Ministry in the #MeToo Moment

As abuse awareness grows, pastors are searching for ways to protect the vulnerable and care for survivors.
Ministry in the #MeToo Moment
Image: Davide Bonazzi / Salzmanart

Last summer Stephanie Lobdell, co-lead pastor at Mountain Home Church of the Nazarene in Idaho, started a sermon series on the forgotten characters of Scripture. One of the subjects she wanted to cover was Dinah, the daughter of Jacob, who was raped by a Hivite prince. Her sexual assault ultimately spurred her brothers to massacre the royal’s people (Gen. 34).

Lobdell’s co-pastor and husband, Tommy, was apprehensive about her decision to broach Dinah’s story. “He said, ‘Why are you preaching about rape? It’s such a vile topic. It’s such a sensitive area. Why are you taking that risk?’” said Lobdell. “He felt anxious, like, What’s going to happen when we open this door?

But Lobdell was beginning to feel burdened by sermons in which women’s suffering was “a little side note to what pastors really want to talk about.”

“It was one of those subtle promptings of the Holy Spirit: ‘Here’s a story that gets skipped over. You have a gap in your schedule. What could you put there?’” said Lobdell. “I trusted the Spirit’s guidance.”

Naming Dinah’s experience from the pulpit caused an unexpected chain reaction. “After the sermon,” said Lobdell, “several people shared their own stories with me and expressed gratitude for giving voice to Dinah’s experience. This sermon allowed women to find their stories expressed in Scripture.”

Shortly after Lobdell broached that subject with her congregation, The New York Times released a report on Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s history of sexual misconduct. That report launched another, much larger chain reaction: the #MeToo movement. The hashtag #MeToo, created by activist Tarana Burke and mainstreamed by actress Alyssa Milano, cascaded as women shared their stories of workplace sexual misconduct, manipulation, domestic violence, childhood sexual abuse, and rape.

As is often the case, the Christian community had a parallel story.

In late November of 2017, two former evangelical women used the hashtag #ChurchToo to share stories of their own sexual abuse in church communities. Hundreds of people followed their lead, using that designation to share stories of abuse by church leaders and church members.

Before the #MeToo movement, the majority (67%) of church leaders acknowledged that people in their congregation were affected by domestic and sexual violence, but only 56 percent said they had spoken to their congregation at least once year about these issues, according to 2014 LifeWay Research data.

Since #MeToo, according to 2018 LifeWay Research data, a similar number (64%) of church leaders acknowledged that congregants were affected by domestic and sexual violence, but 77 percent now said they speak to their congregation about these issues at least once a year. Further, based on an informal survey of CT Pastors’ readers, since the start of the #MeToo movement, the number of self-identified pastors who claim to have a high or very high awareness of sexual misconduct has increased by 30 percent.

Additionally, the #MeToo movement has spurred sermon series, hard conversations with staff, and revisions of sexual harassment policies. Congregants are sharing their own stories, sometimes for the first time. Pastors will be the first to admit it—many are facing uncharted territory.

Reactive or Responsive?

“Heartbreaking.” That’s how Justin Pearson, lead pastor of Sojourn Church in Fairfax, Virginia, described his initial reaction to the #MeToo stories.

“Hearing and reading so many stories of unchecked abuse of women sickened and saddened me greatly,” he said. “To hear about similar instances within the church frustrated me all the more. The local church should be the voice for the voiceless. It should stand up against abuse in any form. As I read these stories, it became clear that, more often than I wanted to acknowledge or admit, that had not been the case. It broke my heart.”

Milton Campbell, lead pastor of The Midtown Bridge Church in Atlanta, was similarly disappointed.

“I felt saddened by the abuse of power demonstrated by leaders,” said Campbell. But his thoughts soon turned from other church leaders to himself. “After that initial disappointment, I began to reflect on my own leadership. I wanted to make sure I had been sensitive to those who may not have had a voice.”

Many pastors have felt a similar urge to “do something”—to help survivors and prevent further abuse. Yet it can be challenging to respond proactively and thoroughly to issues like these when pastors are already stretched thin.

“The hardest part, especially for a small church, is that you already have so many things to do,” said Todd Benkert, pastor of Oak Creek Community Church in Mishawaka, Indiana. “Time is not an unlimited resource. Personnel is not unlimited. It can be overwhelming— to the point where I want to throw up my hands and say, ‘I already have so much to do. How can I possibly add to that list?’”

As this cultural movement gains steam, so does pressure on pastors to respond thoughtfully and biblically in real time.

“I get discouraged when I look at Twitter on Saturday nights,” said Lobdell, “and people are tweeting, ‘If your pastor doesn’t address fill-in-the-blank on Sunday morning, leave that church.’ It’s exhausting to feel like you constantly have to react to what’s happening in culture, almost like a Saturday Night Live skit.”

To fight this pressure, Lobdell and her husband have endeavored to teach about the serious consequences of sin and human brokenness throughout the year.

“For me, being reactive means I’m responding out of the heat of the moment,” she said. “I want to be responsive. I want to have a carefully articulated, integrated response that comes from the Spirit’s guidance.”

Outside Wisdom

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to addressing #MeToo in congregations. Thankfully, church leaders aren’t alone when making these decisions. Many pastors are turning to others for help.

Jason Robertson, senior pastor of Huntington Beach Church in Southern California, knew he needed to do something in the wake of the #MeToo movement, but he wasn’t sure what step to take first. He sought wisdom from two sources.

“I talked extensively to the women on our staff and on our leadership team,” he said. Though his church is complementarian, it has a co-ed lay leadership team he could speak to for advice. Next, he reached out the Southern Baptist Convention, to which his church belongs. “I called my director of missions and asked for names and organizations we could use as resources.” After those conversations, Robertson felt prepared to preach a series on #MeToo (more on that below). Those sermons, he says, are the first steps in what he hopes is a larger response in his congregation.

Theophilus Church in Portland, Oregon, learned the hard way that good intentions may not be enough when a church is confronted with a case of domestic abuse. Executive pastor Cameron Marvin had received questions from several of their lay leaders about how the church would handle any reports of abuse.

“It was already a topic of conversation—‘What would we do in an abuse situation?’ But it had remained theoretical and abstract,” said Marvin.

Then it hit home.

“A domestic abuse situation was brought to our attention,” he said. “We started out intending to help the victim, responding to all of her requests. She wanted us to get help for her abuser, so we tried to counsel him through the process.”

According to Marvin, this complicated the situation. The church’s eventual response unintentionally favored the abuser over the abused person, he said. “That was not our heart or intent. It was a product of us being unprepared. The situation blew up, and we had to ask ourselves, ‘Are we equipped to handle these situations internally?’”

The answer was clear: “We were out of our league.”

The leaders realized they needed a clear plan for dealing with similar situations, and they knew from experience that they couldn’t put one together on their own. They reached out to therapists in their network to help devise a proper response plan—one that didn’t keep things locked inside their church culture. Then they brought in a local specialist to educate their core leaders on the nature of abuse.

“Everyone’s on board with the process,” said Marvin. “We’ve all acknowledged that it probably should have happened earlier.”

Ken Shigematsu, pastor of Tenth Church in Vancouver, British Colombia, also sees the value in bringing in outside experts. His church recently hosted a spiritual trauma seminar led by therapist and researcher Hillary McBride.

“The goal of the seminar was to help people overcome the trauma they experienced at the hands of the church, whether it was sexual or an abuse of power,” he said. “It was well received. We gave people tools to move toward wholeness and spiritual practices meant to foster healing.”

Shigematsu continued, “In a secular city like Vancouver, Christians are very much on the margins. We’re called to be a prophetic presence and voice. The #MeToo movement gives us an opportunity to create relationships with those who are much different from ourselves and hopefully share the love of Christ with them.”

Personal Commitments and Formal Policies

When Pearson read about pastors stepping down after allegations of sexual misconduct, he immediately thought about his own context. “Not because anything like that had taken place in our church,” he said, “but because I didn’t want anything like that to take place.”

He started talking with the other leaders at his church about how to guard against subtle sins and lack of accountability.

“We specifically talked about pastoral interactions with women,” he said. “I think it is okay to give and receive hugs from people of the opposite sex, but I’m realizing I need to be careful about when and how this takes place. For instance, a young man recently passed away in our church. The Sunday after this happened, I gave and received a lot of hugs, but this is not something I do every Sunday.”

Pearson is recognizing how a position of authority can turn a seemingly harmless gesture into an abuse of power. “It can be easy to overlook how our position as shepherds within our church can influence someone’s willingness—or unwillingness—to receive a hug. My position influences how others perceive, receive, and interact with me. What I intend as a familial hug might not be taken that way by someone else.”

Though his church decided not to institute any formal “hug policy,” they did make one specific change to their bylaws following the #MeToo movement. “Originally we codified in our bylaws that, for a charge to be considered against an elder, at least two witnesses had to come forward to validate the charge. But in most cases of sexual abuse or immorality there will never be two witnesses.”

This called for a change to their policies, he said.

“Our team felt it was crucial for someone who has been sinned against sexually by a pastor-elder to be able to bring that information and charge forward. The #MeToo movement directly influenced our decision to include formal language in our governing document related to this type of sinful behavior.”

While Pearson feels confident in the steps his church has taken to increase accountability among its leaders, he knows there is still work to be done. “The hardest part is realizing how multi-faceted this is within our culture and the church at large. This is not just about inappropriate behavior; it’s about deep heart issues and systemic issues that cannot be reconciled by changing a policy here or there. We need to continue discussing these issues and taking necessary actions that create a safe environment for all people.”

Sermons about #MeToo

Prior to the #MeToo movement, pastors rarely addressed domestic violence or sexual assault from the pulpit or large group setting. According to Life-Way Research, close to half of pastors (42%) said they never addressed either subject.

According to our informal survey of CT Pastors’ readers, 44 percent of pastors feel apprehension about preaching on the subject, even after the events of the last year. Still, some pastors—such as James Emery White, senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina—felt they had little choice but to teach on the subject from the pulpit. As the #MeToo movement unfolded, White said to himself, “If we don’t do this series, it’s going to look weird.”

Over four weeks, the multisite pastor made it clear the Bible condemned sexual harassment, assault, misogyny, and sexism. An important part of making this series work for White was pointing congregants back to Scripture, introducing a theme verse for the series: 1 Timothy 5:2: Treat “older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity.”

“I’m stunned this verse isn’t being used more in Christian conversations about the #MeToo movement. It speaks to it so directly,” he said.

This wasn’t the only “obscure” Bible passage White highlighted in his series. He also preached on the rape of David’s daughter Tamar (2 Sam. 13)—“one of so many passages rarely talked about at church”—juxtaposing it with the story of Moses standing up for his future wife and her sisters after they were accosted by shepherds (Ex. 2).

“It was a powerful four-week conversation. It was very healing. Afterward I was flooded with emails of women telling their stories, often for the first time.”

Not all congregants are eager to hear a #MeToo sermon. Two weeks before he launched his own series on the subject, Robertson announced the topic to his congregation.

“A gentleman came up to me—every church has someone who never buys into the vision of the pastor—and said, ‘You’re just preaching this because it’s on the front page of the papers. I think this is a terrible idea.’”

Before Robertson could say a word, the man’s wife spoke up.

“She rebuked him right in front of me! ‘You are completely wrong,’ she said. ‘Half of this church is women and they want to hear this addressed.’”

The congregant attended with his wife for the entire series and never said another word about it.

Despite receiving mostly positive feedback from his congregation, at the time of this reporting, Robertson has yet to give the final sermon he wrote on the topic. That’s intentional.

“Sometimes you just don’t want to overload people,” he said. After touching on a few other topics, he plans to return to this one sometime in the future.

One Step at a Time

More and more churches are training and equipping themselves to prevent abuse and sexual misconduct in their congregations and to serve survivors, but these efforts reveal how much is left to be done.

“Once you scratch the surface of these topics, you realize how prominent and how broad the issues are,” said Marvin. “It can be challenging to approach the topics in a practical sense because we’re talking about something so big.”

Benkert advises other pastors not to let that stop them from taking steps forward, no matter how small.

“This isn’t the first time most churches have thought about these issues, but the #MeToo movement is reminding us how important it is to put them on the front burner,” he said. “It’s easy to get comfortable. At our church, we want to make sure the #MeToo phenomenon is an occasion to make sure we’re doing everything we can to minister effectively and provide a safe place where people can be transformed by the gospel.”

Morgan Lee is associate digital media producer at Christianity Today. This article is part of our 2018 Annual State of Church Ministry special issue.

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