New Direction Ministries began in 1985 and started out as an ex-gay ministry.
For some of you, that’s enough to make you stop reading….. but we hope you’ll hang in there as we share the evolving story of New Direction taking a new direction.
The current Executive Director, Wendy Gritter, came to the ministry in 2002. In her words, she was “naive but willing.” As a mainly straight, recent seminary grad, married to a man with three small children, she had only a cursory awareness of ex-gay ministry and its umbrella organization Exodus. She primarily took the job because she felt that gay (bisexual and transgender weren’t fully on her radar back then) people had been wrongly excluded from the life of the church. And while she thought she would stay a few years and then go and pastor a church – it seems that God had other ideas.
One of the first things that happened is that a long-time volunteer was invited to consider coming on staff. He made it very clear that despite many years of therapy, nine Exodus conferences on three different continents, and years of both attending and leading support groups, his sexual orientation to men had not changed. This individual became an influential team member who helped dismantle the ministry’s former emphasis on reorientation. What became increasingly clear was that for many people who pursued the hope of reorientation, they not only didn’t experience change but they experienced deep harm in the process of trying. The power of the ex-gay survivor story became much more accessible through online connections, and it became clear that distancing ourselves from reorientation wasn’t enough.
After spending three years trying to work for change within the system of Exodus, the New Direction team chose to break ties with Exodus in early 2008. When this became public news, New Direction lost about half of its financial supporters who expected the ministry to be aligned with the political priorities of Exodus. This was a challenging season. (Note: Exodus closed its doors five years later, in June 2013, after a public apology for the harm caused by its focus on change.)
In the Spring quarter of 2010, the New Direction board concluded a season of conversation with key stakeholders. The outcome of this time of reflection on our identity and purpose was an affirmation of our developing posture of generous spaciousness. Most of the stakeholders agreed that cultivating places where true dialogue and conversation could happen despite disagreements about sexuality was critical for the church. They also predicted, however, that it would be very difficult for churches to risk joining us in trying to cultivate such spaces, and that we would lose more support, which is exactly what happened initially.
In 2012, we saw the beginning of people gathering together to practice generous spaciousness. Most of the participants identified as LGBTQ+ but also represented different theological perspectives and held different convictions. What became clear from the very beginning is that generous space communities would be places of love, acceptance, and mutual support. People were craving spaces where they could unapologetically be both Christian and LGBTQ+.
Early in 2013 we held our first Generous Spaciousness Retreat and were utterly amazed at what we experienced. God showed up in so many beautiful and healing ways. People who had been hurt by New Direction in the early years experienced love and reconciliation. People who’d been so full of self-hatred experienced being the Beloved. People who’d felt exiled from the church rediscovered belonging in a vibrant worshiping community. With the conviction of generous spaciousness challenging us to invest in unity despite our differences, we realized how much opportunity this offered to grow in the fruits of the Spirit. We listened, we shared, we cried, and we supported each other. And we celebrated that Jesus was in our midst.
In 2014, the generous space communities had grown so much that we hired a Director of Community, Beth Carlson-Malena. In just one year we have seen our connection and community with LGBTQ+ folks flourish through Beth’s leadership. Also in 2014, we hired Danice Carlson-Malena to be our Coordinator of Youth Services, recognizing that it can still be a lonely and scary experience to come out as a young LGBTQ+ person in many church communities. We also lament that devastating statistics that 40% of homeless and street-involved youth identify as LGBTQ+ and have substantially higher prevalence of suicide and other high risk behaviours.
Today, while Beth pastors our generous space communities and Danice pastors youth and connects with youth workers, Wendy continues to consult extensively throughout North America in churches and Christian organizations to encourage communities to cultivate generous spaciousness.
New Direction has indeed taken a new direction.
What’s in a name?
For some, particularly in the city of Toronto, the name New Direction is a trigger. It still carries a connotation of “pray away the gay” and all the misery that accompanied that paradigm for LGBTQ+ people. So WHY some people wonder, do we still have it as the name of the ministry?
In many ways it would seem to be SO much easier to just change the name and start with a clean slate focused on what the ministry embodies today. But ….. these are the reasons that we don’t:
- Christian ministry with sexual and gender minority persons has often been perceived to be deceptive and duplicitous. Changing our name could be seen as just another attempt to sweep things under the rug and pretend that our history doesn’t exist. As hard as it is, we believe it is important to own our history as honestly as we can.
- Christians talk a lot about repentance but can be perceived as being unwilling to repent themselves. We want to try to be a living demonstration of repentance – that is “changing our mind” – which is what repentance means in the original Greek. We have repented of ideas, assumptions, exaggerations, and misinformation that led to harmful expectations, practices, and beliefs. We recognize that these things hurt LGBTQ+ people profoundly and caused great estrangement and pain in churches and extended families – and that is why we have changed our emphasis and practices.
- As much as we are able, we want to be available to anyone who experienced hurt from past practices of New Direction to hear them out, to grieve with them, to acknowledge and apologize – and while we understand that we cannot change the past, if we can participate in some level of healing or closure we are humbly grateful to do so. We have prepared a letter for ex-gay survivors that you can read here.
- In light of these things, by keeping the name New Direction we hope to be a living apology willing to do what we can to make amends for the past.