Stephen Black No Longer Leads First Stone Ministries: An Object Lesson On How Leadership Built On Religious Stigma Never Works
This article is not an attack on Stephen. Still, I extract common themes from this situation at FSM to explain my history and opinions about ex-gay leadership's inability to truly "lead."
I would love to say this is a shock, but I saw it coming...
From First Stone Ministries (FSM) (emphasis mine)
The First Stone Ministries Board had no plans in place for what was to unfold for 2023. Stephen Black was our trusted source of information and during lockdowns, the Board did not meet as it should have. At that time, there were three members of the Board: Stephen Black, FSM’s Executive Director, Randy Rice, who has been a Board member for 20 years, and me, with four years of service with FSM. Unfortunately, the Board was made aware of a very important missed deadline and long-time Board member, Randy Rice, offered to find out what happened. What he discovered was that there were two missed legal deadlines, and the staff was afraid to give honest feedback on separate internal issues.
The Board convened a staff meeting where each person had the opportunity to share concerns and observations with Stephen. Stephen’s response was completely unexpected and unacceptable. He was asked to go on sabbatical, to give him time to work out a variety of personal issues affecting his leadership. It is important to point out that at no time were we concerned about sexual immorality.
… From the outset of Stephen’s sabbatical, Laura Leigh Stanlake played a stabilizing and pastoral role. It was only a few weeks into the sabbatical that the Board received Stephen’s written notice of resignation. The Board then asked Laura Leigh to step in as interim Executive Director, while the Board worked through a separation agreement that would honor Stephen’s service to the ministry without putting him or the ministry at risk.
I don’t like or respect Stephen, and he clearly feels the same way. We have had very choice words with one another over the years, but I can honestly say that I have never hated him.
To be clear, I am not writing this post as a direct attack on Stephen or FSM.
What is the point of this post?
This situation with Stephen and the Board at FSM is very consistent with many, and I do mean many, ex-gay ministries I used to lead or work with. While circumstances can be very different, the dynamics of living a lie and running a cult based on that lie are inevitable and devastating. Here are some common themes as to why:
Untrustworthy figureheads. Ego-driven extroverts are often mistaken for leaders. They also tend to burden those they influence and don’t live up to the same expectations themselves. Have you heard the old adage, “Those who can’t do, teach”? I don’t always agree with that statement, but it is true in the ex-gay world. Leaders teach what they themselves do not consistently do or do at all.
Weak/Inconsistent/Dual Interests Board of Directors or church oversight committees. FSM had three Board Members, and one of them was Stephen. This scenario does not exactly provide the full breadth of what a board should look like when acting out its oversight and accountability role. The bigger the board, with varied backgrounds and an odd number of members, the more likely there will be true accountability. Yet, in the ex-gay cult, that’s not always guaranteed either.
Dual Interests in the ex-gay “oversight” world is rampant. An example of this dynamic would be a board member or church oversight committee member who is on the board to personally use the organization to accomplish goals that aren’t necessarily the organization’s goals. When that interest is of personal benefit to the Board Member, it creates a conflict of interest; especially in 501c3’s. Here is a very legal-sounding but easy-to-read explanation of this dynamic on the American Psychological Association’s website.
Unqualified leaders running an organization always lead to BIG mistakes (missed two legal deadlines in this case), staff problems, and an inability to keep up with organizational needs and legal guidelines. Egos are often the top priority, not making sure of the many responsibilities leading an organization requires. In the ex-gay world, if you can master spinning a narrative and telling a good story, that’s all that is needed to be “raised up” into leadership. Disasters of some sort will always manifest at some point.
Staff/Volunteer intimidation. Staff being afraid to give feedback is a toxic work environment in any situation. I can’t count the many times I would be contacted about this exact dynamic within the ex-gay movement when I was at Exodus. True leadership has no need to bully or ignore feedback. However, again, living and teaching a toxic ideology usually manifests one or both of those abusive tactics.
Skeletons aren’t the only thing in the closet: In this case, the board is more worried about ensuring that the leader isn’t seen as sexually “fallen” than fully transparent concerning his “unexpected and unacceptable” behavior toward his intimidated staff. I know every person on staff, and as much as I detest what they are doing… it hurts to think they were scared of Stephen.
This is a direct reflection of board members who truly don’t know what their role is (in its entirety) to consistently provide leadership accountability until after the damage is done. Many of these ministries want to be “salt and light” to the world but scurry away when the bright light of accountability/transparency reveals a lot of secrets not recorded in the board’s meeting notes.
Cover-ups/Lies by omission. FSM couched Stephen’s sabbatical as a well-earned rest, not for him to work on “his personal issues affecting his leadership.” They did not report that this was a result of “unacceptable” behavior he needs to figure out. Another example would be when Scarlett McCall (living as Jeffrey at the time) was sleeping with men for a whole year and conveniently confessed to that just a few weeks AFTER their big annual event called the Freedom March. I guarantee the leadership knew what had happened and pressed forward anyway, not to hamper their event.
Obfuscation. So, how does working out a “separation agreement” prevent the risk? Exactly what is the risk? Disguising his departure as his decision alone and working out an agreement to avoid “risk” is not reassuring or clear and opens the door to suspicion.
This deflection tactic is systemic in the ex-gay world. So many things happen behind closed doors that are swept under the rug in the name of preventing risk or harm to the ministry/mission of their group.
FSM is not the first example of how ex-gay conversion therapy reveals their inability to maintain consistent and healthy leadership.
Along with the bullet points above, good leaders do not ignore every professional counseling organization condemning conversion therapy. Good leaders don’t ignore the tsunami of personal horror stories that were created because of the stigmatizing theology and cult-like consequences of the ex-gay worldview. Good leaders don’t do a verbal run-around or just flat-out flee accountability.
Randy? You were a somewhat high-profile leader in that world…
So, was I a good leader while in that world? Hell no.
I made similar decisions along the lines of all that mess I just wrote about in the bullet points above. And I did those things over and over again, probably more than most leaders in that movement. Most of the time, I explained away terrible behavior and hypocrisy as spiritual warfare (the devil is a liar! lack of spiritual maturity!), or most of the time, my responses to “sin” were similar to how the FSM board responded.
I am not proud of that, but I am also not afraid to own it now that I know my full truth. Hurt people hurt people, unhealthy people generate unhealthiness, and abused people often abuse people because they don’t know any better or different way of operating. I am also not afraid to call these dynamics out when I see them because of my past familiarity with these dynamics.
Back then, I used my leadership abilities for evil even though I thought what I was doing was God’s will. My first act of using my leadership abilities for good may have been when I helped make the case for Exodus closing and then helped close it down. Since then, now that I know better, I have been doing better and have been doing so every chance I get to make amends and spread love, not stigma.
A personal plea…
Whether you are a participant in conversion therapy or thinking of joining its pastoral form of ex-gay ministry, ask what kind of specific and active accountability the leadership has in place; not for you, for them. What is the make-up of the board (or church elders given oversight of the effort)? How often does the board meet? Is the head leader of the group transparent with their accounting and record-keeping? … transparent about personal struggles existing in real-time and not some canned hallelujah story told repeatedly?
If they balk at any of these questions and *any* other questions you may have, you have yet another reason to disengage or not engage with their efforts.
You might be scared and confused (I sure was), but you, as LGBTQ+ people, are not “sexually broken.”
Of course, you may have many questions about how to live as a queer person of faith, and they will have answers to every single one of them (unless it is about their own accountability). But those answers are built on a false ideology. They won’t allow themselves to acknowledge that their worldview is destructive and not sustainable.
Most people reading this are grown adults who can figure this out for themselves in time. Some young people may read this as well and not know where to start. No matter who you are, here is a link to resources I trust. Of course, do your own investigation and due diligence to protect yourself and move forward with whatever works for you. But my resource page may be a good place to start.
You are loved. You are love. Embrace the love.
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