I’ve voiced some concerns and criticisms about certain aspects of exgay ministry here recently. I’ve agreed about a lot of things with someone who has said she would never recommend exgay ministries. And I’ve expressed my lack of love for the Freud-inspired psych/healing approach which is central to how exgay groups address homosexuality. But in spite of all that, I am pro- exgay ministries. I would recommend them, generally, to those who are Christian and having a hard time dealing with their homosexual attractions.
(By the way, I should note that I’m using “exgay ministries” here to refer to Christian exgay support groups. I don’t have any experience of seeing a reparative or other exgay therapist, so I can’t comment on that. And I’m not talking about secular support groups or exgay residential programs for a similar reason.)
My recommendation would come with the disclaimer that exgay teachings are not a revealed religion. In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with being a “cafeteria ex-gay”, ordering a la carte instead of getting the meal deal, taking what works and what makes sense and leaving what doesn’t. So be an intelligent consumer. Critically evaluate what you hear. Acquaint yourself with alternative perspectives and sources of information. Beware of anyone who tells you not to. I think ex-gay ministries are a little bit like a college education in this sense–they can be a valuable experience, but you shouldn’t necessarily believe everything you’re told!
Here are some of the things that really “work” in ex-gay ministries, the reasons for which I recommend them:
Worship: Gathering together in worship with people desperately feeling their need for Jesus and His mercy and His touch, just pouring their hearts out in His presence, is an amazing thing. I’m inclined to think sometimes that you might not really know what worship can be like if you haven’t done it in a room of fiercely struggling homo-attracted folks.
Camaraderie and Understanding: Everybody knows how you feel today. Nobody pities you or is weirded out by you. They just feel for you. I’ve been open about sharing my struggles with hetero Christians since the beginning of my journey, and while I’ve had some great experiences with that, I have occasionally found that they respond either by awkwardly not knowing what to say, or by giving me a you-poor-thing look like I’m some kind of one-legged puppy. In an exgay group, you will not be able to b.s. anyone with your own self-pity. You will be able to laugh through the hard times together with people who understand. You will be able to share your prayer requests without varnishing them, and you know that the others there will know exactly how to pray for you.
Gospel: Jesus will be placed in front of you week after week. You will be reminded of the gospel and especially of grace. Easy to take for granted, but I have found it a real blessing. I have found exgay groups a more consistent reminder of the gospel than any other kind of Christian gathering, except of course for church services. My Bible study small group might delve into deep insights about the book of Ecclesiastes, but I can count on an exgay group to bring me back to the basics of Jesus, gospel, and grace every time. If you are struggling hard, this may well be a great blessing to you too.
Consistency of Encouragement: You will hear the same encouragement to press on from your brothers and sisters week in and week out. In contrast, your non-Christian friends will probably think you have lost your mind with this whole exgay business, and may even be trying to stop you or sabotage your efforts and break you down. Even your Christian friends may feel very confused about the issue, and thus somewhat ambivalent in their support of you. If they do not struggle with same-sex attraction themselves, and you are having a really hard time, they may find themselves questioning their beliefs about the sinfulness of homosexuality, out of their care and affection for you, their not wanting to see you suffer or struggle. Or some Christians might fall toward the other extreme, and be too harsh, judgmental, and discouraging. You want people who will love you unwaveringly, who will call sin by its name, and who will support you in doing battle against it. You want people who will tie you to the mast when you begin to hear those Sirens singing. I have found exgay ministries to be a wonderful place to find people who will do that.
Safety: I didn’t appreciate this as much as some others, because I didn’t really feel ashamed of my attractions or try to hide them during my exgay journey. But many folks really enjoy the safe space provided by an exgay group. In some cases, those in the group are the only people they feel they can tell. A safe space is a good thing.
Abandonment of gay identity: Okay, This is far more controversial than the others, I’m sure. But I found for myself that moving past gay identity was essential for living stably and contentedly according to my beliefs as a same-sex attracted Christian woman. So this part of the exgay teaching I found extremely helpful. I really need to say more about it, but I don’t think this post is quite the place to do it. So let me just say this: Abandoning gay identity doesn’t mean being in denial. It doesn’t mean “naming it and claiming it”, proclaiming that you’re “healed”, that you’re totally straight and happily heterosexual, while you’re still homosexually attracted. What it means is radically altering the role that the fact of your homosexual attractions plays in your thinking about your self and your life. I used to feel that my homosexual attractions were at the very core of my being, a very fundamental part of who I was, so much so that I couldn’t imagine who I would be without them, I couldn’t separate them from who I was meant to be, from my normative conception of my life. And I used to very strongly socially identify as gay, so that I saw gay people as my people, my tribe. As a result of these things, after my conversion and conviction that homosex was sin, I felt like a walking contradiction and a traitor to boot. Different people report different experiences, but I personally found it impossible to maintain a stable, contented, faithful walk with God in accordance with my beliefs without letting those identifications go to some degree. Exgay ministries helped me to begin doing that.
Transitional value: Exgay groups make for wonderful transitional community for those moving from gay to straight worlds. “Normal”, straight, conservative evangelicals weirded me out completely for years. (I’ll be honest—a lot of them still do.) So when I was in college, I would literally run from church at the end of the service to get back to company which was far more comfortable for me and far less edifying. But with an exgay group, you can have the best of both worlds—lovers of God and of holiness that you can relax with and be yourself with. At some point, of course, exgays need to move on from that and merge into deeper fellowship with the larger church body. But as a transitional place, I think exgay groups are a great thing.
Encouragement to face and work through issues: Now, granted, I think sometimes the ideology of reparative therapy can push people to imagine into existence issues that were never there in the first place. But in general, I think their idea that we need to take responsibility for our baggage and issues and deal with them appropriately is a good one. Regardless of whether or not it eventually diminishes one’s homosexual attractions. There is a related depth of honest humility in exgay groups, a willingness to admit our weakness and brokenness and woundedness and fallenness, and I am convinced that wherever that willingness is, great blessing is just around the corner. In other segments of the church and the world, I have found a tendency to pretend to others and oneself that everything is hunky-dory, that one has it all under control. I see some people living very limited spiritual lives in part because they are unwilling to know themselves, to see themselves as they are (insofar as that’s possible.) As Calvin and others have insisted, self-knowledge and God-knowledge are so intricately intertwined that you can’t have one without the other. In an exgay group, ideally, you come to see yourself as you are, and are encouraged to deal with yourself accordingly.
So, for all these reasons, I would recommend ex-gay ministries to people, despite whatever imperfections they may have.