This is the second part in a series I am writing to acknowledge mistakes I have made through the ministry of Love In Action, Exodus International, and the Ex-gay movement and the harm and discouragement that resulted.
Through the ministry of Love In Action I worked to develop an addiction, twelve step approach with the mindset that we were helping men and women to “recover” from homosexuality. With an addiction model we began to teach that homosexuality, same sex attractions, and behaviors, were addictions. I taught that homosexual attractions were a result of unhealthy and unresolved feelings from childhood wounds. Subsequently I believed that if healing could occur for those wounds, it would take the power out of the homosexual compulsions and allow someone to live free from homosexuality.
We wrongly applied therapeutic tools and structures that were designed to help people who were faced with chemical dependencies and sexual addiction and were never designed for use with homosexuality.
I have learned how an “addiction” model makes the assumption that people who are gay need recovery. This mindset can produce confusion, shame, guilt, and can perpetuate the faulty message that gay people are damaged goods and deceived. I am now aware of how this conflicts with what God is trying to say to his children about who they are in Him, loved and adored as His children.
I acknowledge that this program model was woefully misguided. This model paid little attention to what a person was truly experiencing. We as the staff held to a “we know better” reaction to their lives. I also acknowledge there was harm done and pain inflicted due to using the wrong model and wrong tools. We often had closed ears to hear the hearts of those we said we “loved.”
How Did This Come About?
In 1995 Love In Action began a new season of ministry after moving to Memphis. In the previous years we had been focused on a relational approach with Christian teaching and community based ministry model. The ministry was more of a “discipleship” program with some special teaching about the origins of homosexuality and Christian principles to learn to live obediently in Christ. As the director I was constantly evaluating the outcome of our effort. I honestly could see that there was great room for improvement since the evidence was stacked against us that not many had experienced real change from a homosexual orientation. I believe the men and women who came to us often received encouragement and in some cases changes lives and improved relationships. However we didn’t evaluate what we were doing as it related to harm done.
When we began to settle into Memphis we were introduced to another ministry that was deemed “the cream of the crop” in treatment for adolescents with chemical dependencies. Their track record was noted as one of the most successful in the country. We were invited to sit in on their ministry groups and staff meetings. So for many weeks and months, out staff rotated in and out of their groups and believed what we were seeing was solid and provided changes. But as I look back, honestly, I saw a legalistic approach and disrespectful communication from the staff to the clients.
It was very uncomfortable at times to hear the exchanges but actually most of our staff were swept into the “successful reputation” and didn’t really look at the harm being done in many cases. As I looked at the lack of success we had experienced previous to our move, I hoped to find something that might work better. They seemed so confident in their work and were very well supported.
Also around this time, Exodus ministries had begun to discuss the importance of becoming more main stream within the professional counseling realm. The ministry with the addiction model utilized trained, licensed counselors so it seemed to be just the ticket to help us move forward. I believed they would certainly know better than we did how to do this!
I was taught about dual relationships within the counseling field being harmful for recovery and counselor / client relationships. So it seemed we had been doing it all wrong and would never be recognized as a professional organization in counseling networks. Our staff and counselors had previously been very relationally connected to our clients. Within a few months I made a knee jerk decision to change virtually everything we had in place. The counseling director was shocked at our previous practices that were open, honest, and more relational. She made it very clear we were unethical and needed to change what we were doing. I was motivated by what we had been told was harmful to our clients and felt compelled to do whatever it took to do it “right.”
The Beginning of A New Model – Surely it will be better.
We decided to implement the model, the tools, the ethics and practices we learned through our time with the other program. It appeared that most of our staff was on board with what we had seen and so we worked hard to change it all around. I thought we were now coming into a whole new level of accomplishment and that we would see much better outcomes and changes in our client’s lives. I also thought we had entered into “adulthood” in ministry.
The program became more rigid, less relational and far more clinical. Just as we had hoped, it seemed we were gaining more credibility within the Christian world. We used terms they understood that were common in recovery worlds, such as “therapy”, “client” and “counseling practices.” This is where we began searching incoming clients for what we called “False Images.” These were otherwise known as “contra ban” but we found other terms that seemed to fit what we were doing. We had professional counselors as guides and teachers. Our staff worked on finishing degree programs in counseling and therapy. We had a seasoned and licensed therapeutic counselor as our “clinical director” so it all felt so legitimate and healthy. It all seemed so positive to us.
Little did I know we were using the wrong methods, wrong tools, and we had the wrong heart as we related to those in the gay community. We were arrogant, thinking we knew best how to “treat” those who came to us for understanding and hope. We felt proud that amongst Exodus International circles we had the better approach.
We had our critics as well. Many outsiders, especially family members, really disagreed with our approach. Those who were “less knowledgeable than we were” had the sensitivity that we were crushing those that came to us with rules and stringent expectations. But, we did all we could to explain the value of our program and structures. We were so confident that I think we dominated over them with our words and strength. So, many were silenced just to go along with the program because they wanted so badly for their loved ones to change, to get fixed.
A we researched other addiction programs around the country it appeared we were as good as they were. We had many of the same structures, we now had licensed counselors on staff. We didn’t charge nearly as much as they did! Our $6000 price for three months of “residential treatment” was certainly a bargain compared to other programs that were charging $20,000! So we had no problem encouraging our program and receiving the fees along with it.
All of this was based on the foundation of homosexuality being an addiction and that some of our clients were truly presenting addictive behavior. For those who weren’t, we tried to get them to see their value in being part of the accountability needed to keep the structures in place for the “real” addicts.
Affirmation of our Approach
People in the Christian community spoke highly of our approach because we seemed so confident we knew all the answers to relieving the burden of homosexuality from their churches, families, and in their own lives. After all, we were Exodus’ oldest and most established ministry!
Through this experience I began a teaching that homosexuality was a facade, an ambiguous cover up for internal issues that remained unresolved. I wrote a lengthy teaching series entitled “The Homosexual Myth.” It was based on the idea that there was no such thing as a “homosexual person” rather only actions and behaviors. I taught that each man and women was created as heterosexual but during some time in their lives they began to experience same sex attractions. All of these teachings completely minimized the reality of life experience as a gay person. It placed a grid over the life of a man or woman that completely ignored the unique experiences that most gay people have lived.
I set off a firestorm within the gay community against me, against us. They felt invalidated, unheard, and minimized. I felt arrogant about having found the truth about homosexuality. I remember many talks amongst our staff where we arrogantly believed we had the cutting edge on these issues. Well, they were invalidated, unheard, and minimized!
Again, many Christians spoke of how they understood our perspective and how much clarity it gave them to better understand their homosexual loved ones lives. We tied all of this in to another teaching on Child Development. We held heavily to a developmental origin of homosexuality and spoke often that we didn’t ascribe to a “born homosexual” theory. Of course we also gave room for the lack of scientific evidence to the contrary. The “Child Development” teachings caused a lot of confusion, guilt, unanswered questions and at times created an environment for upsetting families due to searching for the problems that caused the homosexual condition in the first place.
Evaluation and the Truth
It wasn’t until I left Love In Action that I began to evaluate this perspective. I began an effort to reconnect with former Love In Action clients and really tried to open my ears to hear their real feelings. I tried hard to understand their pain, confusion, and overall disappointment in the outcome of their program experiences.
As I listened, I often heard they felt invalidated. One man that I met with looked me right in the face, and with passions said, “John, I am NOT and addict!!!” He followed up with explaining he was never sexually active and how confused he had been in the program since we spoke so often about addiction. It just didn’t apply to his life at all. But we held to the theories that even his attractions fit our addiction model, which of course didn’t resonate with his kind and sensitive heart.
Other folks I talked with spoke of how hard it was to connect with God on an intimate level when there was so much emphasis on how “their hearts were deceitful and wicked.” We referred to that Old Testament passage in relationship to our human experience. They said it was so hard to trust themselves, their own life experience, feelings and other factors when we taught they were always going to be deceived, and wicked.
There were some who thrived in the addiction model because they were clearly struggling with addictive behaviors. These folks found deep levels of freedom from the compulsions they suffered. Of course, because it was a helpful model to deal with addiction! But the problem was confusing the issues. Were they dealing with addiction, or homosexuality as the presenting issue? When they were combined, then they saw their humanity as the problem and since their homosexual desires didn’t change, then it became a serious spiritual problem in relating to God.
Many others referred to the coldness of the environment at Love In Action. Of course, again, this was after we implemented the addiction model, because there was a time when Love In Action was a loving, connected, relational community. During those years prior to 1995 there were far less complaints on the program and less wounding.
I Felt Convicted
As I write through these realities I feel disappointed in myself. I feel convicted of my wrong ideas and their application that were so wounding for many men and women that in my heart I truly wanted to help. I feel embarrassed to admit the depth of my own deception!
An Inevitable Trap
For most of my life I have heard “gay men are such sensitive people.” Many have known people within the gay community that are caring, loving, and relationship wired. The significance of these truths plays out in why an addiction model is so wounding and harmful.
Often addiction models coincide with traditional “intervention” models. This is a strong confrontation of the presenting problem, and drawing strong boundaries that threaten separation and a loss of connection.When people have personalities that are socially, and relationally wired, traditional “intervention” models can be deeply wounding. The fears of rejection and separation are extremely painful for many, if not most gay people when they experience threats from people that they will no longer be with them if they “continue in their behavior.” The approach based on a threat almost always causes an emotional “shut down” and prevents a working atmosphere and hopes are lost all around.
When presenting someone who is gay with an intervention model it says, “you had better change your homosexuality or else you will lose me.” Oh, my, this is an impossible trap! This will never be accomplished, therefore, the relationship with people whom they love the most will be forever lost because they know that they will not likely ever see a change in their homosexuality.
And, of course, I know retract my theories that there is “no such thing as a homosexual person.” I now believe in intrinsic homosexuality that many people experience that is virtually unchangeable with the exception of a miracle.
This is only the second in this series and I am beginning to feel overwhelmed myself. Take some time to think through this and allow yourself to ponder the goodness of God in a very faulty world. I must do that myself as I evaluate all of these challenging things that I have been responsible for.