I just attended the American Federation for Suicide Prevention Boston Chapter’s symposium on LGBT+ suicide risk factors and prevention, featuring the notable research of social worker Dr. Caitlin Ryan who keynoted the event. While Dr. Ryan is supportive of same-gender relationships – a position at odds with most evangelicals’ beliefs – every church leader can learn from Dr. Ryan’s groundbreaking work that I have highlighted in my ministry over the last 24 months.
Dr. Ryan unveiled new data pointing to best practices for preventing suicide among gay youth. One of her key ingredients is family. This runs counter to many gay organizations that counsel gay youth to limit interaction with family. Further, this runs at odds with the passive-progressive response by evangelicals of routinely referring youth to Trevor Project and other gay resources. (see disclosure at end)
Dr. Ryan stresses that families – and yes, faith communities – must play a critical and direct role in helping vulnerable gay youth. In short, passing our kids off to others is not always the best support – we must also learn to care well for them ourselves. If we do, some gay organizations may pause before directing gay youth away from their parents. Whether they do or not, we must still do our part.
This vision matches Lead Them Home’s longstanding efforts to help LGBT+/SSA young people develop what I call a Sustainable Support Network. At the top of this support is family. Dr. Ryan’s research provides hard numbers demonstrating just how critical family support is. Importantly, family “support” does not have to mean a change in doctrinal belief. You do not have to choose between doctrine and your child. Keep your beliefs and love your child.
Some will no doubt suggest that evangelicals are dangerous – that we can never play a safe role in caring for gay youth. To this point, there are indeed churches and families of faith that do increase suicidal inclination through judgment, exclusion, and insensitive counsel. Yet in the last decade – and particularly in the last 3 years – counsel to gay youth has dramatically improved in the evangelical community and there is a good trajectory for continual improvements ahead. As one data point: I am receiving more requests to train licensed Christian counselors and pastoral teams in the direct care of LGBT+/SSA youth.
While the tide is turning, there remains much work to do. For now, I simply want to celebrate that learning from Dr. Ryan’s research can lead us to better care for young people in our churches and families. One core Christlike trait is humility – the commitment to love, listen to and learn from others in a spirit of compassion. We will not always agree with what we hear, but we may just be surprised at how much we can learn and put into application in churches and families throughout the evangelical community. Dr. Ryan can help us.
I leave you with one simple idea. If you are the parent of an LGBT+/SSA teen or young adult, Dr. Ryan suggests that you simply be aware of and take note of each of your interactions with your child. She recommends that parents catalogue their “accepting behaviors” and their “rejecting behaviors.” Parents who can increase accepting behaviors and lower rejecting behaviors can significantly reduce the risk of suicide in their child’s life. Pastors, elders and counselors can apply this in a similar fashion. We can do this today.
Disclosure: If you encounter gay youth contemplating suicide, it is critical that you obtain whatever support is necessary. Dialing 911 is necessary if the threat is specific and imminent. For less serious situations, there are many suicide hotlines available, including Trevor Project. See our homepage for a hotline referral. I am not opposed to Trevor Project: rather, I am opposed to evangelicals always referring gay youth outside the church. We must learn to care well.
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