Posted on January 3, 2015 by Marg Herder
Wendy Gritter, Executive Director of New Direction Ministries, is the featured speaker for the weconnect Women’s Retreat at the Gay Christian Network 2015 conference. I asked Wendy to discuss her work and her book, Generous Spaciousness: Responding to Gay Christians in the Church, with me, and she kindly consented. Click here to read an introduction to Wendy and her work, and about the interview process.
My questions are in bold. Wendy’s answers are in normal type.
I enjoyed reading your book, Generous Spaciousness. I think readers might be interested in learning what you mean by the term. I know you wrote a whole book about it, but perhaps you can provide an introduction to the concept here.
The concept of generous spaciousness came from my recognition that among Christians, including LGBTQ+ Christians, there was diversity in understanding how Scripture offered guidance for a life of faithful discipleship for sexual minority persons.
This sounds like such a simple acknowledgement, but coming out of the evangelical system I came from, this was quite radical, causing not only a loss of 50% of the supporters of the ministry I serve but also causing many ministry colleagues, friends, and family members to take their distance from me.
This acknowledgement of differences in understanding the guidance offered by Scripture seemed so dangerous to them because it opened the space to suggest there might be more than one biblically faithful way to navigate a life of discipleship. And this meant that I was no longer sticking to a literalistic reading of Scripture.
Generous spaciousness meant that we would not exclude people based on their personal decision about how they would steward their sexuality. We would give people the space to wrestle with and own their own convictions, trusting their good faith efforts to discern, and entrusting one another to the leading of the Holy Spirit. This meant that rather than trying to pluck splinters out of one another’s eyes, we could get on with encouraging one another to know and follow Jesus, extending support to one another to live in alignment with our beliefs and values.
On a big picture level, I was energized by Jesus’s prayer in John 17 that his followers would be one. In this prayer, Jesus ties the unity of Christ-followers to our witness to the world. And it was clear to me that the witness of the church at this intersection of faith and sexuality was a complete mess.
Change of heart never comes through coercion. So I chose to focus on the framework that might invite Christians with different conclusions about Scriptural interpretation to find unity in their diversity through relational dialogue, building trust, finding common ground, and commitment to the core values of humility, hospitality, mutuality and justice.
You are the executive director of an organization called New Direction Ministries. Previously this was an ex-gay organization associated with Exodus International, but you changed focus a few years ago. Could you give an overview of what led New Direction to distance from the ex-gay paradigm?
When I came to New Direction I was very naïve about what I was actually getting myself into.
I had experienced a lot of trauma in my own life and had been exposed to a healing prayer paradigm in my efforts to experience movement towards wholeness. So the idea that people would be embracing this kind of paradigm to experience healing in the area of their sexuality didn’t seem harmful or problematic to me at the time.
The only sexual minority people that I knew were embracing this paradigm as an expression of their commitment to Christ. In some ways there was affinity— we were all yearning for less pain, more acceptance, and love— and we believed that being “healed” [whether from trauma or in the area of sexuality] was the only way to experience that.
Then, quite early in my time with the ministry, I approached a long-time volunteer about coming on staff. He informed me that after many Exodus conferences, years of therapy, prayer ministry, and support groups, he was as gay as he’d ever been. He was someone I respected, who clearly had a deep commitment to Christ. So it wasn’t difficult for me to understand that reorientation ought not to be our focus.
I didn’t even realize what a significant shift that was at the time. But it did open the door for me to begin asking other questions about the ex-gay system. There were many things about this system that I had also internalized in my own personal journey. So, unfortunately, it was challenging and not easy to move forward quickly.
Eventually, I realized that this system used shame and fear to motivate and set people up for a good-works based understanding of the gospel.
It isn’t easy to break out of such a system, but it was the stories of ex-gay survivors and partnered gay Christians that gave me the courage to question, deconstruct, and ultimately reject that system—for myself personally and for the ministry.
In ex-gay survivors, I experienced such deep commitment to Christ and such profound harm that years of seeking reorientation had caused that I knew this could not be consistent with God’s desires for them. And in partnered gay Christians, I saw good fruit. Jesus said that you would know a good tree by the good fruit it bears. I saw that they had a faith that was energized by trusting God’s love for them—rather than being energized by fear.
I became aware of how much my own life of discipleship had been driven by fear. Their example helped me to make crucial shifts in my own understanding of the spiritual life. And I am forever grateful.
So that hopefully describes a basic sense of what happened internally.
Externally, it was clear that an association with Exodus was the quickest way to lose the opportunity to connect with LGBTQ+ people. And the reason I came to the ministry in the first place was the sense of injustice I felt in knowing that LGBTQ+ people were being alienated from the church.
My primary desire was to nurture spaces where real conversations about faith and spirituality could be engaged. So I knew we had to break ties with Exodus. At a practical level, this wasn’t so easy because New Direction had always been part of Exodus over the previous 20 years. But eventually, I was able to share a vision that could help our board and remaining supporters understand why this was so essential.
A few years later, moving into generous spaciousness was also a big change, but I believed it was necessary to cultivate the kind of communities that I believed God was inviting us to.
What is the primary purpose of New Direction now? Could you provide a brief overview of the services your organization provides, the people you serve, and what you feel called to accomplish in the world?
There are two main areas of ministry.
The first is building community with LGBTQ+ Christians and their allies. The individuals drawn to our communities tend to come from evangelical backgrounds. The majority of the community are affirming in their theological views on same-sex marriage. A minority within our community are LGBTQ+ people who themselves are committed to celibacy based on their convictions. We want to take special care to ensure they also feel safe and respected within our community.
We now have a Director of Community, Beth Carlson-Malena who serves to pastor and lead this part of our ministry. Beth and her wife Danice started this summer, with Danice serving queer youth through New Direction.
The other main area is consultation and equipping within the Christian community. Again, we are primarily working within the evangelical context. This is the area that I am primarily responsible for.
This work is usually with communities that are in the tension of diversity or transition. They are usually within some system that is traditionally believing in terms of marriage but are encountering LGBTQ+ Christians, and this is challenging them to ask new and different questions. The question for leaders in these situations revolves around how they can pastor ALL the people in their community when there is such diversity in perspective and experience.
I try to come alongside, help leaders make sense of the tensions, find entry-points to move the conversation forward, and then resource and facilitate community dialogue.
In your book, it seemed to me that you were writing primarily for the evangelical Christian cis-gendered straight people who oppose LGBT equality. It seemed the book was designed to approach them as gently as possible and address (deconstruct?) many of the impediments they face to opening their hearts (and spiritual communities) to LGBT Christians. Did you see the book as having this target audience, and if not, whom did you envision as your audience?
You’re quite right. I had evangelical pastors primarily in mind as I wrote the book. Being a mainly straight gal, who am I to write a book for LGBTQ+ people? You have wonderful leaders and authors who have contributed excellent resources to the LGBQ+ Christian community.
I did however, worry that my LGBTQ+ friends would feel disappointed with the book and would feel that I didn’t push hard enough or advocate strongly enough for them. It is really hard to do both in the same book.
Thankfully, many of my LGBTQ+ friends have been really gracious in understanding the purpose of the book and its usefulness in the contexts it was intended for.
Your organization takes no stand on same-sex marriage. Can you explain how it is possible to be a safe and supportive provider of services for LGBT people while refusing to publicly articulate the position that LGBT people are deserving of civil equality?
We have been forthright about our support for civil marriage equality. Given that we are in the Canadian context where we have had civil marriage equality for ten years, this isn’t as significant a question as it is in the U.S. where decisions are still being made.
From a theological perspective, our position is that this is a disputable matter. To us, this means that we see Christians who are committed to Christ and to the authority of Scripture who disagree on the question of same-sex marriage.
Most compelling, to me, is that I see LGBTQ+ Christians who themselves differ on this question. And some of my traditionally believing gay Christian friends have thought deeply, have advanced degrees in theology, don’t have internalized homophobia, and are people I deeply respect.
So the position of what theologians call “disputable matters” allows us to make space for this kind of diversity.
With this approach, the idea that you have no position is a false one. You cannot be neutral in this matter. Either you affirm and make space for those who theologically affirm marriage equality or you don’t. In our communities, we do make that space. And, to be honest, it has cost us dearly.
Affirming communities tend to view us suspiciously as potential havens for injustice. Traditionally-believing communities tend to view us suspiciously as having compromised on the authority of Scripture. It is actually the LGBTQ+ Christians in our community who seem to best understand why we try to nurture the kind of community that we do.
In your presentation of “generous spaciousness” I read not only a call for conservative Christians who believe the Bible prohibits same-sex relationships to make room for and welcome LGBT people in their churches, organizations, and families, but you also call for LGBT people and their allies to allow space in their own churches, organizations, and families for Christians who believe that LGBT people are incapable of being saved (until we repent and stop our “behavior”).
On the surface this seems only fair. But upon closer inspection I see a problem. While the conservative Christian who opposes our equality has to weather being portrayed as bigoted, LGBT people have to weather being portrayed as unworthy of salvation. To me this is a very significant imbalance. It seems that perhaps you overlook it for the sake of the symmetry of your argument. One side is being called names. The other side is being called names and being told they are less deserving of salvation.
Do you think there are problems of spiritual and emotional safety that come into play when one calls for LGBT people to inclusively welcome into our communities those Christians who oppose our equality?
The generous spaciousness that we advocate views the particular question of same-sex marriage as a disputable matter and therefore one that we can disagree on and still journey together in community. Not that this is easy, but the unity of believers— for the sake of our witness in the world— compels us to seek to live together in community, loving and supporting one another.
I have spoken out critically of the Restored Hope Network for their insinuation that partnered LGBTQ+ people were never saved or have lost their salvation. I believe this is akin to Paul telling the Galatians that they should go castrate themselves rather than add anything to the free gift of grace that Christ accomplished for all of creation to be fully reconciled to God.
This matter of salvation is clearly non-negotiable in our communities. While we may differ on the secondary matter of how we ought to steward our sexuality, we do not differ on the essentials. And it is an essential to defend that salvation is fully and completely God’s gift to us and that anyone who is receptive to this gift cannot be separated from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.
In essentials— unity; in non-essentials— liberty; in all things— love.
I don’t want to minimize the reality that generous spaciousness is different than being in a fully affirming context. There is the risk that in our diversity we will hurt each other. We are very deliberate about nurturing environments where people are committed to listening respectfully to one another without trying to convince others to think exactly as they (the persons listening to them) do.
While some would see that the position of disputable matters either harbors injustice or ignores the authority of Scripture, for our community (where many are navigating tensions of diversity in their churches and families), the cultivation of generous spaciousness gives them hope to encourage and experience greater safety and space within the other Christian contexts they find themselves in.
What this practically looks like might be illustrated by a friendship between a gay celibate Christian and a married gay person where they withhold judgment on the decisions they’ve made about how each lives as a gay Christian and instead focus on how they can encourage one another to live consistently with their beliefs and values as they pursue life in Christ. It doesn’t mean people never share what they believe and why they believe it when it comes to sexuality. There are times that such conversations emerge, but they happen in the spirit of dialogue— not debate or argument or persuasion. But for the most part, energy is invested in common ground realities where we can encourage and support one another.
I can’t imagine what it feels like to have been associated with the ex-gay movement, especially now that it is pretty clearly understood to have resulted in harm to quite a few people. How does this sit with you? I know I have trouble dealing with things in my past that even indirectly resulted in someone else’s being hurt. How did you move on from that? How does it affect your feelings about your work, and about the people you interact with?
I am very grateful for the LGBTQ+ individuals who have reconnected with me after their observation that the ministry had evolved—and for their encouragement of where the ministry is now. There has been a lot of graciousness, recognizing that we were all doing the best we knew how at the time and with caring intentions.
I have had several opportunities to apologize publicly and privately. I’ve met with a good number of individuals who had been involved with New Direction long before my time, and it has been like holy ground for me when they have trusted me with their anger, their pain, and their loss, and to hear that this has helped them experience some closure and some peace.
There have been times that I have been accused of being responsible for the suicides of young LGBTQ+ people; and, of course, that is devastating and not something I want to blithely absolve myself of. There are times when the pain and grief of the past is overwhelming. But if being overwhelmed paralyzes me from continuing to work for safer and more spacious places within the Christian community, then I need to practice habits of the heart that will get me up and moving again. Such practices include knowing in the core of my being that I am the Beloved of God, that the mercy of Christ covers all of my sins and mistakes, that God loves and desires the healing of those harmed by the ex-gay movement even more than I do, and that God can be trusted to work all things together for good.
It would have been much easier to change the name of the ministry, start with a supposedly clean slate, and move forward. We intentionally chose not to do that. We felt it was important, as painful and hard as it is, to own our history and seek to be a living apology by demonstrating our repentance and efforts to work for the good of LGBTQ+ Christians in the evangelical community.
Straight people, like you, are starting to do a lot of work trying to resolve the problems between LGBT Christians and those evangelical Christians who oppose our equality. This is a very important development, because those evangelicals are much less likely to listen to LGBT Christians themselves.
While I have no doubt that you fully understand the experience of the evangelical who opposes our equality, having come through that, I am less certain of your ability to fully understand the experience of the LGBT people you serve.
I wonder if you have spent much time considering the possibility that there may be aspects of our experience you are simply not able to fully understand? And if you have considered that, what do you do to prevent misrepresentations that might emerge from the fact that you simply lack the experience of being LGBT yourself?
I am acutely aware that I do not live inside the skin of someone who navigates the world of people and relationships intrinsically differently than I do.
For the last ten years, I have developed the practice of intentionally seeking to listen to sermons, Christian songs, articles in Christian magazines and blogs, asking myself the question, “How might an LGBTQ+ person encounter this?” I think this is an important discipline for me; but no matter how much I practice it, it is always incomplete and limited.
I see a crucial part of my role as creating platforms for LGBTQ+ Christians to contribute their voice. And I’m excited for the day when I can pass the baton to an LGBTQ+ person to be the primary leader of New Direction because the church is finally ready to really listen. In the meantime, when I can, I try to bring an LGBTQ+ person to my speaking engagements so that they speak directly to the audiences.
I also view my own teaching and speaking as not so much trying to convey the experience of LGBTQ+ people, but rather to convey the framework of generous spaciousness and its core values of humility, hospitality, mutuality, and justice so that within those communities space is made for LGBTQ+ people to be a central part of the dialogue.
At the end of the day, I view my leadership and the entire concept of generous spaciousness on these matters as part of this season of transition in the church.
My desire is to work myself out of a job.
My hope is that we will come to the day that our communities are places where LGBTQ+ people can be fully themselves and fully pursue relationship with Jesus without any hindrances. I wish I knew how long this season of transition will last— but I don’t. So for now, I will serve as faithfully as I can to encourage the Christian community to embody humility, hospitality, mutuality, and justice so that ALL people have every opportunity to flourish.
Index of GCN 2015 Conference Content on Christian Feminism Today
Introduction to the #GCNConf Series
Introduction to weconnect Featured Speaker Wendy Gritter
Interview with weconnect Featured Speaker Wendy Gritter
The Wall of Love at the Gay Christian Network Conference (on the Patheos Emerging Voices blog)
An Opportunity to Practice Grace and Love (guest post by Criselda Marquez)
Trauma and the LGBTQ Christian
Our Job Starts and Stops with Loving Each Other
Together At the Table: Inclusive Communion and Intimate Conversations (guest post by Erica Lea)
The Words of the LGBTQ Christian Experience
Precious God, Forgive Them, Because They KNOW What They’re Doing
The Gay Christian Network Conference: The Kingdom of God Unfolding (guest post by Marcy Bain)