Last summer Stephanie Lobdell, co-lead pastor at Mountain Home Church of the Nazarene in Idaho, started a sermon series on the forgotten characters of Scripture. One of the subjects she wanted to cover was Dinah, the daughter of Jacob, who was raped by a Hivite prince. Her sexual assault ultimately spurred her brothers to massacre the royal’s people (Gen. 34).
Lobdell’s co-pastor and husband, Tommy, was apprehensive about her decision to broach Dinah’s story. “He said, ‘Why are you preaching about rape? It’s such a vile topic. It’s such a sensitive area. Why are you taking that risk?’” said Lobdell. “He felt anxious, like, What’s going to happen when we open this door?”
But Lobdell was beginning to feel burdened by sermons in which women’s suffering was “a little side note to what pastors really want to talk about.”
“It was one of those subtle promptings of the Holy Spirit: ‘Here’s a story that gets skipped over. You have a gap in your schedule. What could you put there?’” said Lobdell. “I trusted the Spirit’s guidance.”
Naming Dinah’s experience from the pulpit caused an unexpected chain reaction. “After the sermon,” said Lobdell, “several people shared their own stories with me and expressed gratitude for giving voice to Dinah’s experience. This sermon allowed women to find their stories expressed in Scripture.”
Shortly after Lobdell broached that subject with her congregation, The New York Times released a report on Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s history of sexual misconduct. That report launched another, much larger chain reaction: the #MeToo movement. The hashtag #MeToo, created by activist Tarana Burke and mainstreamed by actress Alyssa Milano, cascaded as women shared their stories of workplace sexual misconduct, manipulation, domestic violence, childhood sexual abuse, and rape.
As is often the case, the Christian community had a parallel story.
In late November of 2017, two former evangelical women used the hashtag #ChurchToo to share stories of their own sexual abuse in church communities. Hundreds of people followed their lead, using that designation to share stories of abuse by church leaders and church members.
Before the #MeToo movement, the majority (67%) of church leaders acknowledged that people in their congregation were affected by domestic and sexual violence, but only 56 percent said they had spoken to their congregation at least once year about these issues, according to 2014 LifeWay Research data.
Since #MeToo, according to 2018 LifeWay Research data, a similar number (64%) of church leaders acknowledged that congregants were affected by domestic and sexual violence, but 77 percent now said they speak to their congregation about these issues at least once a year. Further, based on an informal survey of CT Pastors’ readers, since the start of the #MeToo movement, the number of self-identified pastors who claim to have a high or very high awareness of sexual misconduct has increased by 30 percent.
Additionally, the #MeToo movement has spurred sermon series, hard conversations with staff, and revisions of sexual harassment policies. Congregants are sharing their own stories, sometimes for the first time. Pastors will be the first to admit it—many are facing uncharted territory.
Reactive or Responsive?
“Heartbreaking.” That’s how Justin Pearson, lead pastor of Sojourn Church in Fairfax, Virginia, described his initial reaction to the #MeToo stories.
“Hearing and reading so many stories of unchecked abuse of women sickened and saddened me greatly,” he said. “To hear about similar instances within the church frustrated me all the more. The local church should be the voice for the voiceless. It should stand up against abuse in any form. As I read these stories, it became clear that, more often than I wanted to acknowledge or admit, that had not been the case. It broke my heart.”
Milton Campbell, lead pastor of The Midtown Bridge Church in Atlanta, was similarly disappointed.
“I felt saddened by the abuse of power demonstrated by leaders,” said Campbell. But his thoughts soon turned from other church leaders to himself. “After that initial disappointment, I began to reflect on my own leadership. I wanted to make sure I had been sensitive to those who may not have had a voice.”
Many pastors have felt a similar urge to “do something”—to help survivors and prevent further abuse. Yet it can be challenging to respond proactively and thoroughly to issues like these when pastors are already stretched thin.
“The hardest part, especially for a small church, is that you already have so many things to do,” said Todd Benkert, pastor of Oak Creek Community Church in Mishawaka, Indiana. “Time is not an unlimited resource. Personnel is not unlimited. It can be overwhelming— to the point where I want to throw up my hands and say, ‘I already have so much to do. How can I possibly add to that list?’”
As this cultural movement gains steam, so does pressure on pastors to respond thoughtfully and biblically in real time.
“I get discouraged when I look at Twitter on Saturday nights,” said Lobdell, “and people are tweeting, ‘If your pastor doesn’t address fill-in-the-blank on Sunday morning, leave that church.’ It’s exhausting to feel like you constantly have to react to what’s happening in culture, almost like a Saturday Night Live skit.”
To fight this pressure, Lobdell and her husband have endeavored to teach about the serious consequences of sin and human brokenness throughout the year.
“For me, being reactive means I’m responding out of the heat of the moment,” she said. “I want to be responsive. I want to have a carefully articulated, integrated response that comes from the Spirit’s guidance.”
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SOURCE: Christianity Today, Morgan Lee