I am terrified that it will be me.
Not that I will be falsely accused by a woman of sexual misconduct, but that I will commit it. I tell myself that I am being dramatic and that my anxiety is unwarranted. But nearly every article about sexual violence in the church begins with the haunting line, “no one thought it would be him.”
Maybe it has been me. I comb through my memories starting with high school and work my way into my early twenties. I walk back through staff meetings, coffee outings, phone calls, questioning how I have talked to women or put my arm around them. I dissect my interactions and stumble onto a few moments I would change.
I need my therapist to tell me whether my fear of impropriety is a good sign or a bad one. What does it say about me that I am worried about being the “it could never be him” guy? Is it shameful to have this hyper-awareness? Is it healthy? I don’t know what to feel. Sometimes I feel resentment. I wish I did not need to examine my own actions and motives. It is uncomfortable and tiring. This past year, the #MeToo movement has taught me that I need the type of self-examination that considers my gender. I need to pay attention to the stories of women and to my own story in a particular way. The church should, too.
If you don’t think sexual violence against women is a reality that needs to be addressed in both society and the church, there are many reports and articles that will convince you. This report by the CDC in 2011 is damning. Sexual assault is a non-partisan pandemic that the church has found itself in the middle of. In the past year, there have been many articles like this one by Sojourners, which explore practical steps congregations can take to better address the reality of sexual abuse in the church. The policy recommendations that have emerged from the #ChurchToo movement, especially those offered by female authors, are vital and necessary.
One of the recommendations consistently offered to the church is to ensure that women are represented at the highest levels of church leadership. Most of the members within churches are females, and the leadership should reflect that. We have a long way to go on this front. In a recent conversation with a friend about a church hiring a new senior pastor, I asked what the chances were that they would consider a female candidate. She scoffed. One in a thousand, she said.
One frequent recommendation is that pastors ought to preach on texts that intersect with issues of sexual abuse. The advice is offered in the hope that these passages will create space for victims of sexual abuse to find solidarity and freedom to share their stories. Unfortunately, the sexually charged stories of our beloved but patriarchal scripture in the hands of patriarchal and sexually charged pastors will not help. Pastors can and should address texts in scripture that have historically given license to violent and abusive behavior. However, I am afraid that in many contexts, this won’t address the core reason of why churches are often unsafe spaces.
In his seminal book on conflict, Exclusion and Embrace, Miroslav Volf approaches conflict with others, not by focusing on policies or systems, however important these are. Instead, Volf asks the question, “What kind of selves do we need to be in order to live in harmony with others?” That is the question I find myself asking this year: What kind of self do I need to be to ensure that I am a safe and dignity-offering person to be around? What work do I need to do so that women feel safe working with me? It is a sobering question.
Reflecting on this has led me to two recommendations that I might offer to churches:
First, every pastor should be in a relationship with a licensed clinical therapist. Perhaps I should say it this way: every church board (consistory, session, etc.) should require that their pastor meet regularly with a highly qualified individual in whom they find confidentiality and counsel. Pastors too often neglect the hard work of self-knowledge and substitute it with a form of devotional study. Although studying prepares pastors for exegetical sermons, it neglects true formation. Therapy is hard, but to be the sort of self who is able to live in harmony with others, we must address the areas of hurt and pain in our own lives that cause us to hurt and cause pain in the lives of others.
Secondly, churches should celebrate communion every week, and they should place it at the center of the worship service—before the sermon. If your church does not observe communion weekly, this will seem particularly dramatic. There are many reasons to observe communion weekly, and you can read John Calvin or Todd Billings on the topic. Nothing shapes my understanding of God, myself, or others more than the weekly observation of communion.
But why place it in the middle of the service? Three years ago, I began attending a church that observes communion every week, smack dab in the middle of the service. At first, it threw me off because I was accustomed to preaching towards the communion table. I could let my sermons swell into this beautiful moment with the rustic loaf and clay cups.
The liturgical decision to place communion at the center of worship ensures that the life, death, and resurrection of Christ are at the heart of every single worship service. People no longer come to church to hear the sermon; they come to take communion. This liturgical move changes the flow of power in worship and in the church as a whole by de-emphasizing the role of the pastor and emphasizing the presence of Christ at the table. The preacher’s personality and charisma should, of course, never be central to the preaching of God’s word. However, churches built around their pastor’s personalities are rampant—not just among mega-churches. The cult of personality can and often does distract from the pre-eminence of Christ and the gospel. But by placing communion at the heart of the service, Christ’s presence at the table is central and the life of the church, liturgically and otherwise revolves around him.
The church must be better. And we can be. By giving women representative leadership, connecting our pastors to therapists, and shifting power away from the pastor and to Christ we can begin to make churches safe places that honor the stories of all people.