By now you have heard about the apology issued from Alan Chambers, president of Exodus International, as well as the reactions from ex-ex-gay individuals featured on the special, God and gays. The clips from that show are worth viewing.
There is a tension that exists that I’d like to discuss: What does it mean when the flagship evangelical ministry addressing homosexuality closes its doors? Is it a failure of nerve to stand for Christian convictions in a culture that seems increasingly hostile to Christianity? That is what some evangelical leaders claim.
Is it a compassionate response to the lived experiences of folks who have been either hurt by Exodus or at least not experienced the changes they had hoped for? That is what others in the evangelical community are saying. (You’ll notice I am citing the same web site: CT’s range of reactions; mine apparently falls in between the “dismayed” and “joyful.”)
Alan Chambers has been on a journey in which he has entered into relationships with people who have said they’ve been hurt by Exodus. That process has been ongoing for several years, I think. I suspect he initially thought Exodus could be reformed in a way that would change the focus of the ministry away from the expectation of heterosexuality. Obviously, at the end of the day, I don’t think he believed he could re-brand Exodus to do the kind of ministry that resonated with him.
At that point, it seems he felt he had two choices: leave the ministry or close the ministry. Some people believe he should have done the former; they say, “Then leave! But don’t drive Exodus into the ground!” Others applaud him for what they see as the courage to make the tough decisions from within.
I don’t know how Alan processed all of that, so I am not going to pick sides in whether he did the right thing or not. Perhaps over time we’ll have a better sense for that.
On the ISSI facebook page, a comment was made about what this means to the average person in the church who is sorting out these issues. I commented that it might not make that much of a difference in the sense that member ministries were just under the umbrella of Exodus. They may continue to minister based on their own approach; they might joint the Restored Hope Network; or they might join another group. But that answer might be too easy. Maybe it does affect the person who is in the trenches, the person who is trying to navigate sexual identity and religious identity. I’m still thinking that through…
I just got done with an interview today. It was about the Exodus situation. I don’t think I communicated my thoughts and heart about this very clearly. (I often feel that sense of “I wish I had said that differently.” Or “I wish I hadn’t framed it that way.”) So let me say this: I don’t think there is that much research support for reparative theory or therapy, and that is not an approach I take in my work. But a reparative approach is not the only means by which some people attempt to change orientation. Many have entered into Christian ministries with the hope that they would experience a meaningful change in their sexual orientation. The research on their experiences is limited. In the study I worked on (where the focus was on whether orientation could change through involvement in Exodus ministries), the findings did not please anyone on either side of the debate. Some people reported meaningful change over time, and that change appeared to be change of behavior, identity, and self-reported attractions. But most did not experience as much change as they would have liked, in my view, and even the more successful experiences were still marked by some attraction toward the same sex. I think it is wise to have an honest discussion about those kinds of findings — about what that could mean in terms of informed consent to someone who is considering likely outcomes.
So…with the closing of Exodus, the Christian community is left with a tension: What is available by way of ministry to those who wish to pursue change? What are the expectations and how will those expectations be communicated? At the same time, how will the church respond to those who don’t experience as much change as they had hoped?
8 thoughts on “Additional Reflections”
If the interview you’re talking about was the CBN interview (http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=q132jxOV0Oo), I wish you had framed things differently too. If I were an average, straight Christian who didn’t know (m)any gay people, I would have walked away from viewing that clip thinking that sexual orientation change was possible, fairly common for those who pursued Christ, and not at all harmful. But of course, that doesn’t really square with what “the folks on the ground” are saying, like the president of the largest ex-gay ministry in the world saying that 99% of people who pursue orientation change don’t actually change (http://wthrockmorton.com/2012/01/alan-chambers-99-9-have-not-experienced-a-change-in-their-orientation/), and ex-ex-gays (or ex-gay survivors) largely reporting a great deal of harm that has persisted (http://www.beyondexgay.com/survey/results).
As a psychologist who has influence (being one of few Christians who can speak with authority on this issue), wouldn’t you say you have a responsibility to speak more accurately to Christian audiences (who have a tendency to use your words as ammunition to condemn gay people)? When asked about change, shouldn’t you unequivocally state “MOST people who try to change, simply will not, and of the very few who do report change, virtually none describe a change of sexuality from gay to straight, and in fact, a good number of people who attempt this therapy are harmed in all sorts of ways”?
I don’t mean this in an accusatory way…I think you’re a genuine guy trying to be faithful to Christ and your own research… but I think the way you described things in this interview gave a very rosy picture of change efforts. In reality, when you tell an entire population of people (LGBT people) that God either wants you to risk a lot of harm for little chance of change, or simply never experience the joys of intimate human relationships EVER (despite overwhelming psychological evidence that long-term, romantic, intimate relationships have all sorts of psychological and physical health benefits), then I think you perpetuate the harm that’s been done to LGBT Christians, b/c it sets up false expectations for them, their families, and their influential peers (i.e., other Christians with whom they are in community).
I’m just now back from a trip that had me up in the Chicago area all last week, so that’s why I’ve not had a chance to reply. Thanks for your comment. It’s been interesting to hear the reactions of people who have commented on the interview (not here but elsewhere and in correspondence with me); many had the opposite reaction. They felt I had not given the interviewer what he was clearly looking for, that is, confirmation of easy and categorical change. I know you drew the opposite conclusion, but I just wanted you to be aware how others heard the same interview.
Yes, I would have like to have worded some things better, but to me that would have been clarifying the difference between reparative therapy and ministry – perhaps some other parts as well. I don’t think I could say exactly what you suggest, particularly toward the end about harm. The quality of research in this area is not at the level where I think I could speak with confidence about the likelihood of it being as harmful as you say. I definitely know people who have been harmed from either ministry or therapy, but I also know people who have been helped. These anecdotes point to the need for better research to look at likelihood of harmful outcomes (or helpful outcomes). The major study most people point to as evidence of harm actually attempted to recruit people who had been harmed, so that says little to us about how likely it would be to experience harm.
In any case, thank you for your thoughts. I don’t take you to be accusatory. I am glad that you have a sense for my desire to be both genuine and faithful to the research as I understand it. There are certainly those out there who see the same research more optimistically and more pessimistically than me.
Hi, Mark. I figured you were away, because you’ve always been good at communicating on this blog, so I wasn’t feeling ignored by your non-response. I appreciate you getting back to me!
Thank you for sharing your perspective of folks on the other side of the divide who were frustrated you weren’t giving an unequivocal easy answer. It’s good to know that. Of course, considering CBN’s major audience, that’s not so surprising.
As for harm, I am going to have to be insistent here. I, of course, agree with you that the level and quality of research on the issue is lacking. However, when you have a report of 400 people who have entered ex-gay ministries/counseling reporting significant levels of harm, including anxiety, severe depression, and suicidality – anecdotal or not – this should seriously give you pause. If the FDA had this sort of large collection of anecdotal data, they would IMMEDIATELY pull such a drug from the market – especially considering the evidence for the number of people who has been significantly helped by is significantly more lacking in number (by your own study, you could only recruit a quarter of the amount the ex-gay survey found, and even then only about half of those reported any statistically significant change/help). Yes, I agree that at least your study was a prospective trial and therefore does have some weight behind it that a retrospective survey does not. But again, the import of the survey is not the type of trial that it was, but the fact that significant harm is being reported. To go on the air and NOT mention that there are reports of harm is frankly unethical. If any drug company were to give direct-to-consumer data that did not at least mention potential harms (no matter how little the risk), the would be quickly reprimanded by the FDA. You should be held to similar standards since you KNOW that there are at least 400 people out there who report harm from this type of therapy. I would imagine your conscience would encourage you to do so if there was even ONE…but certainly it should for nearly 400.
Correction: I meant the EX-ex-gay (beyond ex-gay) survey, not the ex-gay survey.
Also, I did not go back and read the results, but I think I overinflated the number. If I recall, just under 400 people responded, not all of which reported significant harm – but quite a few did. Again, I don’t have time to get the exact number, but I think my point still stands. Just thought I should take my own medicine and be a bit more accurate with the info I bandy about 🙂
I’ll come back to this again but just real quickly I didn’t think your comments were transmitting the reality of most people. I remember you saying something like, “In Christ all things are possible. And also Change is possible;e.” My observation of your comments is that you sounded like the same old same old, in fact you sounded like Exodus to be perfectly candid with you. Your lack of specificity, you gave people the impression that it is possible to change your orientation from gay to straight. Your fuzzy comments of the “subjects experiencing meaningful change.” goes right over the head of the general public. The only word people will focus on is the word “change”. You used it and said it is possible, perhaps that is what you *want* people to believe.
Remember when you wrote the article of the Youth Pastor? I was critical and said you need to be MORE specific, that by throwing around the word change in the “generic” you were dodging the question. You should be honest and tell how many people dropped out and out of the original group how many went from gay to straight. Give the facts on the ground instead of offering false hope by your omission of key points of the research. I did not find your interview forthright. I am glad you are having second thoughts. It was misleading, it was Exodus-esque.
I dunno I have always trusted you as a scientific researcher, but in this interview you come off more of a Christian advocate for Christ rather than a scientific scholar. Where as I don’t think anything you said was false, you didn’t seem to me to speak firstly forthrightly as a scientist, you seemed to spin it ti me. . That’s what I am trying to say.
SG: Thanks for your thoughts. I was surprised by the interviewer’s question about reparative therapy; I thought we were talking about Alan Chambers/Exodus. I would have liked to have clarified what reparative therapy is, but hat is a technical discussion that is hard to do in short interviews. As I mentioned to DJ, several people felt I did not give the interviewer what the interviewer was looking for, which seemed to be a desire to confirm easy and categorical change. It is very difficult to get into the level of detail you recommend in an interview like this one, but I try to offer more details in the appropriate forums, and of course people can read the original research (in book form and the peer-reviewed journal article) as well as the exgays study site (www.exgaystudy.com) where we answer FAQs and criticisms. Thanks again. I do appreciate your perspective.
Let me try and say it this way Mark, Warren Throckmoton I think is more forthright than tou are. Warren will say, “It is very unlikely that people will change their sexual orientation.”
He doesn’t say it is impossible, but he doesn’t give false hope either about a few points movement on a spectrum.
Even Alan Chambers says 99.9% of people do not change their sexual orientation, and he has probably heard more prayers about this than practically anybody. John Smid Director of residential Love Wins Out in Tennessee walked away after years I think it was 20 years, saying he never met a person who changed their sexual orientation. The expectation is of a completely gay man is to go completely straight, not to still be gay but just a little less gay.
I would go more along with Throckmorton and say something like,
“It is very unlikely that people have a complete change of sexual orientation through prayer or therapy. However a good ministry that is sensitive and understanding to your situation can be of vast comfort and support for you.”
“Psychological therapy can help you greatly diminish your anxiety over your sexual orientation”
Why can’t you say to the churches,
“It is very unlikely that people have a complete change of sexual orientation through prayer or therapy. However you can reflect our loving Christ and support those with same sex attractions to find acceptance and comfort in your church, as they are. It is their journey in life, just as we all have our journeys.”
When they ask what can we do specifically to help them? Why not refer them to the Gay Christian Network? The Gay Christian network supports all sexual minorities those who choose a life of celibacy and those who do not. The Gay Christian Network is an organization that works. They have always been better than Exodus or any other group.
My words are never meant to hurt only to help.
SG: I’m not sure what to say in comparison to Warren. He and I are friends, but I don’t think we have reached identical conclusions about the research. Same could be said for many other people I know well and consider friends or colleagues. I know people who are much more optimistic than me; I know people who are much more pessimistic than me. I don’t think I am going to say exactly what you would have me say, but I am trying to be honest about how I see the research in general in this area, as well as the research I have conducted.
Your comment on GCN: I have recommended the group to some people; however, I have reason to believe it is not as balanced as it could be in terms of representing as consistently the perspectives and interests of Side B Christians. That’s not an accusation, but it lets you know that a referral there is not as obvious to me as it seems to be to you. There are some other people and forums and sites that may more clearly support Side B Christians, and I often mention their posts, for example, on the ISSI FB page (https://www.facebook.com/ISSI.Site). I’m thinking here of Ron Belgau, Wesley Hill (http://spiritualfriendship.org/) and Eve Tushnet (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/evetushnet/), among others.