Chambers, 43, was raised by an ex-military father in a Southern Baptist home and realized he was attracted to other males at a young age. Most of his early sexual encounters with men were anonymous, which bred in him a deep self-hatred. At 19, he connected with an Exodus-affiliated ministry where he hoped to rid himself of same-sex attraction once and for all.
While the ministry did not make Chambers straight, he claims that it saved his life and many others because it provided a “safe space for many” to talk about their sexuality. At the time, there was no national network for LGBT Christians and most churches were not places of sexual transparency. But, he says, Exodus’s emphasis on “change” made it “fatally flawed.”
In 1998, Chambers married his wife, Leslie, with whom he adopted two children. In My Exodus, he recounts his inability to consummate the union for eight months, but he says their sex life is now “good.”
“While many relationships are built on sex, ours just includes sex,” Chambers says. “We love it and value it because we worked hard for it.”
As a former Exodus participant who once lived a “gay lifestyle” but was able to achieve a successful straight marriage, Chambers was the perfect candidate to lead the organization. And by 2001, Exodus needed all the help it could get.
At its peak, Exodus International had an annual operating budget of more than $1 million, had 25 employees, and served as an umbrella organization for more than 400 local ministries across 17 countries. But over the years since its founding in 1976, many of the leaders Exodus’ touted as success stories had become cautionary tales instead.
Cofounder Michael Bussee left the group in 1979 and entered a relationship with another Exodus leader, Gary Cooper. Bussee would later admit, “I never saw one of our members or other Exodus leaders or other Exodus members become heterosexual, so deep down I knew that it wasn’t true.” Throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, many former Exodus members became vocal critics of the ministry, claiming it had caused them psychological distress. And in September 2000, Exodus’s chairman John Paulk was photographed cruising for men at a gay bar in Washington, D.C. He was ousted from his position and later confessed, “I do not believe that reparative therapy changes sexual orientation; in fact, it does great harm to many people.”
The movement traditionalists believed would be their saving grace in the fight against LGBT rights was quickly becoming their Achilles’ heel.
Being chosen to lead Exodus in 2001 was like becoming the ex-gay Pope following the Catholic sex-abuse scandals. The ministry’s board knew it could not survive another public scandal, so it questioned Chambers rigorously before deciding to hire him. During the interview process, Chambers recalls a board member asking him what success would look like under his leadership. He replied, “It looks like Exodus going out of business because the church is doing its job.”