Emotional Labour Part 2

In a short elaboration of my last post, I thought I’d share another example of the kind of emotional labour queer people (and others!) have to do to exist in the church. At the end of the last post I mentioned that emotional labour still happens even when we aren’t directly participating in a conversation:

Of course, experiences can also cost us significant emotional labour even when we aren’t personally interacting. In fact, it’s often those ‘relationally anonymous’ moments when we can’t have a personal conversation, like in a church service or a public talk, that take the biggest toll.

A few months ago I sat in a chapel service where, within the first 15 minutes, three different people had referenced the religious discrimination bill (which had recently been abandoned by its religious proponents after the latest amendment protected trans youth in schools from legal discrimination). One of those people, publicly praying, used his platform to bemoan the fact that “the bill didn’t go our way.” Now, whatever you may think about the legislative debates (and that really is not the point here–see this other post for some related thoughts on that topic), the very experience of hearing three different people using their public platform to make these comments with no consideration of whether people in the room might have different feelings about it took a huge toll on me.

It communicated to me that, even if these people are ‘nice’ enough to show sensitivity to my face in a private conversation, they wouldn’t hesitate to assume the majority experience in a public space. Even when the sermon included a substantial tangent about both the religious discrimination bill and the Citipointe saga, not once did any of these people acknowledge publicly that someone like me might be present in the room. Or that a Christian, the sort of person listening to this service, could possibly feel different emotions about these events. God forbid that they might even acknowledge publicly that Christians exist who are queer and who are more affected by these current events than anyone else!

Even if these people are ‘nice’ enough to show sensitivity to my face in a private conversation, they wouldn’t hesitate to assume the majority experience in a public space.

My internal dialogue was going berserk at this point of the chapel service. In moments like this, it’s normal for the voice in my head to constantly interject with replies or critiques, and it’s one of the ways that I insist on my own dignity in spaces where that dignity might be violated. I’ve learned that, to regulate the strong emotions I feel in these spaces, it’s helpful to externalise that inner dialogue, so I pulled out my phone to message some safe friends. I texted live updates with a running tally of how many times issues heterosexual ministry leaders referenced the religious discrimination bill. I practiced the breathing exercises I’ve used constantly over the last year to cope with spending time in evangelical spaces. I used all my internal resources to apply every mental strategy I could think of that might help me cope with getting through that chapel service.

Meanwhile, I’d look around at all my peers and wonder how hard they had to work to get through services like this.

What makes us decide we’re okay with certain groups of people being collateral damage–or simply erased–in a sermon illustration?

Now, I recognise I’ve used a fairly extreme example to make the point, but what you need to understand if you’re an outsider to this experience is that we never know which weeks are going to be the ‘extreme examples.’ We show up to church every week, to small group, to chapel services, to coffee with friends, and we never quite know when someone’s going to make a thoughtless comment that reminds us that these Christians don’t expect someone like me to be in this room. Maybe these spaces are even pretty good 9 times out of 10, but we still live on edge, bracing for that 10% and making sure that at any point we’re ready to switch into survival mode. I’m trying to find the words to describe just how life-sapping it feels to be constantly scanning for harm, but the words evade me today. You’ll have to use your imagination.

What makes us decide we’re okay with certain groups of people being collateral damage in a sermon illustration?

So what would shifting the burden of emotional labour look like here? At the very least, it might mean Christian leaders exert more effort make sure their public leadership creates safety for everyone in the room, not just those who share a majority experience. I understand that preaching is exhausting and time-consuming–I dread writing talks myself for this reason. I understand that when you’re addressing a crowd, you’re going to have to generalise at times. But pandering to the 99 because it’s less preparation time than inviting the 1 sheep back into safety is not the way of our Good Shepherd. Do we who talk about laying our life down for each other yet hesitate to spend an hour grappling with the implications of our sermons for queer Christians?

My pastor does a great job of consulting with same-sex attracted and gender diverse people before speaking on issues that affect us. He invites us to share insights without demanding emotional labour on us (and offering choice is important here). We can also rely on him sending us a personal heads-up if he’s going to talk about a passage or topic that might be a sensitive area for us, so we don’t have to guess which will be the hard weeks. When it’s relevant (either to the biblical topic or to the life of the church), he will publicly acknowledge the presence of sexual and gender minorities in the room, not just speaking about us but turning to speak to us, and sometimes even honouring us by publicly giving voice to our own stories.

And yes, I know you’ll get lash back from the conservative folks in your congregations when you start publicly including queer folk in your speech. And I know you’re already run off your feet handling pastoral issues in the church without stirring a new pot. But that exhaustion that makes you hesitate? Yep, that’s emotional labour. I know, it’s a burden. A heavy one. I know all of this is incredibly costly for my pastor (and his wife, and our elders), because emotional labour can be grueling. But I think he’s modelling how Jesus would pastor a church: laying down power to carry the burdens of those too exhausted to keep shouldering their own burdens anymore.

And let me encourage you with the positive impacts of Christian leaders doing a bit of extra emotional labour for us: this week my dear friend J messaged me so overjoyed after his pastor had called him to talk through the implications for same-sex attracted and queer Christians in a sermon he was writing. Even before hearing the talk and being encouraged to finally hear a pastor publicly acknowledge gay, lesbian and transgender Christians, J was visibly heartened just by the thought that his pastor was taking the time to intentionally think about our inclusion in his preaching. It’s little things like this that make it easier for us to keep coming to church. A little bit of emotional labour by a pastor while drafting a sermon can spare us a whole lot of mental depletion when we get to show up to a church that publicly and explicitly acknowledges that not only do we exist: we belong.

Photo by Dawn McDonald on Unsplash

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