“It’s not that big of a deal.” “Just let it go.” “Stop rocking the boat.” “Maybe you should wait until you’re fully ordained to say anything.” “It wasn’t that bad.” I’ve heard all these things. I’ve heard each of these sentences regarding a male United Methodist clergy’s sexual harassment or treatment of me.
Last week, Willow Creek had its annual gathering called the Global Leadership Summit, which was originally planned and organized by Bill Hybels. Well, as we all now know, this seemingly beloved Christian leader, considered to be one of the top pastors of his generation in American Christianity, also sexually harassed, assaulted, and preyed on women in his church, his publishing house, and women on his staff, and only God knows who else for decades. For those decades, the church of Willow Creek has attempted to cover up the transgressions of its ‘beloved’ leader.
In the very same week, news broke that the Pennsylvania Catholic Church has been hiding and covering up sexual abuse by clergy for at least five decades. Hundreds and hundreds of victims, and it was covered up. Why? Supposedly to protect. To protect the ‘good work’ that these people were doing. Yes, do I believe that God works good works despite broken and sinful leaders, as we are all broken and sinful leaders, but some sins are far more damaging than others, and even ILLEGAL. God redeems, and we are all sinful, but sexual abuse or harassment and assault CANNOT be tolerated. God calls us to accountability and repentance, neither of which I have seen from the Pennsylvania Catholic Church or Bill Hybels and Willow Creek. And God ALWAYS calls us to truth.
“The truth shall set you free.” (John 8:32B) But first, sometimes the truth must break us apart. It must kill. It kills the sin so that righteousness can take its place. The church is afraid to be honest when it comes to the truth of clergy sexual abuse and assault, because we are afraid it will kill the ministry. We are afraid the truth would damage the witness of the church to the world, but a truth that has been hidden, covered up, or silenced is far more damaging to the witness of the kingdom of God. It kills the spirituality of the victim. It causes an even deeper wound. When we are silent on this issue, we tell the victim and the world two things: these occurrences are rare, and the church and God doesn’t care. Neither of these statements are true. Lies, untruths, cover-ups, and victim-blaming do more damage to the kingdom of God then speaking the truth ever could do. We actually try to tell the world that the church isn’t interested in truth, while simultaneously telling the world that we possess ‘the truth.’
Why is it more harmful to hide and cover up the truth? First of all, hundreds more are victimized while the church hides the truth. More and more people are silenced and hurt and told that God doesn’t care about the pain done in God’s name. How did the church forget that we are incarnation of Christ, God with flesh, and choose not to speak out? The spiritual damage of an institution trying to protect predators instead of prey is tenfold. Now they are also betrayed by God. If we choose to comfort those in power and forget those who have been made powerless, then we are not displaying a God who came to set captives free. They are betrayed by the same God that told the church to go to protect the widow, the child, and the outsider. The church stands and speaks on God’s behalf, and if we choose silence or hiding, we are silencing and hiding God as well.
This sexual abuse, harassment, and assault is not just a Willow Creek problem or a Catholic problem, this is a universal church problem. This irreprehensible behavior has been going on for decades, or centuries, in churches. Right now, in our current societal climate, Hollywood producers are held to a higher standard than American clergy. Let that sink in. A few weeks ago, James Gunn, the director of the extremely successful Guardians of the Galaxy movies, was fired for rape jokes he made years ago on Twitter. It is ludicrous that Hollywood is cracking down more on its own community than the church cracks down on our own leaders. Clergy are called to be ‘set apart’, anointed by God, to lead the people of God. And we have allowed clergy to lead the people into a trap to touch, grope, fondle, rape, and vilify.
I’m a United Methodist clergy and I’m fully ordained. With this authority I now feel like I have the power to speak out against this. Last Monday, Jason Micheli interviewed me for his podcast “Crackers and Grape Juice.” He asked how I navigated sexual harassment and being touched inappropriately as a female clergy person. I didn’t have a satisfactory answer, because it hasn’t really happened since I was ordained. Before that, I was always afraid that if I did speak out or complain about the inappropriate actions I could lose my chance at ordination, get a punishment appointment, or jeopardize my future or calling in some other way.
I have served in no less than five UM annual conferences as a staff member, pastoral intern, or pastor, and I have been sexually harassed in all of them. I have been told I would look good on a stripper pole and should work at Hooters, fondled, caressed, groped, touched, and backed into a corner where I narrowly escaped what I fear was a rape attempt all at the hands of United Methodist clergy. I have heard and seen from other female clergy comparable stories. If it has happened to me in five annual conferences, it is happening in them all. This isn’t a Catholic Church problem. This isn’t a Willow Creek problem. Fellow United Methodists, this is our problem.
The fact that clergy or Christian leaders violate others with their power isn’t new, it’s Old Testament, and so is a cover-up. Just a few weeks ago, the lectionary texts were on the story of David and Bathsheba. Bathsheba was taking her ritual cleansing bath on her own roof. She was attempting to be made holy in order to enter the Temple, and because of the roving eye of King David, the most unholy thing happens to her temple, her body. It is clear in scripture that this is rape. A woman would have no power to deny consent to the King.
David is shocked by his own horrendous behavior and the pregnancy resulting from his actions, tries to cover up his assault. When the first cover up doesn’t work, he orders not just the murder of Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, but his entire platoon. The bible tells us just how far this great Israelite leader and paragon fell. It doesn’t hide the truth to protect the name of God. Instead, it reveals the truth the need we all have for God in our lives. Covering up his sins and assault sets David, Bathsheba, and Israel on a downward spiral from which they never fully recover.
Rape steals your identity. I know. I have been raped. Bathsheba was stripped of her clothes, agency, body, and name by David. However, God redeems and resurrects. In Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus in chapter 1, Bathsheba is listed, but she is listed as Uriah’s wife, her rightful identity. Scripture gives her back, at least in part, what was taken. Scripture doesn’t shy away from the truth because it sets us free, even when the truth is ugly. If we are truly followers of Scripture, then we to must be unafraid of the truth. And we must believe victims, and hold perpetrators accountable, even if they are the leaders of our largest churches with good ministries. Let’s protect the name of God as restorer of the broken, instead of protecting the institution that continues to break more people. UMC #churchtoo.