There has been a lot of buzz of late about changes in the focus of Exodus International under Alan Chambers’ leadership. As many of our readers will know, New Direction used to be a member ministry of Exodus. In fact, I served as the Regional Rep for Canada for about three years. In that time, I did my best to encourage the network to step back from debates about causation, to focus on discipleship rather than reorientation change, and to cease any involvement in political matters that would impede or prevent civil equity for LGBT people. It seems that some five years later some of these changes are being incorporated into Exodus as it moves forward.
In my last conversation with Alan, I encouraged him to think very carefully about how Exodus will navigate dialogue with those who hold affirming views in the future. He and I both know that societal attitudes are shifting at an incredible pace, at least in North America. These shifts are happening both outside of and inside of the Christian community. I challenged Alan to think about the potential role Exodus could play in modeling peace-making and being a catalyst of respectful dialogue in the midst of diverse perspectives on the question of gay marriage for Christians.
Where I particularly hope to see more change at Exodus is on the question of identity. I have written about this before and so I won’t belabor it here. I think that the way people describe their identity is intrinsically linked to their ability to be honest and live an authentic life. It is true that we ascribe meaning to the description of our identity – but such meaning is not determined simply by the description. Rather, each individual determines the meaning they will ascribe to the way they choose to describe their identity. For example, many women describe an aspect of their identity as being a mom. But being a mom means different things for different women. For some women, being a mom means they live vicariously through their children and their sense of worth is directly connected to how successful their children are in school or in their various activities. For others, being a mom is balanced by other aspects of their identity such as their faith, their marital status, their vocation and their social context.
Certainly, people of faith can be encouraged to prioritize their sense of identity as being primarily found in their connection with God. For example, my deepest security is found in my identity as a Beloved child of God. That doesn’t mean, however, that I’m not honest about describing other aspects of my identity.
My understanding of Exodus’ current emphasis is that same-sex attracted people should focus only on their identity as a Christian. My sense is that it is stilled viewed as unhelpful to simply say, “I’m gay” (meaning simply that the person experiences same-sex attraction). I continue to feel that this compromises an individual’s ability to live honestly and authentically and may also affect their own sense of self-acceptance.
Now that Exodus seems to be rejecting an emphasis on reorientation, another outstanding question will be how they will address the pain of ex-gay survivors. As I look at the last five years at New Direction, we have had opportunity to listen to a lot of stories from those who experienced harm in their ex-gay experience. At times, we’ve had the opportunity to have a more intimate, one-on-one conversation with those who had used New Direction’s services. Where we can, we’ve done our best to offer apologies and to make amends where applicable, as limited as they may be. But we acknowledge that this is an ongoing process for us – even as we encourage Exodus to consider how they will act on this matter in the future.
In light of that, I have prepared a letter that will be a part of our main corporate website. I am often asked if we have followed up with past recipients. The challenge with that is our desire to honour the privacy of such individuals. While some may appreciate the contact and the opportunity to share their story and hear of the evolution in the ministry, others may feel violated or have old memories unnecessarily triggered. However, our hope is that by posting this letter in a prominent place on our main website, that people will have the opportunity to contact us should they wish to discuss their past experiences.
We would be glad to hear your feedback and suggestions in the comment section as we strive to serve those who others as they process their ex-gay experiences. It is our prayer that past or present, all those who connect with New Direction would encounter a safe and spacious place to explore and grow in their faith in Jesus Christ.
To any individuals formerly connected with New Direction Ministries,
I recently met with two gentlemen who had been recipients of New Direction’s services. One was from the early years, before I took my role in 2002. The other had connected just a few years ago. I had never met either of them before, but I am grateful they took the time to meet with me at Starbucks.
Both indicated that their New Direction experience had been negative. And they both wanted to know if New Direction had really taken a new direction – or if some of the kinder sounding language on the website was just a gentler way of presenting the same old paradigm. These are really legitimate questions. And I understand the skepticism that I encountered.
One of the first things they asked was whether or not New Direction continued to promote ex-gay theology. When I asked them to clarify for me what they meant by that, they raised some key points:
· Do we think being gay is a choice? No, we do not. We don’t know exactly what causes different people to experience consistent attraction to their own gender. It seems to be a complex combination of different factors for different people. But we certainly recognize that for many people who identify as gay, they have sensed something intrinsically unique about themselves for as long as they can remember. As they grew and developed they realized that this uniqueness could be described as being gay. One way to describe this could be a constitutional same-sex orientation where there is little to no fluidity. A person doesn’t choose to experience this – they just do.
· Do we believe that there is something intrinsically wrong with being gay?Is being gay a sin? No, we do not. We do not believe that experiencing same-sex attraction is sinful. As I’ve listened to many stories of ex-gay survivors over the years, one common theme I hear is the deep damage that resulted from feeling unworthiness, shame, and self-loathing. The truth is, each human being, regardless of their sexual or gender identity, is created in the image of God, has inherent worth and dignity, and is unconditionally loved by God. We acknowledge that Christians disagree with one another about whether a same-sex sexual relationship is sinful or not. Where we encounter such disagreement we seek to promote dialogue and an environment that honours the autonomy of the individual.
· Do we believe that a person must try to be heterosexual to be a faithful Christian? No, we do not. Our status as reconciled children of God is completely God’s gift to us through our faith in Jesus Christ. This gift of salvation transforms our lives such that we want to live out our grateful response. In light of this, Christians seek to become more and more like Christ. We see this manifested in the fruits of the Spirit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, goodness and self-control. Research has shown that radical change in sexual orientation is rare. We have seen Christians so focused on trying to become heterosexual that the rest of their life suffered. We encourage people to accept their reality regarding their sexual identity and to focus on drawing near to God in the confidence of his love for them. We acknowledge that gay Christians have different beliefs and make different choices about whether or not to enter a same-sex relationship. Our focus is to encourage people to prayerful reflection, discerning engagement with Scripture, and faithful participation in a community of faith.
We do not have a statement on marriage on our website. And we are not focused on promoting a particular view regarding the question of gay marriage. Our focus is to nurture environments within our faith communities where sexual and gender minority individuals can explore and grow in faith in Jesus Christ. We work to encourage our churches and Christian organizations to be places of radical hospitality where our differences do not fracture us – but allow us to grow in the opportunity to extend humble grace to one another as we all seek to follow and live for Christ.
I want to acknowledge that people have been hurt by ex-gay paradigms. I know people experienced shame. I know people felt “less than”. I know that some people’s faith never recovered from the experience. This causes me deep grief and motivates me to be very clear that New Direction does notpromote an ex-gay mindset. We want to be part of the movement within the Christian community that recognizes and affirms the full humanity, worth and dignity of our LGBT sisters and brothers (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender).
We care about the people who have connected with New Direction, past and present, would appreciate the opportunity to hear your story, and invite your input and suggestions as we continue to shape this ministry to be a place that promotes generous spaciousness and hospitality in the Christian community.
If you would like to have a conversation about your experience with New Direction, please don’t hesitate to contact me personally.
Wendy Gritter Executive Director