In contrast to the dogmatic clarity expressed by its lovers and haters, our story casts Exodus International as neither deliverer nor devil. As participants, former leaders, and observers of Exodus, we have a complex response to the organization's demise, founded in 1976 to support those who wanted freedom from unwanted same sex attraction due to their spiritual convictions.
Its expiration feels like the sudden death of a loved one with whom we've had a complicated history. Is there relief? Yes… but also consternation and wistfulness. Along with our mixed feelings, we suspect that Alan Chambers is now taking the rap for what the Christian church has been avoiding for decades.
From our vantage point, Exodus' failure starts with mistakes in leadership development and supervision, a point missing from Chambers's thorough apology. I (Christopher) witnessed first hand how leaders were often released too soon to become poster-boys and girls for something they hadn't fully experienced.
I helped to found an Exodus ministry in the mid-1980s when both the culture and the church largely neglected the gay community. I resigned only two years later when I realized I hadn't yet experienced the relational wholeness that I both longed for and promised to others. A co-leader simultaneously initiated a sexual relationship with one who had come to us for help. It was textbook bad leadership.
The promotion of immature, earnest leaders—who weren't held accountable for failing to embody what they preached—left a wake of destruction. Exodus didn't invent such duplicity; it simply followed the model of what happens every day in the church, in the boardroom, and in the hallways of power. This is not to indict all Exodus leaders as immature or underdeveloped, which we know is not the case; nor is it our intention to exonerate the ministry for this serious error.
Moreover, Exodus chose to focus solely on homosexuality, and as a result, they lacked meaningful engagement with the diverse Body of Christ. This mono-focus may have reinforced the message that their brokenness was somehow more egregious because participants failed to hear how similar their struggles were to other non-same sex attraction (SSA) members of the church. Furthermore, excessive moral pressure was placed on those with SSA to attain measurable outcomes of healing (i.e. marriage), none of which were expected for non-SSA Christians.
Actual sexual sobriety is not a priority in most Christian churches, and yet they demand it of any member of the LGBT community almost as soon as they shake hands with the greeters. Most evangelical churches are, and always have been, quick to judge LGBT folks even as they wink-wink at their heterosexual congregants and leaders for viewing sexually charged media or the occasional hookup. According to , God considers such double-standards an abomination.
It is noteworthy to us that Chambers did not accuse the church as mutually culpable for the demise of his ministry, though he clearly could have. The men and women who looked to Exodus International and other such organizations for help did so because much of the church refused to talk openly about sexuality and gender or offer genuine support to those who were conflicted about it.
For this reason, it seems malicious how both the churched and unchurched have ganged up on Exodus and other similar ministries in recent years. In our experience, Exodus has been filled with vulnerable, well-meaning men and women who took up an impossible task without adequate support and were then shamed by their own kin for failing. Despised and rejected by both the church and the gay community, it's no wonder Exodus succumbed to this auto-immune attack.
The organization also perpetuated a faulty theology of suffering, one that's become endemic to the majority of American Christians. During the televised Lisa Ling focus group, individuals emotionally recalled their repeated and earnest prayers for God to "take away their SSA." When God failed to come through, these men and women were left with a few possible scenarios, common to all people of faith who experience a disconnect between what their religion teaches and the reality they experience:
- To decide that this God was not worth following and the promises were all lies in the first place.
- To continue to white-knuckle it, making an uneasy truce with despair and loneliness.
- To go ahead and pursue the powerful impulses and figure out later–or not–how to make sense of the seeming paradox.
Rarely does any organization, Christian or otherwise, offer another option: that of accompanied suffering. To be transformed into the image of Christ, we must suffer as Christ did, a suffering too great for any individual to bear alone. The suffering of the woman with unshakeable lesbian longings who decides to live a chaste life is no less intense or noble than that of the single, middle age, heterosexual woman who longs for a husband and children. Nor is it any less real for those of us who have prayed repeatedly for God to take away cancer or some other pernicious disease, even as we watch our bodies betray us.
Such suffering does not necessarily signal our failure or God's abandonment. Instead, it invites us into God's presence for the purpose of refining and changing us. Though we may desperately want God to change our circumstances, he may want to use our circumstances to change us. We can no more pray away the gay than we can pray away the cross, though much of American theology in praxis aims to do just that. Jesus' open arms are hyperextended to all because nails held them in place, not because he is such a nice guy.
During the two years after I (Christopher) resigned from ministry as a broken 25-five-year old, I met this Jesus anew and realized some things about myself; I was free to make a choice, and I really didn't want what being gay offered me. This was not even an option before encountering the testimonies of Exodus founder Frank Worthen and Desert Stream founder Andy Comiskey.
I slowly began to experience the sobriety in thought and flesh I had been teaching others about. In the desert, I discovered my love for Dorothy and my desire to share my life, and body, with her—not because my mother wanted me to, not to please my pastor, not to fit in, and not because I was afraid I'd go to hell if I didn't. After I relinquished control over my future and stopped trying to change, my desires did change. And there's been no shadow of turning during our 22-year marriage.
Though we realize that our story is not a prescriptive for all who have struggled with unwanted SSA, it is our story and—contrary to the very vocal naysayers—we are neither liars nor outliers. The voices of those who were wounded by Exodus International currently dominate the media. Their stories and their pain are legitimate and should not be dismissed. However, make no mistake, we believe there are equal numbers of us who have experienced unmistakeable transformation through the love and power of the resurrected Jesus revealed through Exodus and other such organizations.
Because of this, there is no room for a gleeful "I told you so" in our eulogy. Exodus was conceived in faith with the desire to help a then marginalized group of people find their way into those open–yet fiercely holy–arms of Christ. The death of Exodus does not solve any of the incredibly confusing and polemic issues surrounding the LGBT community and the church, but it may force the church to finally reckon with what she has too long avoided.
Christopher and Dorothy Greco have walked with men and women seeking reconciliation and wellness in their relationships, gender, sexuality, and ethnicity for the past 20 years. More words and images from Dorothy can be found at www.dorothygreco.com.