When doctrine collides with empathy, the collision shakes the soul.”
Many, if not most, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints know and love one or more person who identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender or experiences same-sex attraction or gender dysphoria. And for many members, conflicts between the teachings of the LDS Church and their own feelings about sexual orientation and/or gender identity can be painfully troubling. For example, some believe that the LDS Church cannot change its doctrines concerning gender, chastity, and marriage. And some believe that people cannot change their sexual orientation or gender identity. Many believe both statements are true. So how do we manage the tensions that arise from these conflicts?
Managing the distress alone can be difficult enough but facing conversations about these conflicts with loved ones or ecclesiastical leaders can be even more daunting. Many are unsure which questions to ask, how to explain what they think and feel, or how to maintain healthy boundaries.
Still others, because of their fear of failure have become so risk-averse that they choose to avoid these conversations completely. Making errors in judgement on these kinds of issues is commonly associated not just with moral degeneracy but also with ignorance, shame, and even spiritual damnation. For many members managing these conflicts and finding healthy ways to talk about them can literally be a matter of life or death (see Family Acceptance Project).
The spiritual and emotional suffering that can come from these conflicts can seem immeasurable, but it does not have to be. The suffering can be minimized or even removed. We do this not necessarily by changing our faith or sexual orientation or gender identity but by shifting the way we frame the conflict and manage our distress.
Circles of Empathy can help you approach these tensions, conflicts, and challenging conversations by suggesting the most important questions to ask each other, helping you explore your thoughts and feelings safely, and helping you to create and maintain healthy interpersonal boundaries.
ABOUT THE CIRCLES OF EMPATHY PRACTICE
Circles of Empathy are small discussion groups that help participants sort through their thoughts, feelings, and beliefs while cultivating empathy for one another. They constitute a practice, or a way of approaching the religious/sexual/gender conflicts through self-reflection, open-ended conversation, and empathetic support. This kind of processing of thoughts, feelings, and beliefs requires practice for both the person who shares and for those who listen. This practice can also help you increase your skills of empathy, bearing frustrations, holding tension, and embracing paradox and ambiguity.
Keep in mind that the personal progress found in the Circles is tailored to the needs, beliefs, feelings, and experiences of each individual. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ answer here. Circles of Empathy are not a “12-step” program, group therapy, nor a ‘quick fix’. Circles are a slow and careful process of developing self awareness and self determination (agency). And in that process, they help us cultivate virtues such as patience, tenacity, courage, and empathy that, in turn, help us manage the conflicts with grace and make life decision from a morally grounded place.
The Circles practice is not used to change anyone’s mind or convince anyone of anything. It is not intended to make all participants agree with one another. Empathy does not mean agreeing, it means understanding others on a very deep and sincere level. Empathy is a tool for understanding that can create a well of spiritual wisdom for us to draw from as we seek inner clarity.
HOW TO FORM A CIRCLE OF EMPATHY
You can form a Circle with as few as three or as many as eight people. You just need to commit to one another to meet eight times to discuss each of the fundamental questions. Each time you meet, just follow the simple Process and adhere to the Agreements explained on this website. No special training is required.
You could meet over a weekend or once a week for eight weeks. Each time you meet, a participant volunteers to lead the discussion by following the Process and Guidelines.
If you have any questions about how to form or participate in a Circle, contact us here. You can also find Circles of Empathy on Facebook and connect with others in your area who may want to form a Circle.
WHY PARTICIPATE IN A CIRCLE OF EMPATHY
The purpose of the Circles of Empathy is to help you find clarity about who you are and how you want to live your life, the personal agency to live the life you desire, and the resilience you need to bounce back from setbacks along the way. In other words, the Circles practice helps us act with intention rather than simply react to fear or shame or other pressures.
Ultimately, with the Circles of Empathy practice, you can find hope of achieving peace with all the things you care about most, such as: your basic humanity, your relationship to family, your identity and potential as a child of God, how you treat others and how they treat you, and what it means to you to be a disciple of Christ.
By following the Circles of Empathy practice, you can gain confidence in what you think, feel, and believe about the sexual/religious/gender conflicts. But to gain this confidence, you must be willing to explore questions that may be unsettling to you. Your willingness to ask yourself questions that may feel uncomfortable, to ask others questions that may feel uncomfortable (to you, them, or both), and to listen to others’ responses, is critical to gaining confidence and clarity. This clarity is as important for those who are straight or cisgender as it is for those who are homosexual or transgender.
And finally, the Circles provide us with a community in which to explore our own feelings, experiences, and beliefs in the service of strengthening ourselves in what we find to be true. As Parker Palmer has said, “truth is an eternal conversation about things that matter, conducted with passion and discipline” and a commitment to conversation, and a willingness to engage with others in community “keeps us in the truth.”
The Circles of Empathy practice aligns with the Report of the American Psychological Association (APA) Task Force on Appropriate Therapeutic Responses to Sexual Orientation.
This website is not sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Few topics are as emotionally charged or require more sensitivity than same-sex attraction. This complex matter touches on the things we care about most: our basic humanity, our relationship to family, our identity and potential as children of God, how we treat each other, and what it means to be disciples of Christ.”
— from Love One Another: A Discussion on Same-Sex Attraction a website sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints