“Understanding Gender Incongruence & Caring for Trans* People” is a 4-session course that (1) helps Christian leaders and parents think empathetically and theologically about gender incongruence and (2) equips Christian leaders and parents to offer God’s love and wisdom to trans* people. Learn more and get access at equipyourcommunity.org/gendercourse.
How can pastors and Christian leaders walk alongside Christians committing to stewarding their gender incongruence according to a biblical gender ethic? How can discipleship embody God’s love and wisdom for trans* Christians?
Here’s an overview of Equip’s suggestions, explored in detail in Session Three of Equip’s Gender Incongruence Course:
- Adopt a posture of empathy and compassion
- Prioritize addressing mental health challenges
- Honor their lack of choice and explore morally neutral relief
- Support acceptance of brokenness and suffering
- Address childhood shame from cultural gender stereotypes
- Give them permission to reject cultural gender stereotypes
- Encourage them to share their stories and gather
1. Adopt a general posture of empathy and compassion
It’s easy to use that which we don’t understand as a target for jokes, sermon illustrations, blame shifting, or a focal point for anger and fear. But trans* people are not just a statistic on a screen, a political agenda, or a piece of legislature in the Senate. They are people made in the image of God who are valued greatly by Him, and we, as His church, should greatly value trans* people as well.
Every trans* person has their own story to tell, their own joys and sorrows, difficulties and triumphs, ways that God has allowed them to suffer, and ways that God has provided abundantly.
Tragically, trans* people struggle with mental health issues and suicide risk at higher levels than any other subgroup of LGBT+ people.1 The Enemy has misled a majority of trans* image-bearers to believe their lives are less valuable and less worthy of relationship. Culturally, trans* individuals are bombarded with two conflicting messages. One side yells, “Transition or suicide!” The other yells, ”Just be normal!” Neither is the solution.
Instead, believe trans* people when they share about their experience. Recognize that trans* people have done nothing to bring about their gender incongruence. Honor that faithfully stewarding gender incongruence will be costly and demands the support of trans* people’s siblings in Christ.
Remind trans* Christians that Jesus cares for them and is with them in the pain and mess of life. While it is painfully difficult to live in a world (and a body) burdened by brokenness, brokenness will not be our experience forever; we have a hope and a future in Jesus for resurrected bodies and life when all will be made right.
Finally, take your time to build rapport with trans* Christians you’re ministering to. Patiently invest in relationship to earn their trust. Don’t be surprised when walking together is at times difficult and complicated. Commit to giving trans* Christians the benefit of the doubt, and commit to being quick to re-examine your own motivations and actions when trans* people you’re caring for feel hurt.
2. Prioritize addressing any mental health challenges
Care for trans* Christians holistically. Those navigating gender incongruence often suffer from various mental health challenges. Pastors and parents should prioritize connecting trans* people with proven interventions to address the mental health challenges they face.
Research shows that the following have been proven to be most effective at reducing depression and suicidality (in no particular order):
- In-person talk therapy with a counselor to address grief/loss2
- Regular exercise/physical activity3
- Use of antidepressants4
- A broader community of social support5
If a trans* person you’re supporting is struggling with suicidality, help them find a therapist or counselor, go with them on walks, and help them maintain and deepen connections with safe friends and family.
3. Honor lack of choice and explore morally neutral relief
After adequately addressing mental health challenges, the trans* people you’re supporting will hopefully be in a better place to explore how they will steward their gender incongruence. Start by honoring their lack of choice and the painful need to accept some level of enduring brokenness.
Transgender people do not choose to experience gender incongruence. Some may rebel by bucking cultural gender expectations, but rebellion does not create robust, enduring gender incongruence. Trans* people often endure significant distress due to their gender incongruence—why would they choose to experience that pain? So recognize and honor their lack of choice.
Help them resolve what they can and manage what they must.
Trans* people don’t choose to experience gender incongruence, but they do have the responsibility to faithfully steward their brokenness. Support trans* Christians as they consider morally neutral options in the range of social transition that might provide relief from the gender incongruence. Help them weigh each possibility and carefully step forward where the Lord leads.
Even still, many of the trans* Christians you support will continue to experience some persisting and painful gender incongruence, even after some social transition. And while hormonal and surgical transition have not been shown to effectively reduce suicidality,6 trans* Christians yearning for further relief will certainly be burdened by cultural messages that further transition will eliminate their distress.
4. Support acceptance of some brokenness/suffering
Respond to persisting pain by encouraging trans* Christians you’re ministering to to resist further transition that is unlikely to provide the relief they desire, and instead invite them to accept some level of enduring brokenness.
Unfortunately, all believers, in one way or another, will continue to experience some physical or emotional or spiritual brokenness for the rest of their life. Part of being a Christian on this side of Christ’s return is learning to live with some level of brokenness. That’s why we yearn so much for Jesus to return and make everything right, including giving us perfect resurrection minds, bodies, and souls!
Help trans* Christians you’re ministering to explore what Christians throughout the ages have written about suffering and how they found a way to accept persisting brokenness. And then hold space for them as they grieve this acceptance.
Some pain will be unavoidable.
Trans* people can’t avoid using a name for themselves, using pronouns, going to the bathroom, wearing clothes, or speaking with a pitched voice. There will be daily, unavoidable, and painful reminders for trans* people of their gender incongruence.
Make space for them to be angry, sad, afraid, and numb. Reassure them that their feelings are valid and that their pain is real. Promise them that you won’t leave their side, and then stay.
5. Address any childhood shame from cultural gender stereotypes
Identify and heal any painful memories of being shamed for preferences contrary to cultural gender stereotypes. Most of us, regardless of gender experience, can recall moments from our childhoods when we preferred something that kids of our biological sex weren’t supposed to prefer or showed a disinterest or dislike toward things kids of our gender were supposed to like, not based on any biblical prescriptions for gender but because of arbitrary gender over-prescriptions from culture. And then we were shamed by parents and siblings and friends and pastors.
Directly or indirectly, we were given a choice: 1) reject your preference, learn to dislike what you like, learn to like what you dislike, and internalize shame to fit in or 2) continue to like what you like, continue dislike what you dislike, and continue to be shamed and teased and rejected. It was a lose-lose for many kids and teens.
These forced choices were particularly painful for kids who also noticed gender incongruence. External messages of shame and rejection combined with a worrying internal sense that their body and their heart didn’t match. These forced-choice moments around overprescribed cultural gender amplified the internal shame gender incongruence was producing, and heightened fears of how painfully they would be rejected if they shared about how they felt different in an even more fundamental way.
Some of the distress trans* Christians experience in the present may come from unprocessed childhood moments like these that haunt their present. Care for trans* Christians by helping them identify shaming memories like these, create space for them to connect with any lingering sadness or anger or fear and feel through those unprocessed feelings, name how false and arbitrary those forced choices were, and reassure them of their inherent worth and value as image bearers, including their unique ways of expressing themselves, even when it’s contrary to cultural stereotypes.
6. Give permission to reject cultural gender stereotypes
As discussed in Session Two of Equip’s Gender Incongruence Course, American culture has arbitrarily attributed preferences and affinities to gender that have nothing inherently to do with gender. While the core of a trans* Christian’s distress is an internal sense that their biological sex and felt gender are incongruent, feeling forced to comply with arbitrary cultural expectations can multiply distress.
Help trans* Christians reduce pain related to their gender by giving them permission to reject cultural gender stereotypes. Parents and pastors can join trans* Christians by resisting historical over-prescription of what universal, Biblical masculinity and femininity are, while maintaining a God-ordained distinction between the biological sexes and genders.
Giving trans* Christians (and any Christian) permission to express themselves in culturally atypical ways may raise questions or concerns with siblings in Christ who are less aware of the arbitrary nature of gender stereotypes. Pastors and parents can protect trans* Christians from harassment for their preferences and affinities by engaging with concerned believers, assuring them that rejection of cultural gender does not mean rejection of God’s gift of one’s biological sex or gender.
7. Encourage to share their stories and gather together
Pastors and parents should encourage Christians navigating gender incongruence to share their stories with siblings in Christ and gather with other trans* Christians.
Trans* Christians need to share about their experiences to be fully known and fully loved. They need to share their stories, and they need to see their siblings in Christ respond with curiosity and compassion. At the same time, our churches need to hear the stories of trans* Christians who are faithfully stewarding their brokenness. Cisgender Christians can learn from the courage and resiliency of trans* Christians, and cisgender Christians can gain self-awareness about the ways cultural gender stereotypes haunt them by empathizing with trans* Christians.
Pastors and parents also need to encourage trans* Christians to gather with other trans* Christians. Among those with shared experiences, Christians navigating gender incongruence will find unique support and understanding. Each of these opportunities for Christian fellowship can contribute to greater spiritual growth, discovering shared meaning in suffering, and enjoying healthy intimacy in a community of believers.
For practical advice about bathroom policies, sleeping arrangements on overnight youth retreats, and the public witness of trans* Christian leaders, get access to Equip’s Gender Incongruence Course today at equipyourcommunity.org/gendercourse.
1 See this article for statistics and sources.
2 Zalsman, G., Hawton, K., Wasserman, D., Van Heeringen, C., Arensman, E., Sarchiapone, M., … Zohar, J. (2016). Suicide prevention strategies revisited : 10-year systematic review. LANCET PSYCHIATRY, 3(7), 646–659. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2215-0366(16)30030-X
3 Davidson, C. L., Babson, K. A., Bonn‐Miller, M. O., Souter, T., & Vannoy, S. (2013). The impact of exercise on suicide risk: examining pathways through depression, PTSD, and sleep in an inpatient sample of veterans. Suicide and Life‐Threatening Behavior, 43(3), 279-289.
4 Zalsman, G., Hawton, K., Wasserman, D., Van Heeringen, C., Arensman, E., Sarchiapone, M., … Zohar, J. (2016). Suicide prevention strategies revisited : 10-year systematic review. LANCET PSYCHIATRY, 3(7), 646–659. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2215-0366(16)30030-X
5 Wright, K. B., Rosenberg, J., Egbert, N., Ploeger, N. A., Bernard, D. R., & King, S. (2013). Communication Competence, Social Support, and Depression Among College Students: A Model of Facebook and Face-to-Face Support Network Influence. Journal of Health Communication, 18(1), 41-57.
6 See this article for statistics and sources.