Do you have children in your ministry with gay parents? Pastor Caleb Kaltenbach explains how we can best serve children of LGBT parents. “What to Do When Johnny Has Two Moms” was published in the May/June 2017 issue of Children’s Ministry Magazine to help children’s ministry leaders minister to kids whose parents are LGBT.
Caleb Kaltenbach is the lead pastor for Discovery Church in Simi Valley, California, where Disneyland and the Pacific Ocean are nearby. He took the position after serving for more than a decade at churches in Missouri, Kansas, Texas, and California. Caleb became a pastor after graduation from the Talbot School of Theology at Biola University. His passion for full-time ministry ignited after he joined a high school Bible study.
It’s a pretty impressive resume. But there’s an astounding back story here, and it’s one of significance to children’s ministers serving kids today. The truth is, Caleb originally joined that high school Bible study because, fed up with how Christians had treated his family for years, he was hoping to disprove the Bible to his peers. Up to that point in his life, Caleb’s experience with Christianity had been unpleasant—to say the least.
Caleb’s parents divorced when he was just 2. “I was raised by two lesbians and a gay man,” he says, matter-of-factly.
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He grew up in the midst of repeated conflict with Christians because his parents were gay. It’s why he wrote his book Messy Grace: How a Pastor With Gay Parents Learned to Love Others Without Sacrificing Conviction. While Caleb’s experience gives us insights, the topic for this article isn’t about gay marriage or same-sex relationships. It’s about how we can minister to children who come from households with same-sex parents, because these children require special awareness and sensitivities regardless of what a church teaches about homosexuality.
Growing Up on the Outside
When Caleb’s parents divorced, his mother moved out and fell in love with another woman. (His father kept his sexual identity a secret until Caleb was in college.) Caleb shuttled between his mother’s and father’s homes weekly. He attended church sporadically with his father, who was embittered by the divorce. His mother became a vocal supporter of gay rights and involved her young son in her activism.
“I marched in a lot of gay pride parades with my mom when I was in elementary school,” says Caleb. “I remember in one particular parade there were all these Christians on the street corner holding signs that said things like, ‘God hates you’ and ‘Turn or burn.’ And if that wasn’t offensive enough, they were spraying water and urine on everybody. I was with my mom, and I asked, ‘Why are they acting like this?’ She said, ‘Well, Caleb, they’re Christians. Christians hate gay people.’ ”
Despite having a typical—but mostly “boring”—experience at the church he attended with his father, it was this display of behavior that first hardened Caleb’s heart toward Christians.
In his book, Messy Grace, he writes:
Anger and bitterness started welling up in my young heart. I could not believe the way my friends from the parade were being treated. The church I attended infrequently with my father wasn’t big on using the Bible, but I knew enough about Jesus to know that he would not act like that. I knew that I never wanted to be a Christian.
Though the parade was an extreme example, Caleb says it wasn’t the last time he and his parents were treated so poorly by Christians. The result was that by the time Caleb was in high school, he had no use for Christians and felt tremendous rancor for the people who’d hurt his mother over the years in the name of their faith.
He joined a Bible study to disprove the Bible; what he wasn’t expecting was for his faith to be awakened during that study. And he certainly wasn’t expecting God to work through him in his ministry to shine a light on what LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) families experience.
“One of my goals for writing [Messy Grace] is for you to feel what it is like for gay men and lesbians to be the subject of abuse by Christians,” Caleb wrote in the early chapters of his book. When asked about the title Messy Grace, Caleb says he named it that “because God’s grace is perfect, but our lives are messy. And one of the biggest problems people have is that when God chooses to have grace on messy people, God’s grace looks messy. And people get bothered by that. I’m reminded of Jonah and how he sat on the hill and sulked when God chose to be merciful. Jonah didn’t understand—and I often don’t think we do—the magnitude of God’s grace. And that’s why I called it Messy Grace.”
The Faith of a Child
It’s reality: Children’s ministries have kids like Caleb in their communities. The first national survey to collect detailed demographic data on both married and unmarried same-sex couples revealed that nearly 210,000 children under age 18—about 145,000 of them being of school-age—lived in 122,000 households with same-sex parents in 2013 (U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey). Additionally, according to data sheets from the United States Census Bureau 2014 report “Household Characteristics of Opposite-Sex and Same-Sex Couple Households,” 17.2 percent of total same-sex households in the U.S. reported having children living in the home. This data is some of the most recent available, and it offers a glimpse into how many children live in situations similar to Caleb’s.
For children living in same-sex households, Caleb says that it’s critical for churches to become a place where the children feel valued, welcomed, and accepted. “At our church, we believe God designed sexual intimacy for the marriage between one man and one woman,” says Caleb. But that doesn’t stop the church from effectively ministering to these children. Here’s what he suggests.
- Pause and pay attention.
It’s not enough to assume that a child is doing okay because you don’t see overt behavior that says otherwise. As teachers and leaders, we need to have an added awareness of what kids may be going through—especially feelings of isolation. It’s critical to make an authentic, consistent connection with the child.“We need to pay attention to elementary and preschool kids as well as middle-schoolers and older kids,” notes Caleb. “The first, wisest, and most effective thing we can do is train the small-group leader or teacher to help these kids. We need our teams to understand how to best love the kids. They have an hour to give to kids, so use that time to really listen, to be a consistent adult in their lives.”
- Remember that children’s ministry is also parent ministry.
If LGBT parents attend your church, they may do so with trepidation. Caleb notes that LGBT individuals have approached him as a pastor wondering how his church will treat them. He says many have come from experiences where they’ve been treated poorly. That’s why ministry to their children is crucial; your love and care for the child may represent your best avenue to minister to the parents.“Ministry to a child is just as much a ministry to that child’s same-sex parents,” says Caleb. “They see you as a positive influence. They see you as consistently caring about their child. They’re going to love you. I can’t help but love the people who love my kids.”
- Protect the child from emotional harm.
“When a lesson or Scripture talks about a mom and a dad or a husband and a wife, that’s automatically going to make that child feel out of place, awkward, and aware that he or she doesn’t have that,” says Caleb.Some children of LGBT parents affirm this sense of being out of place. In the article “Collateral Damage? Children With a Gay Parent Speak Out,” Bryce, age 16 said this: “I don’t know what to say when people ask why my parents got divorced. I don’t want to answer them. You don’t want people to know. You don’t want to answer them. You don’t know what they’ll think of you and your family.”Other children may choose to share their situation in a small group with the other kids and adults. Either way, we must be prepared to safeguard their emotional well-being.“Kids can be very cruel. They don’t even know they’re being cruel,” says Caleb. “So don’t overreact. Make sure you protect those kids from feeling awkward or being pushed aside. On the one hand, I’m glad they get to see an image of what God created. But on the other hand, I don’t want them to not come to church because they feel like a weirdo. So do everything you can to make them feel welcome.”
- As a church, don’t shy away from uncomfortable conversations.
The reality is that whether your church has experience ministering to children of LGBT parents or not, it’s key that your church leaders are willing to have ongoing conversations about how you’ll serve these children and their families. Caleb notes that also key to that is having conversations with the parents themselves.“Churches that don’t grapple with issues, don’t have messy conversations, and aren’t willing to have multiple conversations about something like this are saying, ‘We’re going to keep doing what we’re doing, and what’s going on in society is really not that important,’ ” says Caleb. “If you were going to be missionaries overseas, wouldn’t you study the context? Wouldn’t you learn the language? Wouldn’t you learn the customs and the history? We need churches willing to put their necks on the line. Churches that won’t grapple with these things are basically saying they don’t want to be caught in the tension. They don’t want tension in theology. But how is there not tension between grace and truth? Love is the tension that happens between grace and truth.”
5 Ways NOT to Ministry to Children of LGBT Parents
There are definitely better ways than others to serve these children. If your ministry is in the position to serve a child with an LGBT parent, here are five things you DON’T want to do.
- Don’t freak out.Your reaction to a child in this situation may determine whether the child returns. Stay calm, don’t make careless or judgmental statements, and do focus on showering the child with love and respect.
- Don’t draw attention to the child. Kids who are concerned about fitting in don’t want their family’s differences brought to center stage. If the child willingly shares about his or her family, thank the child for sharing and move on. Don’t allow other kids to pounce on the child’s differences. Remember: All kids want to fit in and be one of the gang. Strive for this.
- Don’t throw Scripture.One of the most detrimental things we can do with kids is lecture them via Scripture rather than do the hard work of building a relationship. Regardless of how you feel about the child’s situation, quoting Scripture to point out what’s wrong with it will only alienate and confuse the child.
- Don’t explain what’s “wrong” with the parent.This one can’t be overstated. Our role is to minister to children, not point out family flaws and sins. “I’ve had to talk to a few small-group leaders who automatically start trying to ‘fix’ the kid,” says Caleb. “You can’t do that. That’s not your job. Your job is not to bash their parents. Your job is not to fix them. Your job is to listen. Your job is to teach them about Jesus. That’s your job.”