When Church Leaders Abuse… Kissing Christianity Goodbye

I have remained silent about a very important issue that I faced when I was working with church_leadersyoung male leaders in some of my country’s largest “mega-churches.” I remained silent because of my own triggers related to child sexual abuse, but today, as I learned of the abuses related to Joshua Harris’ ministries, it felt like time for me to explain what I saw, what I learned, and how it influenced my spiritual identity… in short, the church’s overall lack of sexual ethic continues to be one of the reasons I cannot call Christianity a safe spiritual path, particularly for the young or vulnerable.

First, let’s begin with a young closeted lesbian in a male-dominated culture of youth ministry: There, we find me, at the ripe age of 18, beginning my journey at Cincinnati Christian University. Upon my arrival to the wild world of Bible College, I was immediately challenged about my desires to work with young people, because as a woman, it would not be “biblical” for me to teach over men. BAM. Welcome to a new brand of fundamentalism. I was a United Methodist “do-gooder” at heart and a Christian Charismatic in practice and while that clash itself was enough to make my faith experience contradictory, these ideas about silencing women didn’t make any sense to me socially, let alone “Biblically.” Of all the nonsense I can recount from my time in the Pentecostal youth group (introducing me to conversion therapy, being one sin of their fold), I will say that silencing the women was rarely an angle in those groups. Those women could blabber in tongues, interpret the men, and stand firm as prophetesses akin with Deborah of the Old Testament and the firm leadership of any woman in the New Testament whose story made its patriarchal pages.

But, at Bible College, still young in my church leadership training, I was informed that women… were supposed to be silent. In fact, I even had one older classmate (and later, a professor also confirmed), that if I wanted to be a youth minister, I should marry one…

youth_ministryFast forward to 1998, when I left Bible College on a much-needed break from the “study” of God’s Word, to the living out of such texts of supposed faith. In full “Hebrews” form, I took a leap of faith to work at Central Christian Church as an intern in the Senior High Youth Ministry Department. Here at Central, I discovered much freedom when it came to theology, as my host family opened up a beer here and there and my “bosses” and colleagues all used cuss words creatively. Refreshing, right? Awesome PowerPoint, awesome music, and awesome use of the words we were told were bad… just add pizza parties and trips to the beach and we have ourselves a “cool” group of youth pastors. In the end, what we thought we were doing was “loving people” into a relationship with Jesus. It all looked so good until my own psychological triggers came to the forefront…

They always wondered what happened, that I got so depressed. They always questioned, what shifted, when I started to have random outbursts, needing to be heard and affirmed in my ideas. I remember it now vividly of signs of PTSD. But what happened? What sparked my insecurities? What happened that I felt oppressed in a more progressive theological setting?

I was only 20 years old, in a patriarchal environment, away from my family and friends, looking for an answer to one single question that came up during my initial Youth Minister’s Conference:

“Why did a group of men just tell me to keep quiet about sexual misconduct among leaders of their youth groups?”

My first youth ministry conference included men from all over the nation – leaders in the currently jam-packed mega-churches where thousands of innocent “seekers” trust their families and children to “God’s” leaders. There were a few women “colleagues” in this setting of church leaders, but  most, to my dismay, were the wives of youth ministers… or they were the children’s ministry leaders.

Like a fish out of water, I was out of place within the first few sessions. Midway through the event, I was taken aside by men who thought they had power over me because of their gender, and told to “Do my time before speaking up,” and remember that, “I’m new so my ideas don’t matter yet.” I tried to be a little less idealistic and started to quiet down, like a good woman should…

Until we were in small groups, discussing the obstacles of youth ministry, and one youth pastor from a large church in the mid-west started to explain, “When I have sex with my wife, I think of some of the girls in my youth group.”

Yes. Really.

Oddly enough, just hearing those words was enough to shut me up for a minute! Startled into silence, I listened as others in the group, all men, of course, consoled him, told him it was natural, and continued to use “grace” as a tool for dealing with this man’s guilt over his confession of lusting for power over young women in a sexual context.

At that moment, I didn’t want to shame him either, because as a lesbian, what I know more than anything, is how much shame there is about sexuality, when it comes to Christian teaching.

But… there had to be another response, other than, “Dude, let’s pray for you,” or “Give it to the Lord, man… I’ve been there.” Couldn’t these “accountability” partners do more than say, “Brother, that took courage to admit?”

As a closeted lesbian, I wasn’t sure how to respond… but I finally did.

And I’ll never forget what happened because of my response.

Quietly I spoke up and asked, “Are you sure you shouldn’t get some help and maybe take a break from ministry for a bit?”

Nothing could have been more offensive, apparently! Whisked off into a private aside, I was reminded again, by a man I did not know, that it was not my place to even offer this advice.

I was out of line.

I was being rebellious.

I was…

Speaking up for social and emotional intelligence, the health and wellness of my colleague, and the protection of the young women in his care!

I see that now, almost two decades removed from this experience.

But then, in that moment, all I could do was swallow the tears that were welling up in my eyes, stifle the rage in my soul, and let these men teach me something. Surrendering to their authority… I sat quietly throughout most of the conference…

And I sat quietly about this whole incident… until today, when I stumbled across the article about Joshua Harris… how the author of “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” was involved with a ministry that covered up sexual abuse. (And he consequently removed himself from a connection to that ministry). Rather than even getting the facts and interviews, tracing blame, or trying to find out who was responsible for the shameful cover-up, I admit that I clicked away from all the open links on my browser… and sat down and cried.

I cried for all the young women who have been sexualized by their youth ministers.

I cried for all the young men who have been shamed into thinking that getting help was a sign of faithlessness.

I cried for all the young families whose ideals of Family and Church continue to be shaken by the lack of sexuality education and ethics among church leaders.

Finally…

I cried… for the 12-year old girl, who was objectified by her 17-year old neighbor… I was previously unexposed to sexual innuendos and advances… a victim of a culture of silence.

I cried for that girl, who is begging me now, to come forward and say that among the many reasons that I Kissed Christianity Goodbye, lies the objectification of women, the diminishing of the divine feminine… and the grand cover-up of the men who lack sexual ethics, teaching, or wisdom.

This post is a post that I write not to accuse my former colleagues and not to promote a fear response from any religious folk who attend Christian churches – this post is something I write to affirm that sexual ethics cannot be taught by those who have none…

Sexual ethics cannot be affirmed by those who have only studied one source on the topic – a source that oppresses women and shames sexual expression.

Sexual ethics cannot be affirmed by those who have been indoctrinated to secrecy of those things which they cannot understand or accept.

Sexual ethics cannot be affirmed by a cult of Jesus’ personality that lacks boundaries, honesty, and even the ability to self-regulate and seek help when needed.

For years after my time at Central Christian, I underwent various forms of therapy, as I uncovered all of the triggers of my own experience in sexual abuse, as a vulnerable young woman and closeted lesbian.

Now, all these years later, all I can ask of current church leaders is this: Do you still ask “the Lord” to do what only psychologists and mental health care professionals can do? Do you still shame what you do not understand? Do you still come behind the women in your congregations and tie their hands being their backs with your words? Do you still lust over the innocence of those in your keep?

The shame is not only in the actions, but in the beliefs that lead to such actions.

Ask me again why I Kissed Christianity Goodbye… as if I needed only one reason – this would have been enough.

Namaste, my friends… gird your loins, as the Church continues to shield itself from responsibility, in many secret meetings and conferences across the nation. I have no doubt about it…

~~

FYI, a bit Joshua Harris’ story recounted here - A sexual abuse survivor who should certainly know better than to continue to shame anyone, honestly… maybe there can be hope for some congregations.

For further reading/self-education: Ask your congregations to consider THIS curriculum for sexuality education, for all ages. Don’t let the UCC-ers and Unitarians be the only ones wise enough to get this right ;)

~~

I dedicate this post to that inner Youth Minister – I’m not the woman I thought I was going to become, but I am the woman I was meant to be… and I share my story and experience for those who cannot…

4 thoughts on “When Church Leaders Abuse… Kissing Christianity Goodbye

  1. Dear Gail….I am soooo with you on this….though I never had such a thing to happen with a youth leader such as sexual abuse…however, the janitor of a church took me down in the basement and raped me with my face to the wall….and did it to my younger sister also…we were 7 and 8 years old….we never told anyone because he said he would kill my family….the memory faded until I was in my 50′s…then the wall went up and in it I hid from any sexual happening…..Wrecked my marriage and many other things….my husband of 57 years still hold anger and it permeates the air….but, because I am unable to leave him because I haven’t enough money to leave, I stay….AND I am lesbian….have been all along but didn’t know it until I fell in love with a woman…she was married ( and knew she was lesbian even though she married)….and, of course I was married, but I didn’t recognize that I was lesbian…but, looking back in my history, I see it now….Anyway, I did come out at age 75….been rockier than ever…but trying not to grow faint in living without expressing it….I would dropped that wall the moment I find someone to fall in love with….(My love died of dementia….a brilliant person….then someone who forgot who I was….awful…I cried and cried.)

    Ending here….Soon I will have your book and am looking forward to it……love to you from your friend, Barbie…..

    • Oh Barbie… your story always pulls me out of any idealism and into the brave reality of survivors and their tenacity. It is… a wildly inspiring, yet heart-wrenching thing, to read your words. My friend… you are so dear. Thank you for reading and sharing here!

  2. Once again, you speak when others can’t. Bravo my friend! I wish I could say that this surprises me, but I can’t. I was once “jokingly” called a “feminazi” because I dared to have a voice and question doctrine. I was shamed into thinking I did something wrong just because my belief wasn’t meshing with theirs… enough! If God truly created us, then he created women’s intelligence as much as men’s. Who says we are lesser?

    • Thanks, Heidi! I wasn’t sure I could speak up on this one, but I knew that it was time – deep within, it just felt like I was brave enough to handle whatever feedback may come my way. (With your help at times! ;) ) I’m so sorry that you were shamed by anyone, for having a free-thinking mind… but I know firsthand how strong you are in spite of any attempts to silence your wisdom! Namaste, sister!

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