#MeToo — My story of Sexual Harassment in the Church

In 1988 I graduated from Candler School of Theology with a Masters of Divinity degree ready to launch out into the world as a pastor. After a year of Advanced Clinical Pastoral Education at Baptists Medical Centers in Birmingham, Alabama I married my husband and we settled in Atlanta where he attended school. I was a 27 year-old woman from the Midwest hoping to get ordained as an Elder in the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church.

At that time there were very few women pastors and it was widely known that we were a nuisance, not because we lacked the qualifications or skills but simply because we were women who did not belong in the good ole boys club. The male hierarchy used the appointment of women as a threat to any church that was not financially in good standing or who had a history of being “clergy killers.” The conversation went something like this to the church, “If you misbehave in any way we will send you a woman as a punishment.”

Patriarchal power and control was in the air we breathed, rendering intelligent, strong and gifted women as subversive, heretical and quite frankly an abomination. A fellow clergyman called me an abomination when I was pregnant. “How could I stand in the pulpit and represent the sexual act in such a blatant display?” Women were Eve, the seductress, the scapegoat and excuse for the sins of man. No wonder it is a proven fact that there is a proliferation of sexual harassment in male dominated work places. Patriarchy continues to waft through the air we breath in insidious ways.

I remember a conversation while meeting with Bishop Fitzgerald and my second District Superintendent, Cornelius Henderson. The Bishop commented, “I just don’t understand why women would want to be ordained, do you?” Rev. Henderson, who had previously suggested that it would be better for me to live out my call as a church secretary replied to the Bishop, “No, I don’t bishop. I don’t understand either.” And both of them just shook their heads and looked at me like I was an alien creature.

I share these stories to help you understand the context that I found myself in as a young pastor who was passionate about serving the church in an institution that blatantly marginalized and objectified women. We had no sexual misconduct policy; the male pastors who were predators were simply moved from one church to another or even promoted into cabinet positions when a parishioner made a complaint of sexual harassment. The hierarchy was willing to overlook the bad actor because the greater good of the institutional church was at stake. This was the cultural norm in 1989. “Men will be men. If you, as a woman, can’t take it then get out.” Unfortunately, we have discovered, that this behavior continues to be a cultural norm in many institutions.

The only appointment I could get in 1989 was a ¼ time two-point charge to Rogers and Culloden churches in Monroe County – a 2-hour drive south of Atlanta. Thus began my appointment history of being the first woman pastor in every church that I have served in my career. Those two country churches warmed up to me after the initial embarrassment of having a woman as their pastor and we had a great year together.

But what continues to haunt me is my experience with my first District Superintendent, Rev. Melton McNeil. On a regular basis he would call mandatory meetings of all the clergy in his district, made up of all men and me. As a way to take attendance he would call us up to the front of the sanctuary one at a time to give us a packet of information. When he called me forward this is what he would consistently say, “Isn’t she the sexiest little preacher woman you’ve ever seen boys?” Then he would hand me my packet, slap me on the ass and get in a little grab just for good measure as the rest of the clergymen chuckled in their seats. At other events where he was present I did my best to hide from him. But if he ever caught sight of me he would give me the “I’m undressing you in my mind look” and then make a beeline to me so that he could sensuously hug me and whisper sweet nothings in my ear.

I have a hunch he would say that he didn’t think there was anything wrong with his behavior and that he was pursuing “shared feelings”. After all, I never made a complaint so I must have enjoyed the sexual attention of a 60 year-old man as much as he enjoyed groping a woman more than half his age! I get sick to my stomach writing this, knowing that there was nothing I could say or do about the abuse if I wanted to have a future in ministry. This man had that kind of positional power over me and my male colleagues laughingly went along with it. The patriarchal system turns a blind eye to justice for women and normalizes locker room talk.

The cloud of secrecy enveloping the institutional church around issues of sexual harassment continues. Sure, we have our sexual misconduct policies and our healthy-boundaries training but all of those policies continue to favor the containment and silence of the predatory and nuanced behavior of certain male clergy. It is a system that continues to marginalize and keep victims quiet under the guise of “confidentiality.” Under this system a harassed woman can feel isolated in fear and stuck in shame. Institutions lack transparency and accountability as they naturally want to protect the status quo and the powerful within them.

The #Metoo social media campaign has leveled the playing field and brought to light patterns of male predatory behavior. It has allowed many of us who have held these stories for decades to realize that we were not the only ones. We are not alone. Over these last 2 months I have yet to find a woman who has not had a story of sexual harassment, including my mother and my college-aged daughters. This movement has helped women collectively to climb out of the crazy-making system of abuse that has historically condemned us as charlatans and ostracized us if we dared to speak up.

What I have learned from my wise daughters is that silence equals continued abuse and marginalization. How many other women did that district superintendent harass? How many women could I have saved from that harassment if I had felt empowered to speak up at the time? How often have I just went along to get along?

  • What if instead of second guessing and making excuses, afraid of rocking the institutional boat and the lives of predatory men, we welcomed this #metoo movement as a time to shake the shackles of the patriarchy that holds both men and women in dysfunctional norms of behavior.
  • What if we held people in positions of power accountable and helped to give voice to those that needed one?
  • What if we shared our collective stories of sexual harassment in the church?

When we have the courage to speak truth to power we can change the world. Our call as Christians is to do just that. Part of our baptismal covenant is to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves and accept the power and freedom that God gives us.

Having the courage to tell the truth whether as a victim or a perpetrator is a redemptive act. Having the capacity to listen deeply to the pain of years of systemic oppression is healing. Having the grace to understand that all of us are implicated in this patriarchal system of abuse can lead to new life. We as church leaders, both men and women, have an opportunity to “take thou authority” in the best possible way as agents of reconciliation and healing.

Will you join me and share your story too?






Why Church?

I often get a sense that as mainline Christians we don’t understand the significance of our work in the 21st century. Too often we get stuck as we look with dread at church decline and the growing numbers of “Spiritual but not Religious”, as if we are looking over a cliff with no way forward. Our response to this has been a series of reactions:

  • Denial with a myopic focus of doing what we have always done within the walls of the church
  • Making the church great again by claiming orthodoxy as ultimate morality
  • Tinkering at the edges and trying harder with what we know that doesn’t work
  • Micromanaging our limited resources of money and gifted leaders hoping that exerting more control will save the institution.

Not only are those responses unrealistic they are also very depressing because we end up wasting time and resources on things that no longer matter. We say we want to “make disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world”, but in all honesty I think it has become more of a rallying cry for saving the institution.

So really, why bother? Why is church so important anyway? And what would make it more relevant now than ever? Continue reading Why Church?

Finding our Moral Grounding in a Clash of Values

The religious minister has the obligation to defend values; what happens is that the political world can become overly scrupulous: it listens to a pastor and they say that he is preaching against so and so. We do not preach against anyone; we refer to the value that is in danger and that must be safeguarded. — Pope Francis “On Heaven and Earth”

There is an underlying narrative that we seem to be glossing over as we try to make sense of what happened in Charlottesville. It is the movement from modernism to post-modernism, from truth to post-truth, from purpose to nihilism, from traditional party politics to identity politics, from freedom to equality.

Our nation was founded upon Enlightenment principles, which are reflected in our Declaration of Independence, “We hold these Truths to be selfevident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

This was the modern era in which moral truths were self-evident and scientific truths were verifiable. It was a time when freedom of religion, speech and the right to bear arms were a reflection of these self-evident truths. As our country matured and our life conditions changed, we began to see that all Americans did not share these freedoms.

The counter-culture of the 1960’s called the country to move beyond freedom to equality with the feminist movement, civil rights and, finally, LGBTQ rights. As our world has become smaller through the rise of globalism and the advent of social media, we have begun to question our self-evident truths and, in recent years, even scientific truths–to the point where truth itself has become relative and personal, and objective news reporting is portrayed as “fake.”

One consequence of this post-truth world is that many are left either capitalizing on this with creating our own narcissistic social media world and/or falling into a nihilistic fatalism where nothing matters and there is no purpose in life. Continue reading Finding our Moral Grounding in a Clash of Values

River Time Yoga Retreat

I came to the practice of yoga 23 years ago when I was expecting my first child. The class was for pregnant women who wanted to do natural childbirth. What surprised me even then was how calm and centered I felt after the classes. Two healthy births, a stressful job and a move across the country brought me back to yoga 17 years ago — at first once a week and then twice a week. Now the practice of yoga has become a rich metaphor for my life.

Of course yoga has given me greater flexibility and stronger muscles, better posture and balance, reduced emotional and physical stress, and increased self-awareness. But more importantly, I have grown in my capacities to take life as it comes to me, exactly as it unfolds, warts and all. The practice of yoga has helped me to grow in compassion for myself and others. Simply put, yoga has helped me to open my heart.

Which leads me to the river and another metaphor… Continue reading River Time Yoga Retreat

Buen Camino

Nothing quite prepares you for a pilgrimage.

Christian PilgrimSure, there is the research on the pilgrimage route, choosing the proper walking gear, exercise preparation, and the strategic packing of just a few clothes and essentials, but the pilgrimage itself calls into question any illusion of control we think we have in life.

Camino Frances is a 500 mile walk across the northern part of Spain that begins in the Pyrenees Mountains along the border with France and leads to Santiago de Compostela where it is said that the bones of the first martyred Apostle, St. James, are buried in a Crypt in the Cathedral. It is one of three major pilgrimage sites for Christianity. The other 2 are Jerusalem and Rome.

My husband, Jeff, 21-year-old daughter, Hannah, and two dear friends, Jane and Rob, began our pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Sarria, Spain approximately 116 km from Santiago. This is typically a 5-6 day walk into the old city where close to 2,000 pilgrims arrive everyday after walking up to 500 or more miles.Camino with friends

The first day was overcast and cool with the forecast of rain but that didn’t dampen our high spirits and energetic pace as we calculated the hours it would take to walk our first day goal of 14 miles. Like a typical North American my focus was on the destination and my race to get there. At one point I caught myself trying to pass other pilgrims much like my experience in Oregon at the Portland to Coast Relay race in which those passes are called “road kill”. This is fairly easy to do given the fact that we had started this journey after others had been walking for over 400 miles carrying everything they needed on their backs. We, on the other hand, were walking the last 73 miles of this pilgrimage – quite an advantage in the competitive scheme of things!

It took me a day of walking with increasingly achy plantar fasciitis feet in the rain to begin to realize that this was not a race; this was a pilgrimage experience. I went to bed that first evening exhausted with throbbing feet worried that I would not be able to walk in the morning. Surprisingly, I woke up buoyant with rested feet ready to head out for the next destination, but Hannah awoke to pain shooting up the back of her knees – tendonitis.

Seeing other pilgrims head out for the new day, I started walking fast, leaving my daughter behind. Then I remembered part of the Camino blessing that I had just read that morning, Blessed are you pilgrim if what concerns you most is not arriving, but arriving with others. Blessed are you pilgrim if you discover that a step backwards to help another is more valuable than a hundred forward without awareness of those at your side. Ah, yes… I determined then that this day I would walk with my daughter at her pace.

Step by step I found a new rhythm of being present to the moment and the people that I encountered, as well as the sights, the smells, the sounds, the touch of the wind on my body, the feel of my feet touching earth, and the new tastes of Spanish food and drink.

As I slowed down I realized that everyone walks the Camino in their own way — like Gary, an 80 year old man from Oregon who walks about 5 miles a day at a very slow pace, his two walking sticks echoing a steady beat as they hit the ground or Bill, a humble Gen Ex vagabond from Michigan, who instructed Hannah how to walk with tendonitis — short, slow steps, flat footed up hill, or Chris, a recently retired teacher from England, who walks at a fast clip because she has lots of energy.

The greeting on the path is Buen Camino, meaning “Have a good journey”, but it can also be a gracious reminder that all ways of walking are good ways.

As I allowed the Camino to have its way with me I began to enjoy the simplicity of the journey. Walk, Eat, Sleep is the 3-fold practice of the pilgrimage. That easy rhythm allowed me to begin to let go of the stressful baggage that I constantly and unconsciously carry with me – the to-do lists, performance anxieties and fears born out of scarcity, not enoughness, and shame. It opened me to see that every pilgrim suffers with both physical and existential pain and yet we walk, we endure, we find joy in the simplest pleasures like taking off our shoes and rubbing our feet at a roadside café while drinking a cold beer or smelling the eucalyptus trees as we walk under their forested canopy. With each step my heart opened wider to a sense of abundance – that this is enough and I am enough and this day is a sacrament unfolding in time and space.

Soy El CaminoThen like manna from heaven I came across a sign posted along the path that said, Yo Soy El Camino, y La Verdad y La Vida. “I am the way, the truth and the life.” Yes, El Camino, the way… this camino, this way. The pilgrim journey is a metaphor for life. Everyone walks it in their own way and it is all good.

Our call is simply to take that next faithful step, find our rhythm in unhurried calm, acknowledge our pain and in so doing find our common humanity — our deep connection to the fullness of life that we thankfully have no control over. This is the deep truth of life – that it is sheer unmerited grace, love incarnated in community.

Several days later during the Pilgrim Mass at the Cathedral in Santiago tears of awe and wonder flowed down my cheeks as I hugged and shook hands with my fellow pilgrims from around the world sharing the peace in our own native tongues.

All these people, all this pain, all this joy, all this good will, all this common journey is a glimpse of the kingdom. El Camino of Jesus is the “Buen Camino” of life.


And They Had All things Together

We live in complex and polarizing times. Our institutions are declining and our sense of job security and family safety is on heighten alert. Our neighborhoods are growing in diversity with a multiplicity of cultural expressions that challenge our assumptions and codes of conduct. And we are beginning to question lots of things – truth, gender identities, race relations, the economy, politics, education, and global warming — which leads us to a generalized fear and anxiety with just about everything. This has become our new norm — the background noise of life in the 21st century.

My particular dance with all of this is in the church. Often I have heard, “The church is just not relevant anymore, even for many of those who still make it a habit of going to worship and engaging in church activities. We have lost our sense of purpose.” As I travel around the country as a church consultant it has now become the norm for me to hear stories of people and pastors who are on the verge of being done with the entire church enterprise. Not because they don’t care, but precisely because they do. Continue reading And They Had All things Together

Reports from the Spiritual Frontier

artworks_mediumMy friend Ben Yosua-Davis has launched a new podcast called “Reports from the Spiritual Frontier” His vision is to have conversations with people working on the spiritual margins of our country.  Even though he is just beginning to live out this dream, I love his concept and the interviews that he has already posted. (Okay, one of those was with me!)

I have listened to all of them and have learned so much from others who are innovating fresh expressions of faith community formation – the good, the bad and the funny. Now I have a podcast that I can refer people to so that they can have a realistic snapshot of the journey of co-creating the new that longs to spring forth.

Ben is effectively curating and preserving stories that are like the Books of Acts — 21st Century Edition! So find his podcast, add it to your phone, and the next time you are stuck in traffic or on the treadmill have a listen and be inspired!