Ministry accused of covert conversion therapy moves across from Adventist university

(RNS) — Students at Andrews University, a Seventh-day Adventist school in Berrien Springs, Michigan, wouldn’t be blamed for thinking that Coming Out Ministries, which recently revealed plans for a new headquarters building outside Andrews’ main entrance, offered counseling for embracing LGBTQ identity.

But that’s not the kind of coming out the ministry offers. What Coming Out hopes for their clients is that they will leave behind “gay/homosexual deceptions” to come into the light of Jesus.

“No greater joy has been experienced in our lives than that which has freed us from the chains of homosexuality,” the ministry’s co-founders, Ron Woolsey and Michael Carducci, write on the Coming Out website.

Since learning that Coming Out has purchased the former law office opposite the main entrance to campus, some Andrews students have objected to its opening, which is planned for September.

In November 2023, Erin Beers, a senior psychology student at Andrews, read about Coming Out’s plan in a ministry newsletter, in which the organization touted the “daily” access to Andrews’ students the move would provide. 

The newsletter also declared it would offer “the opportunity to work closely with the University in addressing the many issues surrounding the LGBT+ ideology and agenda, from a redemptive perspective.” (In an email to RNS, a university spokesperson said the school has not been in contact with Coming Out.)

In December, Beers wrote an article in Andrews’ student newspaper, and other public critiques of the group followed, including an essay by two students in the same school paper and another from an alumnus in Spectrum, a national Adventist publication.

In an interview with Religion News Service earlier this month, Beers claimed the group could harm LGBTQ students already at risk for self-harm and suicidal ideation.

“They’re going to hurt people, and they’re going to do it in the name of the Adventist church and God,” she said, describing the group’s tactics as manipulative. “Students looking for a safe space to process their sexuality will instead be met by a group with a clear agenda.”

In her essay that followed Beers’, Bella Hamann explained that her high school had invited Coming Out Ministries for a weekend program after finding out that a student was gay. “The stuff that I was exposed to that weekend was horrendous,” Hamann told RNS in an interview. “I watched a documentary where they alluded to the fact that you can’t have same-sex attraction unless you went through some sort of abuse as a child.”

Founded in 2010 with Wayne Blakely, who has since left the organization’s leadership, Coming Out Ministries has been disinvited from Adventist camp meetings and conferences due to activists’ concerns that the group promotes conversion therapy, a claim they vehemently deny.

Yet the organization’s newsletters have featured instructions for having “true and complete victory over homosexuality” and affirmations that “gays can become completely straight.”

Coming Out Ministries declined to speak to RNS.

Last July, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed two bills protecting minors from conversion therapy, which the state defines as treatments that seek to “change an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity.” The bill only applies to licensed mental health professionals, however, excluding most pastors, and may not apply to some faith-based services.

Andrews University, the flagship university of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, in Berrien Springs, Michigan. (Photo by FotoGuy 49057/Wikipedia/Creative Commons)

Carducci has said the ministry is not about rejection or being gay, it’s about restoring men and women to God’s image. “We want to make sure that everybody has access to be rescued for those that want to be rescued,” he said in a video filmed at the new property.

The documentary Hamann saw at her high school, “Journey Interrupted,” available on the Coming Out Ministries website, tells the stories of four individuals who endured adverse experiences as children and left “gay culture” after committing their lives to Christ.

It also features co-founder Woolsey saying his mind became “confused” after he was abused. “I was derailed in my childhood by the molestation,” Woolsey says. “And if I could be derailed, why couldn’t I be re-railed?”

Carducci, who says in “Journey Interrupted” that he continues to experience “attractions to the same sex,” says the ministry’s aim is to share personal stories of redemption from “sexual sin” and let people decide how to respond.

Though Andrews, the flagship Seventh Day Adventist university, prohibits romantic behavior between students of the same sex, a confidential support group for LGBTQ students called Haven exists on campus. Its members, who sign non-disclosure agreements before being admitted, could not be reached for comment.

Some Adventists cheered the presence of Coming Out so close to campus. Fulcrum7, an Adventist outlet that denounces the “progressive takeover” of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, said in an article, “We can see the hand of God all over it. We need offices like this at every SDA College, to help young people.”

But four of the six students RNS contacted had dim views of the organization. One, who spoke to RNS on the condition of anonymity, said he met with Coming Out Ministries in spring 2021, and after working with them, “my depression got worse. I started hating who I was even more, fixating even more on this very narrow sliver of who I am as a person, and ultimately, I think it took a lot longer for me to accept myself because I have gone to these meetings.”

He said he is concerned that the new location will imply that it’s endorsed by the university.

Other Andrews students had more muted responses to the group, saying they had no negative impressions of them. Melissa Moore, who is in her third year at Andrews, said she didn’t have enough information to decide what to think, but believed that the prominent location afforded students seeking help enough privacy.

At a December town hall, Andrews administrators reportedly sidestepped questions on Coming Out Ministries’ move.

In responding to questions, the Andrews spokesperson wrote, “Conversations regarding human sexuality occur in-house, utilizing the counselors and ministers on our campus. Andrews University deeply affirms the Biblical definition of marriage and relationships. We desire to provide a respectful and caring environment for all students to grow their relationship with God and understand God’s purpose for life as an integral part of their education.”

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