Alan Chambers served as the president of Exodus International, the world’s largest ministry to those struggling with unwanted same-sex attraction, for more than a decade before it was announced Wednesday that the organization would be shutting down. In an interview with The Christian Post, Chambers shared how Exodus came to its end and what ministry plans he has for the future.
Before the 37-year-old ministry announced it would be closing it underwent significant changes in the last few years. Most notably, perhaps, was its decision to stop promoting reparative therapy as a way to reduce or eliminate unwanted same-sex attraction. Many people felt the therapy did more harm than good, filling those seeking help with unrealistic expectations of change.
In addition to this week’s shut-down announcement, Chambers apologized to the gay community for the pain Exodus’ teachings and practices might have caused them in a letter on the ministry’s website and on an episode of “Our America with Lisa Ling.”
The following is an edited transcript of CP’s interview with Chambers:
CP: The board voted unanimously to shut down Exodus, and the press release says that they prayerfully considered doing so over the course of a year. What topics came up in the discussions about potentially closing the ministry?
Chambers: First, I’ll start with, in 2001 when I was being hired by Exodus, the hiring committee and the board of directors asked me a final question in that process and they said, “What does success for you look like in the ministry of Exodus?” And I said, “Very quickly, success looks like Exodus going out of business because the church is doing its job.” And over the course of my 12 years in leadership at Exodus, that has been on the forefront. It has been a part of every message I have given. Our leaders have become very well aware of that as a mission. The board hired me in spite of all of that, knowing that the goal really for all of us is to promote the local church and to build the kingdom through the local church, and so that’s been our priority.
We put in place, over the course of the last eight or nine years, a thriving church association. We’ve devoted the majority of our time in my office to … building relationships with churches in hopes that they would really take up the mantle of responsibility for reaching out to people who have same-sex attraction, and also realizing that there is a tremendous need to build relationships with gay and lesbian people, with whom they often disagree. And so that’s been, really, at the forefront of all of this. And 18 months ago – we have an annual leadership conference at Exodus. We bring all of our leaders into Orlando – and so 18 months ago, January 2012, about 150 of our leaders were together. And I had been working with people who had been pioneers and mentors and leaders at Exodus and in the Christian world to really decide what to do with the ministry of Exodus.
And … I felt like we’d come to a crossroads. The culture was changing. Exodus had become a lightning rod in many senses. And most of the good that we had done or could do was being overshadowed by the negative. And so our four options were, number one, to stay the same, which really was an option I was unwilling to be a part of. The second thing was to rebrand. The third thing was to modify. And the fourth thing was to shut down. And our leaders reacted pretty strongly against the idea of shutting down. In my gut, and in the gut of some of our core leaders, we really knew, I think, that that was probably going to be the option at some point.
But we opted to modify, and I think that’s really been where a lot of people have seen our course corrections over the course of the last year or so, from some of the statements we’ve made distancing ourselves from reparative therapy and those types of things, and really trying to make up for the difficulty that it’s been to be a very large, worldwide entity that encompasses thousands and thousands of people, ministries and stories that, at the end of the day, all get labeled “Exodus.” And so we’ve tried to make some positive changes and make amends where we could. And what we’ve realized over the course of many months now is no matter what we do it will never be something that we can completely be out from underneath.
About three weeks ago I sent a letter to my board and just said this is just something that I believe has to happen. It has to happen quickly, and we need to … close the ministry. And they responded affirmatively. I sent it to my leadership and my staff and many very close friends within Exodus and outside, and they resonated with that. People I seek wise counsel from resonated with that decision as well. And so we got together this week with the intent of closing Exodus and dreaming of something brand new. And so it’s been a difficult decision but it’s the right one … Even within groups of people in the church, large groups of people in the church, who agree with us on theology or our beliefs about sexual expression rooted in Scripture, which have not changed, what they said is, … “We won’t partner with you. We won’t partner with a ministry that has so much negative attached to it.” And so we’ve had to look at that. It’s not just our typical critics, but it’s our friends who have said, “It’s time, and let’s end this and move forward.” So we did.
CP: Was there something in particular that caused you to send that letter to your board three weeks ago?
Chambers: Just really knowing that our annual board meeting was coming up, that our conference was coming up, that we had an opportunity to make a very clear statement. I knew that the interview I had done with Lisa Ling for “Our America” on the Oprah Winfrey Network was airing. I was putting out a public apology on behalf of Exodus, and it was time. It all needed to coincide with each other and to be done very, very quickly and very decidedly.
CP: You made the announcement after the 38th annual Freedom Conference had already begun. From your point of view, how has that affected the tone, or maybe even the message, of the conference?
Chambers: I think it definitely has affected the overall feeling of the event. We’re all here together, lots of people just trying to wrap their brains around it. People who have never been to an Exodus conference before realizing: We’ve waited all these years to come to this conference. We’ve dreamed about coming to this conference, or we saw this as just such a beacon of hope and now we’re closing. But for us, what we’ve also sensed is a lot of people really excited to do something new. The people who are here have stuck with us or joined us over the course of the last year. So while there is great surprise, they’re also really interested in the next Christians, the new things that are coming in the church and a new opportunity to be the church in a way that I believe God is calling us to be the church in this season.
CP: You just mentioned you issued an apology on “Our America with Lisa Ling,” and you did that in front of a group of people who felt that they had been harmed by reparative therapy. What was that experience like for you to sit in front of them and to give that apology, and also to get feedback from them as well?
Chambers: Excruciating … I mean, it was something that had to be done. I don’t know many pastors or leaders who have sat and listened to people who have been hurt. Many of them shared stories about Exodus. Many of them, people that I had never met, who went through a various ministry or worked with a counselor or people who had been hurt by the church. And I don’t know many Christians who sit down and listen to that and really own the burden of the hurt that we have caused through words we’ve used or things we’ve believed or things like that. And I think it really is time for the church to turn around and listen to the people who are screaming with fever pitch about the things that the church has done to hurt them, because there are those things, and we must own them. If we’re ever going to be credible, if we’re ever going to be taken seriously, if we’re ever going to compel people toward the good news of the Gospel we have to be willing to make amends and say we’re sorry and listen to people scream at us without screaming back.
CP: In your written apology that you posted online you said that you can’t apologize for your belief in biblical sexual boundaries, but you did say that you will “exercise my beliefs with great care and respect for those who do not share them.” So can you please describe what those biblical sexual boundaries are, and also how your approach to those who disagree with you has changed?
Chambers: My beliefs about sex and sexuality and sexual expression are that God created, His original created intent was sexual expression between one man and one woman for one lifetime in the bonds of marriage, and that is the truth I live by. That is the truth of my story. So I can’t apologize for that. I realize that’s not everyone’s belief, and in fact it feels more and more like the majority of the world, that isn’t their belief. So those things won’t change, and I can’t apologize for that.
But I do believe so many of us who hold to those scriptural beliefs … have wielded them as a sword so often. We’ve been involved in a culture war that really, literally, has claimed untold lives, and we’ve got to be more careful. God didn’t bring us to planet Earth to wage a war. When he sent Jesus, Jesus didn’t come to condemn the world. And so I think we have to really step back and realize we have waged war. We have wielded swords. We have not brought the Gospel of peace. And so often – in fact, most often – the church is known for what we’re against, the political things that we are signing on to or signing up to be against. And it’s time that the world knows what we’re for.
We’ve been in charge for much of history, as the church, in charge of all sorts of things. We’ve been the power brokers at the table, and today we’re not. And if we want to have any hope of being a part of any discussion or any conversation, we must realize that we are to serve our culture. We are to bring peace. We are to promote and live the good news of the Gospel. Then, and only then, will we have the credibility that we need to have to compel other people to Jesus Christ.
CP: I would like to clarify one other thing that’s in the apology letter as well. You said, “I cannot apologize for my beliefs about marriage, but I do not have any desire to fight you on your beliefs or the rights that you seek.” I was wondering, does that mean that you’re not opposed to allowing gay marriage? I don’t want to put words into your mouth, so what would you say you meant by that?
Chambers: I would say exactly what I said. For five years, Exodus and I and all of our leadership have been far removed from policy and politics. It was a distraction for us. It was something that caused great division with the majority of people who are a part of Exodus, and certainly within communities of people that we’re trying to build bridges with and be in relationship with. So when it comes to the issues of politics and legislation related to gay marriage and things like that, we’re out of that conversation. I don’t have a desire to fight people on that.
What I believe about marriage is how I live my life. I believe that it’s time for us to live our faith – if you want to know what I believe, watch me live my life. Live our faith and share our lives. And so that’s really what I meant by that. I have gay loved ones, I have gay friends, and they’re a part of my life. And the people who are part of their life are people who are important to me as well. And so it’s a difficult road to walk. Everybody wants you to declare a position, and I’m not willing to do that.
CP: Tell me a little bit about the new ministry that’s going to be starting. What is it called and what is the goal of the ministry?
Chambers: Really … it’s just in the dreaming and infancy stage of all of that. We don’t have a name. We do have a website that we just quickly put up that is called ReduceFear.org. It’s not going to be the name of the organization, but it is one part of a mission statement that we have come up with about what we want to do.
We believe that the majority of people, especially people within the church, react out of fear. The majority of our opinions and positions and discussions and debates and arguments are based out of fear, and what we want to do is reduce that fear. We want to help people come to the table and bring people to the table to have intelligent, thoughtful discussions that will focus on building common good.
We don’t have to build bridges with people outside the church with different opinions, there are plenty of people inside the church with different opinions. We have different political affiliations, we have different beliefs about social issues and all sorts of things, and I think it’s time for us to lay down the weapons, to end the war, and to promote peace at all costs, and to be people who are willing, more than anything, to sit down with their neighbor and have a conversation. We want to host conversations like that. We want to write extensively about that. We want to help churches be places that people who agree with their theology or their scriptural beliefs feel welcome to come, but we also want people who don’t agree with them to feel welcome to come as well. And I believe that that’s possible. I believe that’s the role of the church.
And so we’re going to give everything to do that. My wife and I have given everything to do that. We ended an organization that pays our bills, frankly, and we have no means beyond the bank account that is left at Exodus to say that we’re going to have a paycheck. But we’re going to give our lives to this, and risk everything in order to see the church become a place that we were called to be, to be a place of peace and to compel other people toward the good news of the Gospel.
CP: The press release said that the board had voted both to shut down Exodus and to establish this new, separate ministry. Does that mean that the board is going to stay the same? And are a lot of the employees going to stay the same as well?
Chambers: Three years ago at this very time we had over 20 employees. Today we have nine employees. But as of July 5, we will have three. And those three people right now are willing to be volunteers. And so our board of directors and leaders, many, many leaders who have stood with us for many years, and some who have just joined over the course of the last year due to the things we’ve been saying and doing, have decided to join and be a part of this new work that we’re doing. So at this point, our board will stay the same as a group of people who are helping to advise and work toward the building of this new organization. I do expect that there will be many new faces who join the organization and who join our board as well. So it’s definitely in the moving stage right now.
CP: Is there anything else that you would like to share about the closing of the ministry or about the new ministry that we haven’t discussed?
Chambers: Just that it’s been enormously difficult to make this decision. For me, and for so many other people, Exodus has been a dear friend. As a 19-year-old college student, Exodus saved my life. And my wife and I have given our lives and I spent my entire adult life a part of this ministry. And we’ve given our resources, we’ve given our house, we’ve given adoption money. We’ve given everything to do good and to help people, and so I don’t ever want that discounted. We’re saying goodbye to a dear friend, and though in 37 years there have been people who have been hurt — and we’re deeply sorry for that — there have been people who have been helped, and I don’t ever want that to be negated.