Opinion | Sexuality

What I Learned from Same-Sex Abuse Inside the Church

My church mishandled my case. Yours doesn’t have to.
What I Learned from Same-Sex Abuse Inside the Church

The first time I was groomed, I opened the door to find Liz* standing there with a jar of cream for muscle pain. I had fallen from a horse and hurt my legs, so she was stopping by to check on me.

At the time, I was 20 years old and had recently gone through a spiritual and sexual identity crisis. The Bible church in the town where I went to college had offered me respite—a place to follow Jesus and rebuild my soul. Thanks to a referral from the counseling ministry at the church, I had found a seemingly wonderful mentor. Liz had been counseling women like me for years and was one of the church’s star disciplers. She had recently begun calling me more frequently, and when she heard my eventful news on that October day, she expressed concern and insisted on coming over. I didn’t know that her visit would include a thigh massage nor did I know I was being groomed.

A few weeks after this incident, Liz took her grooming to the next level and initiated a sexual relationship with me. Though I was same-sex attracted, the thought had never crossed my mind. I had been referred to Liz for help with maturing in my faith, which included living chastely. Although I did not feel the same, I was deeply attached to her and felt overwhelmed at the prospect of losing our relationship, so I indicated my willingness to accept sexual contact. In addition to being my discipler and counselor, Liz was nearly twice my age.

Liz and I continued a physical relationship for over four months, which quickly became mutual in desire once that door was opened. After our final encounter, we asked each other’s forgiveness and thereafter managed not to sexually engage again. When I asked her if we should get some help, Liz told me emphatically that no one else needed to know. I followed her every lead, so we continued in an emotionally enmeshed relationship for the next several years and slept in the same bed whenever possible. It was not until four years later—when I moved to another city for graduate school and was referred to a Christian counselor—that I finally told anyone what had happened.

With my counselor’s guidance and clear direction from the Lord, I told Liz that I had to let church leadership know what had happened. In the subsequent meeting at the church, Liz spoke first, stating simply that “some boundaries were crossed, including sexual ones.” The women’s ministry leader thanked her, admonished us to stay faithful, and proceeded to open her planner to schedule Liz to teach at an upcoming retreat. When I tried to interrupt and speak, I was cut off. I returned the next week but was barred from speaking to the pastor directly and hostilely dismissed. I was in shock, but I had done what I could. My conscience was clear, so I moved on. That was over 23 years ago.

Over a year ago, I was prompted to pray for Liz. It was unexpected and surprising. Now married with children, I rarely, if ever, thought of her. So why was the Lord bringing her up now? As I sought wisdom for how to pray, I heard in my spirit: “All are applauding her; none are helping her.” Following this strange prompting, I sought wisdom from my faithful counselor of so long ago.

After much prayer and reflection, I felt God leading me to reach out to Liz and the church to give them yet another chance to repent and right their wrong. The senior pastor was still there, the church had grown into a sprawling megachurch, and Liz had moved from lay ministry to official church staff almost 20 years before. Surely now that she was a formal leader, they would see that the need for repentance was all the greater. She was representing an institution and remained in a position where she could potentially take advantage of other women.

To communicate my concerns, I wrote a letter detailing what had happened with Liz—namely, that while in a church-authorized position of power, she manipulated and took advantage of me sexually. I stated that lay ministers are not exempt from the high ethical standards and safeguards required in ministry relationships. I also told of my two past attempts to report the abuse and described how the church had failed to respond rightly. Then I sent the letter to Liz, the head of the elders, the senior pastor, and two licensed counselors that served the church.

As I made every effort to follow biblical channels of authority (through this letter and other means), here’s what was required to get a response: 12 months of my time, 75 pages of written correspondence, and a verbally abusive meeting. Without the licensed counselors’ involvement, I doubt the church would have responded at all. Even to this day, their response has been inadequate. The leadership never investigated whether there were others like me, and the head pastor sought to restore Liz to ministry, despite her admissions of lying in the past and present. Both of the staff counselors resigned over the issue.

Sadly, I’m not alone in my experience. The recent Catholic abuse scandals have brought the tragedy of ministerial exploitation back into public conversation with full force. By far, the vast majority of those cases involved same-sex abuse of both minors and adults. However, Protestants, too, should prepare themselves to see same-sex abuse stories like mine emerge more and more in their own congregations.

As I think about how churches can better respond to members who are victims of same-sex or opposite sex abuse by a ministry leader, I offer 10 actions that can help congregations to avoid the mistakes my church made.

1. Recognize the bigger body of Christ beyond one congregation.

I was raised Baptist. On two occasions, my church hired pastors that had inappropriate ministerial relations and/or committed marital infidelity in their previous churches. Our church was never informed, and the pastors repeated their behaviors in our community. This helped neither the pastors nor the congregations to which they were being passed.

In the situation with Liz, the church leadership—even after being informed of her actions—engaged in a cover-up, brought her on staff, and encouraged her ministry in other churches. In both cases, leaders failed to see the body of Christ in its full, interdependent form.

2. Keep your eyes open, and establish resources in advance.

My church was not equipped to deal with my situation. Because it was same sex in nature, our unhealthy relationship was able to go undetected for years. If, by contrast, a 38-year-old man had been spending time with a 20-year-old woman under the guise of ministry, more red flags would have gone up.

With that in mind, be attentive to possible abuse in your congregation—both opposite-sex and same-sex situations. Additionally, don’t wait for the crisis to come. Establish connections with trusted resources like MinistrySafe—a program for the protection of children—and also search for resources aimed at adult victims. Identify counselors from outside the congregation whom you can call upon to help both the victims and the perpetrators of ministerial abuse.

3. Recognize power imbalances that preclude valid consent.

No one in leadership at my church ever acknowledged that Liz and I were not equals until they were recently forced to. At our second meeting, the women’s leader said angrily, “Were you over 18? Were you forced? If not, then you were equals.” But being a legal adult is not the only criterion for being “equals” and able to consent.

Liz, too, has never once acknowledged that her relationship with me was not merely a private moral failing but an abuse of her power, and this past year, she sought to lessen her responsibility by emphasizing that she was not paid church staff at the time of our relationship. As noted before, church-authorized lay ministry relationships are not exempt from power dynamics and ethical boundaries. In the language of the criminal code, Liz obtained my “consent” by exploiting my emotional dependency on her as my spiritual mentor. As stated in the Christian Counseling Code of Ethics, “such apparent consent is considered illusory and illegitimate.”

4. Recognize “negligent retention” and risk for future harm.

Some pastors found guilty of ministerial abuse are fired from their church but easily go on to work at other churches, where they are in a position to repeat their behavior. In my situation, the church shunned me and allowed Liz to continue counseling and teaching women for the next two decades. These actions put others at risk for potential similar harm since Liz had received no significant counseling and was not held accountable.

Though my abuse involved a same-sex relationship, these principles apply regardless of the sex of those involved. Opposite sex or same-sex ministerial exploitation is an abuse of power and a grave violation of trust. In scenarios like mine, female offenders are often treated more leniently than male offenders in similar situations. But churches should not minimize the effects of exploitation simply because the offender is female, whether the victim is female or male. Although the dynamics may differ, the harm is no less profound.

5. Resolve to do right by the victim.

The National Center for Victims of Crimes provides an overview of victims’ rights. The first right listed is the “right to be treated with dignity, respect, and sensitivity.” Other rights include the “right to apply for compensation” for expenses related to effects of the crime (like counseling), as well as a “right to restitution from the offender,” where offenders are required to pay to repair some of the damages their crimes have caused.

In my case, the church offered to pay for counseling for Liz but made no such offer to help with my counseling costs. I had sworn never to take a dime (if it was offered to me) so my motives could never be misconstrued. However, in dealing with victims, a church should at least offer the victim the same courtesy as the offender. Sexual abuse by a Bible church lay counselor had a profound and lasting impact on my life. It came with many costs, financial expenses among the least of them.

6. Resolve to do right by the person guilty of ministerial abuse.

“All are applauding her; none are helping her.” These were the Lord’s words to me. His kind intention toward Liz: help. So how do we aid the brothers and sisters who have fallen? In abuse situations, we often fail the victims, but we also often fail the perpetrators by covering and enabling their sin. And unlike our secular culture, which can champion the victims but throw the perpetrators away, we have a God-given call to seek the good of those who do wrong.

In the best cases, local church leaders cooperate with other churches that are willing to welcome and walk with fallen ministers when they leave the congregation they’ve harmed. The process requires absolute openness and intense collaboration, but it bears fruit in the end. It’s also critical to help perpetrators by valuing their personal character over their impact in ministry. When the women’s leader pulled out her planner to discuss the retreat, she was sending me a clear message: Liz’s speaking and teaching were more important than my own wellbeing and Liz’s personal wholeness and integrity.

7. Recognize that remorse is not the same as repentance.

Biblical repentance is far more than saying “I’m sorry.” Twelve-step programs are often more rigorous than ministries in their practice of repentance and restoration. At their best, churches can help fallen ministers make a fearless moral inventory of the sins they have committed and the harm they have done and then help them make amends. Real repentance costs a great deal, including at times our ministry.

8. Report abuse and face the legal consequences.

Don’t cover up for your fallen brothers or sisters, but don’t abandon them either. If legal consequences apply, be willing to walk with them through the process. If they don’t take responsibility, keep praying for them and understand that God may be using legal consequences to bring them to real repentance. You cannot seek to shield them.

This past summer, church leaders quietly submitted a report (required by law) to the district attorney regarding Liz’s abuse. However, they never officially informed Liz of their actions. (Due to the timeframe of events and the legal code, they knew the report wouldn’t yield any actionable legal results.) This allowed Liz to continue in her denial. Once again, they did not truly act in love toward her.

9. Restore the person to integrity, not necessarily to ministry.

The goal for fallen ministers should be to restore their integrity. If being restored to ministry is the aim, there will always be a hidden motivation for the minister to “clean up” the image on the outside and not be fully transparent about the struggles and weaknesses they are still dealing with internally. The offender should go to a counselor outside the church, objective and free from personal or ministry connections and previous relationships. (It is an ethical violation for a professional counselor to begin a counseling relationship with someone they know from a prior context.)

10. Wait for God’s work and restoration.

With respect to counseling, some churches try to enact timelines that require a leader to be in counseling for one year (or another increment) before resuming ministry. But this only enables a “fake it until you make it” mentality. If a church leader has abused someone, remove ministry completely from consideration until the deep work of God—through counseling and true repentance—has taken place over years. If God raises a ministry out of the ashes, his work will be evident. And if he does, this period of failure, restoration, and brokenness will be part of the minister’s open testimony. Will that person’s life and ministry play out differently because of this? Yes. And so will the life of the victim(s).

In the global Christian church, the time for “judgment to begin with the house of the Lord” has come. All of us have to decide now whom we will fear and seek to please—God or man. God only wants the highest good for all of his beloved children, and because of this, he will and must purify his bride. We have hidden our ministers’ sexual failures in the shadows too long. Instead, we must expose these deeds of darkness and let the light make them visible. As Paul writes in Ephesians, “This is why it is said: ‘Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you’” (Eph. 5:14).

Ann Smith, PhD, is a teacher, writer, and happily married mother of two. In writing this piece, she consulted with Kyle Miller, PhD, LPC-S, LMFT-S, a biblical counselor with 33 years of experience. Kyle is the director of Global Care & Response and can be reached on Facebook or at globalcareresponse [at] gmail.com.

CT has vetted and verified this story by viewing correspondence between the author and the senior pastor and church elders, as well as copies of correspondence between Ann and Liz from the 1990s.

*Editor’s note: Names were changed to protect those involved.

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