#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?

 

 

 

 

 

Published by

Beth Estock

Beth coaches weird churches all over the United States. She grew up in the Midwest, began her pastoral work in the Bible Belt, and then moved to the Pacific Northwest two decades ago. She is an ordained United Methodist pastor, a contemplative, cultural architect and futurist. She is co-author of the book, "Weird Church: Welcome to the 21st Century." She convenes a network of missional faith communities in the Wesleyan tradition in Portland, Oregon.

8 thoughts on “#MeToo — My story of Sexual Harassment in the Church”

  1. Thanks, Beth. I am ashamed of my UMC colleagues in Georgia. No doubt I went to seminary with some of them (Asbury 1983). While I am sure clergy women in MN could share some similar experiences, I am glad to say that in my 34.5 years in ministry, 27 have been served under the leadership of strong, supportive clergy women. They have led me with grace, skill, challenge and always a commitment to be the best we could be, as partners in ministry. I hope that there were men there who could have been supportive, but for similar reasons of not speaking out (career, colleagues) chose to remain silent. At any rate, I am glad you stayed with the UMC and do the work you do.

  2. I am appalled and proud of you for the courage to name names. When I graduated from college in the early 80s I got a job as Secretary at the Illinois Conference of Churches. I can’t remember the guy’s name who was the “boss” but I remember him coming up and kissing me without consent. I quit when he left for vacation.
    I’ve never told that story before. Luckily for me I didn’t let it stop me from pursuing ministry many years later. Thank you for your leadership.

  3. Cornelius Henderson was my D.S. when I lived in Atlanta and I was very clear that I would not be ordained there. Too many of my friends from Candler we’re having bad experiences and I knew it was not safe. I’m sorry to hear what you endured, Beth.

    1. Wow! I did not know that. It is so sad to realize how many women have been thwarted in using their gifts and passions for ministry. Just think how many high capacity women have left these good ole boy systems and used their talents elsewhere. Not a good strategic move on the church’s part! Thanks for sharing this part of your story.

  4. Hi Beth, thank you for sharing your story. I just found your blog and would like to join you in sharing my experience as well. My story didn’t start out as blatant harassment like so many we see in the news today. At the time, my felt like a complicated love story story, though now I can clearly see what I experienced was clergy sexual misconduct.
    As a newlywed with my dream job in the Church, everything in my life seemed perfectly on track. But as my marriage began to stale, I found myself helplessly infatuated with my pastor – a handsome, charismatic bad boy who, against all odds, seemed to be falling for me too. Our innocent flirtation quickly spun into much more, and neither of us were willing or able to stop it. The lies, sins, and secrets only made our relationship more exciting…until I learned the truth.
    I spent most of last year writing my story, and this summer I published my memoir. It is called “At His Mercy: The True Story of a Victim’s Journey Through Clergy Sexual Misconduct,” as told by Elizabeth Myer. My intent is for others who have experienced similar abuse – either in the Church or elsewhere – to find in my story the affirmation, hope, and strength to acknowledge the truth nature of abusive power dynamics. This story is an unflinching account of the subtlety of power dynamics, the confusing line between love, abuse, and victimhood, and the long, fraught road to the truth and recovery.
    Please feel free to share my story with others so that together we can help inform Church leadership and empower other victims!

    1. Thanks for sharing your story Elizabeth. I am so sorry that this happened to you. I’m also grateful that through your book you are helping others to begin their own healing journeys.

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