Wednesday, January 11, 2012
Reflections on the GCN Panel with Alan Chambers
As some of you may be aware, five days have passed since I participated in a public conversation at the Gay Christian conference in Orlando. For those of you not aware, I was invited to be on a panel with two other former ex-gay leaders, John Smid formerly of Love in Action and Jeremy Marks, Executive Director of Courage in the U.K., the Executive Director of the Gay Christian Network, Justin Lee, and invited guest, Exodus President, Alan Chambers. If you would like to listen to the panel discussion you can access audio links here: part 1 and part 2. A video release is also promised – though it may be a few weeks before the editing from multiple cameras is complete. Warning: the entire thing is apparently two and a half hours.
There has been a fair amount of discussion since the announcement of this conversation on Friday morning at the conference and I’ve been trying to follow most of it. My custom is to give myself some time to reflect and sift through the multiple responses to this kind of event prior to offering my thoughts in public. This post is an attempt to clarify, prioritize and envision positive steps moving forward.
Justin called me some weeks prior to the conference to seek my input on the potential for a bridge building conversation with Alan. I expressed a willingness to participate in such a discussion but also expressed some reservations about it being part of the conference and in the same location as the conference given the reality that there are many GCN conference participants who have had very painful experiences with ex-gay ministries. It has always been my modus operandi to engage rather than disengage in these kinds of situations. I didn’t hear from Justin further about this possibility so I was a little surprised to hear it announced on Friday morning that I was one of the panelists. He had asked me to keep that initial conversation confidential and it is critical that I demonstrate keeping such confidence, so I had not told anyone of the potential of Alan’s participation. I do apologize to friends who felt betrayed that I did not disclose this information to them – but I felt that I needed to honour the commitment I had made and that it was not my information to disseminate.
That evening Jeremy Marks and I had dinner with some friends and neither of us had any idea what to expect. We knew by now that there were a lot of mixed feelings among both the conference participants and the broader gay Christian community who had become aware of this event. I was also aware of ex-gay survivors who were angry and upset that there seemed to be little to no advanced preparation for provision for ex-gay survivors who may have been deeply affected by the sudden announcement. Two of the friends we were having dinner with had been appointed that afternoon to facilitate a time for ex-gay survivors to share their responses prior to the event. And while the event was clearly optional, I also know a number of people who felt in conflict about whether or not to attend and had little time during a full conference schedule to process and discern the best decision about that.
These external factors combined with internal concerns to leave me feeling apprehensive about the unfolding of this event. My role with New Direction invites me to walk what is sometimes a razor thin line in the many tensions and complexities that surround the intersection of faith and sexuality. Our posture of generous spaciousness means that we acknowledge the reality of diversity of perspectives and attempt to prioritize nurturing safe and accepting environments where people can honestly and authentically wrestle to discern their own beliefs and values and make the necessary choices to live in alignment with these values. This means that we intentionally choose to not align ourselves with particular positions in order to avoid perpetuating the typical polarity, “us vs. them” mentality, and “win / lose” propositions. This is a very difficult posture to explain to people and inevitably we often find ourselves being pressured by one side or the other to make a positional statement. It also means that depending on what environment I am in, people may assume that I hold the same position they do because my posture is usually one that is positive, encouraging and gracious. This can cause challenges when my participation in given contexts are made public by audio or video and people from the other “side” feel betrayed or concerned because I seem so at home with the other “side”. The reality is, to nurture generous spaciousness does mean that I need to be comfortable with either side, it means I need to be able to identify and empathize with common ground elements of each position, and it means that I will work to establish rapport no matter what context I find myself in. In most of the speaking opportunities that I have, I am there to serve those who have invited me. I may challenge some of the unhelpful things that I observe in a given group – but my challenges will always be towards greater hospitality and humility in dealing with those with whom they disagree. I do not, however, come with an agenda to change their position on this matter per sae. Rather than being focused on “what” people believe, I am usually focused on “why they believe what they believe” and “how they believe what they believe” (ie. How do they present their beliefs, how do they interact with those who differ, and what is their posture in presenting their beliefs.). It seemed that this panel was distinct from most of the opportunities I have had to engage publicly and I wondered how I would be able to embody the core values of New Direction while at the same time addressing some key concerns about the implications of an ex-gay paradigm.
Another factor that was before me was my place in the gay Christian community. As a former ex-gay leader there were understandably barriers of skepticism and mistrust to overcome as I began to engage with individuals in this community. My first GCN conference was in 2007 when I came incognito to simply listen and observe. I didn’t want my presence to make anyone at the conference feel unsafe. I returned to the conference in 2010 and also facilitated a workshop on bridge-building. I was very nervous and very aware that there was much more for me to learn from this community than I had to offer. I was also aware that I was there as a mainly straight married mom, so I wanted to try to demonstrate an authentic humility, a willingness to relinquish straight privilege, and begin to build trust through investing in relationship and through service. Returning in 2011 felt much more comfortable. People seemed more at ease around me and some even commented that I seemed more relaxed and free to be myself. Then this year, coming to conference felt like coming home. Hugs were plentiful, teasing & humour, and reconnecting & catching up …. I felt like I belonged. But I wondered if my participation in the panel would dismantle the credibility and connection that I had been intentionally building the last number of years. What if people thought I was too supportive or even just too nice to Alan?
But that wasn’t the only tension. What if people back home reacted to the perception that I was critical of Exodus? We have long-time straight supporters of our work who don’t necessarily understand all the nuances of bridge-building, of generous spaciousness or the tensions we regularly navigate. What if we lost more donors? And it isn’t only about money. What if people feel hurt and betrayed because they cannot understand why I would be part of an experience that is attempting to hold ex-gay practices to account? As I leader, I have responsibilities on many levels, many people I care deeply about, and I would never want my public actions to be a hindrance to a brother or sister in Christ. I felt tugged in many directions quite aware that the event would be taped and made more widely available than simply the audience in attendance.
As the event commenced, I could sense Justin’s nervousness. His extemporaneous style began to ramble, it seemed, and the longer he talked the more my emotions began to hum. I kept thinking that we didn’t have that much time and felt anxious that we wouldn’t get to address the vital issues. I say all of this because after my initial introduction to my leadership journey in moving New Direction away from an ex-gay paradigm, my participation in the panel was intense and passionate, assertive and some would say confrontational. I don’t apologize for this. I think it was appropriate for the discussion that was unfolding. I entered the conversation prayerfully, asking God to simply use me in whatever way he wanted to. And so while normally, my style is not to confront or push in my regular ministry work within the Christian community, this event seemed to call for a strength of conviction and a willingness to push for a sense of accountability – both for the live audience and for the bigger picture of stewarding influence in this critical issue at the integration of faith and sexuality. At one point, Justin even joked about him being the “good cop” with the inference that I was the “bad cop”.
Part of the “bad cop” role I found myself fulfilling was some strong extemporaneous language I made use of. I have mixed feelings about this post event. In the moment, in the context we were in, this language (“shit or get off the pot” “pissing off straight Evangelical donors” etc.) captured the “feeling in the air” so-to-speak. The jarring of discarding the “nice Christian image that is all sanctified” seemed to be consistent with the rising frustration I could sense from the audience. These were “cut the crap” kind of moments. In that sense, my language choice was intentional, risk-taking and appropriate. My concern is that for those just hearing the audio, they may or may not be able to understand the context of the moment in the live setting – and it may simply seem that I was being crass to be sensational or that my crassness takes away from the legitimacy of the issues I was raising. I am reminded of Tony Campolo saying, “While you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Most of you don’t give a shit. What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night.” I don’t want my words to be discounted because my language choice creates some superficial offense that misses the big picture.
Anyway, now that it is over, what is my take? Well I have mixed feelings. I have had the opportunity to have conversation with Alan since New Direction left Exodus. In particular, he and I had a fairly extensive time to talk when we were both at the Lausanne Congress in South Africa last year. In a private, off-the-record, conversation there was more time for back and forth, clarifying where we each were at, no worries about the multi-faceted constituencies we are both responsible to. I felt like Alan did listen and did respect what I had to say and even though he was not in the same place I was, I felt like he was honestly grappling with what I raised.
I was also aware then, and reiterated in Friday’s conversation, that I understand the multiple levels of pressure that Alan is under. I know how scary and heavy the burden can feel in that place. There is no perfect way through where everyone is going to understand, be on board, and move forward with you. There is no way to avoid the fear – you have to face it and as Eleanor Roosevelt said, “We gain strength, and courage, and confidence by each experience in which we really stop to look fear in the face …. we must do that which we think we cannot.” Or another of my favourite quotes, “Don’t wait until you aren’t afraid – do it scared.” For leaders of Christian ministries, we are compelled to consider the apostle John’s words that perfect love drives out fear. There is no place for fear in love because fear has to do with punishment. Leaders do need to be discerning. They do need to understand readiness and be willing to be patient. But this is different than allowing fear of loss to get the upper hand. However, these fears are not best addressed by being confronted publicly. That is why I am uncomfortable with some people’s ascertion that this was an intervention. The intention was a conversation. And while I do not apologize for seeking to raise legitimate questions and probe for a clearer response, I am quite aware that a public panel like this is not the best forum to catalyze change. What I do hope is that Alan will honestly take some time to reflect on what was said, that he will openly allow his heart to consider the genuine response of the audience to the invitation to pray for him and his challenging role of leadership, and that this panel will, in the long run, proved to have played its part in the necessary development of a more honest, authentic, humble and generous Exodus message.
Perhaps I’ve been in these circles long enough that some cynicism has crept in – I hope not because cynicism really isn’t helpful. But I feel that Exodus cannot (or will not) change quickly enough. Maybe there are things in the internal workings that I am unaware of and things perhaps are progressing better than I think. But…. I’m not holding my breath. And the reason this is so important is because real people continue to be affected by this paradigm. While I understand the big picture pressures, I also have a sense of great urgency.
What are the priorities as I see them? I believe it is critical that Exodus focus on nurturing a climate that encourages honesty, authenticity and self-acceptance in the journey of discipleship. I believe it is critical for Exodus to really evaluate how they are honouring each individual's autonomy and creating environments in which multiple perspectives can at least be honestly explored and considered. And, I understand that this is complex. Reading some of the responses of those from within the Exodus community, I understand their dilemma. Some of them have experienced some shifts (particularly women) in their sexual attractions. It may not be a complete orientation change – but they honestly feel authentically connected to their opposite gender spouses. They feel like this is a hope they want to share with others who are same-sex attracted and committed to a sexual ethic that reserves sexual intimacy for a marriage between a man and a woman. I know people who have very life-giving and fulfilled mixed orientation marriages. Alan certainly describes himself this way – but I know quite a few others as well. I have no reason to discount or disregard or question the honesty of their stories. But there are also the people who have nearly lost their sense of self in pursuing an unattainable goal of being straight. We cannot trivialize or underestimate the pain and loss such individuals have experienced. So what can be done?
It seems to me that the honest way to approach this is to be very precise in the language that we use. Some people may wish to explore the potential they might have for bi-sexual functioning. This is simply an accurate and descriptive way to consider a realistic outcome. I do not recommend mixed orientation marriages to people – simply because of the unpredictableness of whether or not it will be a life-giving option for the particular people involved. I’ve seen positive examples and I’ve seen train-wrecks. Sometimes people with the best of intentions end up hurting others and/or getting very hurt.
The next thing to consider is what approach might actually help someone to explore this potential without the harmful experiences that we hear from current ex-gay survivors? I am not a therapist, so I will only offer some general remarks here. But that may lead to my first point: do not risk having lay people attempt to fill the role that only professional therapists should fill. Secondly, there needs to be non-negotiable honesty about realistic expectations. At best, someone may discover some bi-sexual functioning. The potential for a complete eradication of same-sex attraction is slim to none. This means that an individual must be encouraged to accept the reality that same-sex attraction is part of their experience. It is okay for them to decide how they will describe that. However, given the common usage of the word gay to simply mean ‘same-sex attracted’ as a descriptive term, it will be important for Exodus to cease perpetuating negative connotations associated with the word gay. I have found that even for people in happy mixed-orientation marriages, there is an authentic need to acknowledge the reality of their same-sex attractions, have opportunities to connect with other gay people in supportive friendship, and for some people to identify as either gay or bi-sexual. In my experience, people who prioritize their fidelity in their mixed orientation marriages are best served by being able to be fully themselves without pretense, suppression or secrecy. This doesn’t mean disregarding the stewardship necessary to maintain marital vows regarding fidelity in sexual intimacy, it simply means they are not pretending to be something they are not. This takes courage, a willingness to risk, the maturity to navigate the inevitable rejection that comes from people who insist on black and white categories and certainties, and a solidarity with an equally courageous and confident spouse. Perhaps the energies of Exodus would be better spent addressing these matters with those who are either in or are determined to pursue mixed orientation marriages.
The kind of stripping away of self that happens in many ex-gay programs is harmful. The association of emotional dependency with any emotionally intense relationship can lead to permanent disconnection in one’s emotional health and ability to deeply and meaningfully connect with another human being. The rifts that are created between gay children and their parents over perceived deficits promoted by unproven theories produce unnecessary alienation and grief. The assumption of past trauma as causative and the key to unlock the door to heterosexuality disregards research that illustrates complex combinations of predisposing rather than determinate causes. The perpetuation of a culture where fear of what others think is a pervasive thread is inconsistent with the good news of the gospel. We, as God’s people are called to fear the Lord in the sense of reverence and awe at the mystery of his reconciling love, mercy and grace toward us – but not in the sense of being so afraid of God’s judgment and wrath that you feel paralyzed in cognitive dissonance, trapped in the tension of unanswered questions. Confident, bold love of God invites us into a spacious place where wrestling with him results in a blessing.
While it is true that some people do need to work through difficult issues arising from their family of origin and others need professional help to process specific trauma, a system that only views these matters through a supposed causative link to the experience of same-sex attraction and employs people with insufficient credentials to address such matters is on a trajectory that will harm more than it will help.
Scripture calls us to strive to enter the rest of God. To perpetuate a system in which acknowledgement of persistent same-sex orientation even within the convictions of a celibate life is viewed as insufficient is to foster an environment where people can never simply rest and accept the truth that God loves them as they are. It is true that God loves us enough to not leave us where we are …. But what seems very clear is that the ongoing transformation of walking with Christ rarely, if ever, results in a 100% complete change in sexual orientation. Not only that, but for the majority of individuals, the predominant reality they experience moving forward is that they are gay – whether they accept that or not. How much healthier to simply create an environment where such self-acceptance can free someone up to get on with serving in the Kingdom of God? Continuous striving to dissociate from one’s experience of same-sex attraction smacks of the very narcissism that the ex-gay paradigm supposes it is addressing.
Some of you may be wondering just what the big deal is. Why so much argument around such a simple concept. Why the seeming reluctance on the part of ex-gay ministries to simply accept what they have already admitted – that very, very few people experience radical reorientation. Well for starters, you have influential people like Albert Mohler of the Southern Baptist Seminary proclaiming that the very experience of a same-sex orientation is sinful and a church-at-large that is content to perpetuate stereotypes and assumptions about people who honestly describe their experience of sexual identity as gay. So the climate for many Evangelical Christians is not conducive to be honest about their reality. That is why on the panel I was pleading with Alan to not allow straight Evangelicals so much power in determining how sexual minority persons ought to navigate their reality.
But the reason we all keep harping on this is because the ramifications are not only for North Americans who are, at least socially, in increasingly gay-positive environments. The perpetuation of suppression, shame, fear, self-loathing, hiding, and pretending rather than honest, authentic self-acceptance has been imported internationally with deadly results. One of my regrets of the panel is that we did not get to address the international implications of the ex-gay paradigm in rabidly anti-gay contexts. But if there was ever a wake-up call to honestly and courageously look at the consequences of refusing to accept the reality of persistently same-sex oriented individuals and their civil right to be treated with dignity and respect as a valued Image-bearing child of God, the debacles in Uganda and other African nations should be the needed slap-up-side-the-head.
As many have said, this isn’t about insisting that ex-gay ministries move from a traditional sexual ethic to one of affirming committed same-sex relationships. This is about insisting an acknowledgment of past harm and a future commitment to honest, authentic self-acceptance as the starting point to offering encouragement and support to live a life in congruence with one’s beliefs and values.
I do sincerely hope that Exodus and its ministries will have the courage to make these critical and foundational shifts in how they approach the reality of gay Christians. And I hope that I will be surprised by the how quickly God can turn a big ship.