Exodus International

Christine M. Robinson
Sue E. Spivey

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EXODUS INTERNATIONAL TIMELINE

1976:  EXODUS was created at the Ex-Gay Intervention Team (EXIT) Summit Conference in Anaheim, California. The event was considered the organization’s first national conference.

1979:  Two EXODUS co-founders, Michael Bussee and Gary Cooper of EXIT, announced they were in love and left the movement.

1982:  Johan van de Sluis from the Netherlands led the effort to create Exodus Europe as an independent organization (affiliated with Exodus North America).

1983:  Alan Medinger became the organization’s first executive director.

1985:  Bob Davies became the organization’s second executive director.

1988:   Australian Peter Lane, with support from EXODUS leaders, helped establish Exodus South Pacific, a coalition of ministries from Australia and New Zealand.

1995:  Organized by Vice President Patricia Allan, Exodus (North America) sponsored a summit of Exodus’s world region leaders. They formed a global leadership council in 1995 that was eventually named Exodus Global Alliance. Allan was its first executive director.

1998:  Exodus International (formerly EXODUS) participated in the “Truth in Love” ex-gay advertising campaign with major Christian Right organizations.

2001:  Alan Chambers became the third and final executive director (later retitled President) of Exodus International, North America.

2003:  Psychiatrist Robert Spitzer, who advocated in 1973 to declassify homosexuality as a mental disorder, published a study, in part based on individuals recruited through Exodus International, that concluded sexual orientation change is possible. In 2012, Spitzer apologized for and sought to retract his study, saying it was flawed.

2005:  Exodus International’s residential ministry in Memphis, Love in Action, was investigated by the authorities over its “Refuge” program for minors.

2006:  Exodus President Alan Chambers and Vice President Randy Thomas were invited by U.S. President George Bush to a White House press conference to support passage of a proposed Constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage in the United States.

2009:  Board member Don Schmierer presented at an anti-gay conference in Uganda; its Parliament considered a bill to sanction the death penalty for consensual homosexual sex shortly thereafter. Also, two ex-gay ministry networks (One by One for Presbyterians and Transforming Congregations for Methodists) joined Exodus International.

2012:  Exodus International President Alan Chambers publicly stated that sexual orientation change was not likely, which prompted some ministries to leave and form the Restored Hope Network. California passed the first law in the U.S. banning some licensed professionals from attempting to change the sexual orientation and/or gender identity of minors.

2013:  The Board of Directors of Exodus International North America voted to dissolve the organization. Most of its formerly affiliated ministries and Exodus Global Alliance continued to operate.

FOUNDER/GROUP HISTORY

EXODUS (later renamed Exodus International) [Image at right] was founded in 1976 as a non-profit, interdenominational Christian organization promoting the message of “Freedom from homosexuality through the power of Jesus Christ.” Exodus was the first ex-gay ministry network in the world. Its slogan was “Change is possible.” EXODUS was inaugurated on the last day of the Ex-Gay Intervention Team (EXIT) Summit Conference, held September 10-12, 1976, at the Melodyland Christian Center in Anaheim, California. The conference was hosted by EXIT, a ministry of Melodyland, and organized primarily by EXIT and another ministry, Love in Action. It was attended by over sixty leaders, representing twelve Christian ministries from the U.S. “EXODUS” was suggested at the conference by Robbi Kenney, one of a few women in attendance (Dennis 2019; Hartzell 2015; Worthen 2010). Kenney proposed the name because “Homosexuals finding freedom reminds me of the children of Israel leaving the bondage of Egypt and moving towards the Promised Land” (quoted in Davies 1990:50).

At the conference, a vision statement and leadership structure were instituted and the first slate of officers was elected. The original statement of intent announced: “EXODUS is an international Christian effort to reach homosexuals and lesbians. EXODUS upholds God’s standard of righteousness and holiness, which declares that homosexuality is sin, and affirms his love and redemptive power to recreate the individual. It is the goal of EXODUS International to communicate this message to the Church, to the gay community, and to society” (Davies 1990:50). According to Frank Worthen (2010), the first Board of Directors included Jim Kaspar (chair), Greg Reid (vice-chair), Michael Bussee (corresponding secretary), Robbi Kenney (recording secretary), and Worthen (treasurer). The 1976 gathering is considered the first national EXODUS conference. Exodus held an annual conference until 2013. While all of the ministries represented in 1976 are charter members of EXODUS, and each of the voting delegates officially established the organization, the individuals most involved in founding EXODUS include Michael Bussee, Gary Cooper, Ron Dennis, Ed Hurst, Barbara Johnson, Jim Kaspar, Robbi Kenney, Greg Reid, and Frank Worthen. One of the EXIT leaders coined the term “ex-gay” (Kaspar and Bussee 1979).

EXODUS’ leaders considered ex-gay ministry as the only truly Christ-like response to the issue of homosexuality, as an alternative to both the condemnation dispensed by conservative churches and the license granted by liberal churches (Dallas 1996; Kaspar and Bussee 1979; Philpott 1977). Further, leaders considered ex-gay ministry transformative and redemptive, not only for individuals seeking change, but also for the Church itself, which became increasingly polarized over homosexuality from 1976-2013. From Exodus’s standpoint, both condemnation and license profoundly “missed the mark.” EXODUS, representing both “grace” and “truth,” could minister and help restore the body of Christ as well (Chambers et al. 2006). [Image at right]

The organization’s formative years were especially tumultuous. Doctrinal differences and disagreements among Exodus leaders led some ministries to leave the coalition (Davies 1990). At the ministry level, inexperienced para-church ministry leaders and the general absence of church sponsorship, oversight, and pastoral support of ministries contributed to their demise (Davies 1990; Kaspar and Bussee 1979; Worthen 2010). Several ministry leaders (including some Exodus co-founders) had very public “sexual falls” or came out as gay (Blair 1982).

In the 1980s, EXODUS became more stable and flourished in several ways, through international expansion, national publicity (both evangelical Christian and mainstream media outlets), and ministry growth (Davies 1990; Worthen 2010). In 1983, Alan Medinger, founder of Regeneration Ministries, became Exodus’ first executive director. According to Hartzell (2015), Medinger, an accountant, literally saved the organization from collapse. He raised funds to ensure national conferences would continue and filed paperwork to resolve Exodus’s “tax issues” and reincorporation. Also, the organization implemented stricter requirements for affiliate members (Worthen 1990) and set up a Board of Reference to provide guidance for the Board of Directors (Hartzell 2015), resulting in more stability for both (Davies 1990). Since 1977, EXODUS conferences attracted ministry leaders from abroad, who sought support for developing coalitions beyond North America (Davies 1990). Johan van de Sluis from the Netherlands co-organized a conference in 1982 for ministry leaders in Europe, and formed Exodus Europe as an independent, but affiliated, organization. In 1988, Australian Peter Lane, also with support from Exodus North America, led the development of Exodus South Pacific, an independent, but affiliated, coalition of ministries in Australia and New Zealand (Lane 2020). In 1987, theologian Elizabeth Moberly (the founder of reparative therapy) was first invited to speak at the Exodus North America national conference, which profoundly impacted the movement thereafter (discussed below). Finally, the AIDS crisis had a dramatic impact on ministry growth. According to Davies (1990), churches could no longer ignore the fact that there were people “affected by homosexuality” in their congregations and sought Exodus’ assistance.

In the 1990s, Exodus North America continued to promote reparative therapy, which encouraged the integration of discredited psychoanalytic ideas of homosexuality as a gender identity disorder into ex-gay Christian ministry (and the literature written by many of the movement’s leaders). Reparative therapy provided a scientific complement to claims of sexual orientation (and gender identity) change. Although it was not universally embraced in the movement and received intense scrutiny and criticism from activists and mental health professionals (Besen 2003; Shidlo et al. 2001), reparative therapy remained prevalent in Exodus International ministries (see Robinson and Spivey 2015, 2019). In the 1990s, Exodus also more intentionally invested in global expansion (Worthen 2010), particularly in Asia (Venn-Brown 2017) and Latin America (Queiroz et al. 2013). In 1995, Exodus North America sponsored a summit of Exodus’s world region leaders, organized by Vice President Patricia Allan from Canada. These leaders formed a global leadership council to provide more coherence and collaboration among Exodus leaders around the world (Davies 1998). Allan became its first executive director. First named Exodus International (later renamed Exodus Global Alliance), it operated as an independent umbrella organization that Exodus North America and the other Exodus regions would join. After the name change to Exodus Global Alliance, Exodus North America changed its name to Exodus International (sometimes referring to itself as Exodus International North America). Finally, the 1990s represented the organization’s major foray into anti-LGBT political advocacy (Fetner 2005) and its extensive collaboration with Christian Right organizations, which intensified in the twenty-first century.

Exodus International garnered tremendous visibility in the political arena under the leadership of its last executive director (later retitled president), Alan Chambers, who was hired in 2001, and through its continuing partnership with Christian Right organizations. Exodus’s mission became “Mobilizing the body of Christ to minister grace and truth to a world impacted by homosexuality” (Exodus International 2005). In 2006, Chambers and his Vice President, Randy Thomas, were invited to a White House press conference to support President Bush’s proposed constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage (Waidzunas 2015). By 2010, the organization had developed policies opposing same-sex marriage, hate crime laws, anti-discrimination policies and other issues that affecting the civil and human rights of LGBT people in the U.S. and around the world (see Spivey and Robinson 2010). The organization also actively opposed the rights of transgender and non-binary people (See, Robinson and Spivey 2019).

Ultimately, greater visibility and political engagement garnered more intense scrutiny of and opposition to the work of Exodus International, including and beyond its political advocacy. [Image at right] Exodus’ anti-LGBT advocacy and partnerships with major Christian Right organizations is well-documented (Besen 2003; Burack 2014; Burack and Josephson 2005; Erzen 2006; Fetner 2005; Khan 1996; Spivey and Robinson 2010; Waidzunas 2015). There were other scandals and public events that severely damaged the organization during its last decade. In 2005, an investigation of Love in Action’s residential program for minors was widely covered in the media and depicted in the documentary, This is What Love in Action Looks Like. In 2007, ex-gay survivors, people who formerly participated in ex-gay programs but later accepted their non-normative sexual orientation or gender identity, held a national conference. At this conference, three former Exodus International leaders, including EXODUS co-founder Michael Bussee, apologized publicly for the harm they caused in their ministry work and in the ex-gay movement (Trounson 2007). In 2009, Exodus International Board member Don Schmierer presented at an anti-gay conference in Kampala with hate group leader Scott Lively, co-author of The Pink Swastika: Homosexuality in the Nazi Party. Shortly thereafter, Uganda’s Parliament considered a bill to sanction the death penalty for consensual homosexual sex. These and events took a major toll on the organization’s reputation, contributing to internal discord and conflict. Alan Chambers’ efforts to control the damage, scale back Exodus International’s involvement in politics, and promote a message of “grace” led to further conflict among the leadership of the organization (Chambers 2015). Former Exodus International leader Stephen Black (2017), now affiliated with the Restored Hope Network, provided a critical view of Chambers’ leadership and another insider’s view of the conflict within the organization. In 2013, Exodus International leader McKrae Game (2015) founded another ex-gay ministry coalition, the Hope for Wholeness Network, as an alternative to the Restored Hope Network. Also in 2013, the Exodus International Board of Directors (Clark Whitten (Chair), Martha Whitten, Don and Diana Schmierer, Kathy Koch, and Tony Moore) voted to dissolve the organization (Black 2017), which Alan Chambers announced publicly at the last Exodus Freedom Conference on June 20, 2013.

DOCTRINES/BELIEFS

EXODUS was the first ex-gay ministry coalition, and was founded as an interdenominational Christian organization. EXODUS inspired others to create similar ministry networks, many of which have continued to operate (See, Besen 2003; Beers 2018; Cohen 2007; Goldberg 2009; Ide 1987; Kuyper 1999; Petrey 2020). . While the ex-gay movement remains predominantly Christian (and is remarkably diverse and ecumenical), Exodus International was decidedly Protestant and evangelical (Gerber 2011; Hartzell 2015; Bjork-James 2018). To join Exodus as affiliate, members were required to agree with Exodus’s doctrinal statements and policies.

Exodus International’s doctrinal statement declared:

We believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament are the inspired Word of God, the final authority for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction for right living. We believe in one God, existing eternally in three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We believe in the deity of our Lord Jesus Christ, fully man and fully God, only begotten Son of the Father. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, and lived a sinless life. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, buried and rose physically from the dead. He ascended to the right hand of the Father and will come again in power and glory. We believe that faith alone in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord frees us from the mastery of sin, and its consequences of death and eternal damnation. He assumed the penalty of death Himself, and enables us to live out of His resurrected life unto eternity. We believe the Holy Spirit carries out this work of renewal in our lives, empowering us to grow in loving union with our Heavenly Father and to walk in obedience to His will. We believe that the Church of Jesus Christ is formed of all those who know Him as their Savior and Lord, regardless of denominational beliefs” (Exodus International 2005).

Regarding homosexuality specifically, the Exodus Board developed a policy in 1980 (Davies 1990) that explains how scripture applies to homosexuality: “Exodus upholds heterosexuality as God’s creative intent for humanity and subsequently views homosexual expression as outside God’s will. Exodus cites homosexual tendencies as one of many disorders that beset fallen humanity. Choosing to resolve these tendencies through homosexual behavior, taking on a homosexual identity, and involvement in the homosexual lifestyle is considered destructive, as it distorts God’s intent for the individual and is thus sinful. Instead, Christ offers a healing alternative to those with homosexual tendencies. Exodus upholds redemption for the homosexual person as the process whereby sin’s power is broken, [Image at right] and the individual is freed to know and experience true identity as discovered in Christ and His Church. That process entails the freedom to grow into heterosexuality” (Exodus International 2001). Whether from a religious framework (Kaspar and Bussee 1979) or a reparative framework (Moberly 1983), Exodus taught that homosexuality was not a natural or valid sexual orientation and that there was “no such thing” as a homosexual. Beyond these doctrinal statements that represent Exodus and its members, local ministries used a variety of different approaches promote “freedom from homosexuality.” Some ministries were exclusively religious, while others also incorporated therapeutic concepts from addiction and “reparative” models (see Robinson and Spivey 2019).

While Exodus’ original statement of intent unequivocally declared homosexuality a sin, its beliefs about the morality of homosexuality (and gender variance) departed from mainstream evangelical views and depended on its assessment of the role of individual choice (and therefore, culpability) in attractions (orientation), identity, and behavior (Robinson and Spivey 2007; Gerber 2011). Exodus taught that while gay or homosexual behavior and identity were sins, the existence of same-sex desire or gender variant feelings were not inherently sinful because they were not chosen. Early leaders (Kaspar and Bussee 1979) taught that the origin of homosexual feelings were unknown and irrelevant; what mattered were the choices that individuals made about their feelings, identities, and behavior. Many Exodus ministries did adopt “origin myths” to explain homosexuality and gender variance (Burack and Josephson 2005b; Robinson and Spivey 2019). Regardless, Exodus’ consensus position was that pursuing change is what mattered.

RITUALS/PRACTICES

The emblematic ritual associated with Exodus International is the first-person narrative referred to as the ex-gay testimony (occasionally called a “testimonial,” though these terms have different meanings). The ex-gay testimony is generally a dramatic salvation story, an account (spoken or written) of a person’s own experience of sin, deliverance, and healing. Ex-gay testimonies attest to the narrator’s “freedom from homosexuality” and, most importantly, proclaim and credit this transformation to the infinite power of Jesus. Most ex-gay testimonies describe 1) early life experiences that the teller believes caused or contributed to a person’s same-sex attractions and/or gender identity conflict; 2) experiences of acting on feelings and/or living as LGBT people (typically accompanied by stereotypical portrayals of LGBT “lifestyles”) followed by a crisis; 3) a profound conversion or “born again” experience (since most ex-gays already consider themselves Christians), accompanied by repentance for one’s sins and a commitment to living under the lordship of Jesus, and 4) a description how Jesus liberated them from the “bondage” of homosexuality and transformed them into a new creation (which often includes marriage and children).

Exodus (and its member ministries) encouraged individuals to craft their stories into testimonies, which were then used to evangelize and promote ex-gay ministry (when they functioned also as testimonials). Testimony and testimonial are sometimes used interchangeably; however, they are different, and, as above, the ex-gay narrative is always both. A testimony attests to the sworn truth (as in taking an oath before God) of one’s transformation. A testimonial generally refers to one’s endorsement or validation of something professed (such as the power of Jesus to bring transformation and the importance of ex-gay ministry in helping an individual). A testimony is always also a testimonial because it is used to evangelize (and often, to promote ex-gay ministry). The testimony, more than any other aspect of ex-gay ministry, marketed the message of “change” that Exodus claimed was possible, and was ever-present at Exodus conferences (national and regional), and in the extensive literature and other resources it generated, promoted, and sold. As Exodus and its ministries more intentionally sought to incorporate additional audiences of people “affected by homosexuality” or “gender confusion” into its ministry, including spouses, family members, and others, their testimonies also became prevalent in the work of the organization. Beyond Exodus International, the testimony is the quintessential ritual of all ex-gay ministry today. Several studies of Exodus and or its member ministries describe and analyze aspects of testimonies (Moon 2005; Erzen 2006; Gerber 2011, Wolkomir 2006; Robinson and Spivey 2015, 2019).

ORGANIZATION/LEADERSHIP

Exodus International remained an umbrella resource and referral organization for affiliated ex-gay ministries from 1976 until its dissolution in 2013. Its leadership and administrative structure changed significantly over time, as did its membership structure (and requirements for affiliate ministries).

The original leadership structure of EXODUS consisted of a Board of Directors (Worthen 2010), elected by ministry delegates (see the “Founders” section). The position of executive director, selected by the Board of Directors, was established in 1983. Alan Medinger, founder and director of Regeneration Ministries, served in this role from 1983-1985. Bob Davies, a former staff member of Love in Action, served from 1985-2001. Alan Chambers, who directed an Exodus ministry for youth, became executive director in 2001 and served until the organization dissolved in 2013. 

The membership, structure, and name of the organization changed significantly over time, through global expansion and the creation of new membership categories beyond ministries. From 1976 until the mid-1990s, ex-gay ministries largely constituted Exodus North America’s membership network. Ministry growth in the 1980s in the U.S., fueled by the AIDS pandemic, plateaued in the 1990s. In the 1980s, Exodus had already supported independently developing ministries from other countries (Davies 1990). By the late 1980s it began intentionally investing in efforts to plant ex-gay ministries beyond North America (Davies 1990; Worthen 2010), culminating in the creation of Exodus Global Alliance in 1995 (previously discussed). It was during this period of global expansion that EXODUS became Exodus North America, then Exodus International.

Affiliate membership in Exodus International expanded due to the influence of reparative therapy in the 1980s and 1990s, when many Exodus leaders and ministries incorporated therapeutic ideas into their literature and teachings. They were particularly influenced by British theologian Elizabeth Moberly (1983), the founder of “reparative therapy,” and, later, reparative therapist Joseph Nicolosi, who co-founded a professional guild, the National Association of Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, in 1992. These events created an opportunity for Exodus International to establish an affiliate membership status for professional counselors (including Christian counselors, pastors, and health professionals), who benefitted from Exodus’ referrals. A third affiliate membership category for churches was created in 2005 under Alan Chambers’ leadership. Chambers’ vision for Exodus International was that ex-gay ministry would become the work of the Body of Christ; that is, incorporated into the church, rather than remain predominantly the work of para-church ministries.  The Exodus Church Network was founded in 2005.

Over the years, Exodus International developed many divisions and departments, including a regional network structure within the U.S. Each Exodus region within the U.S. had a director who coordinated a regional conference (sometimes held annually, sometimes biennially). Other departments included Exodus Publications (which produced the organization’s newsletter, online content, and other media), Exodus Bookstore and Resources, Exodus Youth, Media Relations, Events and Conference Services, Ministry Advancement, Business and Public Affairs, Women’s Ministry, Church Equipping and others. Many of the directors of these departments were staffed by paid employees; some were staffed by volunteers.

ISSUES/CHALLENGES

Exodus International and its ministries faced numerous challenges and relentless criticism over nearly four decades, especially regarding its claims of “change,” numerous sexual scandals and departures of leaders, the methods used by its ministries, its anti-LGBT political advocacy and collaboration with Christian Right organizations and leaders, and its focus on youth during its later years. Exodus International faced formidable adversaries, including LGBT activists, professional health associations, religious leaders of many stripes, and many others. Former Exodus International leaders and ex-gay survivors (former clients of its member ministries) were likely the most damaging. Ultimately, however, Exodus International’s demise came from within.

From the beginning, the movement’s detractors interrogated and disparaged Exodus’ credibility and claims of sexual orientation change (Blair 1977, 1982). [Image at right] By 1998, Exodus International’s North American executive director, Bob Davies, admitted “Most people still don’t take us seriously” (Hiassen 1998). The sexual falls/scandals, removal, and departure of several leaders, as well as the continuing sexual struggles of many who remained, were used to undermine the message of “change.” Exodus International’s leaders held fast to the promise “change” as “a person, not a method,” emphasizing that the primary goal should be an identity and life in Christ and not heterosexuality. Nevertheless, the movement promoted a variety of methods to change sexual orientation, and critics assailed the methods of Exodus ministries as well (typically reparative therapy, addiction and behavior modification programs, and different forms of religious healing/deliverance). In response to the movement’s proliferation over time and the increasing publicity it received in mainstream media, several professional organizations in the U.S. adopted policy statements discouraging licensed professionals from attempting to change the sexual orientation and/or gender identity of clients. In a major report, the American Psychological Association (2009) weighed in against the efficacy and ethics of sexual orientation change.  Medical and mental health associations in the United States also issued statements against attempts to change gender identity, and in 2013, the American Psychiatric Association replaced “gender identity disorder” with “gender dysphoria” to remove the stigma attached to gender variance (APA 2013). In a major blow to Exodus International (and the ex-gay movement generally), in 2012 California passed the first law in the U.S. to ban some licensed professionals from attempting to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of minors. Since that time, several US states have passed such laws (Movement Advancement Project 2020). Despite this, and a full-fledged movement in the U.S. to ban licensed professional counselors from attempting to change the sexual orientation and/or gender identity of minors, current public policy in the U.S. and in most countries around the world does not prohibit licensed health care providers, ministries, religious counselors, or anyone else from attempting to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of adults or minors (See, ILGA World 2020).

Exodus International was severely criticized for its anti-LGBT political advocacy. EXODUS was not officially involved in political advocacy during its early years (Kaspar and Bussee 1979; Worthen 2010), although some of its ministry leaders were (see Robinson and Spivey 2019). In the 1980s, it began to establish partnerships with prominent evangelicals such as Jerry Falwell (Worthen 2010) and garner publicity and support from the evangelical press (Davies 1990). During its latter years, a new generation of adversaries, campaigns, and organizations (notably, Beyond Ex-Gay, Box Turtle Bulletin, Ex-Gay Watch, the Former Ex-Gay Leaders Alliance, Truth Wins Out, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Trevor Project) sought to hold Exodus International, and the ex-gay movement broadly, accountable. 

The legacy of EXODUS is profound but beyond the mission of this organizational profile. At its summit, Exodus International had over 400 affiliate members in seventeen countries (ILGA World 2020). Despite the closure of Exodus International, North America, the transnational movement that EXODUS created and inspired, including several international ministry networks (previously mentioned) that have been operating for decades (see also Robinson and Spivey 2019) is alive and thriving. The prolific literature generated and sold by Exodus International courses through its veins (ILGA World 2020; Robinson and Spivey 2019).

IMAGES
Image #1: Exodus International logo.
Image #2: Exodus International billboard.
Image #3. Newsweek Magazine coverage of the gay conversion issue.
Image #4: Exodus International billboard.
Image #5: Protest against Exodus International.

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Publication Date:
24 May 2020

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