Speaker and life coach, Joel Barrett, shares his experience as a formerly closeted gay minister.
Born in Kansas City, Missouri, Joel describes his childhood as normal, if not banal. His Baptist upbringing was no different than other Baptists in his Midwestern city, except he was taught the rest of the Baptists were too liberal. They possibly weren’t even real Christians. His fundamentalist family followed the Bible in the strictest sense of the text.
Joel went off to college in Jacksonville, Florida with the intention of becoming a minister. He married and, together, he and his wife produced three beautiful children. For nine years he worked as an assistant pastor before moving to South Bend, Indiana where they planted a new church. It all seemed like the perfect American Christian family doing the perfect American Christian thing with 2.5 – rounded up to 3 – perfect American Christian children. Joel’s story would have probably remained untold if it were not for the conflict raging within. He was a gay man struggling to make sense of it all with his Christian faith.
Joel said he always knew he was gay, but he never called it that. He thought he simply had a “sin” problem. Throughout his adolescence and early adulthood he confronted his feelings with prayer, Bible reading and memorization. “I kept doing ‘the right thing,’” he said. “I was a very willing subject and always wanted to please God.” He found himself on the treadmill of believing that it was the next thing that would ultimately deliver him from his feelings. He went to Bible school, thinking that would do it, and then married a woman, thinking that would do it. He made every effort to be fully committed and obedient to God, based on the tenants of his fundamentalist faith.
However, Joel struggled to keep his attractions at bay. He discovered an outlet through anonymous sexual encounters and began to lead a double life during his tenure as an associate pastor. Once the family moved to begin a new church, he believed it was a second chance to escape the behaviors and start over. “’This is where you will spend the rest of your life,’ I told myself. You cannot mess up.’” He says with the stress of a new place, a church plant and raising a young family, his commitment lasted about two months. “You turn to the thing that gives you comfort the most during those stressful times,” he said. “For me it was sexual encounters.”
It was during what Joel calls a “seedy hookup in the back of a van in a Kmart parking lot,” that became the catalyst for him to get help. The guy he was with this time was a Methodist pastor. “So there we were,” he recalled, “two pastors hooking up for gay sex.” Joel knew it was time to get outside help.
He had heard of, now defunct, Exodus, International, a large Christian organization promising, with subtle overtones, to change people from gay to straight. At the age of 34, he called the Indiana chapter and immediately began attending support groups and workshops, though the ministry was a three-hour drive from his home.
“I started seeing this counselor in Indianapolis and, honestly, it was great. I needed to talk to someone and I had never been honest with anyone,” Joel said. The counseling wasn’t extreme; it was simply talk therapy. Joel’s personal objective was to stop having anonymous encounters with men more than it was to become straight. But he soon took issue with being labeled as a “struggler,” a term used to describe the men who came for help. Joel began the unhealthy act of identifying himself in negative terms. “It didn’t give me me a lot of hope,” he said.
After nearly three years of therapy and not seeing any changes in his life or the lives of the other men in the group sessions he attended, Joel asked his counselor to meet someone who was further down the road. “I’m sorry, I can’t do that,” his counselor replied in an email. Knowing his counselor was tied into a huge network of ministries, counselors and strugglers, Joel thought there was surely someone the counselor could let him talk to.
His counselor instead told him that everyone fell into one of two categories: 1) people were too ashamed to talk about their struggle with homosexuality and wanted to keep it hidden, or 2) people had successfully moved on, but they’re afraid if they are confronted with someone like Joel, they might be pulled back in.
“I sat and read the email thinking, those are the success stories. That’s what I have to look forward to.” It was the same day Joel decided he was done with conversion therapy. Though he and his wife had been separated, they were still married. “I knew it was time to get a divorce,” Joel said. Over the next few years, he and his wife worked together to raise their children, until she moved out of the state and Joel assumed sole custody.
He says that some of the darkest days of his life were compounded by the rejection and negative reactions of people in his church community. He found himself confronted, chastised and put in awkward situations, based solely on rumors and people talking behind his back. “Most of the Christians in my life were a complete disappointment to me,” he said.
“When I finally came out, I told myself I would never be silent. I don’t want anyone else to have to go through what I’ve been through. People shouldn’t have to live their lives like that,” Joel said. From the day he made his decision to move toward becoming authentic and accepting his identity, everything in his life began to change.
“I found that so many of the unhealthy behaviors I had incorporated into my life, both sexual and nonsexual, began to miraculously melt away,” he said. When he no longer saw himself as a “struggler” or broken, he started to be himself, as a whole person. He had also met many others who were married men, or ministers, caught in the same trap. Based on those meetings and his experiences, he launched “Joel Speaks Out!”
Joel now works as a speaker and life coach in South Bend, Indiana, primarily helping people navigate their coming out experiences. He finds that when people contact him there is usually some kind of religious component attached. Many have experienced severe condemnation, emotional manipulation, or they struggle with deep conflict, all of which Joel relates to well. “I’ve worked with Baptists, Mormons, Christian Scientists, and Catholics,” he said. “It’s amazing how much we all have in common.” Additionally, Joel works with people who just want a change in their lives. He understands what life is like when a person is not happy and needs to go in a different direction.
Joel has been with his husband, David, for ten years and they have been married for three. While his children initially struggled to understand why their parents divorced, Joel said he has an amazing relationship with them now that they are grown. He also has two grandchildren. He and his ex-wife, he says, are amicable and the awkward interactions are long gone.
Joel’s memoir, Godly, but Gay, is in the works, which is a series of essays talking about growing up as part of the religious right and coming to terms with his sexuality. As a motivational speaker, he talks about finding our true selves as human beings and living authentically. He looks for opportunities to help churches navigate the chaotic conflict between maintaining a Biblical worldview and loving and accepting LGBT people. Later this year, Joel plans to release a new podcast series. More information can be found about Joel and his mission at JoelSpeaksOut.Com.
Photo – Joel Barrett