Commentary
By Jenna Barnett 4-27-2018

Twice this year, standing ovations have knocked the wind out of me. The first one came after Andy Savage, a pastor of Highpoint church at the time, tearfully and vaguely admitted to what he called “an incident” — and what the law calls “an abuse” — of Jules Woodson, a teenager in his youth group when the assault occurred. The Memphis congregation responded with applause.

The second ovation came after Bill Hybels of Willow Creek Community Church, announced that, in light of allegations of sexual harassment by several women in his congregation, he would be stepping down as senior pastor six months ahead of schedule. He denied all allegations and Willow Creek came to their feet in applause.

Standing ovations in these situations create a false narrative of forgiveness and consensus. They convey:

We prioritize those who are accused over those who are calling out for justice and healing.

We offer hasty forgiveness without confession or accountability.

I reject these messages. I also believe that these messages reflect neither the message of Jesus nor the actual feelings and perspectives of many at Willow Creek, High Point, and beyond.

Inevitably, several people in these churches stayed seated. Several members of Willow Creek stood because of the peer pressure intrinsic to standing ovations. And certainly, several members of both congregations left their sanctuary long ago, whether from personal experiences of harassment or disappointment in a church unwilling to prioritize the voices of survivors.

After the clapping subsided and the multitude went home, praise gave way to critique and questioning. Savage went on to offer a follow-up apology and resignation. And in the past week alone, several more women have come forward with accusations against Hybels, bringing the count to at least seven.

Willow Creek has pledged to investigate these new allegations, and wrote in a statement that they “commit that each woman willing to speak with us will be heard, and that we will respect her story.” That is important. But more is required of them — including a truly independent investigation, removed from bias and the self-interest of church leadership.

In an interview with Vox, Katelyn Beaty, Editor at Large of Christianity Today, offered an explanation for why megachurches are at risk of mis-priortizing the accused over the accusers because of the risk of liability:

“Many evangelical institutions are beholden to the power of celebrity and of charismatic men, and have staked too much of their future on the ‘success’ of those men, regardless of potential wrongdoing. There can be a fear that if ‘bad news’ comes out about those men or the church, it will harm the spread of the gospel.”

Hear me now — the biggest liability to the church is not a person coming forward to say, ‘I have been wronged, violated, or abused.’ Jesus spent his ministry hearing and responding to those statements. No, the biggest liability to the church is the silence at the pulpit, the pastor using their power for sexual gain, and the church leadership that would rather follow the lead of a pastor who harasses instead of a Christ who liberates.

Churches must not be scared of what an independent investigation will uncover. Instead, they should fear what an investigation that prioritizes the accused won’t uncover. We cannot truly preach the Good News until we are ready to reveal the bad news of the harassment and violence at work in many of our churches and homes.

Both at Willow Creek and at High Point, brave women came forward, and brave allies stood by them. May the few become the many.

There are countless ways churches can stand with survivors and seek to prevent harassment and abuse. Here are four:

  1. Preach from the pulpit about abuse. How can survivors know they are truly safe to come forward with their pain if they are never told from the pulpit that they are safe? Sojourners is collecting 100 sermons in 2018 on domestic and sexual violence. Preach on these topics, then send us your sermons so that together we can resource and inspire other churches to do the same.
  1. Connect with your local domestic violence organizations and rape crisis centers. Get to know the experts in your community. Ask them for their advice and invite them to speak to your congregation.
  2. Train your staff. FaithTrust Institute, for example, offers a wide range of trainings at the intersection of religion and domestic violence, prevention of sexual abuse by clergy, and much more. We Will Speak Out offers resources on making your congregation a safe space.
  1. Prioritize survivors. Just as Jesus prioritized the vulnerable and abused, so must we. We must prioritize survivors in our thought, words, and deeds; in our education, investigations, and sermons. Once we do, healing can begin.

Jenna Barnett is the Women and Girls Campaign Coordinator for Sojourners.

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