The General Conference and Colin Cook’s “Gay Change” Ministry
by Loren Seibold | 12 April 2023 |
In the 1970s, an Adventist ex-pastor proposed to “cure” homosexuals of their same-sex attraction. Colin Cook was an Adventist clergyman from England, defrocked for having multiple sexual encounters with young men while he was a minister.
Cook told church leaders that he had developed a program that would turn homosexual people straight—in effect, a “cure” for same-sex attraction. The leaders of the Columbia Union and the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists strongly endorsed Cook’s untested program. Neal Wilson’s office authorized financial investment in—and church publicity for—Cook’s gay-change ministry, called Quest Learning Center, located in Reading, Pennsylvania.
Quest was embraced by Christians inside and outside of our denomination, since Cook offered an answer to a difficult theological and behavioral question. Sociologist Ron Lawson, who has done the most complete study of the phenomenon, called him “the dominating intellectual force within the ‘ex-gay’ movement.”
Cook gained attention for his views in a series of articles in Insight magazine, an appearance on the Adventist television show It is Written, and in other Adventist contexts. After a major article in Ministry magazine in September 1981, Adventist homosexuals who were desperate to be “cured” moved to Reading. The Ministry article was a key reason, because it was a long, promising piece that offered hope to homosexual people who felt that what they were doing was a sin and that they needed to become heterosexual.
Quest had two problems. First, it proved a false hope. Ron Lawson’s interviews with those who went through the program showed no change. To date there is no evidence that homosexuality can be either prayed (or counseled) away. It is safe to say that gay change is a failure, and only the most naive Christians still hold to it.
Second, and central to my purpose here, is that the center’s director and male “counselor” took sexual advantage of his counselees. Under the guise of desensitizing his clients to gay sex, Cook set up situations where they would massage one another and engage in other edgy encounters, masturbatory confessions, and fantasies. Of the 14 clients whom Lawson was able to interview, 13 reported having sexual encounters with Cook, their denominationally approved “therapist.”
Again, this was a program given both publicity and financial support from the General Conference. When Ministry magazine published its piece, it was effectively telling pastors, “If you have someone who is homosexual in your congregation, send them to Quest.” And Quest drew clients. Lawson writes: “By 1986 the total number who had been counseled at Quest had reached about 250. … By 1986 it was estimated that between 700 and 800 people seeking ‘freedom from homosexuality’ were attending weekly meetings [of Cook’s affiliated organization, Homosexuals Anonymous] in 60 chapters.”
After considerable research into Quest, Lawson sent the disturbing news of Cook’s abusive behavior to church leaders in a letter dated Oct. 23, 1986. Cook was dismissed and the financial support removed.
The end of the story? No. Ministry magazine published a follow-up interview with Cook in September 1987 titled “Homosexual Recovery–Six Years Later.” It only alluded to a “crisis” in Cook’s ministry, but Cook was able to tell the church that he was now completely free from homosexuality.
Lawson writes that the article’s “main thrust was to reaffirm that the Cook approach to the healing of homosexuality was valid and retained the blessing of the Adventist church. It announced that Cook would ‘soon resume leading seminars for recovering homosexuals’ and promised that Cook was going to continue counseling young gay men.”
Adventists weren’t told the whole story, because church leaders didn’t want to admit they had been wrong. Yet Lawson had collected not just the fact that there was abuse, but the details of how it was done. One counselee made tape recordings of phone counseling sessions, during which Cook breathlessly asked his counselee, “How much have you masturbated?” “What images did you use?” and “How did you hold your hand?” After a heavy breathing pause, Cook released a deep gasp/sigh.
One of the tragedies of the Quest Learning Center fiasco was how many young men were stuck in Reading, Pennsylvania, when Cook moved to Denver in 1993. Their families and churches had counted on their becoming straight, and they were ashamed to go home.
Although Adventist church leaders knew about the program’s failure and Cook’s abuse of its clients, their silence allowed Cook to find support in Colorado from evangelical ministries such as Focus on the Family, which were as eager as Adventists had been to embrace a “cure” for homosexuality. In Colorado, Cook continued to “counsel” young men under a program called FaithQuest Colorado. According to Lawson, “Cook also re-appeared on national television and received renewed publicity from Seventh-day Adventist sources.”
Sadly, he continued to abuse counselees. In the mid ’90s, Lawson spoke with a religion reporter at The Denver Post who revealed the ongoing debacle to the world, in a front-page story published Oct. 27, 1995, which included the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s complicit silence.
The Denver Post article ended much of Cook’s evangelical support. Yet, according to Lawson, there is evidence that he continued to counsel gay men even into relatively recent years. Given his history, it is difficult to imagine that his “counseling” tactics changed.
Why the Victims Deserve an Apology
The church leaders who originally funded Quest withdrew financial support after the first revelations of Cook’s behavior. But they didn’t let church members know, nor did they warn their homosexual members. The follow-up article, published in Ministry magazine even after Cook was no longer being supported by the denomination, implied his continuing success.
The only formal renouncement ever made was a cryptic paragraph in Adventist Review saying that the church was no longer affiliated with Cook. In its issue dated Dec. 14, 1995, the official church paper noted that “a major Colorado newspaper” had carried an article alleging that Colin Cook, “whom it identifies as a Seventh-day Adventist,” had engaged in inappropriate conduct toward counselees participating in his organization, FaithQuest Colorado. It added that Cook “denies the allegations” and then proclaimed that “Mr. Cook’s seminars and counseling activities are neither connected to nor endorsed by the Seventh-day Adventist Church.”
As Lawson points out, “this statement did nothing to direct counselees away from the predator—it did not even indicate that the counseling was related to homosexuality, nor did it advise pastors to refrain from directing church youth to Cook or warn the youth against trusting themselves to him.” It certainly wasn’t an apology, nor was the renunciation as attention-getting as the 10-page recommendation in Ministry magazine had been.
Cook had begun this behavior with counselees in Pennsylvania, and he continued it for years afterward as he received references from evangelical ministries. Interviews and recordings show that he continued the same behavior in Colorado that he’d begun in Pennsylvania. How many young Christian men were abused because our denomination wouldn’t publicly admit it was wrong?
In short, the denominational leaders who put this in motion eventually learned what was happening, and yet they let their first recommendation stand because it was too hard to admit they were wrong. They would rather support a sexually abusive charlatan than admit that there was no such cure—and there still isn’t.
I think that deserves an honest public apology.
Actually, more than an apology. Given the circumstances, wouldn’t the compassionate thing be to provide reparations for the years of counseling and suffering, the disruption of leaving home and moving to Reading or Colorado, because these young men believed with all their hearts that their denomination had approved Colin Cook’s program to “cure” them?
Gay change therapy is a failure, even though those at the top of the denomination are still supporting gay change to this day, now with an orientation to celibacy. Not only has there been no repentance, but our church leaders are continuing to pursue the same approach.
I think that even for those who can’t let go of their disapproval of homosexual relationships, an official apology should still be made for the church’s failure to prevent their own members from being sexually abused—in fact, for giving homosexual members tacit encouragement, even after Cook’s behavior was known, to continue to trust him as a counselor.
Will we find some courage in the denomination to initiate such an apology?
 Ronald Lawson, “The Adventist Church and Its LGBT Members, Part 1,” Spectrum Magazine, vol. 48, no. 4 (March 2021).
 Ronald Lawson, “The Troubled Career of an ‘Ex-Gay’ Healer: Colin Cook, Seventh-day Adventists, and the Christian Right,” paper presented at the American Sociological Association meeting in San Francisco (Aug. 22, 1998).
 “NAD Leaders Comment on Colorado News Stories,” Adventist Review, vol. 172, no. 55 (Dec. 14, 1995), p. 6.
 Lawson, op. cit.
Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor of Adventist Today. This essay was originally published in the Winter 2023 Adventist Today magazine.