'Let's Do Something Different': The End of the World's Leading 'Ex-Gay' Ministry

An interview with Exodus International president Alan Chambers, who just announced that the organization will shut down.


"We're sorry."

The beginning of the end came with those two words, in a press release on Wednesday from Alan Chambers, the longtime leader of the world's most prominent "ex-gay" ministry. Since the 1970s, Exodus, in line with its conservative reading of the Bible, had taught that homosexuality was unholy and that through counseling and prayer, you could change your sexual orientation. But critics said that Exodus's core message--one of its longtime taglines was "change is possible"--and its embrace of "conversion" therapy did enormous emotional, spiritual and psychological damage, perpetuated outdated stereotypes and wholly wrong theories about the origins of homosexuality, and even led to countless suicides.

The breadth of Chambers's apology was unprecedented and startling (you can read the whole text here). For many people, though, it wasn't enough. Dan Savage, creator of the It Gets Better Project, tweeted, "Alan's work destroyed people. Sorry is nice, I guess, but it won't raise the dead." LGBT activist Daniel Gonzales added: "'Sorry' also requires you stop what you're doing that hurts people and is wrong. Exodus hasn't stopped.'"

A few hours later, on the first night of the organization's 38th annual conference, Chambers announced that Exodus would do just that: shut down and start something new. Shortly after he left the stage, he called me and we talked for 45 minutes about his journey to this place, making amends, and where he goes from here.

Where did the idea to close come from?

From the moment of my hiring, I've said that success for me would look like Exodus going out of business because the church was doing its job, whether that's helping people with a story like mine or people with a story like yours. I never thought in my lifetime that I would see this, and yet I did. About 18 months ago, we revisited this. There were four options we saw. One was to stay the same, which wasn't really an option. The second was to rebrand, which became not an option. The third was to modify Exodus, which is what we tried to do, and I think we did some good. The fourth was to shut down Exodus. For many, many months now, that's something I knew would happen. In my heart and mind, I've been clearly hearing God say it's time for this to be done. The good that could have been done is done.

When you say that, people are going hear that you think Exodus was successful, that you think it was a ministry that did good.

For some people, it was. Exodus saved my life. I was vulnerable and I had no other place to go. I didn't know what the gay community was or how to find it. Exodus was a place that rescued me. It was a safe haven for this little kid of faith who needed an option. While there is undeniable trauma that has happened for some, the fact of the matter is, for others it has not been traumatic. That will always be part of the story.

Do you get why so many people are still so angry at Exodus?

Yes. It's been traumatic for many people. It's been horrific. And it's not just Exodus. It's the church. It's a religious system that has taught us how to be contrary to the heart of Christ, to treat people who are sinners in ways that God himself wouldn't ever treat them. He sent Jesus. He loves us. He wants amazing things for us, and he wouldn't treat us in the ways that religion has taught us to treat people. I hear and understand why people are hurting and why they are in pain.

What parts of Exodus's teaching do you renounce?

What I renounce: the whole gay-to-straight process. That the goal is changing your sexual orientation, which we realized isn't something that happens. That that's what makes you acceptable to God. And that gay people couldn't ever be acceptable to God.

So what changed for you that got you to this place?

Realizing that the deepest part of the Exodus narrative is really a religious church narrative has been the biggest change. We are a church that has mostly been about waging war and battle. But I believe God has called us to be a people of peace. I've realized he can love a gay person or a lesbian person the same as anyone. For me as a Christian, those aren't boundaries or barriers, and I don't believe they are barriers for God. We felt it was absolutely necessary to close the ministry of Exodus and do what people who have been hurt are asking us to do: make amends in a way that makes a difference.

What do you say to people who have been through Exodus, who are still angry, who say that your apologies will never be enough?

All I can do is to say I'm sorry and I'm trying to do better. I realize there will be people who won't forgive. I hope in time there will be resolution for people who don't feel resolution today. I pray that people will find peace. I realize there have been people who have been hurt on their journey, and all I can say is I'm sorry and pledge to do differently.

Was there a single epiphany for you?

We'd all like those lightning-bolt experiences, but I don't know that I had one. As I've pursued my relationship with Christ and understood through my own story who God is in my life and how he loves and accepts me, it's just been a gradual process. Little by little something would change, or a word would change, or a belief or a thought. It's been over the last three years or so, since I taped my first interview with Lisa Ling. There was a controversy when I said gay people can go to heaven.

You've done tons of interviews over the years. What was it about that one?

I don't know that she asked something I hadn't been asked before or that I answered it in a way I hadn't. I've been saying controversial things here and there, but people tuned in with different ears. It became a catalyst. Once the horse was out of the gate, it wouldn't stop and I realized I didn't want it to stop.

What else has been influential to you recently? Stuff you've been reading?

A book that's made an enormous difference over the last month is The World Is Not Ours to Save, by Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, the founder of an organization called the Two Futures Project. He's a peace activist, and his goal is to end nuclear weapons. As I read what he's written, I realized it so parallels where we are in the church with the culture wars. We have armed ourselves to fight and battle people. That's not the heart of Christ.

And the Bible? What have you been reading and thinking about?

My wife and I have been reading the Book of Acts lately. Just the thought of being the church like it was in Acts, where anybody was welcome and they loved people unhindered, is tremendously encouraging.

Have you changed your theological position on homosexuality?

My belief about sexual expression remains the same. But that really matters little to anyone except for me. It only serves to govern my own life. This isn't something I'm going to make an issue or a barrier of in my relationship with anyone else.

I know I'm one of many people who has had others say to them: You can't be gay and a Christian! "Gay Christian" is an oxymoron!

When anyone has a relationship with Jesus Christ, they are Christian. They are Christ followers. They are believers. They are sons and daughters, joint heirs, irrespective of any other situation or reality, sexual or otherwise. Who is anyone to say that another person can't know Christ? That's not a biblical message.

How about on the legal level? Are you in favor of gay marriage?

I realize there will be people who will never cut me any slack because I haven't completely changed my position. I don't really know what to think, honestly, when it comes to gay marriage. But I also don't think anybody needs me to have a position. People have a right to live their lives as they see fit. If a friend or family member who is gay or lesbian invites me to be a part of their special day, I'm going to go and be a part of that because I love them. It doesn't matter if I endorse or condone something--that's not my right. I have plenty of friends who are gay and lesbian, loved ones in my family who are gay and lesbian. Their family will be my family, their friends will be my friends, and that's all that matters.

Let's talk about next steps.

In the next short period, I envision Exodus closing. Then we will begin the process of starting something brand-new that won't have anything to do with the issue of ex-gay. That organization will likely be one that promotes a dialogue, a new relationship between people who have previously not had relationship with one another. We want Christians to get together and have conversations across the great divide. It's not just the world and the church that are sometimes at odds; it's people within the church. I want a thoughtful, intelligent, Christ-centered, peaceful conversation that endears people toward the church and doesn't cause them to run away from the church. I know faithful gay and lesbian people who have amazing things to contribute. It's time for us to sit down together and have conversations for the common good, beyond what's divided us prior to this.

Given where you're coming from, there will be skeptics. They might say: Since you're still a theological conservative, how do we know it's not going to be more of the same--or a bait and switch? Who are you to help lead this conversation?

I'm someone who has risked everything. I don't know many people who risk their livelihood in the way that I've risked it. I have no guarantee we're going to have any income come next week, honestly. We've risked our reputation. We've risked everything for this thing we believe in. Who am I? I am someone who believes so much that I'm willing to put all of those things on the back burner to be in relationship with people, to not talk about things in the way we've talked about them before, to love people in a way that goes far beyond anything we've ever done before. Our desire is for people who have been like us and are like us to do something good rather than fight wars, and to endear people on the other side to come to the table, in the hopes that all of us together can reach a group of people who have been caught in the battle and lost in the war. We're willing to give up everything so that those people aren't wounded anymore.

Name some people whom you'd like to engage in conversation.

There are a lot. Rachel Held Evans, who I think has done a fabulous job of loving gay people. Any number of pastors and leaders, whether they're on one side of the discussion or another. Gay and lesbian leaders would be amazing to sit down at the table with. Bishop Gene Robinson and others who are out to promote the common good. There are dozens of people I could think of if my brain weren't fried at this moment.

I've heard that the organization might be called reducefear.org.

That's not the name. It's just the website. That's one of our goals: to reduce fear. There's a lot of fear that motivates Christians to do what they do. A lot of people have been subjected to what they've been subjected to because of Christians' fear. We've wielded power in a way that's ungodly. We don't want to have conversations based on fear or react based on fear.

So if that's not the name, what are you going to call the ministry?

Something non-religious, non-churchy, non-typical.To be honest, I'm not sure we're starting a ministry. We're starting an organization. We're Christians starting an organization. We'll see how that plays out.

What's the distinction?

I'm not saying there won't be ministry involved, but we became an institution. We don't want to do that again. We want to do something relevant for now, something that may not be around in five or 10 years. Who knows? It may not be around in five months. What we want to do is really speak into the current climate, culture and issues of our time, not as people who are authorities but as people who have as much to learn as anybody else.

What do you say to Christians who now find themselves in a more conservative place than you? What message do you have for those who hold that sexual orientation is changeable, that it's a choice?

That type of mentality is, in my opinion, indicative of us wanting to control something. Why does it matter what someone's sexual orientation is or isn't? That isn't the good news of the Gospel. So my encouragement would be to move on, and quickly.

As you try to move on, I imagine you'll have to deal with stories and stereotypes--of Exodus and of you.

There are certainly untruths that have been told on both sides, about me and about Exodus. There's good and there's bad. But it's time now to focus on something new and to do something that's relevant for the time that we're living in. When it comes to this, my encouragement would be the same as it was for the conservative side: Let's do something different. It's a new time.