#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?