Let’s keep talking about sexual assault. We must. The problem is pervasive. It is not just Hollywood. It is not just Washington, DC. It’s the church too. Hence the #churchtoo hashtag on Twitter. While I maintain my point from my article on Monday, that only the church has the answer to a culture that lacks any concept of sexual morality, the reality is that the church has far too often been part of the problem.
I had never heard of Andy Savage until late last week when Jules Woodson came forward and I began to see links to her story on Twitter. I read in horror. Ms. Woodson was sexually assaulted by Andy Savage who was her youth pastor at the time. I won’t recount the details of the assault here, but you can read the details in Jules’ own words here or here. Various media outlets, including the New York Times, have now picked up the story.
This story does not just hit out there somewhere. This story hits close to home. Highpoint Memphis, where Savage is now a teaching pastor, is a Southern Baptist Church. The Woodlands Parkway Baptist Church, where Savage was the youth pastor when the assault took place, is now StoneBridge Church and is also a Southern Baptist Church.
Savage released a statement on Saturday through his current church, Highpoint Church in Memphis, TN. You can read that here. In the statement, Savage doesn’t dispute any of the details as recounted by Ms. Woodson. Instead, he minimizes the assault by referring to it as a “sexual incident.”
Ms. Woodson’s testimony makes clear that this was handled very poorly when it happened 20 years ago. It should have been reported to the police, but it was not. It’s equally clear that Highpoint Memphis is handling it in a way now that is causing further pain for Ms. Woodson and other victims of sexual assault.
The Sunday morning service at Highpoint Memphis was devoted to addressing the elephant in the room. After the worship band finished, the church’s lead pastor, Chris Conlee, came onto the stage. He briefly addressed the situation before inviting Savage to the platform to speak. Savage read from a prepared statement that closely resembled the statement released online on Saturday. After stating that he didn’t want to minimize his sin, he proceeded to minimize it by referring to it as a “sexual incident” with a high school senior that happened when he was in college 20 years ago. After Savage finished his statement, the congregation gave him a standing ovation. Conlee prayed. And savage left the stage.
The sermon Conlee then delivered was devoted to addressing sexual sin in general and this situation in particular. Conlee’s message smacks of a guy defending a friend. It’s really exhibit A in what not to do when someone in your church is accused of sexual assault. I cannot imagine how victims of sexual assault who were present for the message must have felt hearing their pastor defend a fellow pastor who just admitted (though in a roundabout way) to sexually assaulting a girl in his youth group when he was a youth pastor. I encourage you to listen to the message here. Conlee begins speaking at the 12 minute mark.
One bright spot in the midst of this mess of a response is that of Austin Stone Community Church. Larry Cotton is the pastor to whom Ms. Woodson first told her story when the assault happened. Cotton is now one of the staff members at Austin Stone. He has wisely been placed on administrative leave pending an external investigation. The church’s full statement can be read here.
We must do better. Churches must proactively work to protect the people entrusted to our care. And when something like this does happen despite our best efforts to prevent it, we must respond appropriately. Churches must report sexual assault to the police. Perpetrators must be held accountable for their actions. Victims must be believed and cared for. And we must understand that the forgiveness Jesus offers through the cross does not negate the reality that there are some sins that disqualify a man from being a pastor. The kingdom of God and the people created in His image matter more than the continued ministry of any man.