Those who are following issues related to religion and sexual orientation and identity are aware that the APA Task Force Report on Appropriate Therapeutic Responses to Sexual Orientation and the update on the Exodus study were reported at the same APA conference. Both are receiving some attention, and it may be difficult to understand how they relate (or if they do). In terms of whether or not sexual orientation can ever change, they are likely to be contrasted, and some may contrast them quite sharply. At the same time, there are some points of intersection that should not be overlooked, and I’ve been thinking a lot about this, especially in light of my own clinical practice in which I focus on sexual identity and congruence rather than change of orientation.
Although we have not yet analyzed all of the questions at Time 6 that we analyzed at Time 3, I was struck in the Time 3 report by what participants found helpful in their local ministry. They appreciated the support they received – they knew that they were not alone. They appreciated the opportunity to grow in their identity in Christ – to be strengthened in their faith. It is not really my place to speak to how ministries provide services, but I imagine these are the strengths of ministries affiliated with Exodus. They may be at their best when they focus on fostering a religious identity that is in keeping with the ministry statements of faith. In the context of this support, might some people experience a reduction in same-sex attraction? Apparently some do. Might some even experience an increase in attraction to the opposite sex? Apparently some do, although this seems less likely and less salient (again, on average, for those who reported it).
The evidence from the Exodus study does not appear to reflect categorical change (from completely gay to completely straight). Rather, these are meaningful shifts for some participants, and some individuals experienced more of a shift. That was enough for us to conclude that change is possible for some, but it is unclear exactly what percentage. That we are talking more about shifts in degree (rather than categorical shifts) will be important to a ministry and to participants.
I mentioned above that for some people the Exodus study will not be a sharp contrast to some of what is recommended toward the end of the APA Task Force report. I read the Task Force report as recommending a client-centered, identity-focused approach that emphasizes support and coping skills, as well as sensitivity and respect for religious beliefs and values. I think that is a lot of what is helpful in religious ministries.
It may be true that ministries are not client-centered in the same way that the Task Force may mean it, but ministries do provide support and coping resources that are religiously-congruent, if you will (by which I mean, these resources are offered in the context of the religious beliefs and identity of the ministry and would correspond with the beliefs and identity of those who self-select to participate in the ministry).
As for the identity focus, this seems to be a good fit with religious ministries that emphasize an identity ‘in Christ’ or similar understandings. Whether sexual attractions change or shift for an individual will be an important question for him or her, but it may be less critical if the primary emphasis of the ministry is on identity, support, and coping, much as what was recommended in the report.