The following is a guest post by Dee Miller, former FMB missionary and long-time survivor advocate. See her post from last week #LONGbeforeMeToo: SBC’s Oldest Survivor Advocate Speaks Out for important background.
It’s a Set-Up! A total Set-Up!
Not only for survivors who’ve waited years in hoping the SBC might someday hear their cries.
It’s also a set-up for everyone on the Credentials Committee. And they know it, I discovered in the opening remarks made by chairman Mike Lawson in a Zoom call I’d been waiting to have for weeks.
If the EC had asked me for input back in 2019, as the oldest SBC survivor advocate, I could have told them how most of United Methodists’ forty U. S. bishops, in the early 90’s, were reportingly working nearly fulltime to clean up messes from a backlog of cases they suddenly had on their doorsteps. I have a lot to share after more than three decades of ecumenical advocacy, much devoted to failed attempts to awaken SBC leaders even while I was doing community mental health nursing and very involved in church life as a pastor’s wife.
If asked, I could also have told them that the idea of putting nine untrained individuals on a committee to take care of a backlog for the entire SBC is totally unrealistic, even if their monthly meetings were to stretch over two days instead of a few hours.
When I turned to the Credentials Committee two months ago, I was really hoping to help them find a way to restore their own integrity that I felt quite certain members did not even realize they had violated. They had missed a golden opportunity to set an example for the entire Convention, demonstrating clearly what the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 calls for with any social issue—acting in “truth and brotherhood.”
Who’s Helping Who?
It stuck out like a sore thumb, the question I got from Mike Lawson first thing in that meeting: “How can we help you?”
Determined to stay on course, I didn’t bother asking if each committee member had taken time to hear every message of the Caring Well Conference, as I would have hoped. If so, depending on how closely he’d listened to Boz Tchividjian, he’d know this simple inquiry sounds quite strange to a survivor. Definitely so to one who has been writing and working voluntarily in hopes of educating not only the SBC, but a wide variety of other faith groups since 1986, ten years before Boz came along. My purpose in coming was to help Mike, as the chairman of the CC get this committee back on course.
Not being one for bickering over something others may consider trivia, however, I plunged right in.
I needed help to understand how this committee had gone an entire year without contacting Jules Woodson, I explained as my mind raced on to think how every person in the SBC (and far beyond) surely knew about her by now—at least if they’d even read about the rally outside SBC’s 2019 annual meeting or watched her later openly confront her abuser, Andy Savage, in a New York Times video or come across the amazing story in Washington Post Magazine of how this courageous young mother gained notoriety without seeking it due to the strange set of events that occurred after Savage got a quick note from his victim, reminding him of what he’d done twenty years earlier.
The Buck Stops Here
Before making any decision about Pastor Steve Bradley’s congregation, Stonebridge Church, north of Houston, at least one representative of the CC should have personally visited with Jules—not just once, as they were certain somebody had tried to do, but multiple times to keep from being bamboozled by Steve Bradley and the leaders of Stonebridge.
Jules never got due process–a fact that Woodson, Larry Cotton (Bradley’s past associate), and even the perpetrator have said. But Bradley continues to deny this fact. Determining the church’s current cooperation with the Baptist Faith and Message entails determining why he continues to deny it. Did Mike Lawson and Stacy Bramlett, last year’s chairperson who was also on this Zoom call, not understand this?
Unlike the other two, Bradley refuses to take responsibility for his serious mistakes, not even mentioning some of the worst of it to his congregation even to this day—matters that amounted to treating the crime Savage committed in 1998 as a consensual act, then going further by failing to speak to her or offer pastoral care even once after the assault!
Yet these were tips of icebergs, I was sure Mike and Stacy would soon understand. All they needed to hear now was the unanswered letter from Jules to Bradley twenty months earlier, now sitting on my second screen–a letter I felt certain they would have had in their hands now had either of them reached out to Jules even once in the past year. Even so, I had no doubt they would see the significance of my concerns today as soon as they heard the letter I was prepared to read.
Problem was, the case was over and done in November, Stacy insisted before we’d hardly started.
Not for Jules Woodson, however. Nor is it over for hundreds more of us in the survivor community.
A New Wave of Minimization
It was totally clear to Mike and Stacy that Jules had chosen not to return one message ever sent to her since her concerns had been delivered to the CC by certified mail.
What made them so certain? I asked, repeating this issue registered earlier in the request I’d made that the case be re-opened. After all, Jules was equally as certain she’d never gotten any such message. If so, she would have promptly responded.
“What more could we do?” Stacy asked after explaining she’d accepted without question the report from the person she’d delegated to reach out.
“Why not follow up by certified mail?” I replied, same as I’d asked in my original request.
“We’ve done so in some other cases,” she admitted with a shrug.
Had a client failed to return an important personal message to the bank where she worked, wouldn’t she have followed up with a certified letter? I inquired.
“Of course,” replied the investment banker.
I waited in vain for further explanation.
All that came was a quick dismissal from Mike when I brought up the unreliability of relying solely on cyberspace, comparing a similar example of a much more trivial bit of miscommunication between Mike and I the week before with a misplaced email. We both smiled at the recollection, though his smile quickly dissipated as soon as I returned to the issue at hand.
“She got it!” he declared, clearly annoyed, as if this entire conversation had been merely a distraction instead of a serious matter for consideration.
“I’m thinking this case must somehow be an exception,” Stacy stated, in what I assume was an attempt to clear the air.
No exception at all, I can easily say now. In fact, several SBC pastors I’ve since spoken to say so in recalling conversations with other survivors who’ve been put through this mill. The committee can’t seem to understand how important it is to directly communicate with all survivors.
I find this persistent pattern of survivor neglect astounding and can only chalk it up to what I’ve long referred to as “survivor-phobia.” What other explanation could there be besides total ignorance or caring too much about protecting dishonest churches and much less about the denomination’s survivors?
Anyone closely following press coverage on this case, could have easily filed a concern about Stonebridge six months before Jules. Maybe some did. Of course, since allegations are not public knowledge, there was no way for her to know.
Nor could the committee have initially known that Woodson had a LOT more on her mind than Stonebridge in early 2020, when someone opened the envelope containing the generic form this mother of three little girls had filled out. There was nothing routine at all about Jules’ own mother, Carol Stepp, having been diagnosed with Stage IV Pancreatic Cancer only weeks earlier. Which was a major motivator for when Jules reported her concerns, considering how Carol longed to see wrongs righted, especially since she had indirectly been victimized herself by Bradley, as this committee was now about to learn.
Jules considered mentioning the personal letter she’d sent to Bradley eight months earlier—the one he’d never bothered to answer. What difference did it make, she figured, after the complicity that should be obvious to anyone who’d read all the press coverage. In addition to what had been published online in Wartburg Watch. Surely the Credentials Committee had seen that, too.
I wasn’t so sure how many SBC leaders read Wartburg Watch, where her story had originated prior to press involvement; and if I’d thought, I would likely have challenged Jules’ assumption much earlier. Hindsight is always 20/20. Which I was expecting the chairpersons to say in this meeting before agreeing there was only one thing to do now—apologize and recommend to the others on the CC that my request to reopen this case be honored.
Unfortunately, they didn’t see it that way—even after I read aloud the entire letter Jules sent to Bradley,
I will never forget the disturbing looks on Mike’s face as he tried to take in Jules’ words revealing what the committee had missed, matters Jules had not thought to tell them, but certainly would have had she been reached earlier.
Sometime after the abuse, Jules writes, Bradley asked her mother and step-father for permission to bring Savage back on staff, giving him access to youth he’d likely groomed already if not also abused! Wisely, for everyone involved, they refused.
Indirectly, Bradley attributed their staying in the church for some time, after all they’d been put through, as approval for the way he’d handled the case; and it’s been reported to Jules that he did this even after she went public in 2018, with Stonebridge leaders doing nothing to dispute his claims. Which raises many questions about such a church continuing to be in good standing with the SBC.
Down to the Letter of Texas Laws
Of course, with sexual abuse, we’re not dealing merely with a social issue or something Baptists consider to be a sin. We’re talking about a moral violation of sacred personhood PLUS a crime, especially in Texas, where a rare exception to most other states had been on the books since 1995, three years before the assault.
Even if she’d been thirty years old instead of a teenager, in the church it makes no difference what the age of the victim. The statutes are clear that a sexual assault has occurred:
if the defendant is a clergyman who causes the alleged victim to participate or submit to the act of sexual assault by exploiting the alleged victim’s emotional dependency on the clergyman because of the clergyman’s professional character as spiritual adviser.
Yet, Bradley and church leaders didn’t see things that way. In fact, they act as if they don’t. Otherwise, they are ignoring not only the law, but Truth. The latter requiring Bradley publicly own his disregard of the law in addition to glossing over the unreported crime in 1998, encasing it in cement as if it would never be confronted again, and sending Savage off with a grand celebration rather than firing him. Over and Done!
Without full confession, the church is living a lie to this day. And by not holding Stonebridge accountable, the Credentials Committee is doing precisely the same.
How can we expect anything different if similar circumstances come later—to this church or another, considering the precedence set in clearing Stonebridge?
Over and Done
According to Lawson, the CC had found it very awkward to reach out to Woodson at all, he finally told me. For even the original complaint had come from someone else.
What a bombshell! I thought as I sat staring at his image on my screen.
“Are you sure?” I exclaimed. How could I have missed this in all the dialogues I’d had with Jules!
Yes, he assured me, as Stacy began going through files at her feet, apparently searching for proof.
Without warning, she closed the files and announced she had to get to another meeting. With her being a busy investment banker, I could understand, though I was still struggling to absorb the shock of the last moments of this strange meeting when Mike began the closing prayer, starting with an acknowledgement to God of our recognition that evil does occur in this world.
Lost and Found
Too much for an old woman like me, I said to myself as the screen went blank.
It took less than three minutes to establish the truth once the call ended. Jules had been waiting anxiously in the wings, I realized as soon as I moved to my second screen to shoot her a message. Despite her intense shock and frustration as I shared what I had most recently been told, she quickly produced a photo of the very envelope she’d sent to the CC by certified mail one year earlier.
So how long had the committee been sitting in such confusion, we each asked ourselves? Such collusion and confusion I’d not witnessed since 1986.
Before I could get to my inbox to send Lawson the photo, an email was already waiting for me with an apology: “I spoke in error. It was in fact Jules who submitted,” he admitted.
The apology should be for Jules, I explained. All the more reason he needed to speak to her immediately. A simple message would do the trick: “I’m sorry. I blew it.”
He couldn’t do this, he replied. Not without asking the committee.
Just how complicated can a simple phone call, offering a personal apology be? Perhaps someone on SBC Voices can explain.
The weekend after the Zoom call, Jules flew to Texas to say goodbye to her mom. There she snapped a photo of this final reunion, which I asked to send to the CC to help them understand why it was so urgent they take action.
Tragically, Carol Stepp passed away the following week without seeing her own sorrows addressed.
My experience tells me the CC is now divided, some wanting to re-open this case while others are persuaded not to.
Since Bradley has not been persuaded by anyone at Stonebridge to answer Jules’ important letter, I took it on myself to reply as he might have if he’d only done his homework.
Truth or Consequences
The real consequences for every survivor start in community. What hurt Jules most was the lack of spiritual caring with not a single soul from Stonebridge having reached out to her since the assault.
Andy Savage, the man she’d looked up to as a spiritual mentor, ceased being her youth director in 1998, becoming her abuser all in the same moment.
It’s been the triggers spoken of at the Caring Well Conference that keep Jules, like multitudes of others, from ever being able to join a congregation in sanctuary again. Or to feel safe sending her daughters—something that troubles her every day. Her faith in Jesus remains strong, despite the betrayal of the church.
While she never asked for money, Jules could have easily told Stonebridge or Savage himself that she needs $15,000 as reimbursement for therapy co-pays over the years.
Her simple plea to you is the same as two years ago when she was quoted by Russell Meek in Sojourners Magazine:
“If the SBC is a grassroots organization, 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.”
Besides working with your own church to implement the Caring Well Challenge, here’s what else you can do:
- Pray earnestly as you watch Boz Tchividjian and other voices of advocacy from the SBC Caring Well Conference.
- Go to http://www.takecourage.org/CollusionMain.htm for an intense study of collusion with abuse in the faith community
- Contact at least one member of the CC to voice your concerns for Jules Woodson
- Send Jules a message of gratitude and encouragement through Twitter or send it by me through my website takecourage.org
- Visit your DOM to explore ways to organize a conference through Netgrace.org or FaithTrustInstitute.org