Review: David J. Kundtz and Bernard S. Schlager’s, Ministry Among God’s Queer Folk

[1] On first glance, Ministry Among God’s Queer Folk seems dated (especially its title, doubtless inspired by the hip Showtime television series “Queer as Folk” running from 2000–2005). And perhaps unsettling is the term “queer people”—used constantly, almost interchangeably with “LGBTQ people.” Although the word’s use in our times is an attempt by sexual minorities to redeem the word and remove its corrosive power, it may strike some as too forcefully thrust into the discussion. Kundtz says, for example, “Make it a point to ask your queer care receivers toward the beginning of your relationship to what degree they are out and whether or not you have their permission to acknowledge it” (32). Even more essential at the beginning would be to ask the care receiver what terms s/he uses. Indeed, so much has changed since 2007. Of course we must see and use this important resource in the context of a rapidly changing society, where tectonic shifts keep occurring in attitudes about sexuality (and everything else) even as the need for sensitive, compassionate, competent, and well-informed pastoral care continues. For those who especially may feel they are not as well informed or adequately resourced to meet LGBTQ people with sensitivity, this is your handbook.

Purpose And Scope

[2] Although the work is intended as “a practical handbook for pastoral care givers, especially those in training,” it does not cover its subject so thoroughly as to provide all necessary tools, skills or answers, but touches broadly enough for us to understand the full range of pastoral challenges, and the corresponding sensitivity we must bring to ministering with sexual minorities. What is included offers a significant down payment on the debt we all owe to those who invested heavily in ministry with LGBTQ people during that era in which almost every faith community and denomination rejected and condemned sexual minorities.

[3] Prior to reading, I made a checklist of subjects I hoped I would find here, and I was not disappointed. Although not treated with scholarly depth, the authors address a wide rainbow of the issues, problems and challenges facing LGBTQ individuals: homophobia; bullying and violence; sexual orientation and gender identity; choice and change; coming out; youth, health, aging and grief; HIV/AIDS; experimentation and sexual ethics; dating; long-term, monogamous, open and polyamorous relationships; friendship; parenting; stress, discrimination, alienation and rejection; family of origin/family of choice; internalized homophobia; outing; substance and sexual addictions; physical challenges; and the “ex-gay” phenomenon. These diverse issues are not simply linked like boxcars on a long train but addressed in an integrative manner to help us see the important relationship of specific “issues” to the larger reality of the care seeker’s whole life.

Structure And Content

[4] Three chapters each were written by Kundtz and Schlager, without unnecessary artifice in weaving their parts together. The experience and expertise of each is easily located. Kundtz has the strong skill set in counseling as former priest and now a psychotherapist. Schlager is Executive Director of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry based at Pacific School of Religion (this is fourth in a series co-published by that Center). Both have a strong dedication to dialog, education, pastoral care and relationships in faith communities.

[5] The extensive treatment of “The Pastoral Care Relationship” (Chapter 1) and “The Functions of Pastoral Care” (Chapter 2) was surprising—together taking 68 pages—but serve as a solid review of principles which seasoned pastoral professionals need close at hand. The limits, boundaries, goals and precautions of pastoral care are treated here with the discipline and sensitivity which are especially appropriate in ministry among LGBTQ people.

[6] I would recommend reading in a slightly different order, especially addressing the two heftiest portions: “Coming Out” (Chapter 4) might be read before “Pastoral Care in the Tough Times” (Chapter 3). According to Kundtz, “[T]he most good that can be achieved in pastoral care is attained simply by the establishment, nurturing, and quality of the pastoral relationship. There need not be any ‘issue’ or ‘problem’ or ‘project’ to deal with, although there generally is one. Simply the relationship with a pastorally based, caring person has remarkable power to heal and bless.”

[7] Overall, Kundtz and Schlager repeatedly stress the alienation, discrimination, conflicting values, etc. which sexual minorities experience alongside their exuberant support for the creative joy which comes in affirming the person above the need for problem-solving.

Coming Out

[8] I was deeply engaged with Schlager’s treatment of coming out, that “unpredictable rite of passage” in the context of one’s faith tradition as well as within familial peculiarities.

People come out of the closet because being honest with oneself and with others about one’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity is necessary for a healthy emotional and spiritual life (132).

[9] In addition to utilizing Eli Coleman’s five stages of coming out,[1] Schlager volunteers aspects of his own closeted experience, and concludes, “[M]y prayer life was hobbled by my inability to be myself before God” (133), thus touching on a theme I would explore more completely: that coming out before God itself becomes a healing, life-giving conversion experience when grace is deeply felt and thoroughly digested. I hungered for a further theological analysis to support Schlager’s conviction that coming out and being affirmed is not only healthy but transformative for the LGBTQ person. To some degree, each of us may feel as if we are “prodigal sons,” testing the possibility of returning home, conflicted by the possible reaction there, no matter how carefully rehearsed our speeches and excuses—but finding a reception so gracious, so over-the-top, we must rethink our childish perception that life at home was always duty and never party. It is God’s love which is extravagantly prodigal and limitless. But it does not come to life for sexual minorities unless we hear the music, see the dancing, and find divine grace embodied in a real faith community.

[10] If coming out is a life-changing experience for LGBTQ people, says Schlager, it is also transformative for the caregiver. For some pastors who have spent a lifetime within faith communities, listening to the stories of LGBTQ persons may be an education in alienation and a window into why many unchurched people resist religious commitments.

[11] Perhaps also wanting is a more thorough treatment of what “the closet” means and why it is life-threatening to those who feel compelled to hide their identity, self-discernment, emotional growth and maturity, and the joys of life—for fear of rejection, alienation and further spiritual damage. Schlager addresses key problems of living in the closet: poor self-esteem, loneliness and isolation, eating disorders, addictions, compulsive behaviors, and inability to build or maintain strong friendships and healthy romantic relationships.

[12] In a word, the closet is a pretense, the place we put things we don’t want others to see or know about. Closets are stagnant, where it is impossible to breathe for very long. Living in the closet creates the false impression for others that no one is home. I know same-sex couples who literally “de-gay” their dwellings when family members, certain friends or people from work are coming over by shoving their life’s evidence into closets. Being closeted means subtracting a major reality from one’s life, and giving the appearance of a flat, unfulfilled or partial life, in order to conceal the truth.

[13] For many, the closeted pretense may be superficial—faking the appearance of being a single heterosexual. But pretense can become reality for those whose orientation may be gay or lesbian, for example, who postpone, stifle or erase their very selves in the process. In my own ministry, I remember individuals who concealed their authentic selves until late in life. In two cases, older men remained single, at home, essentially waiting for an elderly mother to pass on. Few others might have recognized them as closeted gay men. Although aware, I was unable to reach out and genuinely minister to them at the time because I was also deeply closeted.

[14] Schlager notes the importance for the experienced caregiver to interpret both the risks and the benefits of coming out. Both risks and benefits take time to develop, which is one reason why greater sensitivity is needed in caring for adolescents, who are vulnerable in many ways. Ministering to an adolescent who is testing the reality of his her LGBTQ self-understanding may also involve pastoral presence in what becomes a family crisis and ministry with parents who are unprepared to address this new reality. Pastoral care is person-oriented, rather than issue- or crisis-oriented. Schlager sees that coming out is a life-long process, because on-going life experiences and new people in one’s life require frequent personal decisions about how open to be, or not.

[15] It is widely noted that LGBTQ people have been marginalized by society and their own religious traditions—even while many of us have continued to be faithful and active participants, right through the worst decades of strident homophobia. Now we live in a society of profoundly balkanized social, religious, and political views. The great irony of faith is that society itself may well be healed—from the margins toward the center— because many queer people of faith have not abandoned the well of faith, values and love from which justice, compassion, reconciliation and renewal continue to bubble up. As many faith traditions now reconsider and reform their views to be more accepting and even welcoming of LGBTQ people, we may now begin to see those faithful individuals as tomorrow’s apostles to those who still feel alienated or wounded.

[16] It is conceivable that some readers may sincerely approach the possibility of Ministry Among with the desire to do right by LGBTQ people, but have invested great hope that conversion therapy or psychology will help misguided lesbians and gay men to lead heterosexual lives. Kundtz concludes Chapter 3 by directly addressing “Ex-Gay” Ministry and the Question ‘Is it a Choice?’

[17] This is an issue which has been in the news and public conversation for decades, but is also a “wedge” issue for Christians, who largely divide on whether homosexual orientation is a personal choice and therefore whether change is possible and—by extension— desirable. Lutherans also divide over these questions and would benefit from clear guidance. (The ELCA’s 2009 Social Statement, “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust,” was silent about choice and change, and merely mentions sexual orientation and gender identity a few times.)

[18] Kundtz leads us through this critical but delicate theological question in the way the Church is often led: through pastoral theology. How the question of choice is approached is fundamental for how we view the largely now-discredited “ex-gay” or “reparative therapy” model. If one’s premise is that there is something wrong with variants to sexual orientation or gender identity, it seems reasonable there must be a fix or cure as for an illness, or a program to reverse such moral misdirection.

[19] Underlying the conservative argument, he suggests, is an anti-scientific literalism in reading the Bible. Perhaps most revealing of such views is the common declaration that someone cannot be homosexual and be Christian, an idea which might be refuted quickly by asking countless people who are both. Among the many things which have changed since 2007, the decline of “reparative therapy” rhetoric is revealing.

[20] Theologically, Kundtz is right to enumerate the risks of reparative therapy, including depression, anxiety and even self-destructive behavior. For those coming to such “pray away the gay” programs, with the faith that God will change them from homosexual to straight, may be psychologically and spiritually devastated when the promised change fails to materialize. Loss of faith in self and in God often is the result.

Ministry In Faith Communities

[21] While the core of this resource is pastoral care, Kundtz and Schlager are also helpful to congregations attempting to redress the historic wrongs against sexual minorities through education, advocacy, and the rich offerings congregational life. Chapter 5, “Creating Communities of Care,” enlarges the application of pastoral care from the individual to the parish community. Not the least of which is fleshing out what genuine, effective welcome might mean in the congregational setting, taking “welcome” from a well-intentioned platitude to a plan for congregational study, integration, radical hospitality and vital alliances with entities beyond the doors of the congregation.

[22] Both authors repeat their advice that competent pastoral care will know where to locate outside resources as well as when to refer individuals for further guidance and counsel. In Schlager’s final chapter, “Caring for Relationships” the numerous vignettes he offers as case studies repeatedly point to the need for supplemental study, resources, organizational alliances and referrals. The situations and values presented in these vignettes will be challenging, and I won’t be a spoiler in revealing the complexity or difficulty in addressing them.

Finding Resources

[23] The book concludes with a strong 16 pages of Resources, arranged in 35 distinct categories, serving as a combined Bibliography/Web List. However, web addresses are the most dated component of the book. Even an article by Schlager himself, published on the site of his own institution, is no longer found at the exact same URL.[2] An updated second edition would benefit from corrections and refinements.

[24] If you are just now facing a need to better understand LGBTQ people, this should not be your first book. It isn’t written to explain everything about sexuality or sexual minorities. It does not raise, nor will it settle, many of the biblical or theological issues we might want to resolve in our own thinking or in ministry. But because of its consistently and coherently sensitive approach, it serves to remind us that our resources are incomplete without solid pastoral theology to balance biblical, systematic, or dogmatic theology.


[1]. Schlager’s cite: Eli Coleman, “Developmental Stages of the Coming Out Process,” in A Guide to Psychotherapy with Gay and Lesbian Clients, ed. John C. Gonsiorek (New York, Harrington Park Press, 1985), 31–43.

[2]. See p161. Bernard Schlager, “With Open Arms: Gay Affirming Ministries in Bay Area Faith Communities” is a 2004 study of twenty-one San Francisco area churches and synagogues. Originally posted at (accessed by the author July 10, 2006), can now (February 10, 2013) be found and downloaded as a series of PDF files at

Dan Hooper

Dan Hooper serves as Pastor of Hollywood Lutheran Church, who with his spouse Carl Hunter has been active in the Lesbian/Gay/Christian movement for more than 35 years. He was called extra ordinem in 2004 to lead the congregation in an intentional mission with LGBT people, which has broadened to include outreach ministries to those with HIV/AIDS, in recovery from substance abuse, and in prison or on parole.