LGBTQ and Leaving Young Life
Updated: Jun 23, 2019
A year ago, when I left Young Life Staff, I was tired, hurt and disappointed. I was so emotionally exhausted, I honestly wanted to fade away from that world, to forget it , and move on. But it is all easier said than done. During my last couple of years on staff I felt like an outsider in many ways, and now I was an outsider. Since leaving, this last year has been great and at times so difficult. I want so much to feel like an outsider and not really care about what is going on in Young Life, but like it or not, our lives our bound together in so many ways. I struggle with the tension of what to say and what not to say, am often reminded how much truth, honesty and clarity matter.
10 months ago, on the same day I received my award for 15 years of service on Young Life Staff, I also resigned from my career. 15 years, plus 3 years of involvement as a high school kid, and 5 years as a volunteer. That’s 23 years altogether. People leave jobs all the time, for a variety of reasons and Young Life is no different.
So why do I feel that my departure different, unique or worth sharing?
Because it is.
Before I delve further, I want to address where I am coming from as well as some my ethos and personal philosophies. One of my core values is being “non-oppositional”. I want my life, my focus, my words etc… to be about what I am for, and not what I am against. I want to build, grow and develop. I avoid seeking out to tear down, burn down or destroy. Although I do believe in resurrection, restoration and redemption and I do believe that these things can often only come as a result of death, and the tearing and burning down of things that need to be dismantled. I am not afraid of conflict, but I do not seek conflict out for the sake of conflict. I choose my conversations and battles carefully. What I am about to share will be interpreted and taken in different ways depending on the position and vantage point of the reader (if anyone even reads this). So that part is up to you.
I left. When there were so many reasons to stay. Friendships, relationships, a career that I had flourished in, and the list goes on.
I left because I had to leave. Why?
Because something very unexpected happened. After being involved for 23 years, working full time for 15 years, and being privilege to lead and manage a Young Life Camp, I arrived at a place where I felt that I didn’t belong anymore. As a result of the person I had become, I didn’t recognize Young Life anymore. I felt that I no longer belonged in the place that had been my home for decades. When I say my home, only people who have spent time in and with Young Life know what I am talking about. It isn’t just a job, it’s a lifestyle, a community, a family. It’s all consuming, in a good way. It’s a lifestyle that people dive head first into because of the amazing attractive aspects of getting to live life in this community.
How does one get here? How does someone get to the place where they don’t belong in a place that has been their home for such a long time? I don’t quite know. What I mean is, I do, but it is hard to explain. It's so difficult, that over the last year as I have tried to process my thoughts and feelings in my head, verbally and on paper, I have been forced to stop. I simply have not had the energy to tell my story. I have been so emotionally exhausted that the thought of embarking on this task has left me physically exhausted. I mean that literally. The trauma of the last year or two of my professional life has left me in a place where I can physically feel the energy leave my body when I begin the daunting but necessary journey of processing through and telling my story.
Now, before I move on. I have to state something that is significant in this story.
I am not the victim. (I am a victim of sorts, a victim of the dogma and the controlling forces of organized religion that has held so many of us hostage for millenniums, but for the purposes of this story, I am not the victim.)
I left by choice. In the end I didn’t really feel like I had a choice, because my choices were to stay and continue to lie to myself and live in a state of in-congruence with the organization I worked for, or to be true to myself and leave. Not much of a choice, right? But it was a choice. A choice that not everyone is as fortunate to have.
6 years ago, I was given the opportunity to take over the leadership of Lost Canyon, a Young Life Camp outside of Flagstaff Arizona. I had spent the previous 7 years there, working my way up through the ranks and I had now been offered the opportunity to be the Camp Manager. I was honored, excited and humbled. With this new leadership came much new responsibility, and with that responsibility I began to take stock of who I was and who I was going to be as a leader and manager. As a part of that process I made some promises to myself. I knew what was expected of me as a leader in the mission of Young Life. Most of these expectations sat well with me, but there was one that did not. As I ruminated on one of these expectations, I knew it would come back to haunt me at some point during my career, but for a list of less that justifiable reasons I decide to continue on in my career with this one promise to myself tucked in my back pocket.
What was that promise?
It was this; I vowed that I would never ask someone to leave Young Life staff because of their sexual orientation.
It was a situation that I knew would happen at some point in my career. You know where this is going, and I know what many people think. “Jon, you put yourself in this situation. You chose to stay and be involved and employed. You invited this upon yourself. If you felt that way you should have left, or declined the position.”
You’re probably right. In fact you are right. However, it's never that simple.
Sometimes I wish I hadn’t, and sometimes I am glad I did. Often it just didn’t feel right to leave. I thought that I, with my conflicting values and beliefs, had a reason or purpose in staying. Maybe I did. Maybe not, it’s beside the point.
In May of 2017, my friend and one of my staff asked to meet with me. I knew what she was going to say, she wanted to share with me that she was Gay. On some level I had always known this, which made my response and my reaction easy, and natural. I simply said, with acceptance and tolerance in my voice, “I know”. Knowing I was being entrusted with very personal and private information I asked her “Who else have you share this with?” to which she replied, “Just you and my Mom”.
For a little while I chose to forget about the promise I had made to myself, it wasn’t the priority. It paled in comparison to the priority of helping this person navigate the immense shift in trajectory that she was embarking on.The priority was the person in front of me, who was going through a moment in life that I can only begin to understand.
I sat and I listened over the course of several days. Sitting at the intersection of power, privilege and powerlessness, I felt stuck and helpless. I knew that I could only commit to helping this person to the best of my ability. I committed to asking questions of and to pushing those above me as much as I could. For some reason I started out hopeful. I am not sure why, but some part of me was hopeful that this person's life (and mine) would not have to radically change in the near future. Fairly quickly I came to realize that this person's desires and the policy of the organization was a recipe for hopelessness.
I knew what needed to happen.
This person who simply wanted to be herself and to be known for who she is was going to have leave Young Life. Her job, her community, her home. . I knew this and I accepted this because I knew how important it was for this person to be in the right environment as they navigate this enormously complex, difficult and formative moment in life. In the midst of this realization, I wasn’t sure of what made me angrier; that I was going to have to help this friend navigate her way off of staff for embracing the way that she is designed, or the fact that the very place that had been home to her for over 10 years had now become the unhealthy place of judgement an intolerance that would now reject her. I think it was the latter that had me more enraged.
But at the same time I knew that leaving was the best decision for her. She needed to leave and get to a place where she could be known, loved an accepted for who she was, a place where she could love herself. She had been suppressing a significant part of who she was for most of her life, a trauma that had already shaped her in many challenging ways. It was time to move forward, to begin the healing process.
We both knew that this was what needed to happen, but within us both us were both screaming...
“What the fuck!”
What do you do when the organization that made you feel welcome and accepted for who you are turns out to be a bait and switch? Or the one who kicks you to the curb for wanting to pursue who you are? What do you do when no one around you will engage with or talk with you about what is really going on, because they know it’s wrong but they are all afraid of their beliefs being called into question and as a result let go from the organization?
This is nothing new. I know it happens all the time. People walk away silently from being Young Life Leaders or Young Life Staff because they don’t want to walk through the coming out process in the midst of this environment of judgment and nonacceptance. (I don’t fault them at all). Others who reveal their secret are exited in less than savory ways, such as with this situation.
It happens all the time. All the time, within an organization that attaches the lingo of “every kid” to whatever they can. An organization that has the facade of being inclusive of all kids from all walks of life, which is mostly true unless you are gay, trans or queer. That is the way it works. Young Life can come alongside a high school kid, mentor them, start them on the path of participating in a life changing journey of following the teachings and example of Jesus, and you can be involved and accepted as yourself.
Unless you are Gay.
If you are gay you are given a strange choice. Either come to terms with that fact that you don’t fit in and that they will not permit you to be on staff or serve as a volunteer leader, or you can possibly remain by choosing the path of celibacy, and continue to live a destructive life telling yourself that something is wrong with you, that you are unfit and less than those around you.
It’s a shitty choice either way. But in the long run anyone who has found themselves at this crossroads can tell you it’s best to cut ties and move towards an environment that doesn’t condemn who you are.
I helped this person leave Young Life Staff and we both felt that given the situation it was the best decision. I wish that had been the hardest part. But it wasn’t, because leaving a career would never be more difficult than leaving your family, friends and your faith community. How do you walk through a trauma like this knowing that the organization condemns you, while at the same time your friends and coworkers claim to support you. Even though they continue to commit their professional and personal lives to the organization that has hurt you and will continue to hurt people like you, until something changes.
As if a lifetime of self denial and suppression in regard to your sexual identity weren't enough let's heap some more judgement and rejection on those coming out by continually choosing systems, self preservation, religions and organizations over people when they need us most.
It's terrible, it's hurtful and what makes it worse is we know better. But we are scared to do the right thing. Why? Because of a handful of passages that were written by fallible men thousands of years ago have been mis-translated, interpreted or taken out of context? Come on people. I am not even going to waste time arguing this point.
Or are we scared because of what it will cost us. I can promise you this. There is no comparison to what it is costing our gay brothers and sisters.
My friend left Young Life staff. It wasn't easy, it wasn't pretty. I was pretty much what you would expect from a person experiencing an excommunication of sorts. But that is their story and I will leave that for them to tell.
The next month or two were awful for me. I went from a career that I loved, a job that I liked showing up to, a position I was good at, to barely being able to show up and function in my role. I felt so at odds with the organization I was a leader within, so incongruent with the mission and purpose of Young Life, so incapable of authentically leading a large staff, that I eventually shared openly and honestly with the leadership above me.
I was fearful that this would be the end of the line for me, but I knew I needed to be honest with the organization for my own sanity. To my surprise I was met with a surprising level of warmth and understanding and was encouraged to "hold the tension" between my beliefs and the beliefs and policies off young Life.
I don't know if this strategy was a way of accepting me and giving me time to realize that this isn't a tension that can be held for any length of time in any healthy way, allowing me to exit myself and avoid the drama and organizational fallout as a result of firing of a person in leadership over a controversial topic that the organization had successfully dodged for many years, or if this is a load of garbage that people actually believe.
I'm still not really sure. I know that "holding the tension" is complete bullshit. So many people are lying to themselves and justifying it with some sort of "greater good", which is just more bullshit heaped on the pile.
What greater good is there than helping, accepting and loving what is probably one of the most at risk population of kids? LGBTQ kids who are coping with rejection from parents, families and faith communities, and subsequently battling depression, addiction and suicide.
I took some time and space to evaluate my life and what might be next, and in a moment of honesty and clarity I informed my supervisor that I needed to leave. And so I did.
My exit was difficult and strange. It felt more like a divorce than leaving a job.
Looking back is challenging. Do I feel good about my decision? Yes of course. Do I wish everyone else would leave too? Absolutely. Do I fault them or judge for not leaving? Definitely not. I blame a system and an organization that has trapped people in a corner. Where their personal beliefs are held captive by bad policy and harmful theology.
That is the tension I currently live in. The tension between the people of Young Life that I love and care about, and my frustration, disappointment and anger toward the organization that is perpetuating the suffering of an entire people group.
Do I regret my time with Young Life. No, I don't. Well, not all of it. I do regret the time that I remained on staff after having been awakened to the injustice being inflicted on my LGBTQ brothers and sisters. I regret the time that I was complicit in their suffering through my silence.
I regret the time that I an others have spent enjoying the fruits of a community built on a foundation of exclusion and silent rejection.
I can't change the past. But I can be open, honest and authentic in the present. And perhaps this honesty and authenticity can play a small part in shaping the narrative of the future.
The truth is that all of this is rooted in something much deeper. It is rooted in Jesus, and his teachings. Most of which have been twisted into set of beliefs instead of values, doctrine instead of compassion and orthodoxy instead of orthopraxy. Working or living in a faith community can be a very oppressive environment, when you aren't free to think for yourself or to challenge the status quo. Five or six years ago I gave myself permission to not believe the things I didn't really believe anyway, the things that most of us don't believe as well but have been forced to believe (or at least not call into question). You know what I am talking about; literal scripture, innerracy, a retributive God, God as a being, magical sorcery like substitutionary atonement and so on.
You might be asking, when you throw out all of these ridiculous notions what are you left with?
The answer is simple.
Gospel. The Good News.
When you cut out all the bullshit you are left with a message of real love, that to be human is not a tragedy, it is a beautiful experience. Jesus had a lot to say about how to bring the lofty (and uncertain) ideas of a heavenly afterlife known as the kingdom of God to earth, to the present. He was trying to undo the idea of the need for a scapegoat by becoming the scapegoat himself. He was trying to save us from ourselves not some fictional being from the underworld or an angry blood thirsty patriarch of a God.
I spent so many years of my life being made to feel insufficient, bathed in the guilt and shame of a “sin”. The truth is, it was in the very questioning and tearing down of these fallacies that I found freedom, I found a God and a Christ worth following, and a healthy spirituality. Having an affirming stance within the church towards the LGBTQ is just a natural byproduct that flows out of a healthy spirituality
When Jesus said, “we all like sheep have gone astray” he was speaking truth on an incredibly deep level. We like sheep mindlessly follow the laws, doctrines and theories that men before us have created instead of thinking for ourselves, following our hearts which are at their core good and beautiful but we have wrongly been taught not to trust.
You have a story too. Do you give your time and money to Young Life? Do you know what Young Life’s stance is on LGBTQ community? If you don't, find out for yourself. Do your homework. You will find that it is officially and intentionally clear as mud in an effort to downplay the issue, the potential fallout, and the likely division that would come from being open, public and clear on the topic. Ask questions and you will find Area Directors who have doubled down on the exclusion of Gay teenagers, (they will cover it up with harmful rhetoric like “hate the sin, love the sinner”, or this idea of welcoming gay people who are celibate). You will also find regional directors and senior staff people who disagree with Young Life and are “holding the tension” while secretly permitting people who identify as LGBTQ to serve as volunteers. These people but are not free to question, or push because they answer to a board that controls the finances and therefore the future of their careers. (I know. I was one of these people)
Young Life, is stuck in a destructive place. The real “tension” is found in an organization that is completely non affirming in its policy and theology, but unclear in its methodology. An organization that is led by tens of thousands of staff people and volunteers with different beliefs that are sending a variety of different and conflicting messages to kids.
It is a mess. It was a mess that I could not longer remain in.
Ambiguity is harmful. Clarity is reasonable.* It's that simple. This is an issue that is too big and important to remain unclear on. There is too much collateral damage.
Faith communities and religion have the power to either be a healthy and helpful force in the lives of LGBTQ teenagers or the source of destruction, judgement and pain. I wish Young Life staff and volunteer leaders were given the freedom to love kids just as they are, without the hope, plan or requirement for them to change in order to remain and continue to be involved within the organization.
What will this freedom cost? Where will it come from? Will it ever happen?
I don’t know.
*churchclarity.org (check it out)