Does every church need a support group?
TFT: Brian, you are a church leader who doesn’t experience same-sex attraction yourself. What is your experience of operating a support group for same-sex attracted believers within a church?
Brian: It has been a joy right from the very first group that we did. I remember sitting there the first evening, and it dawning on me just how big a step of faith it had been for each person to come. I felt, “Wow, I’m handling something here that’s very precious, and I don’t want to blow it.” I wanted to handle the trust that these men (they were all men) had placed in one another and in me with great respect. And I felt, right from the beginning, a sense of privilege.
As the group’s members shared their stories, experiences and battles, I felt so lucky to hear what God had been doing in their lives. For many of them, it was something that they had never really talked about with any other person before. For them to feel free to speak in a context where no one was going to laugh at them, and no one was going to make fun of them, where no one’s going to be horrified, was significant.
So, to be a part of that was amazing for me. I think I’ve learned more than anyone else in the group. As someone who teaches and preaches the Bible regularly, it was just amazing to get insights into what’s going on in the minds and hearts of those to whom I’m seeking to teach, and then to understand what was both helpful and unhelpful for them.
For them, the opportunity to talk about these things in a group where there were rules and safety was very liberating and encouraging.
TFT: What did you cover in the group meetings?
Brian: In this group, I did very little teaching. All I’ve tended to do is enable the meetings to actually happen. I ensure that anyone new to the group knows what to expect. I also remind everyone of our values and how we’re going to go about doing things, which would be very similar to a TFT Barnabas Group.
In a typical meeting, someone brings along a thought from the Bible they have found encouraging. Someone else might suggest we read an article or a chapter of a book and then discuss it. Or perhaps we watch a television programme in advance and then discuss that. I think I probably add value by being in the room, but mainly it’s the guys working through things together. As I’m listening in, I find it tremendously helpful. Above all, it’s incredibly moving for me because I hear some things I just wouldn’t have heard in any other context.
TFT: Do you think every church should operate such a group?
Brian: I think that every church probably needs to do something like this, but maybe as a stepping stone. Having the group helped to dissipate some of the loneliness members had experienced. As a church grows better at looking after everyone, including those who are same-sex attracted, it gets to a point where honesty about sexual struggle is not a huge thing for anybody. If you’re same-sex attracted, you can talk about that within the small group, just as you can talk about a range of other issues there. But we need to recognise that same-sex attracted people have had too many bad experiences of trying that with other church small groups or with other people within the church. They may need to grow in confidence, being vulnerable for a season within the safety of such a dedicated group. One of the great ways to prepare the whole church is for one of the primary Bible teachers to attend the group and learn something of what it’s like to be same-sex attracted so that, in preaching, the church can be equipped.
Our own experience has been that, as the church has grown in its competency to care for same-sex attracted people, the support group has become less necessary. We don’t need to meet as frequently as we did, simply because our members are getting more support within the wider church in other ways.
TFT: Is there a risk, with such a group, that it causes the participants to focus excessively on their sexuality?
Brian: They’re not a group of identical people; each person has their own stories and their own set of struggles. As you start to go deeper, there are points of commonality between them and others in the church who don’t experience same-sex attraction. For instance, in our church, we have someone who is same-sex attracted and committed to celibacy; the thing he finds hardest about this is that he is expecting not to marry, and there’s a whole experience of intimacy that he feels that he is going to miss out on. In that respect, he is not unique. Many people in our church would like to marry, or maybe they have been widowed and experience the same kind of loneliness. There’s another man who struggles to control his sexual desires, which creates a deep frustration within him. But, as he reflects on that, he realises he also needs to be just as self-controlled when his work is frustrating. In that battle of self-control to respond positively to temptation, there are massive points of commonality with other people in the church.
The funny thing is that, whilst the guys have same-sex attraction in common, they have also realised that other things are very different about each other, and they can help one another because they may see things more clearly than someone else. As they get to know each other, different idols are underlying some of their desires. They learn that to help one another, they need to talk about slightly different things and pray for different things. In those respects, there will be other church members outside the group who can be of more help than those within the group. As we’ve got to know one another better, it has become complex. However, that has enabled better points of connection between those within the church who experience same-sex attraction and those who don’t, which has been especially healthy.
When you get into those other issues, the handling of their same-sex attraction often feels more doable day by day. I think they have worked out for themselves that going after these other issues, which often are much easier to talk about with anyone, is what will really help them. I guess they have learned to put their same-sex attraction increasingly in context, and that’s one way that getting together and talking about it has helped. I don’t think they would have been able to do that if they had just been left to work it out privately with the Lord.
TFT: The group you describe was all men. Do you think it could have worked as a mixed group, given that the chemistry between the sexes will be different in a group of same-sex attracted Christians? If not, do you think churches might need to set up a separate women’s group?
Brian: I don’t know. Over the years, I have known of same-sex attracted women in the church, but none have ever wanted to come to the group. Perhaps I should have done more to understand why.
I always wanted the group to be mixed because I felt different perspectives would be enriching. But there is probably a trade-off between that and how easy everyone finds it to be honest. I can see how, in God’s providence, it has been good to be single-sex. In that vein, I could imagine a women’s group being helpful, but we have never seemed to have the critical mass to set one up.
This article was originally published in the autumn 2021 edition of the TFT magazine, Ascend. Click the button below to download your copy.
Download the autumn 2021 edition of Ascend