Andy Savage’s website includes several blog posts about how to be a good parent and husband, but Jules Woodson says that he sexually assaulted her while she was a minor and he was her youth pastor at a Southern Baptist Church (SBC) in Texas. Woodson’s story, first told at WatchKeep and later featured in a New York Times video op-ed, is haunting. Woodson’s voice quivers as she describes Savage offering to take her home, passing the turn to her house, then driving down a dark road before stopping and crudely asking her to perform oral sex.
When Savage publicly addressed this history to his congregation at Highpoint Church in Memphis, Tenn., he said, “I never wanted to minimize anything about what’s taken place.” But Savage referred to his assault as “a sexual incident” for which he apologized to Woodson and her family. He followed what he says was a biblical pattern for repentance. “I never sought to cover this up,” he said.
Savage left that church in Texas — with a going-away party — without facing criminal charges or consequences from the SBC, allowing him to eventually continue his ministry at Highpoint. It wasn’t until countless people condemned his initial apology that he resigned. “When Jules cried out for justice, I carelessly turned the topic to my own story of moral change,” Savage wrote in his resignation letter.
Now, fewer than two years after Woodson’s harrowing account of Savage’s sexual assault, he is starting a new church in Memphis called Grace Valley Church.
In those two years, Woodson has become a tireless advocate for reform of how the SBC addresses sexual abuse. Savage’s new plans to restart his ministry have lit “a renewed spark in the lantern” that Woodson carries for survivors to shine light in the places that many pastors would rather leave in darkness.
“God is reminding me that this is not over,” she told Sojourners. “There is still voice to be spoken to this.”
Highpoint Church, where Savage most recently served in Memphis, also has Southern Baptist roots, though is no longer affiliated with the SBC. For Woodson, that means the SBC bears a particular responsibility about this “wolf in sheep’s clothing”: It has the “responsibility to warn other churches about him, whether the abuser is a former or current pastor,” Woodson said. “If the SBC made a statement, that would be powerful. But they have not.”
The SBC, though, operates differently than most other denominations. Rather than any sort of accountability or controls, the SBC touts church autonomy as its defining feature. It is an affiliated group of churches that together support various missions and ministries through what is known as the cooperative program, a pot into which a designated percentage of a church’s tithes and offerings go. The SBC routinely cites this loose structure and lack of authority in directing individual churches as the reasons it cannot act decisively on matters of sexual abuse. The SBC’s only recourse is to disfellowship a church, which it has done in response to overt racism, support of LGBTQ+, and ordination of female pastors.
Last year, SBC president J. D. Greear called for an investigation into 10 churches over their role in covering up sexual abuse, and the SBC voted in 2019 to adopt an amendment that would allow for disfellowshipping such churches. These communities are no longer considered members of the SBC. But beyond that severing of ties, there is no punishment that the convention can mete out, such as banning from SBC pulpits someone convicted or credibly accused of sexual abuse.
Woodson isn’t content with the convention’s excuse of church autonomy. She would like to see Southern Baptist leaders speak out against Savage’s attempt at restarting his ministry.
“By not saying anything, SBC leadership is saying that Savage’s ministry relaunch is OK,” Woodson said. “Silence speaks volumes in these situations. An organization who says they want to care well should certainly be one of the first groups to call these things out.”
But, she continued, “everyone — the people who have decision-making ability, who are involved in committees — is quiet. Only Beth Moore has spoken out.”
Given the SBC leadership’s silence on this issue, Woodson would like to see the rank-and-file members of Southern Baptist churches raise their voices in protest. If the SBC is a grassroots organization, she says, then it is up to the members themselves to hold their leadership accountable and bring about change from the bottom up. Her message is simple: “Speak out. I’m only one person. I’m nobody. You’re nobody. But our collective voice can make a difference. When you hear about sexual abuse or coverups of sexual abuse, speak out. Denounce it. Your voice adds to a chorus of voices speaking toward the same thing, and that’s where we can make a difference.”
Woodson would like the SBC leadership — and its members — to take to heart a serious call for justice. “Wake up. Wake up,” she said. “If you’re not willing to speak out about this — that he committed a crime, sexually assaulted a youth in his youth group — then you are an enabler. This is my story, yes, but this is not just about me. This is about every survivor. This is about having a voice for every single person who has been victimized by clergy. Justice for every person. Truth and life.”
Woodson also wants to speak a word to Andy Savage and those who may think she should “move on”:
“I hope Andy is a Christian. I hope he has truly repented — that’s between him and the Lord. I forgave him a long time ago, but this is not about forgiveness. This is about justice and accountability. God’s grace is amazing, but it doesn’t mean restoration to ministry. If Andy Savage wants to sit in the pews and have faith and worship and rejoice, then that is great, but he absolutely has disqualified himself from the pulpit.”