A debate is raging inside Young Life as the Colorado-based ministry faces backlash over LGBTQ policy
Emilya Ramsey stood at a crossroads.
For her entire college career, the 21-year-old Gonzaga University senior had been deeply involved in Young Life, a Colorado Springs-based Christian youth ministry that serves students across the globe.
But for Ramsey, it was getting harder and harder to reconcile the organization’s stance against letting members of the LGBTQ community serve as leaders with her own views.
“I felt very betrayed that this was an organization I really depended on,” she said.
And Ramsey realized she wasn’t alone.
When students returned to the Spokane, Washington, campus this fall, the members of Gonzaga’s Young Life chapter had a meeting. They elected to disband the chapter, writing in an Instagram post that “we have decided that we can no longer stand with this organization in its current state.”
“I hope that we can be an example of how you can do this allyship work,” Ramsey said. “And really stand up for what you believe in and refuse to be a part of something that doesn’t represent your theology and what you stand for. I hope that other people can follow suit.”
Ramsey and her college friends are not the only ones reevaluating their relationship with Young Life after a viral movement this summer under the hashtag #DoBetterYoungLife. The outpouring on social media brought thousands of people across the country out from the shadows as they detailed their stories of exclusion and heartbreak during their time in the youth ministry that serves nearly 370,000 kids per week across 104 countries.
As the movement continues to grow, staff members, volunteer leaders and donors are now severing ties with an organization that younger members say is out of touch with their generation’s views on social issues. And it comes as Christian denominations and youth groups alike confront a rift in membership over LGBTQ affirmation.
After The Denver Post asked the organization in July about its policies on LGBTQ leaders, Young Life announced the creation of a council to review stories and recommend courses of action. But the council’s work — and its members — remains secretive, and current and former staff and volunteers expressed little hope that Young Life will make drastic changes to its conservative theology.
“We will be obsolete”
For Anna Franklin, the moment of truth came last summer at a Young Life camp in Georgia.
A group of volunteer leaders were eating lunch and discussing the situation of a camp staffer who had been kicked out after coming out of the closet.
“I kind of thought everyone would have an issue with that,” Franklin said.
Instead, a few people at the table vocally supported Young Life’s stance.
Franklin kept the incident in the back of her mind until this summer, when the Do Better Young Life movement burst onto the scene. She read stories from the woman who was let go at the camp as well as Joshua Truitt, who detailed to The Post in July his treatment by Young Life staff after they found out he was gay.
It was then she decided to leave.
“What I believe Jesus says and does and models about what love is, that doesn’t match up with what Young Life is doing,” Franklin said. “Not being held accountable, not admitting fault. Once I realized that, it was a pretty easy decision.”
Franklin’s views on the organization are mirrored by a host of other younger staff and volunteers across the country, who are now evaluating their futures with Young Life.
One Young Life area director, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal by the organization, said she feels compelled to leave after seeing Young Life, in her view, double down on its anti-LGBTQ stance after the Do Better movement.
A leaked internal memo purported to come from Young Life leadership this summer included talking points for staff, with the line “…we are not reviewing our policy or theology.”
“They’ve made it abundantly clear that policies won’t change,” the area director said.
Another staff member called the decision to stay or leave Young Life “a daily tussle.” The individual, who also feared repercussions for speaking candidly about the organization, recalled a meeting with Young Life leadership in which higher-ups told staffers that, if they’re asked about their stance on LGBTQ issues from a theological standpoint, they cannot say they’re affirming.
“At that point, you have to make a choice,” the Young Life staffer said. “Do you compromise your own integrity or Young Life’s integrity? That’s a pretty big ask for a lot of people.”
Multiple Young Life employees told The Post that conversations among staff about leaving the organization are happening across the country.
“If we do not change within the next five years — 10 years max — we will be obsolete,” the area director said. “Gen Z is not going to stand for these policies.”
Young Life, in a statement, said the organization “is aware that a small number of volunteer leaders and staff have chosen to leave the organization over disagreements with our beliefs and policies related to sexuality. Any departures should be viewed in the full context of Young Life, which includes more than 80,000 staff and volunteers in 104 countries.”
Losing faith in Young Life’s response
After the Do Better stories flooded social media in July, Young Life launched a section of its website titled “Our Response to Do Better Young Life.”
The web page included details of the newly formed council, which the organization says includes a “diverse group” of 14 individuals who vary in “age, gender, ethnicity and marital status” and represent “traditional orthodox and progressive theological beliefs.”
No names are listed, and even current Young Life staff members say they don’t know who’s on it.
In Young Life’s statement to The Post, the organization did not expand on the council’s members.
“The council’s first mandate was to listen,” the statement read. “Both senior Young Life leaders and members of the council have reached out to those who have shared their stories to ensure we listen well and respond appropriately. Additionally, at the council’s direction, Young Life is also taking steps to help staff and volunteers better understand Young Life’s beliefs and policies, as well as bring further clarity to what it means for staff and volunteers to accept and support these policies.”
Kent Thomas, whose initial post about Young Life’s exclusion opened the floodgates of stories this summer, said he doesn’t understand why Young Life didn’t approach the Do Better organizers about having a voice on the council.
“I’ve heard from zero people on the council,” Thomas said. “I would think if they were queer affirming and cared a lot, they would reach out to Do Better Young Life, since we helped get this council created.”
Thomas said he’s asked to speak with the organization’s president, Newt Crenshaw, as well as members of the council multiple times and been denied.
With Young Life’s position cemented, Thomas said, the Do Better group has focused on hitting the organization financially.
Tracey Sanford has been involved with Young Life in various forms for over half a century, and credits the ministry with deepening her strong sense of faith. She and her husband even have money set aside for Young Life in their will.
But as Sanford read the accounts of LGBTQ participants this summer, she was brought to tears.
“If I don’t speak up, I’m complicit in this shame and this pain these kids have been caused,” Sanford said. “For that reason, we are looking at revisiting financial support of the organization.”
Sanford said her friends involved in Young Life are asking themselves the same difficult questions as they contemplate their futures with the organization. She’s had conversations with Young Life leadership, and while Sanford said she appreciated the dialogue, it was clear to her that nothing substantial would change.
“We’re all scratching our heads,” Sanford said. “We’ve been brave enough to look at our spiritual lives — why hasn’t Young Life done that, too?”
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