Even though we weren’t married long, my first marriage taught me about acceptance. Doug, my first husband, was a smart, funny, kind person; a man of deep faith, and a lawyer by training. He had a heart of gold. He served as a guardian ad litem in the court system for children in precarious situations.
But Doug had a persistent, hidden pain. He couldn’t reconcile his inner spirit—his gender identity—with the body he was born into and the gender he was assigned. He wrestled with it from the time he was a small child and carried this pain into adulthood. Many years later, after our brief marriage dissolved, Doug finally transitioned into the life of a female and became known as Danyel.
While this decision came with a deep sense of relief, there was also a great price to pay. While Doug was beloved, Danyel was disowned by a sister. Other friends couldn’t hang in there either. But even through all her personal changes, Danyel, who has since passed away, continued the professional work of advocating for the dignity and safety of children.
I don’t pretend to understand what it feels like to wrestle in this way. Or even why some people experience gender dysphoria. However having personally witnessed a slice of the searing journey Doug took to become Danyel, and the peace that at last came with it, I have nothing but respect for the courage of trans people.
Over the years I have come to know a handful of other men and women with similar stories. Each of them, interestingly, has been a professional person with deep convictions about their calling in life. While I don’t know Rev. Megan Rohrer, the newly elected bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, it sounds like she shares a similar journey to the folks I have known. She is the first openly trans person to be elected Bishop of a mainline denomination.
As a leader, you may be asked to comment on the connection between Bishop Rohrer, the Bible, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. While her election doesn’t directly impact the United Methodist denomination, it does give you a chance to reflect theologically and personally on what it means to be made in the image and likeness of God, to be a beloved child of God, and to experience grace.
I don’t know what you will say, or even how you feel about this. But I would like to offer some questions for you to consider how to frame challenging topics.
How to Frame Challenging Topics
1) How to disagree without demonizing? How can you talk about experiences like this that fall outside the norm, the expected, in such a way that you do not demean, demonize, or dehumanize people? Neither the people in favor of it, nor the people against it, nor the people who don’t understand it, or don’t care? Truth is, most people have their own inner conflicts. Hearing how you address this topic will help them consider their own unspoken concerns that may fall outside the norm or the expected.
2) How to dialogue rather than jump to judgement? How can you draw people into dialogue or inquiry rather than making snap judgements? Adding to the culture wars ethos so prevalent today doesn’t help us come together. SO many things are immediately set up as a “for or against” proposition. Taking a reasoned thoughtful approach helps people think rather than react. Also, you may have people wrestling with gender dysphoria in your congregation. Choose your words carefully.
3) How to think theologically? How can you use the tool of the Wesleyan quadrilateral to help people think theologically? It’s okay for people to arrive at different decisions. Teaching people how to think theologically is more powerful than telling them what to think. The quadrilateral also allows for people to flex and change their mind, rather than harden into a set position.
In the end, I’m grateful for what my first marriage taught me about acceptance. I have found that telling my own story—without making others wrong—and then listening—really listening—to their story, is a powerful way to approach sensitive subjects. It allows people to be heard, and to discover something new from each other. Best of all, this approach helps us to experience the grace of God and each other’s inherent humanity in such a way that we each get to express our true selves. That’s a gift we can give each other in the midst of challenging times.