Exodus International Fragments Over Focus
When California became the first state to ban reparative therapy for minors this fall, the public scrutiny of the treatment drew attention to Exodus International, the nation's largest ex-gay ministry. But Exodus had already stopped promoting the practice, saying it was largely ineffective.
Exodus's shift on reparative therapy has been only one of several therapeutic and theological controversies that divided the ministry this year. Top leaders and dozens of affiliate ministries have defected from the 37-year-old umbrella ministry as it has attempted to reshape its mission and public image.
Board member John Warren, a 53-year-old Florida banker who publicly defended Exodus president Alan Chambers in the face of this summer's criticism, reversed course and parted ways with the Orlando, Florida, ministry in September. Warren said he became uncomfortable with the "ambiguous messaging" on sexual identity and salvation that Chambers was disseminating in both secular and Christian contexts.
Warren described Chambers's series of talk show appearances, such as September interviews with the Oprah Winfrey Network's Lisa Ling and Salem Communications' Janet Mefferd, as "death by a thousand cuts" for him.
"That messaging didn't say to me that we [Exodus] clearly believe in the gospel, and I couldn't support that," he said. "I needed to resign."
Warren wasn't alone. Days before, executive vice president Jeff Buchanan resigned after four years of service. They joined a steady stream of affiliates.
The largest of Exodus's 250-plus affiliate ministries, Kansas City, Missouri-based Desert Stream Ministries (DSM), left in April after three decades of partnership. DSM leader Andrew Comiskey said Exodus was once a support venue for a plurality of approaches toward same-sex attraction, but now is nothing more than the "mouthpiece of a particular man."
In response, Comiskey and Exodus cofounder Frank Worthen (among others) established an alternative organization called the Restored Hope Network (RHN), which gathered for its first conference in September.
"We want this to be about ministry again at a very basic level," said Comiskey. "Not about sound bites, press conferences, and drama TV."
RHN began to catalyze after Chambers disavowed reparative therapy at the annual Gay Christian Network conference last January. Chambers put more space between Exodus and the practice in a June interview with The Atlantic.
As a result, many members of the Exodus old guard felt ostracized. Oklahoma City-based First Stone Ministries and Outpost Ministries in St. Paul, Minnesota, whose relationships with Exodus both spanned five decades, followed DSM and cut ties.
While Chambers said he's grieved that so many of his long-time partners have left, he believes that sharpening Exodus's focus was long overdue. Moreover, he doesn't believe the mission of Exodus has fundamentally changed.
"We're here to pursue holiness and encourage people in the midst of trials," he said. "That is what Exodus has always been about."
In Chambers's estimation, the Exodus metamorphosis has simply meant shifting from a therapy-centric model to one focused on discipleship. The transition has earned him more than a few heated theological interactions, especially over his repeated statements that sinful behavior does not affect or interrupt one's relationship with Jesus. But it has also won him some defenders within the Christian counseling community.
"Openly rejecting change as an objective [in sexual orientation therapy] is more in keeping with the evidence," said Warren Throckmorton, a Grove City College professor and outspoken critic of reparative therapy. "I don't think it does any violence to any cardinal doctrines of [evangelical] faith."
Regent University professor Mark Yarhouse is also optimistic about Exodus's trajectory, and cautions against false dichotomies.
"There's a difference between distancing yourself from a particular model … and saying, 'We don't believe people can experience meaningful change,'" he said. "I don't hear Alan saying the latter."
Yarhouse and Wheaton College provost Stanton Jones studied almost 100 Exodus members undergoing reparative therapy. Their report, published in 2007, found that only 15 percent experienced "conversion" to heterosexuality.
Jones said he hesitantly supports Exodus's changes if the ministry is simply loosening its ties to change-focused therapy and not arriving at a "point of pessimism" about all forms of reparative treatment.
"My research supports the idea that some people do experience clinically meaningful change," he said. "And I think the anecdotes of personal change, like Alan's own life, suggest that experientially meaningful change can happen."