My client “Susan” was a gifted pastor in a large Evangelical church where only her co-pastor knew her secret. She realized in late middle-age that she is neither deluded nor broken, only born with a female mental and spiritual identity in a male body. She feels blessed to live in a time when modern medicine can make her whole. Through pastoral therapy sessions over five years, she has come to trust that what God has made is good and can become a blessing.
When Susan began her medical transition with physician-monitored feminizing hormone therapy, the rift between physical and gendered identities began to heal. Peace due to less internal conflict led to a release of long-restrained gifts: her congregants began telling her (though they only knew her as “him”) that her counseling and preaching were lately beginning to resonate in them more deeply.
Inevitably she needed to come out to her peers in the Evangelical world and even though they had broken bread together over the decades, most voted her out of the organization she had helped found. The unofficial reason given by her remaining friends there was, of course, the money. The group feared that membership and contributions would dry up and the organization and its churches would starve. In other words, theirs was not a fear that folks in the pews would be scandalized beyond repair; in fact, some of her (cisgender) congregants wanted to continue with her in pastoral counseling, and wanted her to start a new church! Maybe they had a loved one who was transgender. Maybe they were simply inclusive in their understanding of Jesus’ invitation for all to join him at the table. But the folks in the pews got a message from the powers contrary to God’s love and deep generosity toward all.
True, a woman pastor was not something her denomination was ready for. But women in her church can teach, counsel, and are on the board of the larger organization. Room could have been found. New conversations would have been broached. Theologies would have opened up to larger horizons. God’s awe would have once again made Itself known.
Like all Evangelical ministers, she is married. She and her wife have lovingly struggled. With grace and grit, they are individuating in ways most couples never need to, and this can only make them better marriage counselors. Their experience can also inform marriage theology, whether or not they remain married. They know they will always be close, and know that the institutional Evangelical church would have to work hard to understand and condone their relationship, no matter what form it takes.
Their adult children miss their dad. But they have a more peaceful, happier and likable parent. Fortunately for this family, initial cognitive dissonance is giving way to a larger discernment and a graced experience of family. What could Church learn from their lived experience that doctrine cannot teach?
Doesn’t pastoral teaching depend on a graced view of human experience? Progressive pastoral theology says yes. At a recent conference of the Society for Pastoral Theology, of which I am a member, two of us (myself and Dr. Jason Hayes, of Boulder, Colorado) presented papers on this notion: God can handle reality. And human reality has breadth and diversity of lived experience of embodiment. We are not souls pitched against our bodies, and neither are we bodies overpowering our souls. Grace infuses both, and perhaps the source of sin is in their inability to harmonize. Pastoral theology cannot be written in ivory towers but takes shape in real life, where God is always present, after all.
Grace and collaboration with the reality of how God made her are aided by rigorous examination of her relationship with God, from childhood to the present. We sift her religious background for spiritual truths and cultural biases in a process of updating her adult faith. Our task is to deepen her reliance on God who creates transsexuals and today gives them modern means of becoming integrated and whole. Becoming who one is meant to be takes both surrender and action. We examine her Christian values of allowing grace to make her whole. We look at the Jewish description of the human being as “made in God’s image,” which the Hebrew means by the word ‘tselem’, not as “image” at all–for God is of course imageless–but as ‘being’ and conscious of self, with a small ‘b’, created materially and spiritually by Ultimate Being. We are made in God’s likeness, in Hebrew ‘demut’, because like God we are active and creative, making words, comprehending and discerning.
As for “male and female, God made them”: notice the choice of the word “and” instead of “or.” The same word is used regarding God’s making “morning and evening, a first day.” What is a day? A day is 24 hours of gradation: dusk, midnight, dawn, noon, the heat of the day, twilight, and dusk again. And so, let’s read more mindfully the claim that God made them male and female. What does God’s creation include in the range of human gender?
We are clear, Susan and I, that the most conservative pole of the Evangelical church is too dependent on its fundamentalism to think this graciously. But Evangelicalism lives in a big tent. Will she find ‘home’ in another Evangelical church? Perhaps. In another Church? Of course. Will people suffer in any case? Yes, they will. Might everyone grow through this crisis, the folks in the pews as well? The answer is, Yes, Of Course! Because God is that big and encompassing: no one escapes God’s lavish love
As of this writing, her particular denomination, the Disciples of Christ-end of Evangelicalism, is moving in the direction of trusting that God is in charge and is OK with transpeople. Will some of their churches lose money and membership? Yes. Did Jesus lose some friends as he became more and more radical in his inclusivity? Yes.
Thank God He did it anyway.