I would suggest that it takes at least an Including church to helpfully journey with people who are trans who are part of the church family. If they have already transitioned, or reached a settled place with their identity, that journeying is in many ways like the journey of life and faith that anyone else takes. It seems to me that there is a careful balance to try to achieve between not treating a person who is trans differently to anyone else because of their gender identity, while at the same time seeking an openness to and awareness of the possibility that greater pastoral support may be needed at times because of negative reactions experienced outside church, complex family relationships or other issues faced by people who are trans.
Some thoughts about journeying with a person who is trans who is going through the process of transition
A person who is trans faces choices that are not chosen. And they are massive choices. Whether to transition (and if so, how far to go); choosing new names; choosing whom to tell, when and how. Yet it is also not a choice (in the sense that a choice can be a decision based on a whim) because it is a matter of discovering their true gender. The family and friends of the person who is trans also face choices that are not chosen. They did not choose this any more than the person who is trans did. For them the biggest choice is about how to respond. Will they choose to lovingly accompany the person who is trans on their journey or will they choose not to?
I’m not going to chart the journey at this stage – remember that this is a map that shows landmarks rather than a satnav that gives you the route to take. This section is more about how a church can journey with someone who is transitioning rather than describing their journey. If a trans man or woman in a church decides that they want to transition to become their true gender, there are many ways in which the church can accompany them on that journey.
This is not a clearly marked path and it is essential along the way that the person who is trans is in control of what happens as far as possible: this is their journey on which the church is accompanying them. While the trans woman kindly told me that we got some things right in my last church as we accompanied her on her journey towards introducing her to the church we also made some mistakes which she has told me felt like they were losing control at certain points. For example, although we had agreed with her that the leadership team needed to be told first before we introduced her to the church, the leadership team’s discussions excluded her and, while she knew when they were happening, she was unaware of what was being said about her – feeling incredibly vulnerable at those times.
It must take incredible courage for someone to speak with their Minister and share that they are a trans man or woman, are experiencing Gender Dysphoria and are looking to transition to their true gender. The sense of privilege that I felt when I was told – that they trusted me enough to share this incredible news with me – still sends a shiver down my spine when I remember that moment. The person who is trans may have chosen their moment carefully and rehearsed it many times in their head beforehand. If you have read the earlier parts of this work I hope you will recognise this summary of my advice to families when they are told of a relative’s trans identity: that listening and loving are the most important things you can do. The same is true of church leaders, and indeed the whole church. Having read the first part of this page I hope you will have a sense of what Gender Dysphoria is and why a person who is trans wishes to transition.
It may be that the person who is trans chooses not to share their news with their Minister first and shares it with a trusted friend in the church. If that’s you, you were not chosen at random. You were selected because of your friendship, your personality, your wisdom and the love and integrity that you have shown to your trans friend. Be blessed by that knowledge even as you seek to work out how you are going to respond. You might be in the privileged position of being able to provide the closest love and support for the person who is trans as they go through one of the most significant times of their life.
While not wanting to set out guidelines I wonder (with the benefit of hindsight and having talked with people who are trans and their ministers) whether if it is possible there is wisdom in finding such a person (or people) within the church to be close companions for the person who is trans at this time, other than the Minister(s). The Minister will need to lead the church and pastor the whole flock and may not be able to offer either the immediacy of pastoral care or depth that is needed and may well be involved in some of the discussions that take place while the person who is trans needs support as they await the outcome.
While the person who is trans will need considerable pastoral and spiritual support during this process I would remind you not to neglect family and friends. They will have their own concerns, emotions, questions and thoughts that they will also need to be able to express and share. They too need love and listening. Who will be available for them? If the person who is trans is already married they and their spouse may need additional support as they work out what will happen to the marriage. Will they remain together (and become a same sex couple), will they separate, will they divorce? Is the spouse supportive of the transition or not? I spoke with the parents of a trans man who shared that the biggest concern that they had when they thought about how their church might react is that they did not want to be judged. This kept them back from receiving the support that they needed and craved for a long time. How will you let people know that this is not how you will respond if they are in the same place?
At all stages of accompanying it is important to recognise the limitations of pastoral support. It is not counselling. It is not psychotherapy. Those are likely to be needed by different people through the journey and part of how the church may help might be to offer financial support if these are not offered on the NHS. Can your church offer to train (or pay for some training) for people who are willing to fulfil a specifically allocated pastoral role within the church so that they are prepared to offer pastoral care when needed (not only in this circumstance)? Or perhaps if someone is invited by their trans friend to accompany them the church could enable them to receive some extra training in pastoral care and support along the way.
Accompanying a journey of transition
The journey may not have the destination you expect
Not all trans journeys conclude with gender correction surgery. Some may transition socially but not medically or surgically. I would suggest that a good pastoral response does not seek to impose an expected outcome on the person who is trans in their midst by asking questions like, “When are you going to have the surgery?” That is private information which the person who is trans can choose to share at their discretion. Nobody else is entitled to it. This is part of what I mean when I say that each journey is unique. The church’s role is to accompany not to impose. Some people who are trans may choose never to reveal their true gender to their church, feeling able to cope with the dysphoria by expressing it at home and at selected ‘safe’ events. The covenant of confidentiality among friends and family in such cases is to be cherished and kept.
Being introduced to the church
Remember, I am not prescribing a process that you should follow. Should a person who is trans wish to live publicly in their true gender, however, at some point their church will need to meet them in that true gender. Consider with them how you will do that carefully and prayerfully. Most importantly, the person who is trans and their family need to be in control of the process. I feel that it is important that at all stages there is conversation with the person who is trans rather than them being talked about. For the most part I have imagined that this will happen on a Sunday in a service, but that is not necessarily the case. It is possible that it could take place at any activity in the life of the church. If the person who is trans is already part of a home group they could begin the process of introduction to the church there.
In the church where we were looking to introduce a trans woman, who had previously been known as a man, to the church I met with her, her wife and a couple of others chosen by the trans woman and we discussed the way ahead. We agreed together that the first step was to inform the leaders of the church and seek their endorsement of the process so that this was not something she would have to do on her own. We were uncertain about how we would have introduced her to the church, never having travelled this journey with someone before. It would have been an enormous step to have asked her to come to the meeting and share with us from the start.
I think, with hindsight, that we should have offered the opportunity for her to come and meet the leaders once they were aware of what gender dysphoria is rather than having her and her wife sit waiting to find out what the leaders felt. That might have been too difficult for them, but it was an option we did not consider or offer. You may decide not to inform the leaders first, that’s a decision you must make with the person who is trans but whatever you do don’t make the mistake I did and forget (for a moment) that this is a journey you are travelling with someone rather than a process you are doing for them.
Maybe you will decide together to share the person who is trans’s story with the wider church (either in a service or a Church Meeting) prior to them attending in their true gender. To do so might reduce speculation and prepare people for meeting the person who is trans, it might also enable a discussion about language preferences: ensuring that people know and use the right language and name. The person who is trans will choose which gender or neutral pronouns they would like used about them. Sharing this with the wider church may reduce embarrassment and unintended hurt.
Be careful that it does not lead to the person who is trans feeling put on trial and judged in their absence (which is the mistake I made). An alternative might be to speak generically about gender dysphoria and people who are trans without identifying anyone. This has the benefit of preserving anonymity until such a time as the person who is trans is ready to meet everyone in their true gender, although it may lead to some unhelpful speculation. So perhaps it would make sense if it was part of wider teaching about identity and/or human sexuality, or inclusion. That might mean a radical change to the planned teaching programme of a church. (I hope you can see why it feels to me much better to have addressed issues of trans inclusion in the church before the discussion is about a real person).
A person who is trans may decide simply to start attending in their true gender without prior introduction. I would suggest that if they do, they should ensure that they have close, supportive friends with them who can ‘run interference’ if necessary. It would be courteous to let the Minister(s) know in advance. If a church is already aware of and has agreed to be inclusive of people who are trans this should be a positive moment, albeit that I cannot begin to imagine how a person who is trans might feel as they walk through their church doors in their true gender for the first time. Many people who are trans who transition while in one church end up attending another church once their new identity is established so that they can leave behind the history and residual identity they had with the previous church. That need not be an unhappy process if it is discussed openly with the leaders of both churches. I mention it here so that churches may be prepared if it happens and understand why.
Another possibility, in a more affirming church, would be to mark the moment that the person who is trans attends in their true gender with some form of ‘liturgy’ – acknowledging the leaving behind and fresh start. It would make the moment very public and would also set it in the context of Christian worship. It would also demonstrate the Minister’s affirmation of the person who is trans, which may settle anxiety felt within the congregation (if there is any). We mark significant moments in a person’s life with a special service. You could consider a special service at the time of final surgery, for example, to help the trans person and their friends and family celebrate this landmark moment. It won’t be for everyone, but it is something that could be offered and created together.
That leads me on to consider other possible liturgies that may be a blessing for a church as they accompany someone and their family on their journey of exploration and transition. They could also be helpful for the church to find ways of marking significant moments or landmarks on the way. Some may find set liturgies helpful, whereas others will prefer something less formal. There are some liturgies that have been written in an appendix to Transfaith: a transgender pastoral resource (DLT, London, 2018) for: Preparation for surgery; Acknowledging loss; Affirming marriage vows; Releasing from marriage vows and Renaming. The authors are happy for them to be used and adapted as appropriate. Whether or not you use these liturgies or indeed use any liturgies, these seem to be significant moments that could be solemnised by a church, if requested. These events could take place in a public service or a private occasion with only invited guests – that would depend on what those involved want and the settled place the church is in regarding people who are trans. Even showing a willingness to celebrate or observe these moments is a positive statement of inclusion.
When a church is fully inclusive of people who are trans baptism, Membership, leadership and service are all possibilities. The key criteria applied for them are the same as for cisgender people – being a disciple of Jesus who is called to be a part of his local church and is gifted by him to play a part in the life and ministry of that church.
I am sure that there are many other possibilities that I have not covered. What I have tried to do is set your imagination going with some of the ideas I have considered and to help you think about the implications of different ways of proceeding.