Book Review – Ministry Among God’s Queer Folk, LGBTQ Pastoral Care

Ministry Among God’s Queer Folk, LGBTQ Pastoral Care 2nd Edition

Cascade Books. Bernard Schlager David Kundtz

This book review begins with a true story:

On Good Friday of this year during an audience with Pope Francis in the Vatican, filmed for BBC2 for a documentary “Pilgrimage: The Road to Rome”, British comedian Stephen K Amos told the Pope that as a gay man he didn’t feel accepted by the Catholic Church.

In his response Pope Francis said, “Giving more importance to the adjective (gay) rather than the noun (man), this is not good. We are all human beings and have dignity. It does not matter who you are, or how you live your life – you do not lose your dignity.” He went on; “There are people that prefer to select or discard people because of the adjective. These people do not have a human heart.”

This incident was seen once again as Pope Francis putting human contact and acceptance first and prioritising the Church’s social justice tradition over the sexual ethics tradition, thus imitating the encounters Christ had with the Samaritan woman, Zachaeus and so many more.

For many in the Church this very pointed distinction and stance repeatedly taken by the Pope seems to have fallen on deaf ears. Many opposing and contradictory positions are coming from all areas of the Church including from the Vatican itself as seen lately from the Congregation for Catholic Education (for Educational Institutions). In its publication “Male and Female he Created Them” Towards a path of Dialogue on the Question of Gender where a more legalistic and traditional stance was taken.

It is within this environment of tension and opposing views that this book,  Ministry Among God’s Queer Folk by Bernard Schlager and David Kundtz appears. First published in California in 2005 this updated edition seems timely so much change has taken place here in Ireland and in many parts of the world in the intervening years. The laws being changed and people are now thinking and deciding for themselves with regard to this area.

For people working in Pastoral care it has meant being faced with LGBTQ people, their issues and their families. If we are honest, most of us as professional caregivers are ignorant of presenting issues because they were never brought up, or dealt with in our formation. We were formed in the sexual ethics tradition which has as its primary focus the presenting moral issue.

The authors state that if that is the model of which one aims to work, perhaps this is not the book for you. Or on the other hand, perhaps it is. This book’s aim is to help us learn about LGBTQ issues, and especially about best practice. This requires an openness to the issues and people involved.

The authors have a long history of personal involvement in Pastoral ministry especially with LGBTQ people with faith. David Kundtz spent 20 years as a diocesan priest. Having left priesthood he worked as a psychotherapist and became a prolific writer on gay issues. He holds a Doctoral degree in Pastoral Psychology.

Bernard Schlager was also in Religious Life. He received his PhD from Yale University is now associate Professor of Historical and Cultural studies at Pacific School of Religion and the Graduate Theology Union in Berkeley, California.

They describe themselves as ‘queer’ people with faith. In the introduction they explain the aim of the book, which is to contribute to the ongoing development of a pastoral theology and praxis for sexual minorities and as a guide for caregivers to LGBTQ people. The authors  theological and psychological beliefs  are based  on their understanding of the Scriptures and their own lived experience that  believes “all are welcome” and that there should be equal treatment for all God’s people.

They divide the Chapters equally between them. Kundtz takes the first three where he deals with the pastoral relationship and its functions and then explores some difficult situations which LGBTQ people experience.

He stresses at great length that the quality of the relationship between caregiver and receiver is more important than any interventions or learned techniques. He cites many examples of ‘the way not to do it’ – where people can experience further pain and rejection from the misguided efforts of the caregiver. From reading these examples it seems clear to me that an obvious challenge for many pastoral caregivers might be the lack of their personal development especially in the area of sexuality where LGBTQ issues were ignored and remain unresolved.

Kundtz proposes that to be an effective caregiver with LGBTQ people one cannot work from too narrow a perspective. He proposes a model for working that is seen within the overall systems we live in, both as caregiver and receiver.

To be genuinely part of the relationship the caregiver needs to be an instrument of healing within the broad base of interconnected systems connecting with the life of the LGBTQ person. The caregiver is asked to model the model. Thus it is possible that the caregiver can become a Christ-like instrument for transformation. If his does not happen, any mere pious isolated platitudes and “tokenism” will be as false and genuine contact with the receiver will be minimal or lost. By being open to learn the writer invites the reader on a journey, no matter what one’s beliefs, and accepts us where we are at and is conscious of and respectful of “the ageless wisdom of the faith” p10 of which we may belong to.

In our society today and probably more so into the future many are seeking guidance, someone who cares and will listen respectfully to their story without judgement. These individuals are to be found in our parishes, schools and hospitals. Confused people in their sexuality, crying for help, are longing to “come out” from their terrible isolation: people are wanting to transition, family members of ‘queer’ people are looking for support and wanting a safe place in which to be heard.

If we are ignorant, incompetent and act “righteous” people will feel forced to follow a lonely path. The alternative is a positive difference.  The book outlines the many positive skills needed, many of which we already possess.

In the second section Schlagr provides the reader with some insights into the vital experience of “coming out.”  Using Eli Coleman’s 5 stage model as a guide along with Erikson’s development theory he outlines the journey, with all its challenges, and shows how it can be a positive emotional and spiritual experience with the acceptance and support of a pastoral caregiver and also a community.

He makes the point that just as God’s people were slaves in Egypt, the ‘queer’ person (feeling like a slave) is called to make the journey – of coming home to oneself, to others and to God. Always clear that God has made them as they are.

Chapter 5 gives a glimpse into how transformation might happen within a community of faith where LGBTQ people are cared for and are made fully welcome. One immediate change he suggests we all could make is by being more aware of the language we use and consequently be more aware of the kinds of messages we send out. The journey could begin there for all of us.

In chapter 6 Schlager challenges traditional linear ways of thinking. He proposes that LGBTQ people might help open up heterosexual minds by offering different perspectives. He challenges some of the accepted conventional patriarchal norms around family, friendship, about how we make people feel welcome, and how it feels to be truly liberated in oneself. He presents case studies and shows examples of best practise and of how when done in a non-caring way the terrible pain that can be done to a care seeker. By using the model proposed in the book he shows ways of encountering and working positively with individuals and families, no matter what the human or ethical situation might be.

This publication highlights the depth of knowledge held by the authors, of pastoral care, psychology, theology. There is also evidence of deep spirituality borne out of their own personal journeys, and from working with people on theirs. Their love and respect for people and their own obvious faith has inspired this book.

I see it as a valuable textbook which should appeal to all sympathetic and interested caregivers in parishes, schools, hospitals, and other environments. I feel it would be of particularly helpful to Pastoral Supervisors. The named resources and explanations are of great value and the two sexual rating scales are enlightening and useful.

I conclude by returning to the Good Friday encounter between Pope Francis and Stephen K Amos. After the meeting Amos was seen wiping away tears when the Pope finished speaking. He later described Francis as one of the most progressive Popes in history. “Let’s just say it was a moment that will stay with me for the rest of my life”.
That is what happens when a person feels met and accepted.

My advice is: “Get this book, open your heart and mind, and be willing to learn!”

Tim Hazelwood

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