When InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA endorsed Black Lives Matter last December, it saw racial reconciliation as “an expression of the gospel.” The evangelical student outreach, which has 1,011 chapters on 667 campuses, was both criticized and praised.
A recent controversy over the group’s position on same-sex relationships and how it affects employees, however, shows that any fears of their impending liberal takeover are greatly exaggerated.
Technically, nothing in InterVarsity’s recent statement on same-sex relationships is unusual for a conservative evangelical ministry or InterVarsity itself. In fact, that is only one of several discussions—including divorce, pornography, and exploitation—that are included. It is this, however, that is having the most immediate impact given its college campus context. Like any extramarital sex, they say, “same-sex sexual activity is outside of God’s will.” It is “unnatural because it is not consistent with God’s original intent for sexuality.”
The statement complicates things for many of InterVarsity’s employees who are LGBTQ+ or affirming straight allies. Employees who disagree with the organization’s position are asked to tell their supervisors, after which a two-week process of “involuntary” termination is initiated.
When news of this broke in an earlier report from TIME, it left many who are personally invested in InterVarsity confused, frustrated, and angry.
“It makes me feel sick every time I think about it,” says Mary, which is not her real name as she asked to remain anonymous. She was a student member of InterVarsity until she graduated in the late 90s and eventually became a staff member.
“I also feel deeply sad, as I have given my last 19 years to this organization that I love and was proud to be a part of. I feel mad. I feel confused because I don’t understand why InterVarsity is doing this.”
She’s not alone.
“I have felt so many things: anger, rage, grief, heartache, incredulity, fear,” says Karyn (not her real name). Her work with InterVarsity began only two years ago. She didn’t arrive at InterVarsity as a student as many do, but she did go to a Christian college and graduate school.
“InterVarsity was initially a breath of fresh air: Colleagues had beers together; staff members cussed; people advocated strongly for racial equity! It was amazing.”
Two years later and Karyn’s affirming theology led to a roadblock. “As InterVarsity has hardened its policies on affirming LGBTQ relationships, I have felt less at ease and less welcome.” The worst part, she says, is “feeling like it’s my own fault that I am losing a job I love (and just a job, period). I keep thinking, could I have done anything else? Was there some way around this?”
InterVarsity insists, however, that they are not firing anyone. When TIME described InterVarsity as dismissing and firing employees, InterVarsity insisted this was incorrect. “No InterVarsity employee will be fired for their views on gay marriage,” they said in a press release.
“Our hope through this stage of the process was to give our employees as much agency, control, and space to demonstrate integrity as much as possible,” Greg Jao, InterVarsity vice president and director of campus engagement, tells The Daily Beast. “That’s why we are not going to our employees to say, ‘do you agree?,’ ‘sign on this document,’ or to make some form of verbal affirmation.”
“We trust your integrity. If you disagree, then we’re going to ask you to let us know in the time you choose and in the way you choose…. We did everything we could to leave employees in control of the process.”
Karyn agrees that InterVarsity isn’t engaging in a witch hunt, but disagrees on the claim no one is being fired. “I met with my supervisors and resigned, but it is counted as an involuntary termination. So I have been terminated. By myself.”
Others, however, see this as a cleaning of house of those who do not reflect InterVarsity’s theology. Across social media and in a new petition online it is being dubbed as “#InterVarsityPurge.”
“We, the undersigned alumni of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship,” says the petition, “write to express our disappointment and objection to the recently publicized ‘involuntary termination’ policy for staffers and employees…we write not as outsiders or enemies seeking to criticize from afar, but as members of the IVCF family who have poured our hearts, minds, souls, and resources--financial and otherwise--into this ministry…”
Jao doesn’t believe that InterVarsity’s position on same-sex relationships should be a surprise to anyone. He adds that InterVarsity has always held this view of LGBTQ+ relationships during its 75-year history. (InterVarsity has even faced the prospect of de-recognition by universities previously over requiring its leaders to hold to its beliefs.)
“We began an 18 month process for staff to dig into and study what we believe. We created hours of curricula. November 11 represents the end of that period. Our expectation after that date is that we are in alignment. If you’re in disagreement, we hope that you’ll self-disclose.”
Many believe that InterVarsity has not been clear enough in their communications with employees.
“I am hurt by the policy, and by the way it has been rolled out,” says Haley Compean, who joined InterVarsity when she was a Freshman in college and then joined the staff from 2012-2015. She identifies as queer and is promoting the petition on Twitter.
“I had moved from another country and felt very alone,” she says by email, but InterVarsity “quickly became my surrogate family.” The policy, though not a primary reason for her leaving InterVarsity, played a role in it. She and others knew something was coming for a while, but says communication was poor and “messy.”
Many feel the same way, even wondering if InterVarsity is watching what employees like and share on social media. Jao insists that InterVarsity isn’t spying on its employees. “I really do trust the integrity of people who work on staff,” he says. “I find it hard to believe that somebody would stay with us in knowing disagreement and would refuse to tell their supervisor.”
But there could still be sticking points that require InterVarsity to actively fire an employee.
When asked if he could see how someone would have competing points of integrity, as in paying for a mortgage and buying food for one’s family versus telling one’s supervisor they are in disagreement over theology, he says he understands the complication. “I appreciate where they’re at,” he says, “I suspect that most would make it a short term thing for them.”
And what if staff decided that integrity required them to reform from within by speaking out and affirming same-sex relationships, yet without talking to their supervisor? “We’d have to start a ‘Let’s talk about employment conversation’ with them,” says Jao, about how “it seems that you’ve come to a decision.”
Many of the current staff and student members fear the move will make InterVarsity’s campus ministry difficult and ineffective.
Though InterVarsity insists that they are invested in serving “the LGBTQI community with greater grace and integrity, ” others see the current policy by InterVarsity as one that will inevitably damage their credibility. Jao says that in conversation with students who identify as gay, they tell him that they know where InterVarsity is coming from and still see it as a “safe place to wrestle” with their identity.
But not all agree.
Intervarsity, says Compean, “has not been a “‘safe’ place to discuss my coming to terms with being queer.” But she adds, “it has generally at least tried to create an environment of intellectual openness. This policy does not encourage intellectual openness or conversation at all. It creates fear and shame and secrecy.”
Erin Kelley, a student leader of Prism—a small LGBTQ ministry at UCLA under the InterVarsity Bruins Christian Fellowship umbrella—is “disheartened” that “great staff members and personal friends…will very likely be terminated because of this policy.”
“As someone who affirms queer relationships, I know that I personally can’t join InterVarsity staff in the future, which hurts because it feels like an artificial ceiling has been put on where I can develop my faith life.”
This move is “an end of tolerance for affirming spaces,” she says. “I think that speaking up in loving opposition to this policy is absolutely necessary, because I believe that InterVarsity USA needs to know how deeply troubling and traumatizing their policy is.”
InterVarsity’s direction on same-sex relationships definitely does not represent the national trend of millennials, those who are likely to make up the base of colleges and graduate schools.
A 2015 report from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) showed that among millennials, seven percent “identify either as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT). Three percent of millennials refused to identify their sexual orientation.” Additionally, a Pew Research study from March shows that 71 percent of millennials favor same sex marriage.
Students, therefore, may not find InterVarsity’s position welcoming.
Steve Mion, also a student leader in Prism at UCLA, sees the policy as an “injustice.” He believes it is important for Christians to speak out, “to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves.”
“I’m sad to think that moving forward, LGBTQ people at campuses around the country might find no friendly faces at InterVarsity as they seek a faith home where they will be lifted up as the wonderful children of God that they are,” he adds.
“Technically, the policy does not bar students from being queer, but I can attest from plenty of personal experience that being openly queer in a religious space, where there’s no one to affirm or support you, is almost always a toxic situation. If there is no room for LGBTQ-supportive staff in the process, who is going to lead the queer students?”
Some believe there is a silver-lining, however, as InterVarsity’s controversy might be providing an opening for new affirming campus outreaches, like Incarnation Ministries, described as “a Christ-Centered, Multi-Ethnic, LGBTQ-Inclusive Campus Ministry.”
Max Kuecker, co-president of Incarnation Ministries, was a student in InterVarsity for four years before joining the staff of their Chicago Urban Program from 2007-2012. The program trained students on racial reconciliation and social justice. Kuecker’s current work picks up on what he learned during those years at InterVarsity.
“As a growing number of evangelical scholars have presented solid cases for the biblical affirmation of same-sex relationships, using a similar interpretive method as InterVarsity,” says Kuecker, “I am surprised and disappointed they have chosen to draw the line in the sand on this topic at this time.”
With Incarnation Ministries formed in May of this year, it doesn’t have the benefits of time and reputation that InterVarsity has, but it does have other advantages.
“One thing I have been saying,” says Kuecker, “is that I wish we didn’t have to exist. But, since we do, it has been exciting to re-imagine what campus ministry can look like, especially since we get to build multi-ethnicity and LGBTQ inclusion into the organization from the very beginning.”