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Netflix Doc ‘Pray Away’ Unfairly Disparages Christian Ministries, Say Leaders Featured

By Josh Shepherd
Anne Paulk Restored Hope Network
Author Anne Paulk of Restored Hope Network in Colorado Springs, Colorado appears in new Netflix documentary "Pray Away"; she claims that producers did not contact her regarding use of footage. (Photo: RHN / Twitter)

A documentary that premiered recently on Netflix misrepresents Christian nonprofit groups it depicts. Further, Pray Away has sparked backlash against a coalition of local church ministries that has for years dealt with censorship and distortion of its work.

That’s according to multiple sources including Anne Paulk, executive director of Restored Hope Network, based in Colorado Springs. “The film demonizes anyone who doesn’t agree with their narrow point of view,” she said in a phone interview. “It doesn’t depict the breadth of people who experience LGBT desires and have different outcomes.”

Pray Away purports to recount the rise and fall of Exodus International, formerly a Christian-based network of ex-gay ministries. The nonprofit group served people who sought out its approach to unwanted same-sex attraction.

Exodus closed its doors in 2013, with some leaders apologizing for the organization’s past stances on LGBTQ issues. Others renounced their Christian faith altogether.

John Warren, a businessman and former Exodus board member from 2010 to 2012, said he was “saddened” and “angry” after watching the film.

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“It’s a mockery of good people who live self-sacrificial lives for the sake of advancing God’s kingdom,” said Warren in a phone interview.

Anne Paulk
Anne Paulk

When Exodus closed, some ministries involved re-formed a coalition called Restored Hope Network led by Anne Paulk. For decades, she has shared her story of leaving a lesbian lifestyle including in her book Restoring Sexual Identity.

In July 2019, Amazon banned Paulk’s book from being sold. Last October, Facebook shut down the public page for Restored Hope Network, saying it violated “safety policies.”

“It’s troubling how the film discounts the option of people who may not want to embrace being gay,” said Paulk. “As people are vilified, society becomes intolerant of diverse viewpoints. Censorship is the result.”

Truth and Consequences

From executive producer Ryan Murphy (Glee), Pray Away features former disaffected Exodus staff members telling their stories.

Those voices include Anne Paulk’s ex-husband, John Paulk. Formerly board chairman of Exodus, he was a prominent public face of the ex-gay ministry for over a decade.

John Paulk
John Paulk (credit: Netflix)

In 2000, John Paulk was caught on-camera leaving a gay bar in Washington, D.C. Soon after, he left his position at Exodus. However, Anne stayed with him for another 12 years.

According to Anne Paulk, producers never contacted her to discuss use of footage or images featuring her. “It was disappointing that private pictures like our engagement and wedding photos were used. If producers had bothered to ask me, I would have said no,” she said.

A clip used in the film shows the married couple appearing on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 1993. Winfrey asked John if he ever wanted to return to the gay lifestyle. He answered, “No.” But Anne Paulk says her answer—not shown in the film—provides insight into the issues at hand.

“I think you’re asking me, Do I ever experience temptation? Let me give you my answer to that,” she replied to Winfrey.

Anne recounts the interview: “I answered honestly that, at the time, I did on occasion experience homosexual temptation. But that doesn’t mean that’s how I want to resolve it. The crowd was ready to devour me after that answer. Yet it was the honest truth.”

In retrospect, she said that answer provided a “pattern” for her ex-husband. “Because he lied, he set himself up for charges of hypocrisy. Then he had to resolve that dichotomy, and harmed others as a result. If he’d been honest, that would’ve been helpful.”

Questions About Film Funding

Since its release on August 3, coverage of the buzzy PG-13-rated doc has focused on lionizing John Paulk, or lengthy analysis that fully agrees with the film’s narrative.

No media has yet explored how the film was funded. Opening credits of Pray Away mention “Perspective Fund,” which a current job posting links to Wellspring Philanthropic Fund.

Conservative group Capital Research Center has published an exposé on Wellspring, calling it “an anonymous dark money foundation.” Since 2001, Wellspring has reportedly granted over $1.1 billion to various socially liberal causes.

Paulk said she had not heard about the film’s funding, but did perceive its bias. “It’s a very strong pro-gay narrative,” she said. “The movie plays on emotional appeal and uses LGBTQ talking points.”

Care Rather Than Shame

For years, John Warren has seen Christian-based ministry to the LGBTQ community. (Christian counselors use the term “sexual orientation change efforts,” or SOCE.) A former Exodus board member, he now observes Restored Hope Network from a distance.

John Warren
John Warren

Warren says nothing in Pray Away reflects SOCE ministry he has seen based in worship, biblical teaching, and talk therapy. “The film presents Christians as naive, backwards, sometimes well-intended rednecks,” he said. “In reality, such ministry is focused on repentance and turning to Christ, rather than behavior modification.”

As to why Exodus shut down, Warren also disputes the film’s explanation. “The demise of Exodus was financial,” he said. “It was not sustainable, certainly not under Alan Chambers’ leadership. He made media decisions that can only be termed as self-promotional.”

Chambers became president of Exodus in 2001. Ten years later, he publicly apologized for the ministry’s approach in several press interviews. Two years later he presided over the closure of Exodus.

In forming Restored Hope Network, Anne Paulk said they learned from past mistakes. She admits some local ministries under the Exodus umbrella had overstated their claims. “Today, we take pains to clarify that specific degrees of change are not promised. There are a variety of outcomes.”

Care, rather than shame, motivates their approach, she says. However, Paulk notes emotional responses are subjective.

“These ministries are not coercive in any way,” she said. “Someone who comes in will hear a compassionate, biblical message. If they’re offended, it’s not shaming. This person can make their own decision about the viewpoint presented.”

Responding in Opposite Spirit

The film’s climax includes interview excerpts with Anne Paulk edited out of context, backed by minor-key music and interspersed with voiceovers from various former Exodus staff.

In our interview, Paulk read several responses to the film she has received so far. Documentary viewers called her a “self-hating homophobe” among other terms.

Yet, in fact, she has no disparaging words to say about the filmmakers or her ex-husband. “It’s his life to live, and he gets to choose how to live it,” she said. “His choice to jettison his marriage led to wreckage and pain in our family. I’m sad about that.”

Similarly, Warren called the movie “of little value” but did not denigrate its filmmakers. “Do I know the hearts of the people involved? I really can’t, so I want to be careful. But it does appear to be designed to be hurtful to faithful Christians.”

He explained what he meant by that: “This is beautiful, transparent, vulnerable ministry — and it’s difficult. People like Anne, they wake up every day to glorify God and love their neighbor as themselves.”

This article originally appeared at The Stream.

Freelance journalist Josh Shepherd writes on faith, culture, and public policy for several media outlets. He and his wife live in the Washington, D.C. area with their two children.



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19 Responses

  1. Why would any Christian be subscribing to Netflix anyway? One only should remember how they brought out a movie depicting Jesus and his disciples as a bunch of roving homosexuals.
    If Netflix did this to any of your loved ones would you be doing business with them? And yet many professing Christian’s continue to do so.

    1. I agree. I know Anne, and some of the others I’ve heard are mentioned in this so-called documentary. Evil and sad.

  2. Thank you for an informative article. I appreciate the sincerity of true believers involved in ministry.

  3. The extreme bullying that goes on with the whole LGBTQ movement is a very bad sign of things to come. The public acceptance has empowered people with broken consciences. I have seen this in two bosses. They had zero conscience in any matters of what we would call right and wrong and it is concerning existing laws about criminal behavior. This will end badly for everyone. I am afraid we will see this soon. I am expecting the movement to go extremely violent. Just look at the stories of Sodom and that time the Benjaminites were almost entirely wiped out. History repeats because men never learn from it.

    1. Greg,

      When you cannot say in public that you believe we are made in God’s image, male and female, or do not think gay marriage is such a good thing, then you will see what oppression is. When people are not allowed to discuss differences without being called names, that is intolerance. The very thing you accuse others of is the very sin you practice.

      You do not understand what fascism means. Look it up. Just because someone disagrees with you does not make one a fascist. It’s a 1st Amendment type a thing.

    2. Extreme bullying? Sixty years ago, homosexuality was illegal in all fifty states, and it wasn’t until forty years before it was fully decriminalized, and only twenty years ago when such laws were finally declared unconstitutional, and a large majority of conservative Christians opposed these changes every step of the way.

      LGBTQ people have been subjected to far more than “extreme bullying” for centuries — e.g. routine imprisonment and brutalization — much of it at the hands of those who sat in church every Sunday, and even though they have reach equality under the law in this country, the bullying has not stopped in many places in the US.

      I agree that two wrongs don’t make a right, but perhaps a little perspective is in order. I still recall how the sky was falling when gay marriage was legalized, with claims that pastors would be forced into marrying gay couples against their will, and churches being punished if they refused to toe the line. All baseless hyperbole designed to instill existential fear and hatred for the gay community. None of it has come to pass. Pastors can preach freely against the “evils of homosexuality” and still maintain their tax-exempt status. Not one pastor has been forced to marry anyone against their will.

      Equating being condemned for expressing an unpopular opinion with extreme bullying and violence is ridiculous, which is why you have to claim darkly that it’s “a sign of things to come” despite zero evidence of it happening. Meanwhile, thousands of LGBTQ people are still being physically attacked every year in the US and dozens of anti-LGBTQ laws are being passed around the country, mostly being driven by evangelical conservative lawmakers who would prefer gay people would simply go away.

      If people like you ever start suffering even a fraction of the targeted bigotry and physical violence the LGBTQ community routinely suffer, even today, you’re welcome to come back and tell me “I told you so” but I have every confidence I’ll still be waiting decades from now.

      1. Its all due to evolution: the genes know that a ‘lifestyle’ which denies procreation is a genetic dead end and bad for the propagation of the species and its genetic diversity. There’s also a financial implication. The homosexual ‘lifestyle’ per se not reproducing, relies hypocritically on the reproductive success of normal relationships (I speak biologically here) to produce the future consumers who will drive the economy and provide the taxes that will fund the retirements of the unreproductive.

        1. If there were not some evolutionary benefit to homosexuality it would have died out hundreds of thousands of years ago. Despite the fact of virtual worldwide opprobrium for the last thousand years or more, homosexuals continue to be born and survive. With ~7 billion people on the planet, clearly the human race isn’t dying out.
          Homosexuality doesn’t deny any heterosexual person the right to procreate and some homosexuals procreate anyway. Your comments are unscientific and mean.

      2. Thank you Mike! I just watched the movie last night. The suicide rate of individuals who have engaged in conversion therapy is about 50%. This is certainly not a ministry if it is killing people. It makes sense, because the basis is self-hatred. You must change your sexuality for God to accept you. There is nothing responsible about this type of treatment. Plus there is no way to verify that it “works” for the 50% that don’t commit suicide. Is “being gay” the #1 cause of death in our country? No. But suicide is. How is promoting or defending this treatment loving your neighbor?

  4. I haven’t seen the film but fully expect that the criticism in this post is accurate. It’s amazing how quickly the pendulum has swung. Not long ago if you had same sex attractions you were encouraged and expected to somehow become straight. Now, something’s wrong with you if you don’t embrace the attractions. And if it’s based on moral or religious grounds, you can be considered self hating and hateful.

    My concern with the film is the affect on the church. There are, and maybe always will be, Christians who view homosexuality as one thing, and those who deal with it as projects. But there’s other Christians for whom the film will reinforce their view that homosexuality should be viewed positively and have interpreted the Bible in new and novel ways that frankly do damage to how the Bible is viewed. I don’t think the film will help either one to see beyond what they already assume, and that’s not helpful to those who live with same sex attractions and walk the really hard path of dealing with them because that’s what faithfulness and following Jesus means.

    The unfortunate thing is that both sides will often miss seeing God’s grace in this journey. For the traditionalist, it is not failing of grace to not be straight. And for the other side, sex is a gift of God, not a right, and to choose to abstain as a matter of faithfulness is testimony. The church historically has not been very helpful or encouraging, forcing those of us walking this road to walk alone. But if both sides could, for just awhile, listen to their brothers and sisters they might see the beauty of God’s grace for the hard road, and be encouraged to be faithful in whatever they’re facing.

  5. Becket Cook has a YouTube channel, The Becket Cook Show, and has done an excellent job of explaining this movie. Becket came out of homosexuality about a decade ago and graduated from Talbot seminary.

  6. God declared that sex be between a man and a woman. Married to each other to be more precise.

    Now the problem. Any professing Christian (whether liberal or conservative) who mistreats, curses, abuses, intimidates, manipulates, or acts totally unloving toward any human being who identifies as LGBTQ is acting against God’s primary law to “love God and thy neighbor as thyself”

    1. To me, the issue is, we are being asked to embrace ideologies contrary to Scripture. Actually, being bullied, intimidated, fired or sued into submission is another issue that Christians and Conservatives face. I believe the conversation needs to address the notion that we can agree to disagree, which is not the case nowadays. We are all made in God’s Image and are of infinite worth. I can still love, work, and be friends with others, but do not ask me to embrace something contrary to biblical ethics and my conscience. What it comes down to is our hearts and how we respond to a Loving, Holy, and Just Savior. Life is not made up of gender, sex and skin color. We are much, much more.

  7. Mike, for what it is worth, laws are still on the books for the persecution of members of the LGBQ community. In North Carolina they are referred to as CAN laws, (crimes against nature). You will see those charges in the ‘police reports’ section of the paper very often. From the bit of research that I did, NC is not the only state utilizing them for that purpose. I agree with the earlier statement, ‘love your neighbor as yourself’. The second most important law per Jesus himself.

  8. So much to unpack here:
    1. I pray that we investigate any accusations of abuse by these ministries with the same rigor that we would any financial or sexual abuses in the church. It should not be downplayed, denied, explained away, ignored or blanketly labeled as some sort of attack by “liberals” or the MSM simply because the targets struggle with homosexuality or are members of the LGBTQ+ community. Abuse is not ok, period.
    2. Similar to #1, we need to apply the same discipline and grace to homosexuality as we do to other sins. A lot of the hypocrisy around Christian beliefs on homosexuality are about how we will be gracious and forgive adultery, lying, theft, and so many other blatant sins (that are mentioned more frequently in scripture), yet treat homosexuality as if it is unforgivable and those who commit it should be eternally damned and banished. There are a lot of other sins tearing apart at the influence and impact of the church; makes me wonder where we’d be if we treated those as seriously as we do homosexuality.
    3. Censorship is about government persecution. Have you had your assets frozen, faced imprisonment or harrasment by the government for your Christian beliefs? Then stop yelling censorship every time a business or organization – that has a right to establish its own standards and terms of service – enforces them. Conservatism is about small governments that don’t tell businesses what to do, right? Conservatives support bakeries in not having to provide a cake for a gay marriage because it would violate their beliefs, right? Same applies here. Just because the beliefs are left-leaning doesn’t suddenly mean the laws change.
    4. Let’s be consistent in our beliefs around “cancel culture.” We cry about conservatives being “canceled” for unpopular beliefs on social justice issues…but are the first ones telling Christians to cancel Netflix (or Target or Disney or Keurig or Hollywood…). Same thing. Whether you do (or don’t) consider a boycott to be a part of cancel culture, just be consistent. Let your yes be yes and your no be no at all times.

    We have to learn how to lovingly co-exist with those who hold different views. We can’t boycott or bully others into believing any more than they can do that to us. It is my belief we will not win people over to Christ if we don’t consider what I have listed above, and learn how to come to the table in a manner that hates the sin yet loves the sinner.

  9. “Marin Heiskell” well said indeed. Christians are so quick to respond with outcry yet we should look in the mirror ourselves.

    A young Christian in the faith who had read the Bible memorized 66 verses (one from each book) and when he innocently asked his pastor whether he could quote a verse from Judges or Zephaniah the pastor (who could not do it) chastised the boy saying such questions were condemnation and are sinful.

    How shameful of that pastor.

    Christians must be aware of our own hypocrisy. Jesus had no time for them, and told them so.

    How can we convert or win over unbelievers if we chastise others who don’t know the Bible like we do, if we cannot honestly answer that we have read it ourselves cover to cover.

    26 of the 27 books of The New Testament mention false prophets. And where do we find them today, in our churches often leading the sheep.

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