Next Wednesday, Pray Away will have its world premiere at the Tribeca Film festival. In the film, I share my unique point-of-view of ex-gay ministry (aka conversion therapy) as the former Executive Vice President of Exodus International, as do my friends, predecessors and former colleagues: Julie Rodgers, Yvette Schneider, John Paulk, Michael Bussee, and others. I share lessons learned while at Exodus, and how this ideologically driven movement operated in the past and is still perpetuating the abuse today.
Simply put, this movie is hard-hitting, revealing, heavy, and will save countless lives. That said, even if just one person avoids conversion therapy and embraces their authentic self as an LGBTQ+ person, the entire project is worth it.
While I am a survivor of conversion therapy’s “pastoral” form known as ex-gay ministry, I am also a former upper-echelon leader in the movement where I served for over two decades. I was recruited and rose through the ranks of leadership within a local Exodus referral, Living Hope Ministries, in the ’90s and joined the staff at Exodus in 2002. I would end up as the last Executive Vice President when we closed the organization in 2013. My past in this regard is not something to be proud of, and I am not. I share this to give context to the message of this post.
I know nearly all the former and current leaders within the ex-gay movement. I promoted their resources, and helped newer members rise to leadership positions. They invited me to speak at their regional or local conferences, asked me to be on their prayer teams, deliver keynotes at events, write resources, edit books, and help with conflict resolution. When scandals arose, they turned to me to help put out fires before they leaked to the public. I was seen as a trustworthy peer and leader both within the organization and in the larger Christian world, and was celebrated by many still in the movement when I accepted the position at Exodus. Over the years, many “prophesied” or spoke “words of knowledge” that God would give me a critical role in the future of Exodus and spread the truth about homosexuality around the world.
No lie. They did. They weren’t wrong.
At the time, no one realized God installed me in ex-gay ministry leadership to advocate for and facilitate the closing of Exodus, one of the most destructive organizations in the Christian world. Nor did they realize my position would be to condemn sexual orientation and gender identity change efforts from the platform of Netflix, when Pray Away starts streaming there internationally this August.
Back then, I never saw today coming. It was a helluva day when my “calling” turned into a nightmare. It was terrifying that what I thought was good was actually the opposite. Everyone outside our echo chamber said what we were doing was destructive, dangerous, and deadly. They were right, as well.
To my former friends who declared me an apostate, an enemy: regardless of what you think of me, watch the Pray Away movie. You will recognize every person speaking against conversion therapy; they are all peers you once trusted.
You knew us. You know we are not easily swayed. Reality has a way of making sure the truth comes out. Through incredible pain, a lot of courage, and an unflinching look at reality—instead of hyper-spiritualized idealization numbing our consciences—we learned the absolute truth that sets people free: we can be the content, healthy, and thriving LGBTQ+ people God created us to be.
The truth is there is nothing broken in us that needs to be fixed, only facts to be embraced and celebrated.
In my case, I do not doubt that the Lord led me out of the closet. Quite frankly, I believe He is knocking on the doors to your heart as well, to give you the courage to embrace the proper fulness of your vibrant and beautiful self.
I think He may also be inviting you to listen to your former peers in this film. Allow yourself to remember the horror stories you have heard before, but used hyper-spirituality to excuse, or thought didn’t relate to your ministry efforts. I know you have heard or experienced many examples of communities destroyed because of disenfranchising its LGBTQ+ members. You have seen the existential damage non-affirming family members cause in the name of “healthy boundaries” or “a biblical response and spiritual maturity,” yet blame it on the one they are throwing out into the streets. You know more than a few stories of people needing suicide intervention or who successfully committed suicide because of the ideology we believed in, lived by, and promoted.
In your heart of hearts, you know ex-gay ministry can be deadly to individuals who genuinely love God, but can’t believe He loves them for who they are. It is time for you to stop perpetuating an ideology that shackles your group participants or clients with destructive fear, shame, and self-loathing.
While I know you have plenty of personal examples that would prove you should know better by now and shut down your efforts in this area, if you need honest and gut-wrenching arguments about why you should shut down your group or practice, watch Pray Away. Watch this film with clear eyes and an open heart. Don’t believe the hype that we are “darkened” and “fallen.” We are speaking the truth, and you know it.
You once loved all of us in the film. We still love you and want to help you embrace your true self. We want to empower/encourage others to walk out their journeys without organized toxic ideology and stigma blocking their every attempt at authenticity.
When my long-time friend Michael committed suicide, my blinders were violently ripped off. I couldn’t hyper-spiritualize what happened, because Michael was super brilliant, lived the golden rule, and incredibly spiritual. There was no way to deny that the ideology we shared and the movement we had been a part of together led him to believe that God was punishing him for being gay. When my blinders came off, all the pleading of LGBTQ+ persons for us to stop came flooding back. All the stories that were rare and “happened to other people” became very personal and more commonplace than I had allowed myself to acknowledge.
It wasn’t sin separating us from God; it was internalized bigotry. We learned, and then taught others, to hide in a closet built by shame and condemnation, and to do so gladly, praising Jesus for “freedom” as we bound ourselves in shackles.
Stop handing out shackles. Leave people alone and trust you do not need to tell other people how to live. Then start taking off the things that bind you and dismantle your stained glass closet.
Once you know better, you do better. When I learned that Michael had passed, this was the final straw, I knew I had to leave Exodus. But since I was already writing a report on whether or not to close Exodus, I decided to stay and advocate for closing it. My boss agreed. We presented the case to the board, and they voted unanimously to close Exodus. June 19th, 2021 (next Saturday) will be the eight-year anniversary of our closing it down.
I have heard a few of my former colleagues say I was a terrible leader back then. It’s interesting because they were supportive at the time. Regardless, again, in a way that they may not realize, they were right:
- A good leader doesn’t ignore the survivors who have the courage to give voice to the destruction, damage, and death that conversion therapy/exgay ministry caused them and loved ones. I did for far too long and it took the life of my close friend.
- A good leader doesn’t ignore science and every professional counseling and health organization condemning sexual orientation efforts as ineffective and incredibly damaging. I did and a young man overdosed on drugs trying to numb the pain of “not changing” because of the ideology I promoted on DVD’s he watched.
- A good leader would look at the pain in people’s eyes when they listen to that leader’s teachings and realize that what they are spreading is a virus of thought, stigma, not life-giving tidbits on walking out sanctification.
In this and many other ways, I was not a good leader. My first act of true leadership was to make a case for, advocate for, and help shut down Exodus. A true leader receives reality and harsh correction. A true leader stops their bad leadership and tries to protect people from the messaging they have come to learn is destructive.
If you are still trying to change others’ sexual orientation and gender identity, you are not being a good leader or honest with yourself. Please follow my example in shutting down what you know, deep down, is hurting the people you think you are serving. If not that, please accept my exhortation to watch Pray Away. Afterward, please take time to allow that mighty tug in your heart to guide you. Let Him help you find the space to stop your suffering, hidden by smiles and platitudes.
Please, I beg you to remember that you once respected my ability to analyze and move forward with the next right thing to do. The next right thing to do is to stop perpetuating the gospel according to conversion therapy. Please do not create even more suffering in our communities, families, and loved ones.
Let’s have the courage to be ourselves, together,
P.S. Many thanks to Yvette Schneider for helping me edit this post. I am so grateful for you, your leadership, and all you do Yvette.