Melissa Fisher grew up in a churchgoing home, but her childhood included family turmoil, her parents’ divorce, and sexual violations that she kept secret. While attending a Christian college, she faced her same-sex attraction (SSA) and fought against it but became involved in same-sex relationships. Eventually, she left the church and married her female partner. Her book, The Way of Hope: A Fresh Perspective on Sexual Identity, Same-Sex Marriage, and the Church, describes her way back to Jesus and the church, and the things God used to help her on that journey. Her experiences have much to say to churches eager to reach out to those who struggle in this area.
In the midst of your struggles you did not seek or receive pastoral care, despite being active in the church and ministries. What held you back?
I think pride in my heart, probably masked in fear, kept me from sharing any of the pain and trauma with other people. Even if there had been a safe place to tell my story, my shame and my desire to protect my family’s reputation would have kept me from sharing.
In addition, I grew up in a denomination full of legalism. In my church and university, I never saw anyone ministering to the kinds of things I faced. There was a lot of biblical teaching, for which I am very thankful; however, I never saw or experienced the Word actually bringing about transformation, or people being prayed for to the degree that life change was happening. I only knew how God felt about the “smaller” sins, so to even think about bringing up a sexual struggle, especially fifteen or twenty years ago, felt impossible.
What would have made you more willing to share your struggles with the church?
I think it helps any time pastors are willing to—at an appropriate level—vulnerably share stories of their own brokenness and redemption. It also helps to hear stories from other church members about what the Holy Spirit is doing in the power of Jesus’ name to free people. One verse that helped bring freedom to me is Revelation 12:11, where it says, ‘‘They overcame him [Satan] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony” (NKJV). When we experience life change throughout the sanctification process, our stories allow other people to go, “Oh, me too. I’m not the only one. I’m not crazy. There are other people struggling and hanging on to Jesus and finding freedom. I can hope and wait for Jesus to do the same thing for me.”
Was Jesus a reality to you during those years?
My prayer journals from that time period reflect an understanding mostly of God the Father in an Old Testament framework where I was trying to make Him happy. I was taught about Jesus but didn’t really understand what He had done for me. And there was very little teaching on the role of the Holy Spirit. He was kind of the crazy uncle we didn’t really talk about.
To the degree that a church, its pastors, and its leaders have experienced Jesus and the Holy Spirit, and approach God the Father with freedom, we then disciple and model that for others. Coming into a grace-full community, I now have an experiential knowledge of God that’s helped bring freedom.
You ran from the Lord for a few years and then had a “Damascus Road” experience that led you to attend church again. Why did you choose Gateway?
They had a road sign that caught my attention. And when I went to their website, it said, “Come as you are.” On their podcast, I heard vulnerability, stories of life change, pastors not taking themselves too seriously, and an understanding that the spiritual journey is not one of perfection but of progress. What drew me was a vulnerability and authenticity. And once I got in the door, that’s what I saw.
You visited Gateway as a lesbian who had left the church but was seeking God. How did you feel attending, knowing that this church would not approve of your life?
I emailed the pastor, John Burke, one night before I attended. I explained myself and said, “I’m coming to your church. You better not say it’s right. You better not say it’s wrong. I don’t know what I want you to say.” When I went, the overall experience was that same-sex attraction is a struggle like other struggles. Yes, there’s some uniqueness to it, but that morning, three people were on stage to share their stories of sexual struggle. It was powerful to see people brave enough to share where they were and being invited to do so.
I still am friends with those individuals, and they’re still very much in process with the Lord. They are in a community where they can say, “This is a reality that I don’t want to be in, but I am in. And the church is showing me the next steps for me to approach Jesus. There is no condemnation; I’m not feeling bad. I feel the fullness of Roman 8:1. At the same time, the church doesn’t want me to stay where I am, and they seem to want to be with me in it.”
There are many struggles that we justify to ourselves, but if we’re really honest, we know that many things we pursue are not the best God has for us. But when you don’t know where to go and there’s no safe place to land with it, it becomes hopeless and it’s easier to turn and walk away. We don’t know that transformation is possible.
And sometimes fullness of transformation isn’t. For some it’s a lifelong struggle as they walk by faith. I don’t know if I’ll ever wrestle again with my sexuality. I have a very confident peace. I feel a fullness of restoration. But if a same-sex attraction does emerge in the future, I know I am in the right place to deal with it.
How does Gateway minister to the LGBTQ people who attend?
- We make people feel welcome. Like many churches, we are trying to figure all this out. For adults, we try to create a simple path so that people will feel welcome at our Sunday morning service wherever they are spiritually. Even if a same-sex couple walks in holding hands, we want them to come as they are. We don’t hide that we believe in biblical man-and-woman marriage, but we try to say that they are welcome here while they are trying to figure things out.
Sometimes when people understand our views, they leave. But some of them by that point have developed enough of a relationship with our community that they realize, “Oh, you’re still loving me.” It gets messy sometimes, but if there’s not a mess, we’re probably doing something wrong.
- We invite people to serve with us. Beyond the Sunday service, we encourage people to connect and serve together. We have opportunities for service that don’t require spiritual leadership. We intentionally invite people who are not yet believers to participate. Perhaps your church has a food cupboard or something similar where they could get involved. At Gateway, anyone can be a greeter and welcome people on our campus. It’s powerful when a person starts to get connected in the community without encountering rejection. They can work and serve alongside us. From there, we encourage people to get connected into life groups for discipleship.
- We provide diverse contexts for discipleship. We believe that transformation happens when we’re in a church body that is diverse; therefore we do not have life groups just for those who are LGBTQ. We want people to get into a group with folks who are not like them so that they can see, “Oh, all these people who are not like me still love me.” That’s when we really experience Jesus.
At times we hold classes specifically for those who are relationally and sexually broken. In the class I attended, we had to face our stories and dive into the root causes. That class greatly contributed to my freedom, and we are trying to determine how to maintain a good leadership base for classes like that.
- We aim to be a loving community. I think the most important thing we do is simply to offer godly discipleship. There are LGBTQ folks at all four campuses of our church who are integrated in many ways. They stick because someone—a leader, a volunteer, a pastor, or someone else—is loving them well. They have someone saying, “This may be your struggle, but Jesus still loves you and wants to walk with you. I’m going to stay and walk with you.” It boils down to people loving people and discipling them.
What opportunities to minister to sexual strugglers do pastors and churches often miss, and why?
One thing that has helped our church is that our pastor was willing to be in relationship with struggling people himself. That meant he experienced, he learned, and he was able to teach that to others. Too often, church leaders don’t have relationships with people in the same-sex lifestyle or struggling with same-sex attraction, so they don’t have anything to share. They need to be willing to roll up their sleeves and invite someone into their home. If you as a pastor haven’t had anybody in your own home, don’t expect your church members to either.
What assumptions about LGBTQ people get in the way of meaningful pastoral ministry?
The first assumption is that there’s a magic bullet, quick fix for same-sex attraction—some program or formula—that can make it all easy. The second assumption is the opposite: the problem is too overwhelming, too big, too messy, to know how to begin to engage.
As Gateway staff yourself, what are your priorities as you relate to sexual strugglers?
To continue walking in my own freedom first—the restoration that God has given me in Christ through the Spirit. The more I stay anchored in that, the more it helps me to be the staff person, mentor, friend, and discipler that I need to be. We all have sexual struggles, whether it’s pornography, lust, or shutting our sexuality down. Satan is always trying to get at our sexual identity through whatever door he can. So for me, I need to keep making sure my own house is swept clean and that I’m experiencing freedom before I try to speak to or love on anyone else.
What heart attitude would most help LGBTQ people who are looking for God?
First and foremost, humility. When you are humble, Jesus will meet you in it and walk you through the next steps. As Psalm 16:11 says, God does want to make known to us the path of life. He’s not going to lay out every step for you all at once. He will lay them out one step at a time. So, in humility, give Him the next step, trust Him, and take that step.
The other thing is to allow your heart to have some hope—that He wants to meet you in it. That He wants to do something. That He is taking you somewhere. I don’t know if there’s anything more powerful than hope, but we can’t have hope without humility and saying, “God, I don’t know where You’re going or how You’re getting me to there, but You’re going to. So I’m going to take the next step You have for me.”
What do you think LGBTQ people look for most from God and the church? What helps them to see it?
I think most people deep down are looking for agape love. They’re tired of false versions of it. Sometimes we as the church err as we try to speak the gospel before we show the gospel. Some people need to see it and feel it before they hear it, which is why relational connection is so important. I think sometimes we try to win the arguments but we lose the heart. Ask the Lord, “What does it look like to win this person’s heart?” Then, at the right time, speak to the issues, what the Holy Spirit is revealing that day for that person.
If you’ve appreciated Melissa Fisher’s comments, you might also like to read Brad Hambrick’s article Is Your Church a Safe Place for People Who Experience Same-Sex Attraction?