LGBTQ+ Policies: What Do We Do about Youth Group?
Last year a few parents asked me for a meeting. They explained that a boy in their kids’ school returned from Thanksgiving break identifying as a girl. The school district’s policy guaranteed toilet access according to his perceived gender identity. Any female student who felt uncomfortable sharing a stall next to him was required to go to the bathroom in the nurse’s office. These kids were in fourth grade.
Every church in the United States has schools in its vicinity that have, are, or most likely will soon experience what the parents at our church experienced. Pastors must disciple their people to think biblically about LGBTQ+ issues. This is especially the case in family ministries. Though discipling involves more than policy, we cannot afford to think it means less. Wise policies allow a congregation to continue gospel ministry in an increasingly pagan culture. Good policies are urgently needed in children and student ministries. The goal of this article is to help us think through what these policies may look like.
SETTING THE STAGE
Policies aren’t created in a vacuum, and wise ones consider the moment and questions at hand. Let me set the stage—so to speak—by giving context for my suggestions on the how’s and why’s of family ministry policy.
In the United States of America, two federal government departments oversee public, independent, and collegiate education: the Department of Education and the Department of Justice. The Department of Education supports local and state school boards’ efforts by providing standards and research and by executing laws on education. The Department of Justice ensures that students’ constitutional rights are not violated. Furthermore, Congress passed the Education Amendments of 1972 to tie the federal government’s prerogatives in education to its funding.
Most Americans are familiar with Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. These are statutes inserted into previous legislation to expand protections to students based on sex. The objective was to protect the interests of female students. The law states: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”1 There are a few exceptions in application carved out by the statute itself, but in general, the Supreme Court has broadly applied Title IX to protect students’ constitutional rights.
Each presidential administration determines how it will execute this law. On March 13, 2016, President Obama’s Department of Education and the Department of Justice issued a joint statement indicating that the two departments would consider the interests of LGBTQ+ students to be protected under the Title IX statute. They also offered guidelines on accommodations schools should make to comply, including sports inclusion and protected bathroom/locker room access.2 The Trump administration revoked this guidance. The Biden administration then reversed course and reapplied the Obama administration’s interpretation of the “U.S. Supreme Court decision in Bostock v. Clayton County.”3 Bostock guaranteed the civil rights of LGBTQ+ employees under the Civil Rights Act. One does not have to stretch the imagination to see why the Biden administration sees a corollary between Bostock’s implication and Title IX application. On June 23, 2022, the Department of Education announced future regulations reinforcing Title IX’s covering of transgender students.4
This is the world in which the next generation is being catechized. This is the world in which family ministries will need to minister.
When I was a student pastor in Louisville, Kentucky, in 2014—before the Obama administration issued its Title IX guidelines—one high school in our area, Atherton High School, took it upon itself to issue LGBTQ+ policies. Atherton parents and administrators moved to grant access to bathrooms and locker rooms to transgender students according to their gender identity. These moves quickly gained influence around the country.
Things moved quickly after that. Students started asking many questions about transgenderism. By 2015, I started advocating for our church leadership to act. During this time, we were partnered with a parachurch organization to gain gospel opportunities on our local high school’s campus. Following one summer break, a room in the library had been converted into an LGBTQ+ safe space with signage and a 3’ x 5’ pride flag. Our ministry teams began seeing an increase in students experimenting with same-sex relationships. Back at church, our students were persistently talking about issues related to sexuality. They wanted to know what the Bible taught.
I approached my senior pastor with a proposed statement for our ministry handbook on human sexuality and gender. We needed policies for things like locker rooms, bathrooms, camp sleeping arrangements, dress codes, and more. After all, we want unsaved kids to come to our church events, so we wrote policies that applied to believers and nonbelievers as a condition for participation. Most importantly, I did not want Title IX regulations to catechize my volunteers, families, or children on how the church should handle real-world scenarios. We thought having a stated and adopted policy would give us more significant standing should someone accuse us of discrimination.
So, on December 22, 2016, we added the following policy to our student ministry handbook. We weren’t trying to reinvent the wheel and lifted some of the sentences directly out of a policy drafted by Southern Seminary. As I am no longer on staff at that church, I have anonymized it for their privacy:
[Our student ministry’s] policy regarding sexuality and gender identity is grounded in the orthodox understanding of Christian sexuality, which is rooted in the Bible. We confess that sex and gender are gifts from God. At birth, a human being is born as either a physiological male or a physiological female; by extension, gender is an immutable, exclusively binary characteristic rooted in the physiology of each human being. Any blurring of the boundary between maleness and femaleness, such as identifying oneself as a transvestite, transsexual, or transgendered, is contrary to biblical standards. We also confess any sexual orientation other than strict heterosexuality to be a deviation from God’s good design for human sexuality.
In the event that a student presents a gender different than his or her biological sex, we expect them – when involved in [our] official and unofficial events – to live and present in accord with their biologically assigned sex. This includes but is not limited to pronouns, dress, appropriate bathrooms, locker rooms, assigned sleeping arrangements, groupings, classes, etc. We must view the actions or intentions of those seeking fundamental changes of any kind from one’s sex at birth as a rejection of the biblical and theological understandings to which [our congregation] is committed and hence as grounds for removal from activities and the Student Ministry. The same is true for persistent or exaggerated examples of cross-dressing and other expressions or actions that are deliberately discordant with birth sex. Decisions will be handled on a case-by-case basis in a pastorally sensitive manner. Every case should be brought to the attention of the Student Pastor immediately before any correction takes place.
No student, however, will be turned away from any event because he or she struggles with his or her gender identity or sexual orientation. We welcome everyone [to our gatherings] as long as he or she is working toward a repentant, life-transforming relationship with Jesus Christ that is obedient to the ethical demands of the Old and New Testaments.
Volunteers are expected to be compassionate, understanding that the culture has confused (and lied!) to so many image-bearers about the nature of gender and sexuality. They are to compassionately explain our policies and lovingly invite them to participate even if the student feels uncomfortable presenting something other than their own perceived gender. Only after manifold, compassionate exhortations to repent and experience the life-transforming grace of the Lord Jesus Christ will students be asked to no longer participate in [our] student activities.
See, “XVIII. The Family,” Baptist Faith and Message 2000.
See “Transgender Identity” (http://www.sbc.net/resolutions/2250/on-transgender-identity).5
We needed to clearly address our city’s cultural moment and teach our volunteers to have compassion for confused children. This policy helped us strike a balance between these two things.
POLICIES SERVE PASTORS
Every day, over 2,000 airplanes fly across the Atlantic Ocean with little help from ground radar or air traffic control. Why are there no collisions? Because of a policy—a treaty called North Atlantic Tracks (NAT-OTS). Spaced ten minutes apart, planes enter and follow the tracks at assigned waypoints created the day before. The NAT-OS dramatically reduces the risk of collision due to spotty radar coverage. More importantly, it also reduces the decision fatigue of airline pilots.
Policies function similarly in the life of a congregation; they wisely delegate decision-making. Generally, most pastors don’t enter ministry eager to write policies. Furthermore, few congregations consider administrative prowess as an important pastoral characteristic. And yet, God gifted administrators to his church.
Paul listed “administrating” as one of the gifts for the church (1 Cor. 12:28). Contrary to common perception, its scope is more significant than spreadsheets and expense reports. The word overlaps with concepts like navigation, and LXX translators used the same word to translate Proverbs 1:5; 11:14; and 24:6. Each of these verses celebrates the virtue of someone who can guide a group through difficult circumstances.
Clear policies reduce the potential for collision and decision fatigue. This isn’t to say that policies pastor people on their own. However, policies create decision lanes, reducing collisions. A policy might indeed discriminate, but a good policy discriminates without respect for persons. For example, a policy may say, “you have a bad driving record, so you can’t drive our church bus.” Additionally, a policy reduces decision fatigue by automating a course of action. Like waypoints across the Atlantic, policies provide guidance where details might be lacking.
Increasingly, pastors will be asked to make complex moral decisions related to LGBTQ+ issues. Policies delegate the decision-making process, creating more time for pastors to exhort, instruct, and disciple individuals on gender identity and sexual orientation.
POLICIES MAKE NARROW ROADS STRAIGHT
Policies are not precisely like autopilots. They are more like teachers. Pastoring people who have been discipled by the constant voice of corporate or educational policies is challenging. Yesterday, I went to lunch with a major in the armed forces. He shared that he had recently been required to take a training session on new policies for transgender soldiers’ physical training. Apparently, they would be evaluated according to whether they were “pre-op” or “post-op.” Let the one who has ears hear.
A good policy does two things. First, it identifies a biblical principle with requisite support. Second, it bends that principle into an application. In other words, a policy connects how the Bible should be obeyed in a specific real-world scenario.
Increasingly, church members will be shaped by policies from their vocational domains. This means they will have a different autopilot; different waypoints will influence their instincts. Good policies in the church allow pastors to multiply their teaching impact by neutralizing disordered policies in the world.
WHAT COMES NEXT?
I introduced my 2016 ministry handbook with these words:
“The gospel has always been the hub through which ordinary people turn the world upside down. We have the most precious opportunity to call our people to a radical, counter-cultural revolution that emphasizes others over “friends,” speaking the truth in love over “likes,” and following Christ over their own “followers.”
I’m convinced there hasn’t been a more exciting, urgent, rewarding, challenging, and frustrating time to be in ministry. I’m glad you are joining us.”
Policies aren’t as glamorous as preaching. But as far as they protect and teach our people, they are important.
1. “ 20 U.S. Code § 1681 – Sex” . LII / Legal Information Institute. Cornell Law School. Retrieved June 29, 2022.https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/20/1681.
2. U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Education, “Dear Colleague Letter on Transgender Students,” May 13, 2016, https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/letters/colleague-201605-title-ix-transgender.pdf
3. U.S. Department of Education, “U.S. Department of Education Confirms Title IX Protects Students from Discrimination Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity,” Press Release, June 15, 2021, https://www.ed.gov/news/press-releases/us-department-education-confirms-title-ix-protects-students-discrimination-based-sexual-orientation-and-gender-identity.
4. Moriah Balingit and Nick Anderson, “Sweeping Title IX changes would shield trans students, abuse survivors,” Washington Post, June 23, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2022/06/23/title-ix-biden-trans-sexual-assault-college/.
5. This link is no longer active, but this reference was included in the original policy.