A Pastor's Perspective on Ex-Gay Ministry
Mike Riley: When [former homosexual] Frank Worthen joined our fellowship, I was working with the college group and Sunday school, so I didn't have a lot of time to think about it. Another thing, from the beginning our church was on the cutting edge of what was happening. We came out of the "Jesus movement" in part, with some of our leaders coming out of the drug scene through dramatic conversions. Others came from more traditional backgrounds, so there was an interesting blend of leadership. People coming into the church off the streets with strange and difficult problems were not unusual. So in a way, homosexuality was no big deal, because we were dealing with some really wild situations. We weren't the nice middle-class church where nothing was going on to rock the boat. We were looking for nitty-gritty action and we usually found it!
Mike Riley: I remember being called in to help with a couple of situations. The pastors had to confront two women who had become sexually involved, and try to decide whether they should leave the church. One of them was married and we had to worry about her husband trying to kill somebody. Another time, a man in the church who had a problem with boys went to another church one night and tried to seduce one of their kids. We definitely had problems to deal with, but these were isolated cases. We learned a lot about who to allow in the church and who we could deal with. Overall, the church was able to deal with the gay issue really well. There never was any resemblance of an outcry from the people--anything that would give us real concern. Now, it's second nature to us. New people in the church just have to adapt to it. Our 12 years of association with Love In Action has been a positive experience and the church has benefited greatly from the involvement.
EXODUS: How do you inform new people about Love In Action?
Mike Riley: We take the "matter of fact" approach: "This is another thing that we do." We don't treat it much different from any of the other ministries we're involved in, like "warning" them that we have an ex-gay ministry. Once a year in an evening service, we have "Love In Action Night", where the church is invited to hear testimonies and find out in more detail what the ministry is all about. Frank Worthen is also one of our pastors, so that's an ongoing witness. We have many ex-gays in the church who are in key positions, so there's a lot of indirect communication going on about what our attitude is towards those with that background.
EXODUS: What advice would you give the pastor who is thinking about starting this type of ministry?
Mike Riley: First, don't assume that every church needs to go out and start an ex-gay ministry. There are areas we haven't been called to minister in. But you need to be open to it, if God is calling you in that direction. Be open to ex-gay people who come into your church. You should have a desire in your heart to know reasonably well how to minister to their needs. Perhaps in the beginning, you'll do it alone. If you feel the burden is to include your fellowship, then you should begin to share that vision with people close to you, those you have confidence in. See if they feel a confirmation. Eventually, there should be teaching, to lay a foundation for other people. Invite an ex-gay ministry or other pastors with some experience to come and share, so that the church can question them. This takes the fear and mystery out of it. You need to go slow, at the pace your church can handle so there's no bitterness or fear that will make people want to leave.
EXODUS: What about handling the person who comes to you with the vision for ex-gay ministry?
Mike Riley: I have people all the time coming to me with visions to start a ministry. Sometimes I agree; other times, I sense this is absolutely not from the Lord. The pastor is the only one with a full view of the church. He knows the pocket groups in the church--who's going to react and just what kind of reactions you're going to have. The pastor has to really weigh all of that. It can be frustrating for the person with the vision to have his pastor want to wait and pray about it, to talk it over with other leadership and get their feedback. It may be hard to say "no" to that person, but the pastor has to be willing to deal with that. There is such a thing as homophobia and, with the AIDS epidemic, it can be threatening to people. I don't take that lightly, but I don't think we can bury our heads in the sand and ignore the problem, either. So the pastor has to be willing to die to himself in these situations--to do what he knows is right before the Lord, regardless of the flack that may come.
EXODUS: Does the pastor have to share the same burden for gays?
Mike Riley: The pastor may never get the same burden this person has, but it's important for him to know in his heart that this is good, that it's from the Lord. He may never be directly involved, but he can help the idea person expose the church to ex-gay ministry in the right way. The steps would be similar to the idea originating with him. God would have to show him the process, because every church is different.
EXODUS: What if the pastor says a definite "no"? Should the person go to another church?
Mike Riley: That's a tough question. It's important to distinguish whether the pastor is responding negatively to this type of ministry, or whether he's saying "no" to the timing or that particular individual. I hear ideas that I think are good, but I know the person asking me is not the right individual to do it. If a person has a calling from God to do this type of work, and his church is not supportive, then we have to look at the possibility of going elsewhere where they can do it. Leaving a church is a touchy thing. I have to deal with that as a pastor, and so it's with fear and trembling that I'd recommend leaving someone else's church. But I do think there are legitimate grounds for things like that happening. If someone is called to the mission field, you have to move on to accomplish that. And gay ministry is a type of mission field. The person would have to have peace in his heart about it, and have really good communication with his pastor. As much as he is able, he should seek to leave on good terms.
EXODUS: How would you describe the church's relationship to Love In Action?
Mike Riley: Love In Action is a sister ministry, in a sense. We're separate entities, but we've kind of grown up together. Love In Action has been involved for 12 of our 14 years. The impression I have is that most other ex-gay ministries are not as directly tied in with a local church, but I think there's a lot of value in it. With Frank as one of our pastors, we have free dialogue and exchange of ideas. We really respect each other's viewpoints. We act as a type of spiritual covering for the ministry, and we're a resource for them in terms of people and prayer. People from Love In Action become an integral part of the church--they're not just off in a corner, talking about homosexuality. They're brought into a broader spectrum of church life. They get involved in teaching Sunday school, drama, music and other things. They have a well-rounded experience, which I think is the best thing to happen to them.
EXODUS: How would you summarize your experience with Love In Action?
Mike Riley: I think it's one of the better things that's happened in our church. Of all the ministries, it's probably brought forth the most fruit for the church. We've receive from it really good people in terms of leadership and our music ministry. God has blessed our willingness to step out into an area that's very controversial. Because we've been willing to adhere to truth, He's honored that and given us success and good fruit from these efforts. It's added to the character of the church as a whole. I think God is going to bless a church that's willing to step out on tough issues and take a stand for the right way.
Since this interview was conducted, the ex-gay ministry Love In Action, associated with Church of the Open Door, has changed its name to "New Hope Ministries." Other pastors preparing to launch an ex-gay ministry in their church can contact Mike Riley at Church of the Open Door, 2130 Fourth Street, San Rafael, CA 94901; phone: 415-459-1980. Mike is the author of A Pastor's Perspective on Ex-Gay Ministry, a booklet available from Exodus.