#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?

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

The Naked Bike Ride to General Conference

Naked Bike Ride

In May 2016 the world is coming to my home – Portland, Oregon — a place where we proudly claim our weirdness and laugh along with episodes of “Portlandia” in an endearing way. We are into communal and laid back living, farm to table eating, free swaps and DIY on just about everything including our spirituality. We are concerned about the environment and recycle our food scraps. We love our LGBTQ brothers and sisters and even advocate for bike safety with our annual Naked Bike Ride through the streets of Portland. The coffee, beer and wine are always flowing and people who visit feel genuinely welcomed. Tolerance, understanding, diversity, natural fibers, life/work balance, communing with nature, good books, funky flavored ice cream and authentic conversations are important to us.

But frankly, we are having difficulty preparing for the General Conference delegates from all over the world who will be coming to our city for the quadrennial legislation of the United Methodist Church next May. You see, WE will tolerate differences as long as YOU tolerate differences.   We will welcome your expression of diversity as long as you welcome our expressions of diversity.

Here is our issue: We know you don’t want to welcome such diversity. Continue reading The Naked Bike Ride to General Conference

Progressive Fundamentalism?


1862

I was recently visiting a church that is known as the progressive voice in their city. The majority of members are highly engaged in social justice issues and serve their larger communities in multiple ways. They are proud of their open and affirming welcome of the LGBTQ community, but also with how they have been in ministry with the local elementary school providing a free after school program for families with low incomes. The school principal, teachers, and parents love the partnership and the program has a waiting list of people wanting to be a part of it.

As I toured the church a key volunteer with the after school program turned to me and said, “We have this great program but our church is dying. Most of us are in our upper 60’s and 70’s and we won’t be able to do all of this good work forever.”

In further conversation I found out that, even though this after school program has provided love and care for children and their parents, no one has ever invited these families to be a part of the life of the church.

Why? Continue reading Progressive Fundamentalism?

This is the Kingdom of God!

Today I glimpsed the kingdom of God in an inner city church name Mathewson Street in Providence, Rhode Island. My day began with about 300 people sitting around tables drinking coffee and eating a hearty breakfast while a dear soul  played the piano.

I sat with two men who shared stories with me about how they managed in the colder months to keep warm and dry, going from shelters to libraries to churches. They talked about their hopes, joys and struggles. We toasted to forgiveness as Rev. Jack Jones invited us to a love feast and offered prayers of and for the people.

Jack and Russ
Jack and Russ

I met a man named Russ who volunteers in the kitchen starting at 5am every Sunday morning to cook his famous eggs and potatoes. He told me about how he ended up on the streets after breaking 3 bones in his leg days before he was to start his new job as an electrician. He had no health insurance and no support network. He lost everything — his tools, his possessions, his dignity and his truck. He walks with a cane and still questions how he so quickly went from living a middle class lifestyle three years ago to surviving on the streets. But today he moves with joy and renewed hope.

I met Scott, who has come back to the church, finding a community that walks the talk. He has invited over 100 of his friends to be a part of the prayer breakfast ministry. Many of them are from his connections with families from his little league teams. Continue reading This is the Kingdom of God!