Editor’s Note: This is one of the Top 15 2020 CBE Writing Contest winners.
[Trigger warning: sexual harassment, spiritual abuse]
For the past decade I have been involved with a denomination that espouses complementarian values; men and women are equal in their status before God but have distinct, “complementary” roles in the church. The roles of pastor, deacon, and elder are specifically reserved for men. Church leaders assured me that these beliefs did not mean I was inferior to men or barred from all forms of leadership in the church. It simply meant I couldn’t have the titles listed above. As a biologist, I shrugged these restrictions off as largely irrelevant to me. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t occupy a pulpit or vote at those boring presbytery meetings. I had no desire to challenge the church leadership on these points that seemed to have little bearing on my day-to-day life.
Everything changed when my pastor bullied and sexually harassed me.
My husband was attending seminary and completing a ministry internship at a church plant. The planting pastor was a charming, silver-tongued man who constantly affirmed his commitment to “honoring women” in the church. I didn’t question his statements too closely, even though he would occasionally let a comment or action slip that didn’t quite line up with his declarations.
The pastor began harassing me when he set up a one-on-one meeting with me out of the blue to “catch up.” During the meeting he verbally abused me and used his body to intimidate me. Then he displayed flirtatious behavior and solicited an intimate “mentoring relationship” with me. Once the pastor realized I would not accept his advances, he began showing up unexpectedly at events, leering at me, cornering me in small spaces, and making unwanted physical contact.
When I avoided him, he went behind my back to my husband and urged him to intervene and make me more receptive to him. When my husband refused, the pastor bullied him at his job, targeted me from the pulpit, and made negative insinuations about my character and mental health. I noticed congregation members began to behave differently around me, as if something were wrong with me.
After the internship ended, my husband wrote the pastor a letter confronting him about his behavior, including his treatment of women. The church’s provisional session informed my husband that they were well aware of the perpetrator’s “pastoral shortcomings,” but that they believed it was “God’s will” that he remain pastor of the church. One elder even commented that the pastor was a “good-looking guy,” and that women were always looking at him in public. “These sorts of things simply happen to good-looking guys in ministry,” he said. We left the church broken and traumatized.
Over time I learned that I was not alone in my experiences. Several other former church members shared their experiences of bullying and sexual harassment at the hands of this pastor. I learned that the pastor had made inappropriate comments to other men in the congregation about women (including female church members). My blood boiled as I realized that I had not misperceived my situation at all. This man knew exactly what he was doing to me and these other women, and he was even bragging about it!
How Our Church Leaders Responded
After prayer and consideration, another woman and I wrote to the leaders of our presbytery expressing our concerns over the pastor’s behavior towards women. We requested to be kept anonymous, as the pastor had displayed a bad temper in the past, and we feared retaliation for coming forward.
What followed was an eight-month-long ordeal designed to protect the perpetrator at all costs. Two weeks after an elder conducted a phone interview with us, the clerk of the presbytery wrote us profusely apologizing and assuring us that the presbytery took these accusations “very seriously.” A group of elders presented the pastor with the accusations in a private meeting. The following Sunday, the pastor preached a vicious sermon targeting “haters,” “false accusers,” and “enemies.”
Two months after we came forward, the presbytery formed a “commission” of six men to investigate this situation. Women are not allowed to serve on commissions (only elders can), but two women were appointed as “advisors” to the men. We later learned that when one of these women dissented from the men’s decisions, her vote was stricken from the record and the result was reported as “unanimous.”
The commission set up meetings with us to receive our testimonies and the perpetrator’s response. We were horrified to learn that the meetings would take place at the church where much of the abuse had occurred. During the interviews, some commission members dismissed the abuse I suffered to my face as “locker room bravado” and “seventh grade playfulness.” The commission repeatedly pressured us to give up our identities to the perpetrator and to let him see our testimonies. When we expressed reluctance and fear for our safety, they assured us that the perpetrator had not guessed our identities, and that we were still anonymous. We later learned from an advocate in the presbytery that the perpetrator had guessed my identity right away, and he had made claims about my mental health and “past trauma” as an attempt to discredit me.
As the “investigation” dragged on and more victims came forward, the perpetrator continued to occupy the pulpit, and the congregation was kept completely in the dark about the situation. When the commission finally reached a decision, they told us they believed our claims, but that “a man’s livelihood and vocation are on the line,” and it would be an “injustice” for him to lose his job over this. The presbytery voted not to bring any charges against him; instead, they voted to pay for counseling and sensitivity training for him. No care or counseling was offered to the victims.
One elder in the presbytery objected to these actions and filed a complaint against the commission, something that we could not do for ourselves because the perpetrator had stricken us from membership. Due to COVID-19 meeting restrictions, his complaint was not addressed until many months later. As non-elders, we the victims have not been told the resulting decision, although we have been told there are “miles to go” before we even begin to see justice. Meanwhile, the perpetrator is currently enjoying a paid sabbatical, still ordained.
How Complementarianism Protects Abusers
It has been over a year since we first came forward. As I struggle to recover from the trauma of this man’s abuse and the subsequent cover-up by the presbytery, I now realize that our views on women in church leadership have serious implications. In a complementarian structure, women have no real say in church affairs, even if they are allowed to serve as “advisors” to the men. In our case the women “advisors” had no actual vote on the commission and the woman who dissented from the majority decision was swiftly silenced. If a woman is abused, she cannot advocate for herself, and she must rely on male leaders to act on her behalf. If the men choose to protect the abuser instead, she has no way of pursuing justice within the church.
If the abuser is an elder and his victim is not, the abuser has far more power and access to information than the victim. In our case the perpetrator was allowed to remain in his elder office and his pulpit throughout the proceedings, which gave him strong influence on the congregation and church leadership. The commission was made up almost entirely of close colleagues of the perpetrator, and they displayed an obvious bias in his favor during the investigation. He was allowed to book the location for the interviews. We were only allotted two hours together to give our testimonies, while he had two hours all to himself. When the commission reached a decision, they informed the perpetrator of the final outcome weeks in advance of the presbytery vote, but they insisted on waiting until after the presbytery vote to inform us. The commission gave the perpetrator a copy of their final assessment, but they refused to give a copy to us.
The perpetrator’s elder position afforded him many privileges that worked in his favor in this case. He was allowed to attend the presbytery meeting and to vote on his own case. Due to his position, the commission chose to protect his identity and reputation as much as possible during the proceedings. They concealed his identity from the rest of the presbytery and withheld all the evidence until after the vote. As an elder the perpetrator was able to access the minutes from the investigation, and as a result all the victims’ identities were exposed to him.
If women are barred from representation in church government, they are at an enormous disadvantage if they are abused by a church leader. A title such as “elder” may not seem to matter much on the surface, but in an abuse situation even the smallest power imbalance matters greatly. I would give anything not to have learned that lesson the hard way.
Photo by Eddy Lackmann on Unsplash.