us. Jesus can’t meet us when we’re hiding.

It’s time to talk.

Chuck DeGroat teaches Pastoral Care at Western Theological Seminary. He is a longtime pastor and therapist, and has authored four books.

Chuck teaches Pastoral Care and Christian Spirituality at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. His sojourn as a pastor meandered through Orlando and out to San Francisco, where he started church counseling centers in both places. Chuck is a church consultant, a therapist, a spiritual director, and author of four books. He’s married to Sara and has two teenage daughters.

23 Comments

  • Rodg Rice says:

    Right on! So how does the conversation get started at the local congregation level? How to break the ice? How to trust one another? Daunting!

  • Mary Flowers says:

    Chuck: This reflection calls for truth and honesty in relationships. You are calling forth men and women to go within their hidden selves and bring them to light for healing. I have spent many years in counseling only to recently share inappropriate behavior by a relative when I was vulnerable in my 20s. I was very anxious and depressed with much confusion on personal and professional levels. I am grateful for your witness about today’s chaos in relationships through this reflection.

  • Bruce Garner says:

    You have touched on a topic that should be a part of every parent’s engagement with their children, that should be part of every school curriculum and that should be part of every Sunday School/Church School curriculum. Yet the times when I have raised this issue, there was immediate resistance. The typical responses are: “That’s the parents’ job, not the school.” ” That’s the school’s job, not the church’s.” “That’s the church’s job, not (fil in the blank).” That’s the (fill in the blank again)’s job, not….” And so it goes. The result: It becomes no one’s responsibility. With no one taking on this responsibility, is it any wonder that teen pregnancy rates and teen STD/AIDS infection rates remain so high?

    When I became a teenager in 1962, there were no conversations at home about sex. The only “formal” sex education I received was about half an hour in a high school health education class. Beyond that, it was only what I heard others say, which was often an exaggeration. I became aware of my own sexuality at about age 8. I figured out I was gay despite having no vocabulary to express that…I still knew. I also knew there would be no discussion because there was never any discussion about sex in those days. Remember, it was still taboo to show a woman who was pregnant during a television show!

    I can’t help but think that our “situation” is another product of decades and centuries of a patriarchal system. Males controlled discussions about most things. Males usually did as they pleased in the area of sex. When you can do as you please with whomever you please, it has to stunt one’s growth into a person who can enter into sexual intimacy with someone on a level other than as the “one in charge.” Here in Georgia, at one time the only legal way for two people to have sex was in the so-called missionary position with the man on top. Another aspect of patriarchal control and used in a situation that should have never been the business of any government entity.

    In these circumstances, how could guys be expected to mature into a balanced adult who could see others as an equal partner rather than an object? And when the real thing was not available, erotic materials served as a substitute.

    When I teach our teenagers about HIV/AIDS prevention it has to include discussions about sex as well. The format I use is based on two of the vows of our Baptismal Covenant: Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? Will you respect the dignity of every human being?

    I tell the teens that ALL of their relationships, including any that become sexual, must be based on these promises. There is no place for abuse, coercion, exploitation or anything similar in any relationship, including ultimately for many the marital relationship. (There is more to the prevention message than this but this is a part of it.)

    Until we learn that none of us can objectify another of us, we will continue to see the messes being revealed almost daily about sexual harassment. Here’s hoping your posting will generate some real conversation among those who need to have it….and that would be all of us!

  • Thomas Boogaart says:

    Thanks for this Chuck. It is time to talk….whether we take the time is another matter.

  • Marlin P VIS says:

    I was watching a TV show the other night. A father asked his teenage daughter if they needed to talk about sex. She said, “Dad, we have porn!” He said, “Oh, yeah, right.” Then he got up from sitting on her bed and walked out. I don’t know what to do with that, but it put me in a very depressed place. My 15-year-old, beloved granddaughter has porn as her teacher. That’s a problem.

  • Jeff says:

    An excellent read. I can see a sermon series in the near future that invites our small groups to enter into group process. My sense is that it will be important to start with an emphasis on worship of God with our whole being and then unpacking the integration of sexuality and spirituality with wholeness. Developing the importance of soul and body rather than placing the inner world as more important than the material world (perhaps many of us function more Gnostic than than we know). And of course, this then further develops the importance of loving all parts of myself (my sexual brokenness included), and and my neighbor. Jesus in many ways indicated that if we do not love our neighbor, we can not love the Father. And, He wasn’t referring to simply their soul, their inner life. We must do the hard work of discovering by the grace of God how we remain hidden from the broken parts within us (and for good reason, its a scary and painfu journey) and how this brokenness leads to interactions that both dehumanize us and our neighbor. Thanks Chuck.

  • Karl Westerhof says:

    Yes. Yes. Yes. I read this to my wife of 51 years. We’ve had a lot of talks and now we’ll have more. And they’ll be even better because of your writing. And we’ll be closer. Thank you.

  • Michael Kugler says:

    Thank you for this remarkable candid and moving essay.

  • Russell Rolffs says:

    The lines that follow seem to suggest that misogyny is merely juvenile rather than unethical or immoral. Am I the only who sees that? I doubt that’s the author’s goal, but sandwiching a mention of misogyny between two references to juvenility suggests otherwise. Right? Celebrating bodily gas is juvenile. Participating in “cultural waters” that promote violence to women is, well, a lot more than that…

    “That many men, even accomplished men with degrees and titles like me, are stuck _emotionally at 12 years old_. That women are tired of living in a world of immature boys led by a President who confesses that when it comes to assaulting a woman he just can’t help himself. That mysogyny is the cultural water we swim in. That churches don’t really know how to invite men to do the important emotional work necessary to _grow up_.”

  • suekranzcom says:

    I appreciate your willingness to ask about the conversations that we aren’t having, for whatever reason that they are not occurring. I know you to be a good man, human like the rest of us. I know you to pursue kindness and truth.

    My initial reflection on your personal story is sadness and anger regarding the degree to which you were set up to feel shame for flirting instead of kindness and curiosity about your heart. I was on the phone with my lay counselor in my late 30s when she told me about the very well-known Christian therapist that was sitting in her living room, someone that I knew she knew well. I really didn’t need to know he was in town. As I spoke to her about something that was really turning me upside down (there were some very difficult set-up in which I was a part at the time in a PCA church), she was flirting with this friend of hers and he was flirting back, perhaps trying to model something for me? I think that your 12-year-old has found a safe place with you to explore what was happening, not just as a typical shaming-naming power move, but as a part of you that somehow was just trying to figure things out. It feels to me like what you experienced in that room was a typical church response (and I use the term, church, loosely) to men and women, in general.

    I know what it is like to desire a man’s attention as a married woman. I have gone back into those places to befriend the lonely, hurting, confused space that existed alongside the shamed, burdened and younger place. I think those conversations would be wonderful in the church – not just the whole pornography thing, which, honestly, is as old as time. David just had a live model. And maybe, why sex is such a mystery and why it draws us, what does it mean to be connected for even a short time in the grand scheme of things. And why do we expect fulfillment when that was never promised. What unity are we really seeking and can we take the shackles off of those we have mistakenly imprisoned. There are a lot of mysteries in the middle that feel more life-giving, but it takes a risk to go there.

    We all get married as children. I’ve been hanging out with Simone Weil recently, and I found this quote.
    “Love needs reality. What is more terrible than the discovery that through a bodily appearance we have been loving an imaginary being. It is much more terrible than death, for death does not prevent the beloved from having lived.
    That is the punishment for having fed love on imagination.
    To love purely is to consent to distance, it is to adore the distance between ourselves and that which we love.”

  • Nicol Epple says:

    Thank you for taking the time and having the courage to share this!!! Let’s continue conversation about sex.

  • HurtingMan says:

    I agreed with everything until it was time to take the old tried and true approach of tearing men down. He was doing so well too. If only men weren’t all emotionally 12 years old all of our problems would be solved. Women are amazing and men are terrible so let’s shame them.

    • ExhaustedWoman says:

      Actually, he said “many men” in that sentence. And what that means is that the men who somehow grew up in this society and managed to not come out of it with instinctive misogyny should be just as enraged as any woman and just as willing to start these necessary conversations.

      I agree that productive conversations do not begin with generalizations, but they certainly do not begin with sarcastic and defensive energy spent to prove that you yourself aren’t the problem.

      All women are not amazing and all men are not terrible. Obviously. That disclaimer shouldn’t need to be posted at the beginning of every conversation we have about this topic just so you can be comfortable with the fact that you may not have ever contributed negatively to this issue. We all have! As a 24-year-old woman who myself probably grew up making sexist jokes and casually throwing around the word rape when I learned what it meant, we have all contributed. But at the end of the day, men have been raised with a mindset that is at the heart of the problem, and unfortunately that puts more responsibility on them to change. You can choose to see that as man-shaming, or you can choose to see it as calling out the heart of an issue that, regardless of the origin, is absolutely shameful.

      • HurtingMan says:

        Most non-Christian men (and unfortunately some Christian ones) do what they are allowed to do by women. If women didn’t tolerate this behavior enmass I can bet you that sexual harassment would be a very rare occurrence. That doesn’t make it right and I don’t excuse those men. However, I’m a little tired of being told that men are entirely the problem with our culture’s sexual issues. Of course they are a part of the problem, what what responsibility do women have in this?

        Do we let the women off the hook who willingly accepted a man’s sexual advances in the workplace and this send hugely mixed messes to men? Do we give a pass to the women who refuse to have sex with their husbands? Do we give passes to women who have tons of sexual partners? Why do we put all of the responsibility to change on men? Again, I agree that men need to change, but I think women need to change just as much if not more. I don’t hear that in this article.

        • Mark says:

          I think you are expanding this conversation pretty far. I spent 10+ years at a job where I was treated pretty badly. When I complained, I got labelled and my review and raise reflected that I wasn’t a “team player”. When I shoved my emotional wellbeing in a box and tried to ignore being mistreated, I got good reviews and raises. So, sure, you can say I willingly accepted mistreatment, but the alternative was to leave a stable job. I think it is a very complex issue and oversimplifying it by saying that if I simply quit my job that workers would never be mistreated or exploited seems pretty moronic. What you say is true only when there is no power differential. My employer, my pastor and my parents have a power differential which allows them to manipulate, exploit and abuse.

          The audience of the article is primarily pastors, and probably in these circles those are almost all men, so the point here is to raise awareness in men in those authority positions that the status quo is not healthy.

          If I were to raise a concern here, we need to talk…. but what is that conversation? What was the specific 12-year-old emotional issue that needed to be addressed? I understand not flirting with patients, but is the solution no cross-gender patients, is the solution to be honest about the coursing hormones, or is the solution to somehow rise to some fantasy-world zen-level of emotional stability where professionalism trumps coursing hormones.

          I bought into the Reformed sales pitch. My wife and I were intellectually and theologically compatible, but we were emotionally and sexually way off. We had pastoral counseling which was, “you two have great backgrounds, so no need to counsel you!” When we were married, though, it was a big struggle, which is still not over and we’re more at a state where we’ve made compromises to keep the peace than really fulfilled. That said, I think our marriage is way better than many who put on the happy face each Sunday.

  • shaykemp says:

    These kinds of conversations are not going to take place honestly and truthfully in an organized church program setting- there just isn’t the space there for that kind of intimacy and freedom to be given grace no matter where you are in your journey at that moment. These conversations are going to take place, like the one you mentioned, between the members of the Church ( the body of Christ) in personal, safe encounters with each other. A meeting may bring up some issues but there is rarely a way for those types of truths to be accepted and spoken and discussed with any sort of reality in a group of people that only meet as a congregation and do not have real connection to each other.

    • Mike B. says:

      Correct, and the church is not the place for sex ed. Puritanical traditions have essentially criminalized all the old folkways of passing on healthy informal education, denounced it all as “secular” culture, and resisted the best efforts of public schools. Get out a little, play some Cards against Humanity, drink some brewskis — preferably before you are 50, or even 21.

  • By and large I agree. It’s a conversation we need to have. I’m glad my pastor is willing to bring it up from the pulpit. You’re right, though, more work needs to be done.

    The church is the first place Christians should be able to come to, to talk about sex!

    Now I digress…
    HurtingMan is right. To piggy-back off of what he said, men are going to hold it in and hide if they know they’re going to be treated like 12 yo boys, while women sit back and sternly pass judgment. Both genders need to be taught what’s appropriate. Both need to own responsibility for their roles. My wife and I both had poor sexual education growing up. And our differences and mis-education exacerbated each others.

    One last thing: Led by the President?? No. I was emotionally immature before Trump ever started having kids. Don’t tie my issues with him; he doesn’t lead me in this. Can we not discuss anything without it having to be tied to a political figure or party anymore?

  • […] We need to talk about sex… […]

  • HurtingMan says:

    Amen sir. We are all emotionally immature these days…men and women both. Let’s please not pretend that women are so much more advanced in the sexual department. If that had been the case I wouldn’t have a wife who decided she didn’t care about sex for 13 years.

  • Mike B. says:

    A few years ago when I was still seeing CRC materials around the house, before the rest of the fam got as fed up as I and bailed, I noticed the anti-sexual predation committee had morphed into the anti-porn committee and had directly related masturbation to porn, perversion, and predation — all exclusively gendered male. These are all denominational publications coming from a denomination whose magazine also runs cover for the colleges as the last places you’d find a rape culture. Good grief, if you want to find undetected pederasts, closeted homosexuals and closeted heterosexuals plus just a lot of unhappy, no sex, or bad sex marriages you do not have to look far in a midwestern CRC. Any reasonably mature adult with eyes to see can tell you that.

  • Thanks for your courage to share this here, Mary. May you find continued healing, peace, and confidence through Jesus who knows you, loves you, and comforts you.

  • Mark says:

    I think it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees here. If I can make a broader point, we, the church are not willing to deal with pain in our midst, and when we are forced to, it ends badly. I grew up Reformed and loved the good, solid exegetical preaching. Sermons could be pretty neatly bundled into (1) our church’s specific theological differences and why our church/theology is better than the church down the street, (2) The gospel, aka why we are better than THOSE people, and (3) why we need good pastors and leaders because we’re fallen. I would say that one and two are primarily ear-tickling – sermons that are hard hitting for the straw man person who would never come in our doors. Three is pretty much grooming the church for spiritual abuse.

    So, what I see here is “Let’s talk about LBGTQ” is just a code word for a sermon about how bad THOSE people are and why we should cloister ourselves and our children from THOSE people and try to pass laws to protect ourselves from them.

    Real pastoring is a dangerous endeavor. Jesus told the truth about the ear-tickling and spiritual abuse brought by their church leaders and it was not taken well. We have a natural system where the truth of what people need to hear will be suppressed by the need for people to feel good about themselves week to week. I’m sure being called an emotional 12-year-old hurt deeply, but it was the gateway to much healing.

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