TIME Religion

How a Leading Christian College Turned Against Its Gay Leader

Billy Graham Center, Wheaton College; Wheaton, Illinois, USA
Blake Kent—Design Pics/Corbis Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill.

Julie Rodgers writes and speaks about community and diversity.

Wheaton College in Illinois hired me to help with LGBT student outreach. Then, the school had a change of heart

I had been a gay Christian blogger for several years when Wheaton College reached out to me in June of 2014. A ministry associate in the Chaplain’s office said they hoped to hire someone to support sexual minorities on campus. They wanted to hire someone who was gay, but they needed the kind of gay who could sign Wheaton’s Community Covenant—a code of conduct that says marriage is between a man and a woman and sexual expression is reserved for that relationship alone. All students and staff sign the Covenant annually, and if anyone is caught breaking it then they’re reproached and potentially dismissed. This meant that gay and lesbian students couldn’t date or marry, which a growing number of students vocally opposed, and Wheaton thought maybe I could help.

Anxious but earnest, I agreed to sign it after a transparent round of interviews where I highlighted all the reasons that I, an openly gay blogger, might not be the best fit for Wheaton. The director of human resources said they knew what they were getting into and I was the ideal candidate for a rigorous liberal arts college with a diverse student body expressing a range of needs. At the time, I was still kind of conservative on sexual ethics: I longed to be a part of communities like Wheaton and I thought a commitment to celibacy was worth it if it meant I could be involved.

Private meetings with the president and provost were routine for me within weeks of my appointment in September 2014. During my first week at Wheaton, President Philip Ryken approached me with concerns about a blog post I had retweeted, and he encouraged me to lay low on social media. The blog post in question asked Christians to calm the scrutiny when it comes to gay people—a point that was lost on conservative alumni like Eric Teetsel, Director of Faith Outreach for the Marco Rubio campaign, who was outraged by my hire and relentlessly monitored my social media activity.

The second week I found myself at lunch with President Ryken, where he cautioned me about proceeding with any public speaking or writing. If I was faithful in quiet ways, I remember him saying, then God might give me a more public platform down the road. Because I was already a fairly well-known blogger by the time Wheaton hired me, I had been slated to speak at some of the most prominent Christian conferences in the country: two national conferences with Q Ideas, two with Youth Specialties, and several chapel addresses at other Christian colleges. President Ryken’s encouragement to move into a season of quiet ministry that was confined to Wheaton College was the beginning of a series of conversations that left me feeling silenced and, by the end of it all, heartbroken.

Meanwhile, students retreated to my office non-stop. Many of them were sexual minorities, but the vast majority were those looking for a safe place to tell the truth about their confusion, or their addictions, or the gnawing sense that they wouldn’t be loved if they were truly known. One student broke out in hives when we discussed the possibility of coming out. One found the strength to replace cutting with long walks in the cold.

Wheaton College is a model for Evangelicals in many ways. Often considered “the Harvard of the Christian schools,” faculty have a range of beliefs on every debatable issue and the students are some of the brightest and most earnest I’ve ever encountered. Wheaton’s administration knows that in order to be a rigorous liberal arts college, they have to engage critical issues with cognitive complexity and charity. They know they need to welcome diversity in order to be relevant. More than that, they want to welcome diversity because our world is diverse and every human matters.

Wheaton showed extraordinary courage when they hired me. At a time when Evangelicals are supremely anxious about all things LGBT, they hired an openly gay writer to work in their Chaplain’s office as a spiritual leader. Even though I could sign the Community Covenant at that time, I was a risk—a risk they took because they care about their gay students and know they need an advocate.

They’re not alone in their desire to show support: Evangelical leaders approach me often with whispers to say they love gay people. They say they’re grieved by the way the church has treated sexual minorities and they long to see us move past this—they long to love without qualification. Then they unload their fears about how much they would lose.

Wheaton felt the weight of that risk. I exchanged countless emails with President Ryken and Provost Stan Jones during my first semester on the job. Even though they had known I referred to myself as “gay” prior to hiring me, they encouraged me not to refer to myself as gay any longer. They asked me to say I was simply a Christian who experienced same-sex attraction, one who was open to the Lord healing me in ways that could lead to a holy marriage with a man. The problem was that I didn’t think I needed to be healed––I had been clear about that before I was hired. I had finally come to believe it was good to be gay, that God actually delights in those of us who are gay. They said they understood I felt that way but that donors and prospective students’ parents felt differently.

We tried to work it out. In December I crafted a personal statement (heavily edited by President Ryken and Provost Jones) to assuage the concerns of anxious critics. I chose not to publish a feature story in Christianity Today because, after a conversation with Wheaton’s Director of Media Relations, LaTonya Taylor, I feared I might lose my job. The article, never published, offered a positive narrative for gay Christians and encouraged the church to celebrate the presence of LGBT people. Wheaton’s administration had always pushed back against my attempt to create a positive narrative around being gay rather than one of “brokenness” and the need for healing. The Covenant doesn’t explicitly talk about the badness of a gay orientation, however, so I felt the article would have been in line with the school’s statement of faith. But on a midday walk around campus in the cold with Taylor, I gathered that she was concerned the college would make a public display of the controversy the article would create. My sense was that if I moved forward with publishing, the administration would use it as an opportunity to say they made a mistake in hiring me but they took care of the mistake.

Despite my exhaustive attempts to be a submissive staff member, I found myself in the President’s office after I returned from Christmas break, the first week of January 2015.

He said he could see a situation in which I would choose to resign. I recall him saying that, because of the fire Wheaton had come under by conservative constituents—particularly in the offices of admissions and advancement­­—it would be wise for us consider our options moving forward.

I swallowed to suppress tears. The college had hired me precisely because I was gay and they needed someone to care for LGBT students. Hadn’t they resolved this prior to hiring me? Hadn’t they anticipated negative backlash and decided it was worth it for their vulnerable students?

President Ryken said he’d heard nothing but positive things about my ministry with students on campus, but they hadn’t anticipated so much criticism from alumni and donors. If the college had been aware of my public personae prior to hiring me, I remember him saying, then we wouldn’t be in this unfortunate position.

I asked him what the resignation process would look like and said I would never initiate such a thing.

He said it would be the kind of situation where the resignation would be my own choice, and he would commend me for ministry opportunities elsewhere. He said that if for some reason his presence at Wheaton began to have a negative impact on the college, then he would remove himself because ultimately he wants what’s best for the institution. He said he knew I wanted the best for Wheaton.

The conversation ended with him saying we weren’t there yet, but that it was something he wanted to put on my radar as a possibility in the future. What I heard, which I told him in a meeting in February, was this: LGBT people are not wanted at Wheaton—not if word gets out to the donors.

My history with Wheaton’s administration has been on my mind as I’ve watched the controversy surrounding Dr. Larycia Hawkins, whom I know personally. Her choice to stand in solidarity with Muslims eventually led to her and Wheaton parting ways. We now know there were white professors who said the same thing she said, but they were given the opportunity to co-write statements with the provost that put them back in good graces. Dr. Hawkins, who affirmed the college’s Statement of Faith at every point, was not given that opportunity.

While Dr. Hawkins and I were scrutinized for different reasons, our stories have this in common: we urged Christians to stand with and for groups that sit at the center of political debates. And we did that as women, one black and one gay. I can only speculate about why Wheaton’s administration has been inconsistent in their treatment of different employees, but one thing is clear: fear makes public perception supremely important.

Wheaton has shown flashes of courage and their choice to hire me was a brave one. What’s sad is that they caved, capitulating to the fears of one part of their very broad constituency. Hiring me for the reasons they initially said they did was an opportunity for them to communicate to LGBT students that God loves them and Wheaton wants them.

As I kept quiet and covered for the college, I began to feel like I was participating in the oppression of the very people I longed to support. My experience with the administration confirmed a quiet concern that had grown for years: that traditional views of marriage were often rooted in something other than sincere Christian convictions. If they couldn’t support someone committed to celibacy—someone who abided by their Community Covenant alongside every straight employee—I could only conclude that their anxiety wasn’t about my sex life. Their anxiety was about my existence.

I resigned from Wheaton during the summer of 2015 and began publicly advocating for same-sex marriage in the church. I went to Wheaton to support vulnerable students, but the negotiations I made to stay there made me feel like a mouthpiece for a movement I couldn’t support.

After my time there came to an end, a Vice President urged me not to go public with my experience at Wheaton; he said he hoped I would consider “keeping it in the family.” I have kept this quiet for over a year, declining interviews and redirecting questions out of a desire to be as charitable as possible. I can’t stay quiet any longer, though, because my silence comes at the cost of the most vulnerable. The same conversations happen quietly behind closed doors all over the country.

The stories of the earnest students that sat in my office were sacred, and the people they yearn to please have sent a message that, at best, they might be kind of tolerated one day. If gays commit to never date or marry, if they keep their stories quiet, if they remain theologically conservative and they war against their gayness, then maybe they can kind of stick around. They probably won’t get a job on staff and there will certainly be special rules for them, but they might be tolerated someday.

These students do not need to hear there’s a chance they might be tolerated. They need to be celebrated. They need to hear they’re wanted. They need to be protected by people with power. They have a lot of love to give away and they need to be told the truth about the beauty of their love—that it’s good for society and it’s good for the church. The students who moved me with their courage need to hear they’re worth more than a little money. They need to hear, more than anything else, that God sees them and God loves them.

Editor’s note: TIME reached out to Wheaton College in Illinois for a response. The school sent the following statement:

Julie Rodgers was employed by Wheaton College from September 2, 2014 to July 13, 2015. Like all Wheaton College employees, Julie Rodgers signed and agreed to live by the College’s Community Covenant and Statement of Faith, and it was understood that she was voluntarily aligned with the College’s theological and moral commitments.

Early in her time at Wheaton, it became clear that Ms. Rodgers did not fully realize the extent to which some conflated her public statements and the College’s views. For that reason, College administrators encouraged her to learn the College community so that she would understand the impact of her writing, speaking and social media activity. They asked that in referring to herself as gay, Ms. Rodgers also be clear about her moral commitments related to the Community Covenant.

Ms. Rodgers’ resignation came as a surprise to President Ryken and to the College community generally. She was not asked, encouraged, or pressured to resign. Her communication of her resignation followed the publication of a blog post that announced a significant change in her views on integrating Christian beliefs and same-sex issues.

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