by Beth Backes
An 8-year-old girl with long braids bounces into her Sunday School room wearing her favorite yellow dress, never imagining the terrifying experience about to unfold. The roaming hands of a man she trusted, her teacher, touch her in ways that leave her stunned and afraid, even while the man’s wife is in the same room teaching other children. The girl swallows hard, blinking back tears. Whom should she tell? Would anyone believe her?
A teenage girl accepts a ride home from a man who sexually assaults her in the car. The man is her youth pastor. People in the church adore him. If she told, wouldn’t it mean she was ruining a promising ministry? Would God be mad at her?
Two young ministry leaders are dating, and he makes sexual advances. She resists, but he will not stop. Rape is such a strong word, she thinks. The devastated woman doesn’t know whom to tell that a leader on staff date-raped her.
A lead pastor counseling a vulnerable woman gropes her during a session in his office. He was her trusted pastor, a seemingly safe shepherd, the last man she believed would harm her. Night after night, she struggles to find sleep on a pillow wet with her tears. To whom could she possibly turn now?
In the fall of 2017, news stories about prominent, influential men facing accusations of sexual assault sent shock waves through the nation. The sad truth is this: What made headlines in Hollywood and beyond happens in church, too.
The Startling Reality
Within 24 hours of #MeToo emerging as a viral hashtag for victims of sexual assault, more than 4.7 million women (and some men) had added their voices to the thread. For many, it was the first time they publicly declared their painful experience. In the aftermath, dozens of men lost positions of power as their courageous victims brought to light their dark secrets.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 18 percent of women in the U.S. have experienced rape, and nearly 6 percent have experienced some other form of sexual violence.
In a 2017 national poll by Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, 6 in 10 women voters surveyed said they had experienced sexual harassment. Nearly 70 percent of victims said the harassment happened at work.
For clarity, the Civil Rights act of 1964 defines sexual harassment this way: “Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment.”
Sexual abuse in any form is fundamentally about power. Because church systems operate with some level of hierarchy, there is a high risk of leaders abusing that power over those they serve.
Ed Stetzer tweeted about the #MeToo movement: “This isn’t just a Hollywood problem, a politics problem, a church problem, or even an American problem; it’s a people problem.”
Unfortunately, sexual misconduct is prevalent in every segment of our society, and the Church is not immune.
Only 32 percent of sexual assaults are reported to the police, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice. Because churches cultivate a culture of obedience to authority, it is perhaps even less likely that victims will report an incident that occurs within the walls of a church. While statistics about sexual harassment and abuse in church are scarce, the reality is our churches are prime places for sexual misconduct to occur.
As a response to the #MeToo movement, many women of faith have rallied to bring awareness to the problem that often remains hidden in our churches. Many victims hear that they should simply forgive their abusers. Such a mentality lets violators off the hook rather than holding them accountable for their actions. This is neither scriptural nor acceptable.
Authors and activists Belinda Bauman and Lisa Sharon Harper created #SilenceIsNotSpiritual and gathered thousands of signatures with a statement that reads in part: “This moment in history is ours to steward. We are calling churches ... to end the silence and stop all participation in violence against women. We call our pastors, our elders, and our parishioners who have been silent to speak up and stand up for all who experience abuse. There is no institution with greater capacity to create protected spaces for healing and restoration for survivors, as well as confession, repentance and rehabilitation for perpetrators.”
As a movement, how will the Assemblies of God steward this moment?
Breaking the Code of Silence
Recent events have broken the code of silence that previously protected perpetrators and kept victims hidden in shame. What was once taboo to talk about in public is now out in the open. Victims feel empowered to speak up, which means predators cannot depend on them to stay silent. As church leaders, we must decide how we will respond to the #ChurchToo situation. It is time to act.
We must ask ourselves the tough questions:
• What is my church’s responsibility to acknowledge this issue?
• What can I do to ensure my church is a safe place for everyone, especially for women and children?
• How can I provide adequate pastoral care for the #MeToo victims who attend my church?
• What can we do to stop perpetrators and help bring them to justice?
It is time for the Church to A.C.T. This acronym highlights three changes we must make now.
A: Acknowledge the Problem
The pages of Scripture unearth the roots of sexual sin: unbridled lust, selfishness, a grasping for power and control. The Bible doesn’t cover up the sexual depravity of individuals like Reuben, David, Amnon and Solomon.
The adage rings true that we are only as sick as our secrets. We need a cultural shift that starts with our leadership opening their eyes to this issue. The Church must respond to this tidal wave of evil and pain with the heart of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit.
How did Jesus respond to issues of sexual misconduct? When He met an adulterous woman, Jesus reacted unexpectedly with compassion, breaking cultural norms.
You may have noticed that the crowd held only the woman accountable in this situation. Even though they caught the couple “in the act” (John 8:4), it was the woman they threw at the feet of Jesus for punishment. That pattern has remained over time.
Many women of faith have rallied to bring awareness to the problem that often remains hidden in our churches.
Unfortunately, when women report men for sexual harassment or assault, people often blame the victims for sending mixed signals or dressing inappropriately. Frequently, the ones passing judgment are men, who also happen to hold the majority of leadership positions in our churches. These responses are both unbiblical and unacceptable.
The idea that women are to blame when violated perpetuates a culture that has fostered misogynistic behavior far too long. When Jesus told the angry crowd of religious leaders they had permission to cast the first stone only if they were without sin, He set a precedent for having compassion for the marginalized victims of sexual improprieties.
Among the recorded cases of minister dismissals in the Assemblies of God in 2016, more than half involved male pastors engaging in sexual impropriety. These realities should serve as a catalyst for church leaders to take preventative measures.
Jesus told us in Luke 5:31 that “it is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” The Church should be a safe place to offer help and hope for those struggling with sexual brokenness.
Sexual sin is at the core of the systemic problem we are facing. Unhealthy sexual behaviors are real struggles that historically have not been safe topics to talk about in church. Churches proactively tackling this issue could prevent destructive abuse before it occurs.
For example, the Barna Group reports that even though pornography use is at epidemic rates, 93 percent of pastors admitted not having adequate ministries in place to help those who are struggling. There is evidence of a link between online porn addictions and sexual crimes against women. Addressing the root of sexual brokenness is a crucial step for the Church.
In response to this need, hundreds of churches across the nation are now offering programs like Pure Desire that offer help for those with issues of sexual brokenness. Having support systems and ministries in place that address these problems is a proactive step every church should take if we are to experience a cultural shift.
Acknowledging that sexual assault and sexual harassment permeate our society and that victims (and possibly perpetrators) of these abuses are present in your congregation is the first step in leading transformative change.
C: Create Safe Environments
Many states across the nation are passing legislation to protect women in the workplace. Most state and federal institutions require mandatory training to prevent and respond to sexual assault and harassment issues. It’s crucial to recognize that policies precede cultural change.
Every ministry should create policies and procedures to ensure the safety of each person the church serves. Often, churches safeguard children but overlook protecting women. Here are a few basic policies every church should have in place:
• Sexual harassment training for all staff and volunteers
• Designated reporting policies and steps to respond to allegations
• Victims’ advocates who have the training to receive reports of sexual assault
• Counseling resources and referrals for victims of sexual abuse
• Policies that provide clear consequences for perpetrators
• Balanced teaching from the pulpit that encourages healthy sexuality and emphasizes the ethical treatment of women
• The establishment of healthy boundaries: windows in every office, video cameras on campus, social media policies, third-person policies (i.e., policies stating that two people shouldn’t be alone in private places such as cars or closed rooms without windows), etc.
Remember that your local district/network office is a valuable resource. Staff members can provide counsel and support to churches needing to develop or enforce sexual harassment policies. If your church is working through these issues, reach out to your local leadership for assistance.
T: Take Care of Victims
Too often the victims of sexual misconduct suffer in silence. Once you deal with a perpetrator, it is easy to neglect caring for those who now face the challenge of walking the long road toward healing. Victims of sexual crimes often feel shame and suffer from depression and isolation.
Pastors should designate trusted leaders to serve as advocates so women know where to turn when they need help. How can your church provide healing for victims? Offering a small support group is a great option for many churches. Be sure the leaders are trained and qualified to minister to sexual abuse victims.
Every church should maintain a list of professional counselors to whom you can refer those needing to take that necessary step toward healing. Places like the Allender Center can also provide training for staff to help equip them to minister to those suffering from trauma. Taking care of victims is the responsibility of the Church as we seek to bring healing to the wounded.
My #ChurchToo Experience
I’m an ordained AG minister who has worked in the Church my entire adult life. I’ve been a church planter and served for more than a decade in network/district leadership. Yet the Church I love has also been a place of deep pain.
I was that innocent little girl with braids who walked into Sunday School class and encountered a pedophile. When I finally told my parents, the church elders reluctantly told the perpetrator he could no longer attend the church — sadly, a decision that was short-lived.
My abuser was a well-respected man who had literally helped build the church with his bare hands. Everyone loved him and could not grasp the reality that he was capable of harming a child. After I broke the silence, other women in the church who had attended his Sunday School class came forward to share similar stories.
While the church initially asked him to leave, he soon returned, about the time my family moved to another town. I read his obituary recently that stated he was a lifelong member of that church when he died. I cannot help but wonder: Were there other #MeToo victims of this man in subsequent years?
I lived through a #ChurchToo experience and know a multitude of women who have suffered through sexual assault by men in spiritual authority. Tragically, those we trust to lead and guide us sometimes turn out to be the “ferocious wolves” Jesus warns us about in Matthew 7:15. It compounds the damage when the people we turn to for help fail to act with biblical conviction and common sense.
The time is now for us to act. We must model courageous leadership and stand on behalf of generations of women who are depending on the leaders in our churches to protect and care for them. Each of us is accountable to steward this significant moment in history with wisdom.
As a ministry leader and a #ChurchToo survivor, I implore us to live out Proverbs 31:8-9: “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves; ensure justice for those being crushed. Yes, speak up for the poor and helpless, and see that they get justice” (NLT).
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2018 edition of Influence magazine.