How a massive campus Christian organization systematically purges staffers who support LGBT people

“I don’t know if I even believe in God anymore,” one ex-staffer said.

CREDIT: Jack Jenkins/ThinkProgress
CREDIT: Jack Jenkins/ThinkProgress

In early October, Time.com published a story accusing InterVarsity Christian Fellowship USA — a campus organization that runs evangelical student groups at 667 colleges across the country — of adopting a policy of firing employees who openly support marriage equality.

The article sent a shockwave through America’s evangelical Christian community: students, alumni, and authors who work with the group’s publishing arm were quick to condemn the policy, calling for its reversal.

The pressure eventually goaded InterVarsity, which has over a thousand chapters all over the United States, to issue a flurry of statements in which they clarified they would not fire staffers who support same-sex “civil marriage,” but would reserve “involuntary termination” for those who theologically back unions between two people of the same gender. It also noted that the policy, which is embedded within a new 20-page theological document, condemns any sexual activity that occurs outside of a marriage between a man and a woman, including premarital sex or adultery.

The nuance was important: like many groups that take an anti-LGBT position, it behooves InterVarsity to avoid being cast as prejudiced in any focused way, as such a negative distinction could hypothetically put them at odds with many colleges’ nondiscrimination policies — and possibly result in chapters being pushed off campuses.

But in a recent interview with ThinkProgress, Greg Jao, an InterVarsity vice president and director of campus engagement, confirmed that InterVarsity does, in fact, plan to fire individuals who say that their faith supports same-sex marriage. He continued to insist, however, that the termination process includes an element of choice, with administrators asking staffers who disagree with the policy to come forward on their own to preserve their “integrity.”

“We’re also going to acknowledge [staffers] have a choice in it,” he said. “We have told supervisors not to go after people we have heard disagree in the past.”

“I believe from the bottom of my heart that this has categorically not been the motivation for removing LGBTQI people from our staff,” he added.

“I believe from the bottom of my heart that this has categorically not been the motivation for removing LGBTQI people from our staff.”

ThinkProgress reporting tells a different story. Interviews with former InterVarsity staff and internal documents obtained by ThinkProgress reveal a systematic, top-down campaign to remove staff members who even entertain theologies that do not condemn LGBT relationships—both before, during, and after the implementation of the policy.

It appears that InterVarsity’s “integrity” language falls flat with many of their employees, that the difference between “civil” and “religious” marriage was never cogently articulated, and that the supposed “choice” afforded to staff does not accord with the experiences of many who have been fired by the organization. Not only does the organization have a history of pressuring LGBT-affirming staff members to leave, but it also has utilized harmful anti-LGBT rhetoric and teachings that have damaged the lives and faiths of employees—and likely of students as well.

Some staffers report the organization’s policies left them despondent, suicidal, and even abandoning their faith altogether.

The new theological statement

The purpose of the new theological statement, according to the statement itself, is a bit vague. It states that it exists to “articulate InterVarsity’s convictions about human sexuality” and to serve as “a resource for teaching on human sexuality for InterVarsity staff, student leaders, and faculty.” Though it specifies that InterVarsity staff is the primary audience, the document itself doesn’t lay out any kind of enforcement expectations.

When the organization’s national leadership first presented the statement last year to their staff — employees and volunteers who help run InterVarsity’s various chapters— leadership also unveiled a plan to spend a full year implementing it instead of adopting it all at once. They developed a rollout with a training that included nine 60- to 90-minute sessions for staff to work through — with homework in between.

CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos/iStock
CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos/iStock

According to documents related to this rollout acquired by ThinkProgress and which InterVarsity officials have confirmed are authentic, the theological statement includes an unequivocal expectation that all employees must comply with the new anti-gay theology if they wish to remain on staff. Specifically, the Staff Code of Conduct emphasizes the requirement that staff “believe and behave in a manner that is consonant with our Theological Summary of Human Sexuality paper” (emphasis in the original document).

A “Biblical Sexuality Rollout FAQ” from July 2015 explains that this code of conduct will be integrated into a new staff application process. When it comes to staff who do not agree with this particular vision of “biblical sexuality,” the FAQ says, “We trust the integrity of the staff and the supervision process to discern the best way forward over time.” Decisions about “any transitions” would be made “after we get a sense of how staff are responding.”

But the documents suggest there isn’t any room for actual disagreement. During the rollout, students will be allowed “to be in process or indecision regarding their stance on biblical sexuality.” But the FAQ notes that “we hold our staff to a higher standard.”

The FAQ also unpacks why the organization is using the language “believe and behave” to describe how staff are expected to embrace the theological statement:

Our insistence on “believe and behave” is important for many reasons — one of which is the desire for staff to lead students and faculty with integrity in this area. In order to credibly call all people (ourselves included) to submit our sexuality to the lordship of Jesus, we must believe and behave in congruence with that call.

The staff trainings were even less vague. In the opening video for the first training session, Jason Jensen, InterVarsity’s National Field Director for the West, explains that the one-year rollout is essentially a grace period for staff to either get on board with the anti-gay theology or leave the fold.

“We’re allowing one year for this process, and we’ve produced resources to help you. At the conclusion of that year, we’re asking that every staff member be able to believe and behave in alignment with this theology,” Jensen says in the video. “Are we really asking for belief? Yes, theology is always what we believe about God and people, and it’s shown in how we act and what we advocate.”

“As an organization and a mission,” Jason concludes, “we need all staff to come together and move in the same direction.”

At no point do these documents reference allowing for any distinction between one’s position on civil marriage equality and one’s theological understanding of marriage.

“It’s hard enough to be in disagreement with the theology; for me, it’s impossible to be queer and stay at InterVarsity.”

According to ex-staffers, InterVarsity’s rollout of its new theological statement was scarring.

One recently fired employee, “Claire,” who spoke to ThinkProgress under the condition of anonymity, said she started working for InterVarsity two years ago. She realized she was gay in July 2015 — the same month the new policy was unveiled. Although she never agreed with InterVarsity’s stance on sexuality, she always assumed there was room for different perspectives.

But she was shocked by the tenor of the conversations during the rollout, discussions she says kept her from coming out publicly.

“When we had conversations about sexuality, people talked as if there weren’t any queer people in the room,” Claire said. “There’s this assumption that everyone is straight and cisgender and agrees with IV’s theology. It’s hard enough to be in disagreement with the theology; for me, it’s impossible to be queer and stay at InterVarsity. Being invisible was exhausting. And even if I did speak up about my beliefs, I was too nervous to come out. So I kept on being invisible.”

Other ex-staffers also mentioned feeling erased by the organization’s stance, a sensation that reflects Jao’s perception that the “assumption all along has been that staff is in agreement.”

Claire couldn’t remain silent forever. Eventually, she said she engaged in a “series of conversations” with management to vent about her “frustration with the policy, the ways it would impact staff and students, how it affected [her].”

But despite her best efforts, the conversations didn’t reach a resolution.

“I wasn’t going to change my mind or feel differently, and IV wasn’t going to change its mind, so my supervisor and I were talking past each other,” she said.

The firings

InterVarsity has avoided using the term “fire” in public to describe the termination of employment of staff members who don’t agree with the organization’s theological statement.

The 2015 FAQ states that “current staff will not be asked to sign the code or theology paper,” and Jao repeatedly stressed to ThinkProgress the voluntary nature of the policy—allowing staffers to come forward on their own—as a way to maintain the “integrity” of those whom InterVarsity let go. Jao said officials want to “acknowledge [employees] have a choice” in the matter by allowing them to step forward, voice their disagreement with the policy, and resign on their own.

But in conversations with ThinkProgress, several ex-staffers denounced this portrayal as an exercise in semantics, arguing the only true “choice” afforded to staff who vocally disagree with the organization’s stance on marriage is whether to step down or be fired.

Claire said InterVarsity leadership’s suggestion that the policy helps preserve the “integrity” of employees who disagree with the organization’s stance is “absolute bullshit.”

“Really, InterVarsity just doesn’t want to do the hard work of actually firing people.”

“InterVarsity has been using a lot of ‘integrity’ language… It’s really hurtful because it implies that if a person disagrees with InterVarsity, they need to lose their job in order to keep their integrity,” she said. “Really, InterVarsity just doesn’t want to do the hard work of actually firing people.”

Regardless of how InterVarsity might choose to characterize it, Ginny Prince — who worked for InterVarsity for ten years in the San Francisco Bay Area — believes she was fired.

Prince originally agreed with InterVarsity’s stance on LGBT relationships and identity, but began to question her own biases after having “hard conversations” with students who identified as gay or bisexual. She also observed several InterVarsity interns come out as gay to their colleagues, a process she described as “bittersweet” because she “knew they had to agree to the more conservative standards of behavior.”

“Over time, I realized I wasn’t really into having that [anti-LGBT] conversation any more,” she said.

Prince said things became even more difficult 18 months ago, when InterVarsity began the rollout.

CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos/iStock
CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos/iStock

Around the same time, she learned her own child was transgender, making things “pretty intense.” Although some of her colleagues were supportive, she was hesitant to let her larger network know about her child’s gender identity — primarily because Prince’s position, like many InterVarsity employees, was funded by a constellation of churches and donors with whom she kept in constant contact. And she knew the deadline for compliance with InterVarsity’s new policy was fast approaching.

“They gave us the option to A) resign, or B) get fired,” she said, adding that she gave a supervisor “an earful” during the final conversation about her job. “For me, resigning felt like rolling over. And I was not about to do that.”

There was no avenue, she said, to submit her disagreement with the organization’s theological position on “biblical sexuality” and keep her job, adding, “This was firing.”

Claire recounted a similar experience, and similar frustrations with InterVarsity’s characterization.

“InterVarsity says that I have integrity for coming forward and stating my disagreement,” Claire said. “But does a staff worker who has two kids to feed not have integrity if she keeps quiet and keeps her job? If I decided to stay even though I disagree, and push for a better understanding of queer staff, would I not have integrity?”

A history of theological policing

In interviews with the press, Jao often notes that InterVarsity’s position on sexuality hasn’t changed. But he doesn’t mention that some staffers were fired long before the implementation of the new policy on “biblical sexuality.”

This includes Bethany Bohlen, who began work as an InterVarsity staffer in Ohio in 2014. Bohlen, now 25, was open about her bisexual identity during her job interview — but promised to abide by InterVarsity’s insistence that she not form romantic relationships with other women.

“At the time… I felt like being queer was an affliction that I would have to deal with,” she told ThinkProgress. “I thought it was something that was wrong with me, which is what I had always been told.”

As an organization, InterVarsity placed “more value” on people with this self-rejecting attitude than on people who accepted their LGBT identities, Bohlen said. (InterVarsity’s theological statement reads: “We affirm single men and women who have remained chaste…[but] We urge others who are sexually active to repent and return to God’s design for sexuality and marriage.”)

“I felt like being queer was an affliction that I would have to deal with…I thought it was something that was wrong with me, which is what I had always been told.”

As she continued her work in Ohio, Bohlen said she began to question anti-LGBT theology. By fall of 2014, she was poring over God and the Gay Christian by Matthew Vines, an LGBT-affirming theological work written for evangelicals. Inspired, she noted in one of her reports to administrators how helpful the book was for her own spiritual formation.

But things took a dramatic turn in December of that year, when an official confronted her after a Christmas party to suggest that InterVarsity might not be a “good fit” for her. What followed was a months-long ordeal during which she was required to correspond regularly with a supervisor and a national-level staffer (Bohlen described the staffer as something akin to a “therapist”) about her theological views on human sexuality. Her superiors insisted she adopt InterVarsity’s hardline stance, and she said staffers even rejected her suggestion of relationships between same-sex partners that were non-sexual, dismissing them as not “God-honoring.”

Eventually, she says a supervisor told her she would lose her job if she didn’t sign off on the theological statement within the next month. Bohlen says she was instructed to keep the issue to herself, but the isolation and gut-wrenching conversations eventually pushed her to entertain suicidal thoughts. “I lost motivation to live, much less do my job,” she said.

Finally, in a meeting with an administrator—which was convened in the middle of the campus’ student center — Bohlen says she was repeatedly pressured to say that she “wanted” to leave InterVarsity because of her views.

“They kept saying, ‘Well don’t you think it would speak more to your integrity to leave?’” she said.

But Bohlen, who says she was fighting off a panic attack throughout the meeting, says the conversation felt “coercive.” When she eventually relented and agreed to end her tenure with InterVarsity, she says her superiors openly admitted the conversation was something of a ruse, acknowledging they wouldn’t have renewed her employment anyway.

Bohlen said InterVarsity leadership tried to use her integrity as a “scapegoat.”

“[They are] using our integrity as a scapegoat for their own homophobia and their own interest for getting us out of the organization,” she said. “If they can say that it’s our integrity on the line, then it leaves them scot-free. It makes it so they say it was our choice to leave when faced with a difficult situation, rather than we were miserable and suicidal because of this.”

“When they talk about integrity, it ultimately puts up a safety net for them,” she said.

The harmful rhetoric at InterVarsity

The documents ThinkProgress obtained also shine light on the kinds of LGBT-rejecting messages that InterVarsity has subjected staff to and, in turn, encouraged staff to subject students to.

“Jesus is a lifelong celibate man… and, you know, he was also the life of the party.”

The theological statement contains basic condemnations of homosexuality, as well as any sexual behavior outside of a marriage between a man and a woman. Sexual orientation “does not describe the most important things about us, such as our values, hopes, dreams, or spiritual convictions,” it insists. Instead, having a same-sex orientation entails “struggles with temptation” and requires “repentance from sin,” because “homosexuality activity” is “unnatural.” Jesus’ teachings “offer hope to those who wish to be liberated from destructive patterns of behavior,” and sometimes the healing is “instantaneous” but sometimes “it involves a long process of counseling.”

The training modules from the year-long rollout explain how to convince students to embrace these harmful ideas.

Like many conservative evangelical Christians trying to soften their condemnations of homosexuality, InterVarsity waffles in terms of what the ideal outcome should be for “believers with same-sex attraction.” At no point does the organization explicitly promote any kind of “conversion therapy” or encourage gay people to believe they can one day have successful different-sex marriages. However, staff are taught how to use talking points derived from ex-gay therapy to persuade students that they won’t be miserable believing they can never have a sexual or romantic relationship or family of their own.

One of the training modules, for example, invites trainees to participate in one of two “liturgies of lament.” One of the laments speaks specifically to LGBT people and suggests it might be possible to “transform” their orientation over the long term. The other lament describes “sexually shattered” people who are “hopelessly caught in the cycle of bad choices” and “trapped in sexual addictions, crippled by guilt, [and] damaged by sexual abuse” — language that echoes unfounded claims from advocates of ex-gay therapy who regularly describe homosexuality as an addiction that’s caused by childhood sexual abuse.

Another module in the training contains two videos that both discuss embracing chastity and celibacy, or what the organization calls “sacred singleness.” These, the training claims, provide models for ways to have conversations with students about bringing their sexuality to Jesus.

One video features Wesley Hill, assistant professor of biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry who identifies himself as a gay, celibate Christian. He attempts to make lifelong bachelorhood sound desirable, if not cool: “Jesus is a lifelong celibate man,” he claims, “and, you know, he was also the life of the party.” Hill opines that staying single for life “does not doom you to loneliness. You are called to community, just as much as any married person is.” He does not explain what that looks like.

“The normal college experience leads to spiritual death and to personal disintegration. There are few places where this is as noticeable as in our sexuality.”

The second video features Jason Gaboury, InterVarsity’s Regional Director in New York and New Jersey. The training guide specifically encourages staff to “pay attention to HOW Jason communicates about chastity” to learn how to communicate about sexual issues in a “humble and compelling manner.”

Insisting on chastity for all, Gaboury suggests that everyone has “a need for transformation,” which may include “healing from the abuse we’ve suffered because of the actions of others” — another reference to the myth that sexual abuse can cause homosexuality.

He goes on to proclaim, “The normal college experience leads to spiritual death and to personal disintegration. There are few places where this is as noticeable as in our sexuality.”

The training guide instructs staff to not only embrace these ideas for themselves, but to learn these techniques from Gaboury’s approach: “Create a personal connection, make provocative statements, provide concrete steps for participate [sic], highlight how current reality is destructive, invites [sic] the listener into a new reality.”

Taken together, the new theological statement appears to promote a strategy of luring in gay students with friendship and then convincing them to reject themselves by accepting InterVarsity’s version of a gay-free — but supposedly super popular — plan for a lifetime of loneliness.

Documents also reveal that InterVarsity worked to challenge theologies that affirm LGBT relationships, and that administrators were especially concerned about the impact of Vines’ book. Two of the ex-staffers ThinkProgress interviewed specifically mentioned God and the Gay Christian as crucial to helping them pull away from InterVarsity’s theology, which may explain why InterVarsity provided modules for staff to read his work alongside books that shore up their opposition to same-sex relationships.

Tellingly, the modules do not encourage InterVarsity staffers who work with students to discuss the wide array of gay-affirming biblical arguments made by Vines. Instead, they are told to “remember our own view of God’s revelation” and avoid getting “bogged down in endless analysis.” They are instead instructed to ask students and employees to examine the “tone” and “persuasive strategy” of Vines and those who disagree with him.

Non-answers on transgender issues

While the theological statement broaches issues like pornography, “compulsive masturbation,” and divorce, it stops short of discussing gender identities. Those, InterVarsity says, are yet to come:

[W]e are appointing a task force to examine the implications of transgender identity. Pastorally, how should we respond to people who are transgender? First, we acknowledge that it is not sinful to have feelings of ambivalence or aversion to one’s birth gender. Nor do we respond with disbelief or impatience. We recognize the difficult social realities they face and commit to a response of love and respect.

But transgender issues are actually a significant part of the rollout training, which includes several videos about a transgender student’s interactions with InterVarsity. Though the student, named Cameron, at one point self-identifies as a “transgender man,” Cameron’s InterVarsity staff advisor Kate uses female pronouns to refer to the student.

[Since the publication of this article, both Kate and Cameron have contacted ThinkProgress regarding its original assumptions that Cameron had been misgendered. Cameron now identifies as non-binary and prefers not be identified with pronouns at all, but confirmed that Kate did have permission to use female pronouns at the time. Cameron both opposes InterVarsity’s anti-LGBT policy and disputes other aspects of InterVarsity’s depiction of these events, which will be explored in future reporting.]

“God never gave me a direct answer to my original prayer of whether or not I should continue to be transgender,” Cameron says, implying a belief that there is a choice in the matter. “Instead, He used InterVarsity to help me learn how to trust Him in the midst of being transgender and helped me learn how to identify as His child, first and foremost.”

Cameron also props up the idea that individuals do not know themselves best, as the LGBT community professes. “I was learning to think that God should have direction over this part of my life. And that was the beginning for me of thinking about what it would mean to give God lordship over my gender and sexuality.”

“God never gave me a direct answer to my original prayer of whether I should continue to be transgender.”

According to the video, Kate encouraged Cameron to go on a spring break missions project, but InterVarsity blocked that from happening “because IV didn’t know how to respond to me as a transgender man.” When Cameron’s friends complained to university officials that the organization had discriminated, Cameron defended InterVarsity. “My LGBTQ friends didn’t understand why I was sticking up for an organization that, from their perspective, was clearly discriminating against me. And it led to some hard conversations with my LGBTQ friends about why my faith was important to me and why I wasn’t willing to just abandon my relationship with God over this incident.”

The training uses this scenario to prompt discussions about “what needs to be considered to include a student who identifies as transgender, same-sex attracted, etc.,” even though there are no resources provided about how to actually minister on transgender issues.

Yet even as InterVarsity struggles to clarify its theological beliefs regarding transgender issues, it’s already holding staff accountable for them. Prince noted that her firing was partly rooted in her support for her transgender child, including her desire for InterVarsity to be a “space for my child to be who they are.”

“I wish they would’ve included gender identity in their modules before they drew the employment line,” she said. “Their stance on gender identity was rather inconclusive. Which says something.”

Unforeseen consequences

The ex-staffers who spoke to ThinkProgress suggested that InterVarsity is trying to avoid the appearance that it discriminates against its staff for being LGBT or LGBT-affirming. That kind of discriminatory policy could be a violation of many universities’ nondiscrimination policies, and thus would endanger chapters’ recognition on campus and access to resources.

CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos/iStock
CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos/iStock

Jao rejected the assertion that the rollout amounts to a campaign to root out LGBT and LGBT-affirming staffers assertion — but instead of addressing how LGBT-affirming staffers have been treated at the organization, he emphasized the LGBT students and staff who adhere to the theological statement.

“They incorrectly assume that our beliefs necessarily result in exclusion,” he said. “Our current process is not an attempt to root out LGBT staff and students … We have consistently affirmed that we want LGBT staff who affirm our theological beliefs to remain employed. We are partnering with those staff who are remaining to develop training to insure that InterVarsity is a welcoming, safe place for LGBT students and staff.”

“The former staff you spoke to seem to erase the experiences of these students and staff,” he added.

ThinkProgress only spoke to three former InterVarsity staffers, but received the names many others who lost their jobs as a result of the rollout and in the past, some of whom have already been telling their stories in other venues. Contrary to Jao’s claims, these accounts, combined with all of the documentation from the year-long campaign to implement the theological statement, paint a picture of an organization dedicated to ostracizing LGBT young people who will not commit to chastity, or even those who simply want to affirm LGBT people, their identities, and their relationships.

Ironically, although InterVarsity insists their actions emanate from a shared faith, the result of their policies pushed all of the ex-staffers ThinkProgress spoke with away from InterVarsity’s brand of Christianity, evangelicalism in general, or any faith whatsoever.

Prince, for instance, said she still identifies as an evangelical in the theological sense, but no longer subscribes to the larger political goals of evangelicalism. She still attends more progressive evangelical or mainline churches, but feels pushed aside by the faith-based organization that sustained her for more than a decade. In the meantime, she feels called to a broader spirituality.

“I don’t know if I even believe in God anymore.”

“[The experience] has helped me understand a broader perspective on how people experience the divine. It deepened my understanding of God,” she said.

Claire, on the other hand, no longer identifies as an evangelical at all. She says she only attends more progressive mainline churches.

“I feel like I’m being kicked out of Christian community for believing differently,” she said. “As I’ve come to identify as queer, I’m aware that I am much less welcome in Christianity. I don’t know where Jesus is in all of this mess; I don’t feel God’s presence. I feel like I’ve lost hold of what I’d always known.”

As for Bohlen, she isn’t sure her faith survived her ordeal intact.

“I don’t know if I even believe in God anymore,” she said, sighing.

UPDATE: This article has been updated to reflect responses from Kate and Cameron regarding the use of pronouns in some of the training videos.