No place for non-believers Youth for Christ's conservative statement of faith pushing people out the door

One of the most contentious issues for many Christian denominations in Canada today is the subject of welcoming and affirming members of the LGBTTQ+ community.

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One of the most contentious issues for many Christian denominations in Canada today is the subject of welcoming and affirming members of the LGBTTQ+ community.

Some mainline denominations, such as the United Church of Canada and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, have already decided to welcome and affirm all, regardless of sexual orientation.

Most conservative and evangelical denominations have resisted a move in that direction. But the pressure on them to change is growing — and not just from the outside. In the U.S., 64 per cent of evangelical church members under the age of 40 support same-sex marriage, up from 48 per cent in 2016.

There are no similar surveys about same-sex marriage and evangelicals in Canada, but there is no reason to believe things are different here. As Sam Reimer, a professor at Crandall University in New Brunswick who studies religion in Canada put it: “The young evangelicals I talk to are changing their attitudes toward same-sex marriage.”

What’s true for evangelical denominations also appears to be true for evangelical para-church organizations, such as Youth For Christ here in Winnipeg. The organization, which has received millions of dollars in government grants and other forms of financial assistance, requires staff to sign a faith statement that says, in part, that “the purity and sanctity of sexual relations” should happen only within marriage “which we believe is a committed union between one man and one woman.”

YFC is feeling pressure from both outside and inside the organization over this policy.

Outside pressure came this month from a coalition of Manitoba skateboarders, who are calling for the creation of a new LGBTTQ+ friendly indoor skateboarding venue to replace YFC’s The Edge — the only indoor skate park in the city.

Coalition members say YFC’s position on marriage makes it unsafe and discriminatory for members of the LGBTTQ+ community.

But there is inside pressure, too. Over the past two years, a number of staff have left because they can no longer support YFC’s stance on marriage; they no longer believe, or they have questions about, the sexuality and marriage portion of the faith statement they had to sign when they joined the organization.

Over the past few weeks, some of them reached out to the Free Press to tell their stories. Some requested anonymity because they didn’t want their own churches to know where they stood on the topic, or because they didn’t want to upset friends who still work at YFC. Most still support YFC and want to see it continue its ministry to youth in the city — but in a more welcoming and affirming way.

Kim Hildebrand was the former director of the Masterworks dance studio at YFC. One source of tension that led her to resign in 2021 was over her inability to hire “passionate and skilled” instructors who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, sign on to the statement of faith.

Started in 1993 as an independent studio that used biblical values to encourage a life of “purpose, generosity and gratitude,” the program had been part of YFC since 2007.

She wanted everyone — students and staff — to feel welcome, whether that was people of “other faiths, no faith, gay or trans.”

People who couldn’t sign the statement because of the provision about marriage, “didn’t fit the YFC box,” she said. “I couldn’t hire a queer woman, even if she was a committed Christian. It was against the rules.”

A “conservative evangelical ethos and mandate” dominates YFC, she said, noting that even in those churches there is room for people who hold different views on various subjects.

“But I couldn’t even talk about it,” she said.

Another former staffer who left because she didn’t feel comfortable with the policy on sexuality said: “I wanted to work at a place where LGBTTQ+ kids feel safe. They can’t feel that way with the current policy. They can’t become a volunteer or staff person if they are LGBTTQ+.”

She noted the policy, while upheld by YFC in Winnipeg, doesn’t originate here; it comes from YFC Canada, the body all YFC affiliates across the country must sign on to in order to be part of the national organization and to benefit from its pension and benefits structure.

“Winnipeg can’t change policies on its own,” she said, adding that same-sex policy is “a reason many staff have left.”

“If you meet LGBTTQ+ kids, hear their stories and see the Christ-likeness in them, it changes your heart,” she said, adding for some, such acceptance is a matter of good mental health, while for some others it’s a matter of “life and death. The stakes are really high.”

Another former staffer who quit over YFC’s policy on sexuality and marriage said what made her uncomfortable was knowing “I couldn’t talk about it at YFC.”

“It makes me sad to think of all the people who made YFC work now are no longer there,” she said, adding YFC is “putting its own priorities on the programs, not the priorities of youth.”

Another former staffer left after her views on LGBTTQ+ changed following Bible study, research and conversations with friends and family.

“I used to subscribe to the view of ‘love the sinner, hate the sin,’ but how can I hold that view when what you call sin is who they are?” she asked.

Even though she felt some in leadership were open to talking about the subject with her, “YFC Winnipeg can’t make its own decision on this,” she said. “Like in (any) denomination, policies are set at the top.”

She also feels leadership in Winnipeg is in a “really tough spot” since much of the donor base is from conservative evangelical churches. “There is concern donors will stop giving” if YFC Winnipeg is seen as too progressive in this area, she said.

“I wish YFC could be a space where all youth feel welcome and safe, including queer youth,” she said, adding it doesn’t help to just say “all are welcome.”

YFC needs to “make it explicit,” she said. “Name the more vulnerable and marginal ones and make sure they know they are welcome.”

Jason Hradoway worked in the YFC national office, including in human resources and volunteer support. He left in 2021.

YFC’s statement of faith reflects conservative evangelical Christianity, he said, adding he left because his values no longer aligned with those views.

In particular, he found it hard to screen and train people for jobs at YFC when he no longer subscribed to the organization’s policy on marriage.

“It was a matter of integrity for me,” he said.

He noted that as a religious organization, YFC has the right to discriminate about who can work for it — much like a church could not be forced to hire an atheist as its pastor.

As for YFC Winnipeg, it is “feeling it (this issue) the most” among YFCs in Canada and is a “case study” right now for the Canada-wide organization.

While he knows of staff who have quit because of their disagreement with YFC’s position, he knows there are still some there who feel the same way but hope they can quietly “make change.”

They keep quiet about it, he said, since they know “their employment is at stake” if they are too open about the subject.

Winnipeg isn’t the only place where this is happening, Hradoway said. There are others among the 700 or so staff who work for YFC affiliates across Canada who feel the same way.

“The internal pressure is building,” he said, adding this position is problematic for YFC Canada since it looks for staff from a variety of denominations but operates from a conservative Christian point of view.

That will only harm the organization in the long run, he said, since many good people who want to serve youth will be unable to work at YFC because they can’t sign the faith statement.

Before he left the organization, Hradoway was part of discussions about making space for diverse beliefs in YFC through a broader statement of faith. He doesn’t know what happened to that idea and doesn’t think leadership is open to changing the policy.

“This is the hill they have chosen to die on,” he said.

While he disagrees with YFC’s approach to this topic, he hopes people won’t “demonize” it. “I still love the organization and don’t want people to see it as something that hates gay kids,” he said.

When asked about the policy on marriage and sexuality, YFC Winnipeg executive director Cliff Heide said “as ministers of the gospel and as members of a religious order, we have an agreed-upon set of beliefs and behaviours that we follow. We believe that it is important for us as ministers of the gospel to place ourselves under the Lordship of Christ and follow his teaching, as we understand it, on marriage and sexuality.”

He went on to say it is “our strongly held faith belief that our ministry workers be aligned with the scriptures. Our beliefs have not changed in our rapidly changing culture, but we have been learning and growing in our ability to walk with young people through these challenging cultural matters.”

Tim Coles is the national director for YFC Canada. Staff, he said, don’t just run programs — including skateboarding — but are trained as “ministers of the Gospel.” As such, they need to be “faithful to what we understand the Word of God calls us to do.”

He acknowledged there are different views on LGBTTQ+ in churches in Canada and expressed openness to having staff be able to talk about YFC’s stance on marriage and sexuality.

But, he said, “our position has not changed.” People who want to work for YFC still need to sign the statement of faith. If they can’t agree with it, “they don’t have to work for YFC,” he added.

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John Longhurst

John Longhurst
Faith reporter

John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.

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