A doctor for the USA Olympic Team and Michigan State University has been sentenced to prison after being convicted of abusing hundreds. We’ve been stunned by the testimony of the accusers, but one such testimony has made me think much more deeply about the world of the Church in regards to abuse by ordained ministers.
Rachael Denhollander was interviewed by Christianity Today about her testimony and her experience in the church as well. It comes amid a few more publicly known accusations of abuse in the news in the church world. In the interview, Denhollander claimed, “the Church is one of the least safe places to acknowledge abuse.” I agree with Denhollander, and you can read it in her own words at this link. I am thankful for the faith, courage, & clarity of #RachaelDenhollander This is a key interview for me to read as a religious leader in light of the current discussion about sexual abuse and harassment in the workplace, and in particular related to the same taking place in the church.
I am not a #MeToo victim and of course unlike Rachael Denhollander and others I am not a hero in this battle. I am merely sharing my tips from the “inside” of a denominational structure that I think might help others as they consider how to rightly proceed about accusations. I is important for us all to consider that our church structures themselves might contribute to a culture that further violates victims and that might protect abusers.
We have much to learn in The Wesleyan Church, where I serve as chief of staff, but I’ve found 4 tools can help us to counter the “culture to protect the suspected professional and dismiss the accusing victim.” Those four tools are: 1) Professionalizing Women, 2) Lay Accountability, 3) Middle-Adjudicatories, and 4) Fair Application.
Now, I suspect there are abusers and harassers who have not been rightly punished on our rolls, and there are victims that have been violated by our processes that surely need to be improved (I have talked to some of them). But I do feel like these four tools are helping our leaders approach this with something to work with. If I didn’t have these four tools in my denomination, I feel the battle would be even more uphill.
Let me explain how these four tools are important for us:
1) Professionalizing Women
A profession made up of just men will have a propensity toward protecting against the other gender. This would be true the other way around as well (although that is far less common). Ordaining women breaks down (some of) the old boy’s club. There are other denominations that are against ordaining women, and I see their perspective but would from the outset note that they start at a disadvantage that it would be very wise to overcome in other ways. While we ordain women we do not have enough in positions of power and influence in our denomination. So we have to work to have ordained women involved in places like the district board of ministerial development where their voice in the accountability of ministers is so needed. I have yet myself to interact with an accountability board (we call them DBMDs) that did not have women on it. One of the joys of my work at the moment is that two of the 6 of us who serve under the General Superintendent as the Executive Cabinet are women (one lay, one ordained).
2) Lay Accountability
Engaging lay persons who are not of the profession into the accountability process (as we do in The Wesleyan Church) helps get an outside perspective to fight against “professional group-think” on issues. We have lay-parity on boards for this reason. As a professional minister there is an instinct to understand the concerns and pressures of other professionals like me. Whether I like it or not, I don’t know what it feels like to be a lay person, or to be under the influence of someone in my profession. In fact, I’ve had experiences that might bias me toward thinking someone would be wrongly accused. For this reason lay people need to be in powerful accountability positions. Another joy at the moment in my role is that two of the 6 of us who serve under the General Superintendent as the Executive Cabinet are lay persons (one female, one male).
As a general church leader (national & international) I think it’s important that we don’t have the most power and neither it is only local. Something “in-between” works better (a.k.a.: a middle-adjudicatory). Now, that word, “adjudicatory,” is a big one not used often, but it just means that somewhere in the middle there needs to be some authority over the local church. If it was only local a powerful minister could wield power without accountability and shut down any kind of accusations right away. If it is only national (in my office, for instance) it would be too remote and difficult to actually provide accountability for such instances. It would be unlikely for an accuser to call up a national office and trust the process.
4) Fair Application
Occasionally a very important & powerful leader is accused. This is where the rubber meets the road as the pressure to cover up becomes real. It is critical to hold these leaders to same (if not more) accountability as others. I know that several such cases have come across my desk and I have seen them more remotely through the years. It is essential that we don’t treat these sometimes famous and nearly always quite influential people with extra attention to ensure their fame and influence has not created a bubble where others are protecting them. In this case, I do think the national or international levels can be of assistance to be sure a middle-adjudicatory is not getting run over by a powerful local leader.
In all the above of course a process should be engaged that seeks to know the facts, not cause undue delay, and avoids at all costs measures that further traumatize the accuser nor to shame a leader who has not yet been proven guilty. I happen to think that with all 4 of these tools engaged doing just that is more possible.
These tools are just a start. I do believe a culture of suppressing accusers exists in my circles, and I suspect we re-violate accusers from time to time–but these elements do help us mitigate some of that culture in a way that gives us a head start. I recommend these to others as a path toward restructuring going forward.