For many years, even as revelations of sexual abuse by clergy had been coming to light for decades in the Catholic church, the evangelical church had not had “eyes to see” or “ears to hear” the extent of its own abuse crisis.
In the words of Bible teacher Beth Moore, “By and large, the naïve couldn’t fathom it, the knowledgeable wouldn’t risk it, the perpetrators were good at it, and the victims were blamed and shamed for it.”
But in 2018 and 2019, women brought new attention to the silent suffering of those whose stories were ignored, stifled, and left untold. Among Southern Baptists in particular, these advocates in churches and ministries platformed the cause and supported survivors pursuing justice, healing, and reform.
Faced with a growing wave of survivor stories and a newspaper investigation unearthing more than 700 victims, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is no longer downplaying the problem. SBC president J. D. Greear said the body of churches needs to “repent of a culture that has made abuse, cover-ups, and evading accountability far too easy,” months after launching a study group to develop new resources and recommend policy changes.
In the SBC, pastors, professors, senior leaders, and even a prominent seminary president—Paige Patterson at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary—have lost their positions over mishandled allegations or their own misconduct. Some congregations facing scrutiny over abuse have withdrawn from the SBC. Southern Baptists will vote at their June annual meeting on whether to add a provision threatening to disfellowship churches without adequate protocols for addressing abuse.
More broadly, two states have considered bills inspired by recent accounts of pastoral abuse: Maine proposed making it a crime for religious leaders to have sex with congregants, and Texas offered a measure to help prevent abusive leaders from finding other ministry jobs.
Many of these women—the ones who helped bring abuse to the forefront of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination—agreed to talk with CT about what motivates them and about the still-unfolding impact of their work. Because of their voices, more Christians have recognized the depth of this crisis and the need for better resources to care for the survivors in their midst and keep abusers out of leadership.
And, if their prayers are answered, fewer will feel like they have no place to go with the trauma and shame of their abuse.
SBC abuse survivor
Before the #MeToo movement, dozens of women had gone online to disclose sexual abuse in the church, only to receive little attention outside circles of watchdog bloggers and fellow survivors. Then in early 2018, Jules Woodson alleged that her Southern Baptist youth pastor Andy Savage had abused her two decades earlier in Texas, in a pickup one night after church. The revelation elicited a surprising response from her abuser, who confessed the “sexual incident” from the stage of his church and received a standing ovation. Then, Woodson’s story spread through Christian and secular media, right up to The New York Times, and she became the face of the #ChurchToo movement.
“This is so much bigger than me,” she told CT. “When I went public, I said, ‘Not only am I doing this for healing and closure for myself, I’m doing this to let other survivors know they’re not alone and that they have a voice.’ ”
Last year, Woodson found herself devastated, frustrated, and traumatized all over again, especially knowing one of the pastors to whom she reported the abuse back in 1998 remained in an SBC pulpit. (Savage and another pastor had resigned.) But her high-profile case also put her in the position to connect with fellow survivors coming forward with heartbreakingly similar stories.
“That brought me to a healing I never even thought possible and a sense of relief that it was not all in vain opening myself up,” said Woodson, a 38-year-old flight attendant and mother of three, who has taken on advocacy as part of her life’s calling. Woodson will once again join efforts to rally for a stronger anti-abuse response from the SBC during its annual meeting, including a database of known offenders.
“I do want to create change in the church. I’m still a believer, and I feel like God has used my story in ways I never even imagined,” Woodson said. “He has allowed my story and the horrible responses and everything that’s happened to open up this chapter, and it has been a catalyst for so many others to feel safe to share their stories.”
SBC abuse survivor
One of the incidents that led to Paige Patterson’s firing came from a former Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (SEBTS) student who recounted in May 2018 how Patterson discouraged her from reporting being raped 15 years before and instead told her to forgive the man responsible.
A week after sharing her story anonymously with the Washington Post, Megan Lively tweeted, “I am the woman you read about, #SEBTS 2003, not afraid, ashamed, or fearful. I am proud to be #SBC, bc of how many have responded with compassion & love.” Current SEBTS leadership found Lively’s file and corroborated her story. Her pastor listened and recommended professional help as her trauma led to a mental breakdown, insomnia, and a period of psychosis.
Lively continues to work with SBC leaders, the sexual abuse study group, and survivors who now turn to her with their stories. “My biggest passion and the way I heal is by serving and by helping,” said Lively, a 40-year-old social media consultant in North Carolina. “I’m more of a behind-the-scenes person.” It was a dramatic change, in a matter of weeks, to find herself at the intersection of the SBC and #MeToo, part of a public reckoning with one of its most powerful leaders.
In the past year, Lively has seen redemption unfold in her life and in her denomination. She finally completed her master’s at SEBTS in May and launched a new venture, returning to ministry after feeling held back for years. Lively cheers the changes taking place among Southern Baptists. “When someone in the SBC or someone who’s a Christian leader gets it right, I’m going to point that out,” she said. “I believe ultimately that points people to Jesus and points people to the church.”
Author and advocate
Mary DeMuth watched as the questions around sexual abuse that she had been raising for decades recently made their way into the mainstream. Since the 1990s, long before hashtags and viral testimonies spread the movement, DeMuth had written about her recovery as a survivor of child sex abuse and advocated for others, all the while wondering, “When would anyone ever talk about it?”
The answer finally came as #MeToo and #ChurchToo uncovered stories of ministry abuse. DeMuth praised Southern Baptist president J. D. Greear for his willingness to skip knee-jerk defenses and look deeply at the issue, but she knows it’s just a first step.
“I have to be patient with the process … but there’s a holy rumbling,” said DeMuth, a member of Lake Pointe Church, an SBC congregation in suburban Dallas. “This is a groundswell.”
DeMuth, 52, understands why people are fed up with inadequate responses over the years but also sees the church’s potential—and its calling as the body of Christ—to offer profound healing to the hurt, beyond “easy forgiveism” or feel-good platitudes. As more Christian leaders turn to this issue, she wrote We Too: How the Church Can Respond Redemptively to the Sexual Abuse Crisis, due out this August.
“People who are broken and hurting are tutors to lead us to Christ,” she said. “As you love someone who’s broken, you are being like Christ to them, but you’re also discovering Christ in them because he only shows up in the weak and the broken—his power is made perfect in our weakness.… Instead of looking at someone as a project, look at them as the projection of the beauty of Christ.”
SBC abuse survivor
Last year, Jennifer Lyell saw how Rachael Denhollander’s gospel-tinged testimony in a secular courtroom stirred up a new empathy for abuse survivors among American evangelicals. Months later, she read about Megan Lively’s mishandled allegations at SEBTS.
As a fellow SBC seminary alumna, an SBC church member, and a leader at SBC-affiliated LifeWay Christian Resources, Lyell cared deeply about her denomination, but she also saw the Lord at work in these voices.
She told herself, “God is purifying his church. God be glorified,” and then she too spoke up—first privately last spring, then publicly this March—to share her own story of sexual abuse by her former professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Her alleged abuser resigned shortly after but has not publicly addressed the accusations.
Lyell views her case as representing both the care and responsiveness of today’s Southern Baptist leaders and the shortcomings the denomination still needs to address. “It is my hope that my story, one in which an SBC entity and its leaders acted swiftly and justly to remove an abuser, but in which that same individual was also in a ministry position only months later, will also help to illustrate the need for some form of a reporting tool,” her March statement said.
She also has advocated for more pastors and church leaders to publicly address the issue.
“My biggest concern for the church is that we will see the abuse revelations and resulting conversations as some sort of cultural phenomenon that we need to ride out instead of recognizing it as a movement of God to purify and protect his bride,” Lyell told CT.
Psychologist and advocate
As an early woman in professional counseling, Diane Langberg has been hearing from victims of sexual abuse in the church since before there were terms or diagnoses to capture their suffering. The kinds of stories she’s encountered for 46 years in private have made their way into the headlines and public confessions, forcing evangelical leaders to grieve and respond to the church’s failure to offer them a safe refuge.
“I have come to believe that the voice of the victims speaking the truth to his church is a prophetic voice,” the Christian psychologist said. “It’s the voice of God to his people, saying, ‘You have not obeyed me. You have cloaked things in darkness that I call to the light.’ ”
Langberg brought her expertise in trauma healing to the SBC abuse study group appointed by J. D. Greear, which created a free curriculum for churches and SBC entities. The problem, as she sees it, requires churches to address an underlying complacency with sin itself.
As Langberg advises SBC leaders as well as other denominations, she knows the true test will be how they respond to or implement her lessons. Necessary reforms won’t come easy; no course or program can correct this problem.
Instead, change will require an ongoing, incarnational commitment to listening—really listening—to the survivors in their midst. “There is no quick fix, but there is quick attentiveness,” she said.
Ministry leader and advocate
It’s apt that the Southern Baptist Convention’s best-known Bible teacher, Beth Moore, would become a leading voice calling the church to treat women with more Christlike care and esteem. “By no means are all victims female, but we will make virtually no progress in dealing with sexual abuse in a Christlike manner until we boldly face the reality that women are not, and have not been, treated in many of our environments with the same value as men,” she said. “Neither gender has flourished in the Lord over this disparity.”
The Living Proof Ministries founder has been outspoken on behalf of women and survivors in the church—and male leaders in the SBC are listening. Last spring, she posted an open letter describing the misogyny she experienced as a woman in ministry over the decades. In a session around the 2018 SBC annual meeting, Moore addressed the need for pastors to recognize how the power dynamics in churches can intimidate women and encouraged them to bring in female advocates to be with survivors who come forward with their stories.
Following the Houston Chronicle investigation in February, Moore, 61, shared on Twitter a childhood photo from around the time of her abuse by a family member, spurring dozens to do the same. She replied over and over: I’m so sorry. You were so precious, and you are still so precious. My heart is broken.
“In short form, I think that, tragically, the whole issue of sexual abuse was too messy to deal with until it was unavoidable. It is now unavoidable,” she told CT. “Our natural human tendency is to tweak a little and hope for a lot, but it just doesn’t work that way. We need real, live lasting transformation only Jesus can bring.”
Editor, Bible teacher, and advocate
When Southern Baptist leaders began to defend and debate Paige Patterson’s remarks and stances, Kelsey Hency knew it was her chance to do something. A recent seminary graduate, she recognized how sexist pressures could undercut women’s theological pursuits and saw the two-time seminary president as part of a larger problem.
“Our seminaries are the places where we want to see women grow, be cultivated, and be taken as seriously as the men who are going to be leading our churches,” said Hency, who teaches and leads women’s Bible study at The Village Church in Dallas. “Advocating for the women who were currently in seminary and the women who wanted to go to seminary felt incredibly important to me.”
Hency signed onto a viral petition of SBC women calling for Patterson’s removal, and she spoke up on behalf of women like Megan Lively who had endured misogyny and mistreatment.
“As soon as it comes up, you hate that it has happened, but you’re glad that it’s in the light because there’s nothing you can do about it until it’s seen,” she said.
As editor in chief of the online magazine Fathom, Hency launched a series featuring the voices of abuse survivors, including Woodson, believing in the power of personal narrative to draw Christians to see God reflected in their stories.
A member of the ERLC’s leadership council, Hency noticed new awareness and change come to SBC churches in just a couple short years. She prays that not only will congregations offer clearer pathways for abuse victims to report and seek care—but that male leaders will involve women in their processes from the start.
SBC leader and advocate
When #MeToo movement hit in 2017, Trillia Newbell urged the church to look in on itself, to ensure leaders were providing outlets where victims’ stories were heard with care, reported to authorities, and met with Christ’s healing. Fellow leaders at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), where she serves as community outreach director, shared her concerns. Then, Rachael Denhollander’s comments and the Houston Chronicle investigation in particular intensified their response.
“These things have been going on for years, but now we know, more fully, the extent of the problem,” she told CT. “We can’t deny it anymore. We shouldn’t have been doing that in the first place.”
The ERLC will host a “candid conversation” on abuse on the eve of the denomination’s annual meeting in June, featuring SBC president J. D. Greear, ERLC president Russell Moore, Bible teacher Beth Moore, and Denhollander.
Asked why so many of the prominent survivor stories come from white women, Newbell, herself a survivor, said that because these issues affect the majority culture “there definitely could be a bias there, and that could explain the lack of focus on women of color. But we do need to remember that abuse happens to everyone.”
She believes that God’s redemptive hand is at work as victims become more willing to step forward and pastors become more equipped to minister to them. “I’m grateful that we are seeing a rise in the conversation because it needed to happen to help all women who have been victims of abuse.”
Anne Marie Miller
SBC abuse survivor
A decade ago, Anne Marie Miller (then Anne Jackson) built a following as a popular Christian blogger and author who didn’t shy away from topics like church burnout, mental health, and fear. After a writing hiatus, she began to consider coming forward last year with the most difficult disclosure of her life: the story of her own abuse, which started when she was 16, by a man who went onto become an International Mission Board (IMB) missionary.
“I felt in my spirit that things would be changing and changing fast,” Miller said, having followed Jules Woodson and Megan Lively’s stories. “I knew that with the spotlight on this topic, it was time to go public with my story and that there would be a lot of spiritual warfare in doing so.”
Miller reported her abuse to the police last spring, when she realized that the IMB—though it investigated their relationship in 2007 and sided with her account—failed to do so. Her abuser, Mark Aderholt, continued to serve in SBC churches and entities until last summer. He was indicted in December in Texas on four sex abuse felonies.
Over the past year, Miller went through a dual healing process: her abuse recovery coupled with a devastating injury from when she was accidentally hit by a thrown softball bat at a trauma rehab facility. Bolstered by support and prayers from strangers in the moments when her faith was “barely hanging on,” the 39-year-old has kept advocating for herself, pushing the IMB for a fuller acknowledgment of missteps in her case, and has turned her experience into a way to help others.
Miller’s new book Healing Together: A Guide to Supporting Sexual Abuse Survivors draws from her research into the ongoing emotional, relational, and financial costs of recovery (which she hopes churches and ministries will help bear). Since cases were kept in the dark for so long, Miller said she sees the SBC’s current abuse conversation as “good and sad at the same time.”
Attorney and advocate
Rachael Denhollander’s brave witness as the first of more than 150 victims to publicly accuse former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar of sexual assault made her a prominent figure in the #MeToo movement, celebrated by ESPN and Glamour magazine. It was her thoroughly Christian call for her pedophile assailant to repent and seek God’s forgiveness that put the 34-year-old survivor, advocate, and attorney in the evangelical spotlight in January 2018.
From there, she has led the church to face its own scandals, including chronicling a case against Sovereign Grace Churches (which has denied allegations of wrongdoing or cover-ups) and consulting with SBC leaders as part of their sexual abuse advisory group.
Unlike secular institutions that cave to financial pressures and hurt reputations, she said, churches too often view allegations as attacks and double down in defense. “That makes it more difficult to change the tide of an organization,” Denhollander told CT. “We have a lot of leaders who are saying the right things: ‘We need to make change. We need to deal with these problems. Abuse is a terrible thing.’ What I’m not hearing many leaders say yet is ‘I need to learn. Where do I go to learn?’ ”
While she celebrates a “general awakening among leadership” and care for victims, the mother of four emphasizes the need for churches to rely on outside expertise. Before leaders can adopt solutions, she said, “They need to be looking for where the problems are and repenting.”
As Denhollander continues to stand for “sister survivors” both in sports and in the church, Tyndale House will release her memoir, What Is a Girl Worth?—named for a line in her Nassar testimony—plus a kid’s book, How Much Is a Little Girl Worth?, in September.
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