When Jules Woodson was a teenager, she told her pastor that her youth minister had assaulted her during a ride home from a church event. The pastor told her it was a consensual act.
Stories like hers—trusted youth ministry relationships twisted to abuse young female victims—appeared again and again among more than 700 cases of sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention uncovered by a Houston Chronicle investigation earlier this year. The SBC’s own report on abuse opened with an account from Susan Codone, who said her youth minister “showered me with flattering attention, telling me that God had chosen me to help his ministry” before advancing to sexual abuse when she was just 14.
Another theme also emerged: Many young victims told church leaders what happened but did not receive the comfort or protection they needed.
Decades later, survivors, pastors, and parents want to know: Will the church be able to prevent the kind of abuse that these women suffered as teens? Will leaders be able to recognize inappropriate behavior and respond immediately to stop it?
Last week, 1,600 Southern Baptists gathered at the Caring Well conference to answer this question.“Southern Baptists will not have a future if we do not confront our tendency to protect the system over survivors,” said Phillip Bethancourt, vice president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, which organized the event.
The church’s sexual abuse crisis is not limited to the SBC—as reports show—and a third of all Protestant churchgoers “believe many more Protestant pastors have sexually abused children or teens than has been currently exposed,” according to a LifeWay Research survey.
It’s hard not to feel overwhelmed by such a huge, systemic problem, said D. J. Jenkins, pastor of Anthology Church in Studio City, California, who attended the conference. “But it’s our own fault in some ways,” he noted.
Change starts with shifting policies on a church level: at the very least, background checks, staff and volunteer screening, training to recognize grooming behaviors, rules against adults being with children or teens one-on-one, and mandatory reporting when abuse allegations arise.
But that’s just the beginning. If evangelicalism’s future depends on how leaders address abuse in their churches, it requires an accompanying culture shift.
Culture Shift 1: Develop Safe Relationships with Children
Preventing abuse within ministry contexts starts by establishing the church as a safe space for its youngest members.
Nancy Gooch of Farmersville Baptist Church told CT that protecting children and teens in youth or children’s ministry requires being a “listening, caring adult—not someone who wants to be young again.”
Similarly, children’s minister Faye Scott said that her church’s ministry to traumatized children was transformed when an expert taught them to say, “This is a safe place,” to children whose devastating stories lingered beneath their misbehavior.
“Do we share the same priority as the Holy Spirit does when it comes to the people of God?” trauma counselor Kyle J. Howard asked. “Answering that question will have a tremendous impact on how leaders—including youth ministers—move within certain spaces.”
When her youth pastor was abusing her, survivor Codone says that she didn’t know where to turn. There were no women on staff or volunteering in ministry roles, so she couldn’t find a safe person with whom to share her story. Relationships with adults who would have paid close enough attention to notice changes in behavior, or checked in on her, could have made a difference.
Psychologist Diane Langberg noted at Caring Well that Jesus blessed the children who came to him “one by one.” He did not say a quick hello or give a few scattered head pats. He saw the children, he blessed them, he beheld their dignity—each and every one. The image of God within the children and teens in our churches implores us to do the same.
Culture Shift 2: Choose Words and Teachings Carefully
For a long time, the thought of God as father was confounding to Jennifer Greenberg. Her father took her to church every Sunday. He also sexually, physically, and emotionally abused her.
“As a child I would think, ‘What a strange thing for God to want to be viewed as a father—to be a father is scary!’” she told CT. “Shepherd made a lot more sense to me because I’d never met a shepherd.”
At Caring Well, Langberg asked pastors to consider how language like “God is our Father” might sound to an incest survivor. She encouraged them to include statements in their sermons such as, “God is our Father. And for some of you, that’s a really difficult image.”
Greenberg echoed a sentiment relatable to many survivors—abuse affects the way victims hear church teachings and approach their relationships with others and with God. “As a kid,” Greenberg said, “I just thought...that all men were angry and violent and perverted, and I thought all women were afraid...so many words were redefined.”
If the person molesting a preschooler tells that child that he loves her, the child is likely to believe that love is painful and shameful. If an abusive father tells his children after he beats them that he’s sorry he “got angry,” the children are likely to think that physical abuse is normal. Everyone gets angry, the children may think. So every angry dad must hit his kids.
Those who teach to children and teenagers can be part of shaping their vocabulary in ways that turn on the lights for those living in dark places. Pastors can mention that the image of God as Father may not feel good to everyone in the room and invite those who need to talk about it into conversation.
As youth ministers teach about sexual purity, they should not only discuss modesty and abstinence, but also affirm the inherent value of person that no one is allowed to exploit. Teaching children how God made their bodies, how dignified they are, how no one—parents, pastors, and ministry leaders included—is allowed to hurt them or touch them if they don’t want to be touched, is vital.
Preparing to teach in such a careful way may take more time, especially at first. Teachers can take heart in the knowledge that this lens of compassion and dignity not only demonstrates gentleness toward hurting congregants, it is a type of exposition that is faithful to the whole counsel of Scripture.
Culture Shift 3: Take Children’s Stories Seriously
If a child or teenager discloses abuse, church staff should immediately notify the authorities. As Episcopal priest and author Justin Holcomb would say: “Do not investigate. Report.”
The SBC Sexual Abuse Advisory Group similarly wrote in its June report:
… it is crucial that we respond very delicately if the survivor is a child. Expressing anger or disbelief can lead to even more confusion and trauma, causing the child to shut down. Children need to know that we believe them and that we will do everything we can to keep them safe. Even saying things like, “Let me go investigate,” can signal to a child that we don’t believe them and they are not safe. Do not ask leading questions that could retraumatize the child, but instead ask open-ended questions like “Then what happened?”
Church leaders or a trusted adult should walk the child or teenager through accessing legal protection and counseling or therapy. Reaching out to community resources such as law enforcement, social workers, lawyers, and psychologists can help form a circle of support around children or teens in the church who are hurting.
Culture Shift 4: Embrace Accountability
To move toward culture change, leaders need to embrace accountability through outside agencies and internal congregational conversations. Church leaders especially need accountability. Bart Barber, pastor of First Baptist Church of Farmersville, Texas, attended Caring Well and tweeted that one of the preventative measures he plans to take against abuse of power in his church is teaching his congregation how to fire him.
He trusts that his church understands that they could remove him if he were to commit an act of sexual abuse. But what if he covered one up? Barber told CT that he wants to make sure that his congregants know that it’s not just the most heinous of crimes that disqualify a pastor, it’s also failures to protect the flock.
Rachael Denhollander, a survivor and advocate for abuse victims in the church, will say that churches should hire vetting agencies that are trusted by survivors—which means agencies that are not connected to a church’s insurance companies or the church’s legal representation, she clarified. Rather, churches must hire an independent agency that will audit a church preventatively, or provide a full, public report in response to an abuse allegation, she said.
ERLC president Russell Moore asked Denhollander at Caring Well if there were any churches she could point to that were handling this well. She pointed to one example: Tates Creek Presybterian Church in Lexington, Kentucky.
After abuse allegations were made against a former Tates Creek youth pastor over a decade prior for giving regular foot massages to youth in the church, the church hired an independent agency to conduct a full investigation. Waller later confessed that there was a “sexual element” to the foot-rubbing. The report by Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE) details their findings and commends Tates Creek for their transparency. Church leaders responded with policies that included descriptions of what permissible physical contact includes and how to report inappropriate behavior.
Seeking The Way of Jesus
Langberg said that sometimes church leaders don’t want to hear what she has to say about trauma and the slow road to healing because it “makes a mess.” But, she said, that the mess and the survivors inside of it is where the way of Jesus really is. We can’t know quite yet if evangelicals will choose that way, she added.
If you ask Megan Lively, who was abused by a fellow student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in 2003, she’ll tell you that the way of Jesus looks like caring more about protecting children than it does refusing to speak the truth out of a fear of gossiping or being judgmental. Holcomb says that it looks like understanding the statistics about sexual abuse, teaching your children the proper names for their body parts, and reporting abuse to authorities instead of conducting private investigations. Langberg will tell you that it looks like reversing the dynamics of power by caring for victims more than we care about “helping” victims the way we think is best.
Reversing dynamics of power in individual conversations, individual and corporate ongoing repentance, truly knowing and listening to survivors—this is slow, hard, relational work. This is the work of culture change, of orienting ourselves to the way of Jesus.
As Moore said from the stage, “If you think responding to sexual abuse in the church is a distraction from the mission of the church, then you don't understand the mission of the church.”
Leaders cannot shift whole church cultures on their own, not in any sustainable way. If Christians want to take abuse seriously, the time is now, and the commitment must be total. The little ones, begging for blessing one by one, deserve nothing less.
Abby Perry is a freelance writer in Texas whose recent Prophetic Survivors series at Fathom Mag featured profiles of survivors of #ChurchToo sexual abuse.