One Pastor’s Response to the Bruce Jenners In Our Lives and Churches

Bruce JennerOK, I’m going there.

I don’t often use this forum to comment on the hot topics of the day. I’ve discovered that when topics are as fresh and popular as Sunday’s Bruce Jenner interview with Diane Sawyer, it’s hard for anything but the shrill voices on each extreme to be heard.

But I’m giving it a try today. Here’s why.

I know people like Bruce Jenner.*

I have spent many hours sitting, talking and crying with people who struggle with various gender and sexual issues.

I’ve also sat with their loved ones. Parents and grandparents, sons and daughters, husbands and wives. I’ve seen the pain and confusion in their eyes as they struggle to adapt.

What does it mean as a Christian to love a child, parent or spouse who has just told you they are gay? Or that they’ve felt trapped in the wrong body all their lives? (No, those are not the same thing.)

And who can help me negotiate what to do next?


What Do I Do Now?

There are two sets of voices that dominate these issues. I know, because Facebook and Twitter has been filled with both since the interview last Sunday night.

On the one side are people saying Bruce Jenner is a hero. On the other, that he’s a sad, sinful pervert.

If you’re struggling with feelings of sexual identity, which side would you go to?

But those aren’t the only voices out there. They just seem like it because they’re the loudest.

In the huge middle are real people. Not reality TV stars. Just people who are trying to make their way through an already challenging life that’s been upended in a way they never expected.

If you’re a Christian and your spouse has just told you they’re gay or transgender, where do you turn? To those yelling “hero!” or to those yelling “pervert!”?

What they want is someone who isn’t yelling. But that’s often hard to find.

So they go nowhere. They stuff it down and don’t deal with it at all.

They don’t want to hear how awesome this is. Their world has been rocked to its core. But they don’t want to sit through a tirade about how their parent, child or spouse is a pervert, either.

They want know how to keep loving their family member the way Jesus loves them. That’s all. 

But too few of them are finding out how to do this, even as they sit in our churches week after week. So they either suffer in silence or leave our churches saying nothing.


The Grasshopper MythA Pastoral Response

I don’t know why so many people have sought me out for these conversations. After all, I’m not a counselor. I’m just a pastor.

Many of them don’t even attend my church. Some don’t attend any church. But they need a pastor.

Maybe that’s why.

Whatever the reasons, here’s some of what I’m learning through many real conversations with real people dealing with overwhelming challenges.

  1. Listen first, talk later.
  2. Deal with people as people, not as issues.
  3. Nothing about this is easy – for anyone.
  4. People aren’t expecting easy answers – they’re hoping for a loving, truthful conversation.
  5. Speak the truth in love.
  6. Don’t respond according to your feelings, but according to a balanced view of scripture.
  7. When you don’t know what to do, don’t pretend you do.
  8. Treat people with respect – even especially the ones you disagree with.
  9. They’re not coming for an angry sermon or a pat on the back – they want someone to pray with them, talk with them and walk with them through the hardest time of their life.

That’s what the people I talk with seem to be looking for. And isn’t that what pastors are supposed to do, after all?


(*In case you missed it, last week ABC aired an interview with Bruce Jenner in which the former “world’s greatest athlete”, gold-medal-winning decathlete and reality TV star told the world he is “a woman on the inside” – to use his words. Click here to watch it.)

Let’s have a civil conversation about this. I expect comments from various points on the theological spectrum, so I won’t delete any based on theological viewpoint. But I will delete angry and/or strident comments from either extreme. Let this be a place where conversation is encouraged, not shut down. But I will shut it down if that doesn’t happen.

– Karl Vaters


So what do you think? What pastoral experiences have you had with people struggling with challenges like this?

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25 thoughts on “One Pastor’s Response to the Bruce Jenners In Our Lives and Churches”

  1. Wherever it is that I end up falling the political/social/theological spectrum when it comes to “issues” like this, I force myself to take a few steps back into a place where I was with a life that was upended.

    I am a (former depending on who you talk to) pastor who fell hard from grace. I lost a job as a youth pastor of the largest church in my area because I dared to come forward and ask for help with a sin regarding porn addiction. That plea for help ended with…your fired. I found myself on the outside, with a devastated wife who had believed that the Church would step up and help us wade through this. In this predicament I reached out to my pastor, to other pastors, to friends, and I found no help. I did find help from someone whom most people dismiss, Rob Bell, who answered my emails and talked with me at length about my struggles and was a great help and support, but given other circumstances was not in a place to really help me be restored to ministry.

    In the middle of all this was my then wife, who had taken her bitterness towards the Church and turned it in to hatred towards me. Even though I was healing in part from my addiction to porn, I was not healing in my relationship and while I may have abstained from porn, I did not abstain in other ways…yes that means I cheated.

    I had found myself with an opportunity that I was ill prepared for, and had no real support to undertake, but I took it anyway and took over for a Church Plant that had all but fallen apart in the hopes that finding my way in to leadership again, I might gain respect from my wife once again and that we would be able to grow as a couple. But her hatred towards me had already boiled over to the point where nothing I could do would break through. Then. after being berated in public and told “go find someone who doesn’t hate you”…I did just that.

    Was it stupid? yes
    Was it wrong? yes
    Did I deserve everything I got? yes

    Did I fall to my knees in the aftermath and seek God, and seek reconciliation…YES!!!

    Did I get my marriage back? No…I did not. It ended painfully, and I had now choices to make.

    Keep beating myself up, or try to get through.

    Again, I went to the Church and to various leaders in my life looking for at the very least, a kind word of encouragement that offered some hope that I could be what God wanted me to be (thank you Karl for being one of those voices in my life).

    Now, after all that…I am not saying that I am in any way like Bruce Jenner. But I can say that I had struggles in my life, struggles that no one could reasonably say they “chose” those actions in the same way that one would say “I like Chocolate” or “I like Vanilla”. Those “choices” are simply statements of taste and do not take into account the myriad of circumstances and influences that go into those paths.

    My addiction to porn, which effect(s)ed the way I think and make choices, is not/was not/will not be…simply a choice based in “lust”. IN the same way, the place that people like Mr. Jenner find themselves in are places that can’t simply be pigeonholed into words like “choice” or “lifestyle”. There is way more to the story than that…It is complex and deserves a complex and nuanced response.

    One tempered in, care, concern, understanding, trust…and ultimately LOVE

    Love First…ask questions later…if at all.

    I’ve moved past certain aspects of my fallen nature, but I still recognize that I am a complex human being and that the sin in my life is not just the sin that I “choose”, but also the sin that is enacted upon my by others and by the very broken nature of the world we live in.

    But as Paul in the “Bonehead” chapter of Romans, Romans 7:
    “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

    Does that mean that I will be perfect? No
    Does it mean all my troubles have ended? No (some might argue they have just begun)

    There are a lot of things it “doesn’t” mean.

    One thing it does mean though is that even in my imperfection and my on-going struggles God is delivering me through Jesus, as though through the pains of childbirth, and the Holy Spirit groans with and for me when the world around me is such that I do not understand…it all means that I…will…be…ok

    The question for us to ask as his Body is, are we going to be agents of deliverance…midwives through the pains and frustration we face in this complex world…or not.

    1. What a heartbreaking story, Gary. Thanks for telling it here. I hope people read it and find some healing through it. But mostly I pray that others who face what you faced will not be treated by their church the way you were treated by yours. Love first, pastors. Love first.

      1. Thanks Karl, I still have a long way to go…but I know, now more than ever, God wants me to pastor again, and that I have a voice to speak towards those who are struggling and have found themselves on the outside, whether it be because of spiritual abuse, personal sin/issues/addictions…or a combination of the two (or more). Now I just need to find people willing to invest in me, find the masterpiece behind the mud, and mentor me through and pastor me through to a place where I can speak into people’s lives again.

        God is not done with me.

        1. Hey there, I am reading an amazing book by a Pastor that I respect so much. His name is Robert Morris, and He is the head Pastor or Gateway in Dallas/Fort Worth area. He often shares about his problem he had with porn…and has written an amazing book called Truly Free. It’s so good, as it shares with you how the enemy gets a foothold in our life and then…well you know, you have lived through it. I can’t thank the people at Gateway enough for all of the people they help. Please contact them, they will help. I live in Michigan and listen to them every week. blessings.

    2. WOW Gary! What an honest and powerful testimony! I wept as I was reading it. I could only imagine the heartbreak and the struggle you’ve experienced at the hands of those who should have been there to help bear your burdens and be a support for you. None of us are perfect, and never will be until we go home or Christ returns. But in the middle of it all, Christ is right there. Psalm 34:18 says: The Lord is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart; and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit. I find it incredibly healing that the first utterance of good news our Savior read in the synagogue was found in Isaiah 61, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised. To preach the acceptable year of the Lord.”

      Gary, you are accepted in the Beloved. God bless you, brother.

    3. olivia v livingstone

      God tells us to judge not that we be not judge. I admire your strong stand with God. Because no matter what we go through God is always there and he is a for giving God. I admire you for holding fast to him and never let go because he is holding even tighter to you. God Bless you for holding on to him.

      1. Olivia there is also a scripture that says judge righteous-John 7. When we judge based on our owns views we are wrong because our righteousness is as filthy rags. GOD has already judged sin and set the standard we are supposed to live by. GOD is always there to help us if we want help. Sometimes people like the sin they are in, but if you want change GOD is standing there with open arms to help us. The church should not turn anyone away and are supposed to show love because we too were once sinners, but the church must also tell the truth and not compromise. We must tell them GOD loves all but the soul that sinneth will die and GOD loves us so much that he doesn’t want that for us. We must council people on what GOD expects from our lives and HE will not change his standards for me, you, or anyone.

  2. I think its easy for us on the outside to see things that are obviously against God’s word and say “sinful”! But there is a difference that happens when you sit down with a person struggling with deep, dark sin. The christian reaction would be to, as you said, listen, love and then lead them toward Jesus.

  3. Thank you for bringing this subject up in a balanced, sensitive and gentle way. I have a co-worker whose daughter is going through treatments to become a man and the way she loves her child is amazing. She is an awesome woman of God and has learned to treat her only child with dignity and respect, with that, Mom is still called when her child needs prayer. If ever we need to be there for people is now. I’m not only a Pastor but work with women/girls who have had an abortion (another hot topic) and many of them don’t feel they can go to their Pastor or the church for help in this area of their lives. I believe it’s time for the church to go beyond the altar into a world that’s hurting and wants to be loved. However, some of us (church) needs training on how to do this, hopefully, someone will set something up to equip leaders and pastors when it comes to the “hot topics” we are facing today from a loving spiritual perspective, leaving the politics to the politicians.

  4. Nancy Gallagher

    Thank you for this post. My understanding of the Gospel requires us to love one another. This means we are called to learn and acquire the skills to treat each person as the beloved child of God. Listening without condemnation is a blessing for the person speaking no matter what the subject. I also want to affirm that people want to be listened to sincerely and don’t want simple, pat answers.

    I believe that people and the quality of our relationships are more important than things. I am now coming to believe that people and the quality of our relationships are more important than political affiliations, more important than a few verses of scripture. The arc of the Biblical record inspires me to learn to love even more effectively.

  5. Excellent thoughts and a great blueprint for the way to have compassionate, Christ-like conversation on this complex topic that affects the lives of so many people.

  6. Nadine Mitchell

    Thank you for being an example of someone who chooses the way of love…..and thanks for “going there”

  7. After fifty six years of dealing with the broken hearts and souls of individuals with such issues, I truly believe that we in the Church need to adjust our rose colored glasses. No, I do not want to hear a rant either, but a good analogy such as you gave Karl is a good start for meaningful conversation. I will never ever forget the first Aids person I dealt with, back before the drugs to help came in the picture. I tried to treat him the way I would treat my own son, with compassion and love. He died a miserable death, and only his immediate family was at his funeral. It was the least I could do for one of God’s children who needed desperately to feel someone cared. So, I’m not into judgment; that’s God’s business. I am into God’s grace. I hope you the reader are as well.

  8. Thanks for taking this approach to this complex and controversial topic. Christians may disagree about several aspects of this story, but the overriding theme should be love–the kind of love that keeps a pathway to God open for all who are struggling.

  9. Great article Karl. I have walked this journey with many people some very close to me. I think it has to be said, that he journey is often a long one and it requires patience that only the Holy Spirit can give. I also say we must keep believing that there IS healing in the name of Jesus. Sometimes healing is a process.

  10. Thanks for sharing this, Karl. My husband is a full-time worker and recently met a Christian student who confessed that he is gay. My first response when my husband confided in me was that he should refer the student to an organization that can help him “out of it” and to tell him that it was outright wrong to be gay. This article helps me think about how I can be a helpmeet and encouragement to my husband in his journey with this student. =)

  11. Thanks for this article. We need compassionate insight that results in compassionate action. The Grace of God should be reflected by us. I recently met a gay couple, two very nice wonderful ladies, and to condemn them would only hurt them and take them farther from Christ… I would like to know though how to really deal with it.

  12. First, people don’t necessarily respond regarding such “news” in one extreme way or another. To simplify people’s possible responses in such a way, is off-putting, and certainly not an example of listening. Second, you’re not a counselor, “just a pastor”? A pastor should lead, guide, teach, care, shepherd, speak with authority, and yes, counsel. I’ve never met a pastor who didn’t counsel in some way or another. To absolve yourself on speaking on the matter for “not being a counselor” is weirdly odd. I would hope that as a pastor when speaking about people on the matter that you aren’t so ambivalent about what scripture says about the issue. What is true is immutable, though unpopular in this culturally-driven society in which fodder for a reality tv show changes with the tides.

    1. Lee, I appreciate your response, but I think you may have misunderstood some of what I was saying.

      First, I’m aware that people don’t only respond to this issue from the extremes. As I wrote, “…those aren’t the only voices out there. They just seem like it because they’re the loudest.”

      Second, when I wrote “I’m just a pastor” it wasn’t to absolve myself of anything. And I agree with you that pastoring includes all the things you mentioned. The “I’m just a pastor” line was my way of wondering out loud why people have sought me out for all these conversations, instead of a counselor, which is where people usually go. The reason, as I wrote in the next paragraph is, “But they need a pastor.”

      Third, I completely agree that the truth of scripture is always more important than cultural shifts and personal feelings. Like I wrote in point #6. “Don’t respond according to your feelings, but according to a balanced view of scripture.”

  13. Thanks for these words, so clearly full of love. This is helping me better realize God’s heart regarding people I know and love who are dealing with complex, difficult issues of sexuality.

  14. Thank you Pastor Karl Vaters for presenting the subject of Bruce Jenner with love and respect. I understand why people seek you out to share their truth because you love, care and respect people. We all need a safe and loving place to share our truth, not one of condemnation, hatred, and judgment. So often, we already do that to our self—at least I do.

    Your model communication list (I sure thinks it’s a good model), that’s worked for you, is a solid formula and I think can be used when communicating about any subject with anyone and anywhere, especially difficult subjects. I need this information in my everyday communication, because I haven’t had a good model to follow. They’re loving, respectful, and brilliant. Thank you so much for sharing them. I’ve added them to my own communication skills that I feel are greatly lacking.

    “Listen first, talk later.
    “Deal with people as people, not as issues.
    Nothing about this is easy – for anyone.
    People aren’t expecting easy answers – they’re hoping for a loving, truthful conversation.
    Speak the truth in love.
    Don’t respond according to your feelings, but according to a balanced view of scripture.
    When you don’t know what to do, don’t pretend you do.
    Treat people with respect – even especially the ones you disagree with.
    They’re not coming for an angry sermon or a pat on the back – they want someone to pray with them, talk with them and walk with them through the hardest time of their life.
    That’s what the people I talk with seem to be looking for. And isn’t that what pastors are supposed to do, after all?” (I agree).

    Thank you for giving us all the opportunity to share our stories and thoughts with you and each other.


  15. Karl, thanks for “going there”. Thanks for reminding us to use the same communication techniques that Jesus used when He dealt with troubled people. I’m sharing your article on my Facebook Page.

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