Thoughts on the “Slippery Slope”

imagesOne of the concerns I often hear about a celibacy (or side b) position and conferences like Revoice is that the position itself can be a “slippery slope” toward a doctrinal shift that commends same-sex sexual behavior as morally permissible (or side a).

What is interesting about this concern is that it presupposes that there is a position that adequately “protects” a person from the possibility that their view of what is morally permissible might change.

When I started my career twenty years ago an ex-gay (or side x) ministry model was much more prominent and had a larger share of the ministry space in the evangelical Christian community. That has changed.

There were many factors that led to a diminished ex-gay narrative. Although I am unable to go into too many details here (we discuss some of the reasons in the book Costly Obedience, if you are interested), some of those factors had to do with those who had been ex-gay sharing that their own experience was that the ministry model did not appear to deliver on what was promised: namely, for some individuals (or many or most, depending on who weighs in on this), their same-sex sexuality remained a part of their lives in ways that could not be reconciled with assumptions surrounding that it means to be ex-gay (or, more pointedly, could not be reconciled with the claim that they were straight).

Some individuals came to identify as ex-ex-gay. Again, without going into specific stories, a quick search with your “Google machine” should provide a few examples. Some individuals previously identified as gay. They later held a prominent place in ministry circles as ex-gay. But, in the cases I am thinking of, that was not a position they could occupy indefinitely. As they came to acknowledge their enduring same-sex attractions, some would self-identify as ex-ex-gay. In some cases, their sexual ethic shifted to a “side a” position to reflect a change in their views. For some individuals, perhaps their enduring same-sex sexuality contributed to a cognitive dissonance that was resolved not with a change in underlying patterns of attraction but with a change in their beliefs about what was morally permissible. It is hard to know how frequently a person went from ex-gay to ex-ex-gay, but we know that it has happened.

Let’s get back to the slippery slope. It’s unclear to me that pursuing celibacy is any more of a slippery slope than pursuing heterosexuality. That is, it may not be a slippery slope at all. Do we really know that the pursuit of celibacy puts a person at greater risk of changing their view away from what conservatives would describe as a traditional Christian sexual ethic? Many people who were ex-gay at one time are now affirming. If the concern from conservatives is that celibacy and the use of the vernacular to describe one’s sexual orientation (i.e., gay) is a slippery slope, there doesn’t seem to be an account for how the alternative path has also been a place from which people have launched into an affirming position.

The “slippery slope” accusation locates the discussion topographically, as though one path was located alongside a sheer cliff, as though one position was closer to falling off the edge of that cliff than the other. The reality is the people have “fallen off” that place from many different positions. It is unclear that one is closer to a downward slope, and it ignores the reality of ex-ex-gays and at least one of the reasons why the ex-gay narrative has diminished in recent years.

Now from a research standpoint, I am certainly open to the idea that one ministry position increases the likelihood of a specific outcome. But we’d have to study the experiences of those who have changed their doctrinal position. We’d want a large, representative sample of sexual minority individuals who would share the journey from where they were to where they are to see if what they moved away from was more of an ex-gay (or side x) position or more of a celibacy (or side b) position. We’d also want to take into consideration the cultural shifts that have taken place and may be reflected in ministry prominence today. (Even more ideal, we’d want to study people’s experiences going into these different ministries rather than asking them what it was like retrospectively.) Short of that, it is unclear that those who are celibate should concede that their position is a greater risk than any other position in terms of shifting views on sexual ethics.

Since I don’t think that issue will be settled anytime soon, what are thoughtful Christians to do? Rather than denounce groups of people and their attempts to live faithfully before God, it may be more helpful to look at what these two ministry paths have in common. And maybe you’d think they don’t have much in common given the current conflict over preferred models of ministry and risk to the church. However, what they share in common are some of the ongoing challenges of a desire for support and encouragement, a sense of identity and community, a place to discuss their faith journey and sexuality and the intersection of the two, a place to grapple with important questions surrounding sexual ethics and intimacy, a positive vision for a future where they could thrive, ways in which their own gifts and talents can benefit the Body of Christ, ways in which their faithful witness can be a source of encouragement to others, and so on.

The accusation of a slippery slope will only push further from the church those who are trying to live out a traditional Christian sexual ethic. It may just fray the rope they are desperately trying to hold on to.

On the Expectation of Change

A recent World magazine article centers on the hiring of Julie Rodgers at Wheaton College. Julie is a self-described celibate gay Christian who works as an associated in the chaplain’s office at the college. I consider Julie a friend, and I am an alumni of Wheaton (’98) and I have served as an adjunct professor there for the past decade. I also blog occasionally at Spiritual Friendship which is mentioned in the article.

julie_rodgers_1356836454_69I was surprised to see my research cited in the article about the hiring of Julie. The way the argument was set up was to express concern for Wheaton as the flagship evangelical college hiring a staff member who is known to be gay and who actually uses the word “gay” as an adjective to describe herself to others. Julie had spent about 10 years in Exodus International attempting to change her sexual orientation, and I have spoken with Julie on several occasions about this. She is gracious and positive about her own personal experience with the Exodus member ministries she participated in. However, speaking graciously about involvement in a ministry and declaring that it made her straight are two different things. She, like many other people who have attempted to change, did not experience a dramatic shift in her attractions as a result of ministry.

In my view, the article would serve the Body of Christ better if it were about this reality.

I am co-author of the study cited in the World magazine article about Julie and Wheaton. That study was published in book form in 2007 and then again as a peer-reviewed journal article in 2011, after six years of attempted change. If I were to summarize my view of the findings, I would put it this way: While on average people reported a modest shift along a continuum of attraction, most people did not experience as much of a shift as they would have liked, particularly as people entering ministry envision change as a 180-degree shift from gay to straight.

The author of the World magazine piece frames the study as being about “showing that changing sexual orientation is possible.” A more accurate way to think about the study is this: “Is it ever possible that sexual orientation can change?” This is important because it leaves open the question of what causes the change. The original study was launched at a time when the broader cultural consensus seemed to be that sexual orientation is an immutable characteristic. That is, that sexual orientation is unchanging. Period. We asked whether it is ever possible to witness change in sexual orientation over time and whether such experiences were intrinsically harmful. We documented average changes along a continuum. Averages that suggested that for some those shifts were more significant; for others, not significant (or no change).

The study was an outcome study. That is, we were studying whether changes in orientation occurred; we were not studying the process of change. We do not even know if it was involvement in the Christian ministry that contributed to the changes that were documented. It is possible that the changes that were documented were the result of natural fluidity or some other variable that we did not account for. There was certainly (for some) changes in identity and behavior, as we discussed in the journal article about the study.

Why is this important? It is important because the evangelical Christian community has an opportunity to think carefully about pastoral care which is intimately connected to the message it sends to people who are navigating sexual identity concerns in their lives. We can affirm a God who can bring about the miraculous while also being gracious to those who do not experience the miraculous. We do this all the time when we pray for people for any number of concerns that are brought to us. But in this one area–homosexuality–there seems to be an added expectation that the person receive experience significant shifts in the direction of their sexual attraction or assume a posture of ongoing attempts to alter patterns of attraction even when such efforts have not produced the shift the person has sought.

I once wrote about a man in his forties who came to see me in therapy. He had been to a Christian ministry for the past three years to try to change his attractions. After the first year going through a popular 30-week curriculum, he shared with the ministry leader that he still experienced same-sex attraction. The leader encouraged him to go back through the curriculum for a second year. He did. At the end of that year, he approached the ministry leader with the concern that while he had grown in his relationship with Christ and sincerely appreciated the fellowship with others, he was still experiencing same-sex attractions as strong as ever; what should he do? He was advised to go back through the curriculum for a third time. It was only after the end of the third year that he came to see me to discuss other options. We discussed how he thought about his same-sex sexuality and various postures he could take in light of his personal moral convictions. We discussed an ongoing posture of attempting to change; we discussed living with an enduring condition; we discussed a “thorn in the flesh” that he has asked to be removed many more times that Paul could have imagined. These different conceptualizations were difficult for this particular man. He had been led to believe that it was a personal, spiritual failure to come to terms with his same-sex attractions as something that would not go away–as something he would not experience a shift around. Such a belief drove him to depression and shame.

Yet he is not alone. Many people do not experience a dramatic shift in their experiences of same-sex attraction despite years of ministry involvement. This man spoke to me about three years. Julie in her speaking references 10 years. The question for the church is: What kind of pastoral care will the church provide in cases in which there is an enduring experience of same-sex attraction? A related question for pastoral care is to reflect on what is the nature of sexual attraction? Is it just a desire for genital sexual intimacy or is it broader than that? How we reflect on these questions will inform our care for one another. Although space will not permit an adequate exploration of that question, we need to at least ask: Is it a moral failure of the person to come to terms with an enduring condition? Although the issues are not the same, it was not in the case with Paul; I don’t believe it was a failure in the case of the man I discussed. I also don’t believe it is a failure on the part of Julie. In fact, I believe these are more likely outcomes than the testimonies of dramatic change. I don’t want to discourage a person from attempting such change, but I also want to be careful not to convey to that person that there worth before God is wrapped up in their capacity to experience sexual attraction to the opposite sex. I know countless men and women who are no more Christlike by virtue of their attraction to the opposite sex.

Also, how ought a person describe him or herself? Same-sex attracted? Gay? Struggler? Sexual minority? Overcomer? There are about as many names as there are opinions on the matter. I find there is a point of diminishing returns for me as someone who is not navigating this terrain to act as though I have the final word on how another brother or sister in Christ ought to use language. This is an internal discussion among followers of Christ who are talking to one another about the benefits and drawbacks of various words or phrases. One observation: younger people–Christians and nonChristians alike–are using gay as simply an adjective to describe their sexual orientation.

The church may benefit from finding  a way to hold onto different ministry approaches. Some will place greater emphasis on a more complete and dramatic shift in patterns of attraction. Most people will not experience this. Others will turn to changes in identity and behavior and language will be important here, as certain words may be experienced as indicative of identity. Still others will pursue celibacy as a way to live faithfully before God; different language may match up with their ways of naming their experience. We have to find a way to extend one another grace. To suggest that all people who experience same-sex attraction have to achieve dramatic shifts as a testimony to the power of God will be unnecessarily divisive, a poor model of pastoral care, and a sure way of driving people out of the church altogether.

Note: This is cross-posted with SF.

Out There – Stephen Fry

Stephen Fry’s documentary Out There is getting a fair amount of attention. This clip in particular has been of interest to many. Fry interviews Daniel Gonzalez, who identifies himself as a former patient of Joseph Nicolosi. Nicolosi is also interviewed, as is Gonzalez’s mother.

The viewer sees some of the claims that get so much attention in conservative Christian circles, such as those around etiology: that the cause of a homosexual orientation is trauma-based and the result of Nurture (poor parent-child relationships).

I have met so many parents who have been told that their failures caused their child’s sexual orientation, and I have known many parents who are more than willing to accept this, as they are hungry for answers to their son or daughter’s same-sex sexuality. In contrast to this view, the American Psychological Association offers what I think is a more accurate account of the state of our knowledge at this time when when it concluded:

There is no consensus among scientists about the exact reasons that an individual develops a heterosexual, bisexual, gay, or lesbian orientation. Although much research has examined the possible genetic, hormonal, developmental, social, and cultural influences on sexual orientation, no findings emerged that permit scientists to conclude that sexual orientation is determined by any particular factor or factors. Many think that nature and nurture both play complex roles; most people experience little or no sense of choice about their sexual orientation.

The other statement that stood out to me in the interview is about change. I have heard from a number of ministry leaders this same estimate: that one-third are cured (improve to the point of heterosexuality); one-third significant improvement; and one-third no such improvement.

It is so important to conduct well-designed research to answer these kinds of questions in part because people hope to hear an answer that resonates with they want for themselves or a loved one. My own work that followed people who sought change through Christian ministries paints a different picture. We don’t really talk about percentages, although we did offer qualitative categorizations for people to get a rough sense of what people were saying. (Also, we were looking at ministry not professional therapy, so there is a difference there as well.)

When we published our results in book form (after three years of attempted change at that specific ministry), the only way to get to an estimated one-third of success would be if we include the ability to live a chaste life, which represented a significant number of people – more so than the change to heterosexuality group. (Chastity here referred to a reduction in same-sex desires that made living a chaste life more of a possibility/less of a burden.) We indicated that this counts as success from a Christian ministry standpoint insofar as it reflects a traditional Christian sexual ethic; however, it might not be what a person had been hoping for or expecting at the start of their ministry involvement, and it is not the same kind of success as claims of heterosexuality.

The success that is referenced in the documentary (referred to as “cure”) was reported by a much smaller number of people in the study I worked on, and even in those cases the people shared that they experienced same-sex attraction from time to time, which was a point of much criticism and discussion when the results were first presented. (When we reported results after seven years, we get different percentages still, but with the number of people we could not report on due to the decisions they made to discontinue in the study, it makes it all the more challenging to say these represent what the average person can expect from participating in a ministry.)

I was also struck by the statement that more adolescents are coming for therapy. My own experiences have been different. I have found that many adolescents are not nearly as concerned about this as are their parents. Some teens do come in for services, certainly, but often to get their parents to meet with a psychologist who can provide them (the parents) with support. In all cases, however, a minor has to give assent to any services rendered, which is meant to safeguard parents insisting on one course of treatment against the wishes of their teenage son or daughter.

Once More on Exodus Closing

Alan-ChambersThere is another news story up on the closing of Exodus. It’s the second one from CBN. It has an interesting segment in the interview with Alan Chambers. I haven’t watched all of his interviews, but something stood out to me. I know he is talking about the burden of one ministry organization carrying a message, but my first impression in this interview was that perhaps he was talking about his own personal burden of carrying that message. It’s interesting in that regard. Whatever you think about the decision to close Exodus, I did appreciate the emphasis on needing a broader response from the whole church rather than a focused response from a parachurch ministry (though both/and is also possible – rather than either/or).

You see, too, the different options that appear to be available for people who are navigating this terrain. You have the option of ministry that focuses on change of orientation, identity, and behavior, as seen in Restored Hope Network (RHN). The segment talks about RHN as picking up with the original mission of Exodus.

Then there are the various ministries that have been under the umbrella of Exodus. Before its closing, those ministries were focused less on orientation change and perhaps more on behavioral changes and identity considerations. That may still be held out as a point of focus for some ministries.

A third option I began to introduce in my interview but was not able to develop in the segment shown was that of someone who might focus on Christlikeness or sanctification independent of whether their attractions change. The discussion for these folks is more about celibacy and spiritual friendships or mixed orientation marriages (with full awareness/consent before entering into the marriage).

Where the church goes with all of this is yet to be seen. Perhaps seeing ministries as on a continuum will be more helpful than feeling one has to choose one over the other. The focus on bridge-building and creating safe spaces for people to engage and discuss these issues may also represent a place on this continuum to some; others might not resonate with it as a ministry to their conflicts with same-sex sexuality. In any case, we will have to see how all of this develops over time.

Back in Virginia Beach

wheatonI’m back from a week teaching up at Wheaton College. I was teaching a course for them on Sexuality & Sex Therapy. Sixteen graduate students from at least three of their clinical programs joined me in an extended discussion and examination of human sexuality and applied services.

We opened with four sessions that focus on essentially perspectives on matters of sexuality: theological, sociocultural, biological, and clinical. The last perspective serves as a transition to the rest of the week’s topics: sexual dysfunctions (e.g., painful intercourse), atypical sexual behaviors (e.g., the paraphilias), sexual addiction, gender dysphoria, and sexual identity concerns. Sexual identity issues are not pathology, of course, but they are not an uncommon presentation for counseling, and we explore good clinical practice in response to some of the more common issues that can arise.

Students also read chapters from a book I’m working on. It is a Christian integration textbook that could be used in a similar course. It is scheduled for publication in March 2014.

So it wasn’t the best week to have all of the issues surrounding Exodus International and the Supreme Court come up. Because the class went from 8am-5pm, there was not a lot of extra time to comment on these other issues as important as they were.

CCCU 2013On top of that, I had agreed in advance to do a workshop for the Chicago Area Christian Training Consortium (CACTC) on working with sexual minority youth. That went very well. It was interesting to hear of a case presented briefly by someone who had provided Sexual Identity Therapy to a young person who was navigating sexual and religious identity conflicts.

On Thursday evening I also presented (via Skype) a talk to the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU). They had a session for their communications officers. In the photo above, I am in the little box on the upper right-hand side of the PowerPoint slide (speaking from Wheaton) and talking to those in attendance in Seattle.

Before I left, I did a brief interview with CBN:

It was an interesting interview. I got the questions about 3 min before we started, and I was surprised we were going to talk about reparative therapy. I tried to get the Christian audience to think about this: although their theology holds that God can do anything, there is a biblical precedent for a prayer going “unanswered” and that the person (in this case, the apostle Paul) found that God provided for him. Then I tried to focus on the study I worked on. The results of that study did not please anyone on either side of the culture wars. The findings challenged those who hold that orientation is immutable, but it did not provide as much support for change as I think proponents expected. We then discussed Alan Chambers, and we are all going to have to see how this unfolds, but I sympathized with his desire to acknowledge and apologize for ways in which people have been harmed.

I don’t comment much on political issues, so I am not going to get into the Supreme Court rulings. I’ll leave that to others in the blogosphere.

UPDATE: Another story on Exodus from CBN.

Additional Reflections

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?

Alan Chambers Issues an Apology to the Gay Community

o-LISA-LING-EXODUS-INTERNATIONAL-ALAN-CHAMBERS-facebookAlan Chambers, president of Exodus International, the flagship umbrella organization with affiliated ministries around the world, has issued an apology to the gay community. You can read it here.

A couple of points stood out to me. One was Chambers’ own contributions to the pain of others when he did not share that he experienced ongoing same-sex attractions: “There were several years that I conveniently omitted my ongoing same-sex attractions.” This seems especially important, as many people assumed that if Chambers married a woman, he no longer experienced attractions towards the same sex. Many people make that assumption when people who identify as ex-gay marry heterosexually. Or, even if they don’t marry, many people will assume that is what is meant when a person uses the term “ex-gay” to describe themselves.

Chambers shares that his feelings of attraction brought him shame (“They brought me tremendous shame and I hid them in the hopes they would go away.“), which is why he tended to omit that he continued to experience his attractions.The point about shame is really important, as shame tends to lead to isolation and can lead to presenting a false impression to others. What can a person do rather than rely on denial or minimization? Chambers says, “Today, however, I accept these feelings as parts of my life that will likely always be there.” I don’t know how other react to this, but I read this as more like how Christians respond to besetting conditions (or experiences that are ongoing and unlikely to change).

Interestingly, Chambers also shares what he is not apologizing for in this letter. Specifically, Chambers references his beliefs as a Christian about sex and marriage:

I cannot apologize for my deeply held biblical beliefs about the boundaries I see in scripture surrounding sex, but I will exercise my beliefs with great care and respect for those who do not share them.  I cannot apologize for my beliefs about marriage. But I do not have any desire to fight you on your beliefs or the rights that you seek. My beliefs about these things will never again interfere with God’s command to love my neighbor as I love myself.

At the end of his apology, Chambers points toward a future that will certainly be interesting to witness in the years to come:

Moving forward, we will serve in our pluralistic culture by hosting thoughtful and safe conversations about gender and sexuality, while partnering with others to reduce fear, inspire hope, and cultivate human flourishing.

When I think about what may be interesting in the years to come is this: Is there is room in a diverse and pluralistic culture for a Christian ministry to retain its beliefs and values about sexuality and marriage while moving away from the expectation of change (at least in the form of reparative therapy)? There will still be people offended by the teachings of such a ministry, so I don’t think we are talking about diversity that is not offensive to anyone. By definition, that is not possible in a diverse and pluralistic culture.

Also, what will that kind of ministry look like? What will it hold out as its mission? It’s goals? A ministry would then have to ask: Is there an audience for that kind of ministry when many people (most?) who come to a ministry want the very change held out as normative in reparative therapy? All indications are that the message will be that of Christlikeness (or what Christian refer to as sanctification), and, I would guess, that the focus on sanctification will be independent of the question of whether attractions change. Is there an audience for that message? Let’s see.