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.

Evolution, Adaptations, Social Pressure, and Pruning

As we have witnessed changes at Exodus International in their approach to ministry, their view of reparative therapy, and other developments, I want to reflect a little not on Exodus as such but on how Christians and various institutions and ministries evolve in response to a rapidly changing sociocultural climate. It is important that an organization is clear about what it believes and why, so that its primary motivation is to provide clarity about its brand.

One unintended consequence of organizations revisiting their brand is related to the positive feedback they receive from others. If that becomes the focus, they can get themselves into a dilemma. They do well to keep in mind that not everyone will support changes that fall short of a ministry reflecting a completely different conclusion than the one they hold doctrinally.

To return to the example of Exodus, consider the post over at ThinkProgress titled: “Ex-Gay Group’s Rebranding Makes it No Less Dangerous or Wrong.” There has been so much pressure on Exodus and other ministries to move away from a focus on change of sexual orientation that you would think that if they made that shift it would be seen as a welcomed development. The reality is, for some people and organizations, no shift will be sufficient if it falls short of a fundamental change in formed moral evaluation of all aspects of homosexuality, including same-sex behavior.

At its core, the organization clearly still believes that homosexuality is the cause of a person’s struggles, not the anti-gay society in which they live. Regardless of how these therapists attempt to treat homosexuality, they are still causing harm by trying to treat it at all — in complete violation of all social science research and ethics. As Truth Wins Out’s Wayne Besen notes in the AP article, “The underlying belief is still that homosexuals are sexually broken, that something underlying is broken and needs to be fixed. That’s incredibly harmful, it scars people.”

I haven’t really said much about the developments at Exodus. Generally speaking, however, I see a focus on identity, behavior, and spiritual maturity as a more constructive framework than a narrow focus on orientation, in part because that focus can become the measure of self-worth and spiritual maturity, which is a mistake in my view. That said, if a group makes changes in anticipation that others will cease to criticize them, they will be in for a rude awakening. (I’m not saying that is what happened with Exodus; I am saying that as a principle for Christians and ministries to consider.)

As Christians (and Christian institutions and ministries) take in new information, new data, respond to shifts in culture, and consider how they want to position themselves in relation to the topic and the people who are represented by that subject matter, they will benefit from making changes that truly reflect who they are, what their brand is. At the same time, keep in mind that the new brand–as accurate as it may be–will  still be utterly rejected  by some.

The question will arise: Can you hold convictions independent of the approval of others?

On the upside, these pressures help provide clarity about what people (and institutions/organizations/ministries) believe and why. It can be seen as a kind of pruning back the extra things that a person does not really see as critical, with the idea that what remains is essential.

APA Task Force Report – Chapter 4 (Outcomes)

460The next chapter (Chapter 4) dealt with the outcomes from the studies that met the criteria for review set forth by the Task Force. They believed that the change efforts had several goals, and this chapter is organized around a discussion of the findings in each of the following areas:

  • Decreased interest in, sexual attraction to, and sexual behavior with same-sex sexual partners
  • Increased interest in, sexual attraction to, and sexual behavior with other-sex sexual partners
  • Increased healthy relationships and marriages with other-sex partners
  • Improved quality of life and mental health (p. 35)

The Task Force addressed much of the existing data on SOCE and organized the review in a way that I think is accessible to the reader. I thought that the critique of the Exodus study (or Ex-Gays? study by myself and Stan Jones) in a later footnote was particularly unusual, reflecting disproportionate methodological criticisms that may reflect to the reader a bias. The approach to this study was apparently due to a number of considerations, e.g., that the report did not appear in a peer-reviewed journal. However, the task force cited other studies that were presented in book format throughout their report (e.g., Kinsey studies, Laumann et al. study, which had spin off reports while the core of the material was presented in book format) and did not exclude them from consideration as valuable for informing the report. Also, the way the footnote was written appeared to throw the book at the study without really explaining the criticisms (as I mentioned in my previous post – without acknowledging ways in which it was an improvement in design to previous studies). This was particularly surprising given the attempt throughout much of the rest of the report to be evenhanded in responding to the literature in this controversial area.

I think that worldview commitments and assumptions impact how all of us reach and frame conclusions on this literature. The report used words like “limits claims for the efficacy and safety” (p. 42), which I think is accurate; but it also uses words like “very small minority” regarding “enduring change” and “rare” to describe “decreased same-sex sexual behavior and increased attraction to and engagement in sexual behavior with the other sex…” (p. 43). Again, regarding the older studies, they were conducted in ways that are comparable to how other studies were conducted at that time, and so we would not expect them to meet present-day standards for evaluation. The lack of methodological rigor does not disprove success but would rather suggest the need for better studies for those who are interested in continuing to offer such interventions.

The report concludes that “non-aversive and recent approaches to SOCE have not been rigorously evaluated” (p. 43). Again, I agree with this, but I think some studies (e.g., Jones & Yarhouse, 2007) have challenged the claim sexual orientation is immutable as modest gains through involvement in religious ministries (clinical meaningful and statistically significant changes to attractions, behavior, and identity over time, as noted above) were documented over time.

The Exodus Study & The APA Report


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.

Reflections on the APA Session

The APA presentation on the Exodus study went well. The session itself was respectful and professional. I would say about 40-45 people were there, which was in some ways remarkable given the early hour (8am start time [!] on the last day of the conference). It was a 2 hour symposium. There were a number of folks from both “sides” of the issue (although it may not be helpful to frame the topic in terms of “sides” – I would like to think that what we all hold in common is a desire to provide the best options for those requesting help – too often, however, we seem to be talking past one another).

The chair of the symposium, Dr. Dean Byrd, opened the session with an overview statement and then introduced each of the presenters and the discussant. My co-author (Dr. Stanton Jones) and I presented our paper, which was 6 to 7 year follow-up data on attempted change of sexual orientation through involvement in Exodus affiliated ministries. Then Dr. Nicholas Cummings, past president of APA, presented his paper. (He was actually ill and asked a colleague to give his paper for him.) The Cummings paper covered a lot of ground, including concerns about APA governance, political correctness, and other topics, some of which are covered in his edited book Psychology’s War on Religion. So those were the two actual papers in the symposium. The discussant was Dr. Frank Farley, who is also a past president of APA. He reiterated some of the concerns raised by Dr. Cummings, although he was more restrained. Dr. Farley also raised concerns he had about the misuse of the ethics code within the APA, which was interesting. He also offered his thoughts on our study. He seemed to appreciate the challenges in conducting such a study (politically or ideologically), but he offered some suggestions that might be quite difficult to do in a similar project. Dr. Byrd then distributed packets with the two papers included.

We then took questions from the audience. Dr. Jones was able to respond to one question on how the recent APA Task Force report dealt with our previous report on attempted change. I thought he offered important counterpoints to that specific review. Other questions dealt with a range of topics, such as methodological considerations (e.g., what about the use of a control group), but each of these exchanges was appropriate and professional. It was a good session from that standpoint.

I think everyone will need time to digest both the APA Task Force report and findings from this study, as well as other relevant resources. It is important to think about what is appropriate to make available to those interested in either professional or paraprofessional or ministry services, as well as how to communicate what can be expected from what is available. It is also important to reflect on how all of what is offered is understood within a broader framework of professional care based on an ever-changing understanding of what we know (and what we do not know) from the current research.