2 July 2022

Calls to train clergy to repair faith-based conversion harms

Faith-based conversion survivors often experience multiple trauma. Picture: iStock.

Jenan Taylor

6 June 2022

Theological colleges have been urged to better educate pastoral care workers to understand the effects of faith-based conversion practices.  

It comes as the Anglican church is urged to better support LGBTQIA+ believers recovering from conversion therapy.

University of Divinity vice-chancellor Professor Peter Sherlock said LGBTQIA+ believers who had been traumatised by faith-based conversion practices had a deep spiritual need.

Professor Sherlock said it was urgent that theological colleges and universities placed such training to support recovery from spiritual harm on the education agenda.

He said the church had an opportunity to build something out of that by supporting their recovery from spiritual harm. But he said there were no concerted, institutional efforts within the mainstream church to help them.

A new study found that many had suffered mental health problems such as depression and suicidal thoughts, and they had also experienced religious trauma and moral injury.

The study from La Trobe and Macquarie universities explored the spiritual impacts of faith-based conversion practices on LGBTQIA+ believers.

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Researchers surveyed 42 LGBTQIA+ survivors of faith-based conversion over a three-year period.

Participants also had relationship problems, feelings of rejection and isolation, and damage to spiritual identity and meaning after their conversion experiences. In some cases, the trauma led to family breakdown and homelessness.

The report also referenced several international studies showing that survivors of conversion practices had heightened poor health and economic outcomes.

It said mental health professionals were well placed to address conversion related spiritual harm.

However, because many LGBTQIA+ survivors were also believers, it recommended improvements in pastoral care to help them recover.

The paper said training for spiritual care-givers should include support in the areas of sexuality and gender identity in particular.

However, it cited a 2017 study that had found that two thirds of Australian clergy and pastoral workers felt that they were not adequately equipped to help survivors.

Report co-author Dr Timothy Jones said many were living with psychological injuries as they had difficulty finding appropriate support in their recovery.

Dr Jones said survey participants highlighted that most health practitioners had a very little understanding of what conversion practices were and their effects. 

He said most of those impacted were people for whom their faith was an important part of who they were.

He said on the one hand survivors were told by their religious community that if they’re a person of faith, they couldn’t be queer.

But at the same time, they heard if they were queer they couldn’t be religious, from workers in the current mental health space and by the wider LGBTQIA+ community.

“So, this false opposition between gender diversity and faith is reinforced for them in all those contexts. Whereas what most people want is to be able to explore their faith and their gender and sexuality in a safe and open way,” Dr Jones said.

Professor Sherlock said that current trauma-based pastoral practices did not specifically include resources or care for people who had been through conversion experiences.

“There is a really deep spiritual need in queer communities. They are looking for people that they could trust, and for allies and there is an opportunity for churches to build something of that,” Professor Sherlock said.

He said there were individuals and a few small groups trying to make an effort to provide the support, but that there were no concerted, institutional efforts within the mainstream churches.

“I don’t think we’re sufficiently producing ministers and leaders with the right skills to understand that journey, and to be able to support people and respond to it,” Professor Sherlock said.

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Trinity College Theological School Ministry Education Centre director the Reverend Dr Fergus King believes the business of the church is to accomplish healing and positive transformation.

Dr King said methods of healing that induced trauma seemed counter to those ministries attributed to Jesus in the gospels.

However, even when things were done correctly they could still cause trauma, he said.

Constant ministry reviews would help to ensure that strategies proclaimed as healing or transformative, were not traumatising.

Dr King said Trinity offered a course for pastoral support of trauma, but that it was not mandatory and did not include a specific topical focus on conversion therapies.

He said it gave people from trans backgrounds opportunities to reflect on trauma, but there had to be a balance between its academic content and theological reflection space.

He said candidates for ministry usually engaged in clinical and pastoral education outside Trinity College, and that some students also might handle the issue of conversion within supervised placements in parishes or sector ministries. 

But Professor Sherlock said providing pastoral care studies wasn’t dependent on whether they had students who were LGBTQIA+ identifying or not. 

“It’s about anyone going into ministry needing to have some training around this, and some good referral. The problem is that people from the queer community who often have a deep history with the faith community have been rejected or deeply hurt by that community. So where do they go?” Professor Sherlock said.

He said that a broad awareness of the variety of traumas was critical.

Responses to domestic violence in the church were an example, in that currently people being trained for ordination weren’t necessarily being trained in what do when someone disclosed to them that they were victims of intimate partner violence, he said.

“You need to be ready for it. You don’t need to be an expert, but you need to be ready for it,” Professor Sherlock said.

 However, there was also a separate, more specific need around ensuring there were ministries that could focus on the spiritual care of LGBTQIA+ people who had experienced conversion practice harm, he said.

“What happens when you encounter someone who is LGBTQIA+ who might have been through conversion therapy or who might want to have a difficult conversation with you, and you do something that ends up looking awfully like conversion therapy?”  Professor Sherlock said. “We need some training and preparation for that, and I think that’s a missing dimension.”

Conversion practices are banned in Victoria, Queensland and the ACT.

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