While I was away speaking to a group of largely conservative pastors and inviting them to consider the challenge and opportunity of generous spaciousness in their congregations, social media was a’buzz with the news that Exodus International is going to shut down. I had read Alan Chambers’ apology yesterday. But pretty typical for me, I was not at the forefront of this news. New Direction has always, rather purposely, flown under the radar, focused on being faithful to carry out what God has asked us to do.
None-the-less, this is pretty big news in our arena of engagement and some of you have indicated that you’d be intrigued to hear my thoughts. So….. here goes:
From even before the time I spoke at the Exodus leadership conference in early 2008, I have prayed and deeply desired Exodus to truly experience that change is possible. The kind of change I prayed for was a change of heart, a change of priority, a change of focus. When I took my role as Exodus regional rep for Canada in, I believe, 2004 it was with the conviction that God was asking me to engage and that the time period would be three years. It has always been my feeling that one should engage and seek to “be the change they long to see” rather than sitting and bitching from the outside.
The truth is being a mainly straight Canadian female meant that I didn’t have a whole lot of influence in the large American evangelical system in which Exodus was birthed and sustained. The address in 2008 was my swan song and not long after that we quietly withdrew from Exodus circles so that we could continue to press forward to listen and learn and stretch and be re-born into the postures of generous spaciousness.
After that keynote, I was asked to write a guest post for Ex-Gay Watch. I decided to use the opportunity to articulate an apology to ex-gay survivors and other LGBT people who had been harmed negatively affected by the ex-gay paradigm. I said that we weren’t going to be focused on reorientation change, that we had no clear idea about the causation of same-sex sexual orientation, and that we did not think that Christians who claimed to love gay people should be involved in political measures seeking to limit the rights and freedoms of others.
If some of this is sounding a wee bit familiar ….. it does to me too. I’ve been saying for a while now that Exodus seems to be taking some pages from New Direction’s playbook – only about six years later. I don’t say that to boast or to take credit or to gloat or any such thing. I am very aware that being a small organization in Canada and having a leader who did not have her personal life and testimony enmeshed in my leadership role afforded New Direction more nimbleness to respond sooner. At the same time, we did pay a tremendous cost. We lost, over the course of a few years, 50% of our donors. There were some former board members who did not like the direction I was trying to go – resulting in some very difficult months when I didn’t know if I would be able to keep my position. And, there were the emails – some threatening, some expressing disappointment, some accusing – from those who believed that I was no longer following God’s will. Oh – and I got thrown under the bus in an article by Alan Chambers in Charisma.
So…. What do I think about Exodus’ announcement that it is shutting down?
When New Direction was going through the birth pangs of trying to move towards generous spaciousness, we had a very involved conversation as board and stakeholders about whether we should change the name of the organization and start over with a fresh, new blank page. After all, here in Toronto, New Direction had that association with ex-gay – not a nice or easy legacy to navigate. It would have been really nice to change the name, rebrand, and simply start over.
In the end, we felt that it was very important to keep the name. It has been hard. I still meet gay people in Toronto whose first reaction is cynical and bitter when they hear that I lead New Direction. But it has been richer too. I get to hear the painful stories. I get to be a humble ambassador of reconciliation. I get to be a living apology. And sometimes our biggest critics have become some of our biggest champions. Read this letter from an ex-gay survivor that we feature on our corporate website. For us, we needed to own our history. We wanted to demonstrate that Christians do have the capacity to listen and to repent (change our minds). We wanted to earn credibility and trust – not just expect it with a nice, clean slate.
I’m not sure that would work in the same way for Exodus. So I’m not suggesting that they shouldn’t close down. But, I do wonder if they simply re-open, with a new name, if there aren’t a few red flags for me. When I wrote my apology for Ex-Gay Watch, New Direction still clearly held a traditional theological view of marriage. What we found, however, was that the notion of building bridges while holding a clear position was a bit of an idealistic pipe-dream. If we really wanted to nurture open and safe and spacious places for people to explore, wrestle, and ultimately own their own spiritual journey – we needed to relinquish our certainty – and acknowledge that Christians with deep commitment to Jesus Christ and to the Scriptures come to different conclusions on the question of whether a committed gay relationship can be an expression of faithful discipleship. As leaders and as an organization – we had to relinquish power, control, status, privilege – and humble ourselves in the place of real tension – where we have to trust that the Holy Spirit is more than able to lead people in the way they need to go. We don’t need to control the outcomes in people’s lives. Our role is to enter mutual relationship with a commitment to keep looking to Jesus.
This has been liberating and challenging. We do our very best to honour people where they are. We do our best to listen to people’s convictions, values and beliefs with open hearts and minds – knowing that God can be trusted to lead and guide.
I’m not saying that people cannot have a position. Not at all. People should be encouraged to work out their salvation with fear and trembling (ie. work at clarifying what they believe and why they believe it) all the while knowing that it is God who works in us to will and to act according to his good purpose. But as an organization, and leaders within that organization, we want to be in the posture that allows people to wrestle with God.
Is there a need for an organization that holds a traditional view of marriage that seeks to be of support to same-sex attracted people? Perhaps. There are certainly same-sex attracted people with those convictions. And it would certainly be wonderful for them to have support. And it would certainly be good for those folks to move from the house of fear to the house of love. So the idea of reducing fear may be a very important one.
Exodus, as an icon of an ex-gay paradigm that has been demonstrably harmful, closing down is a good thing. Exodus reincarnated as some organization with a brand new name …… I’m not sure what I think about that.
But this is what I think will be important:
- Absolute honesty and transparency about the connection to the legacy of Exodus
- Clear and honest messaging about the purpose, goals, and expected outcomes of the support and resources that are offered
- Ongoing work of being a living apology – being available to make amends and do the hard work of justice and reconciliation with ex-gay survivors
- Addressing the real issues surrounding ex-gay philosophies in our culture-at-large: ie. holding the Restored Hope Network accountable for things that have been proven ineffective and harmful
- Speaking out for matters of justice, particularly in international contexts, for sexual and gender minority persons.
- Affirming the faith of gay Christians committed to Jesus Christ
- Acknowledging that theological differences about sexual morality are secondary issues – our reconciliation to God has been fully accomplished through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
I would imagine that many who have had some connection with Exodus in the past may have mixed feelings about today’s announcement. There has been a lot of hurt. There have been times that trust has been broken. It won’t be a smooth or easy ride for many to trust Alan or the board members – and some may never trust them. This is a reality that Alan Chambers will need to face with patience, humility, perseverance and grace.
If we serve a God who redeems, restores and reconciles, then we are called to be a people of hope and a people of faith. Doesn’t mean we have to be stupid or have our eyes closed. But it does mean that we also are called to patience, humility, perseverance and grace.
I, for one, will seek to live into those postures as I wait and see. And in the meantime, I will continue to pray. I will pray for the many ex-gay survivors. I will pray for the many sexual minority young people in our churches. I will pray for the broken relationships in families. I will pray for wisdom, discernment, courage, and honesty. And I will pray that God will keep my heart open, loving, and gracious as I place my trust in Christ alone.