An Interview With Cody Sanders About Ministry With LGBTQIA Youth
August 13, 2018—Rev. Dr. Cody Sanders taught the online course, “Ministry With LGBTQIA Youth” at the Center for Lifelong Learning in October.
He is the pastor of the Old Cambridge Baptist Church, and serves as the American Baptist Chaplain at Harvard University. We interviewed Cody about his recent book, which is the focus for the course.
CLL: What motivated you to write this book?
Cody: Growing up a gay kid in a Southern Baptist Church in South Carolina, this is the kind of book I wish the ministers and volunteers in my youth ministry had read.
Over the years, I’ve known so many LGBTQIA youth who have suffered isolation, rejection, and various forms of harm in the contexts of their family, school, church, or community with absolutely no adult in their lives who could intervene in a competent and helpful way.
I’ve dreamed of writing this book since I was in seminary and working as a youth minister in a local congregation.
After writing my PhD dissertation on suicide among LGBTQ people, I felt more urgently than ever the need for a book that would help ministers and layperson become more competent in their affirming work with LGBTQIA youth.
CLL: Were there surprises for you during the writing of the book? Did you learn something you were not aware of?
Cody: One of the biggest surprises at the outset of the project was just how little there was in print to help resource churches to engage in affirming ministry with LGBTQIA youth!
The affirming movement has been alive in many churches and denominations for many years and there are shelves full of books on biblical and theological questions related to sexuality and faith, but no book to help people more effectively affirm LGBTQIA youth in the ministry of the church.
There were, however, a few youth-oriented books from non-affirming faith perspectives.
CLL: Why is this issue important to churches and church leaders?
Cody: No matter if you know of LGBTQIA youth in your church or not, there are LGBTQIA youth within your church or your greater sphere of influence.
For ministers who want to live out a theological and ethical commitment to affirm the lives of LGBTQIA youth, intentions only go so far.
There must be skillful, resourceful ministerial practices and tools added to those affirming intentions.
This book is a crash course for ministers to develop those skills and resources.
CLL: What are the main insights from the book you want to highlight?
Cody: Firstly, a basic understanding of sexual or affectional orientation and gender identity.
There is so much confusion among very well-meaning people about what these aspects of our human experience mean, which makes it hard to talk openly with youth about these embodied experiences.
The first half of the book is devoted to developing that understanding.
The rest of the book contains practical tools that ministers and laypersons can draw upon to intervene in sometimes life-saving ways in the lives of LGBTQIA youth.
CLL: What do you hope your readers will take away from the book?
Cody: Aside from a greater sense of competency to work with LGBTQIA youth, I hope readers will come away with a sense that LGBTQIA lives are rich sources of holy wisdom for faith communities.
That was the topic of my first book, Queer Lessons for Churches on the Straight and Narrow, but the epistemological orientation runs through this book as well.
We have more to learn from LGBTQIA lives than we’ve yet been willing or able to see. It’s time for churches to open themselves to the queer and holy wisdom of LGBTQIA lives.
CLL: What do you see are the biggest challenges for churches in ministering to LBTQAI youth and their parents?
Cody: Hesitancy to engage the subject openly in churches in ways that signal to youth and parents that it’s a subject they can broach with their ministers and lay leaders.
It may feel risky, but churches that want to serve the well-being of LGBTQIA people in their congregations and communities must be willing to more openly engage in dialogue and exploration on the topic.
I hope this little book will be helpful in making those incremental movements toward more open conversation.
CLL: You’ll be teaching a course based on your book at the Center for Lifelong Learning. Who can benefit from this class?
Cody: Anyone whose ministry relates at all to youth — whether you work with youth directly or the parents, grandparents, teachers or mentors of youth.
The last workshop I gave on this subject was populated by a group of people who were age 65+.
Several of them said some version of, “I’m taking this workshop because my grandchild just came out.”
Even if your work is exclusively with senior adults, this topic is pertinent to your ministry!
CLL: What is the most important thing churches can do for LBTQAI youth and their parents?
Cody: If a church holds an affirming stance on LGBTQIA concerns, the most important thing they can do is not to hide it.
I work with a lot of churches that have taken the stance of openness and affirmation, but don’t want to be too out front about it.
It’s o.k. if pride parade marching isn’t your thing, but if LGBTQIA people don’t see some visible sign that your church is affirming of LGBTQIA lives, the weight of the church’s contemporary history on the matter will tacitly communicate to them that you probably aren’t an affirming congregation.
No one just assumes a church embraces LGBTQIA people, and blanket statements like “All Are Welcome” don’t cut it.
We’ve been burned by that lie before.
If you love LGBTQIA people and are concerned for our well-being and are working for LGBTQIA justice, say it openly, loudly and often!
It’s a life-giving message for LGBTQIA people and their family and friends to hear, even if they never enter the doors of your church.
CLL: Can this book be helpful to parents of LBTQAI youth?
Cody: Absolutely! I wrote it with parents in mind as much as youth workers.
CLL: What have you seen is the biggest challenge LBTQAI youth face in terms of faith? Of church?
Cody: I think the biggest challenge is finding a community of people who are safe and affirming people to invite into this part of your journey.
Whether it’s in one’s school, in one’s home life, in one’s congregation, among one’s group of friends, having a few folks to share the journey with you can be live-saving and can, at very least, lift the burden of isolation.
This book will help you develop the confidence that you can be that kind of presence for an LGBTQIA youth in your life.
CLL: Thank you Cody.
The October course is now closed but the CLL’s new Welcoming Our Transgender and Non-Binary Neighbors class with Linda Herzer and Gabrielle Claiborne is open for registration! Click here for more information.
Rev. Dr. Cody Sanders is pastor of the Old Cambridge Baptist Church in Cambridge MA. Cody and the congregation were drawn together by a mutually shared commitment to concerns of peace and justice, putting faith into action to cultivate redemptive communities that listen to and learn from people on the margins, and standing in solidarity with the most vulnerable against oppression, injustice, and violence. Cody works alongside 30+ multi-faith and secular chaplains at Harvard University to cultivate the religious, spiritual, and ethical life of the university, and serves the spiritual needs of American Baptist students on campus.
Cody’s books include, Trouble the Water: A Christian Resource for the Work of Racial Justice (co-author), and he is Editor of Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth: A Resource for Congregations on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity. He has authored theological journal articles addressing the intersection of sexuality, justice, and Christian faith in journals such as Theology & Sexuality and Pastoral Psychology, as well as social science journals. His numerous public theological articles appear in The Huffington Post, Religion Dispatches, Believe Out Loud, and Baptist News Global.