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 the shape of leadership

#MeToo

Taking a stand against abuses of power

Kristi Northup on November 27, 2017

The overwhelming number of women stepping out and sharing stories of sexual harassment and assault is finally shaking the foundations of our indulgent society. I’ve been surprised to see so many people surprised.

Thankfully, I have never been assaulted. However, I have certainly been harassed, and these experiences left me feeling violated and ashamed, as though I had somehow failed.

With the recent tidal wave of stories, I have experienced every emotion related to this topic: rage, sadness, anger, a deep desire for justice, devastation at the responses of some believers, and cathartic empathy toward so many women who have come forward and openly shared their stories.

Our culture revels in the idea of personal pleasure at all cost, but the realization that it often happens at the expense of another person is forcing our society to come to terms with our depravity. It is breaking a long-standing code of silence by exposing perpetrators in a cross-section of work, entertainment, industry and political affiliation. There is an important thread that ties these stories together: abuse of power.

Years ago, a 19-year-old woman confessed to me that she had been involved sexually with her youth pastor. Being young in the ministry, I realized for the first time the value of the network of support that exists within our Fellowship. My husband, Wayne, and I were relieved that we didn’t have to be the ones to confront this pastor, who was also a friend.

Instead, we reached out to our district superintendent. He handled the situation with wisdom and integrity. I’ll never forget his words to that young woman. As she shook with tears of shame, he said, “You have been subjected to an abuse of power. It doesn’t matter if you willingly participated or not. This man had spiritual authority over you, and he abused it.”

I sat there in shock. As a young woman, this perspective had never occurred to me, but it changed the way I understood sexual sin and abuse of power from that moment on.

Every person in our society eventually encounters the reality of sexual sin. Those who don’t believe this are either naïve or deceived. The Church must be the safest place for people to admit openly that they have sinned, or to share when they have been sinned against. Only then can they receive the healing, wholeness and freedom that come through the blood of Jesus Christ.

When we approach ministry with this understanding, it removes the impossibility factor that keeps people from telling the truth before their lives explode with irreparable damage. James 5:16 says, “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.”

The Church can lead the way to hope and healing for the abused, the harassed, the accused and the fallen.

Confession and repentance have the power to stop the downward spiral of depravity and begin the road toward true freedom.

I know so many incredible, godly men and women among the clergy who take great care to preserve their integrity in their personal interactions. Not being alone with a person of the opposite sex is a good place to start, but there are more nuanced actions that are critical as well. In particular, being careful about hugs and physical touch in general is an important safeguard.

Most ministers recognize that such boundaries help protect their reputation, their soul and their marriage. Yet there is an additional reason for caution that is equally important: protecting vulnerable people under our spiritual care. We can’t assume that staff members, youth and children’s volunteers, and students innately understand ethical boundaries.

It is our job as clergy to lovingly teach, correct, protect and model biblical precepts of sexual behavior. We must intentionally weave this ongoing conversation into premarital counseling, group discussions, weekly messages and the spontaneous mentoring moments that happen in ministry.

Through the landslide of revelations, there is a growing realization that more often than we want to admit, many men abuse their power for their sinful gain. I’m not pointing the finger; I’m simply observing that in our culture, sexual abuse of power is nearly always perpetrated by men.

When the Church protects men — inside or outside its ranks — from the fallout of reasonably provable accusations, the consequences are devastating and long-lasting for everyone. But when church leaders respond appropriately, though it may be incredibly painful and the cost may be dear, it gives the abused a chance to heal.

What happened to the young girl earlier in the story? She went through intensive counseling, received support and discipleship from other women with similar experiences, and came through it a whole person. Even when it came to light that the youth pastor had inappropriate relationships with three other young people from a previous church, she held steady.

Today she is in the ministry, and more importantly, is walking with the Lord. It’s been a journey toward healing that continues to this day.

I thank God for a district leader who didn’t try to justify inexcusable behavior. He stood on the Word, operated in discernment, and ultimately made the excruciating call to remove a man from the pulpit.

No one wins in these situations. But the blood of Jesus covers and restores. I ask my brothers and sisters in the ministry to be vigilant of their personal ethics, and to hold one another to the highest code of honor. Understand the gravity of protecting and teaching those in our spiritual care. Have the difficult conversations, and have them often.

When forced to face an abuse of power, include your district leaders. Part of the benefit of holding credentials is the accountability and support network that are in place when difficult situations arise. This is how the Church can lead the way to hope and healing for the abused, the harassed, the accused and the fallen.

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