For the last several days I’ve been wrestling with what is appropriate for me, as a pastor in the Memphis, TN, area, to say publicly and openly about the situation involving Andy Savage, Highpoint Church, and Jules Woodson. After members in my congregation asked me about my perspective Wednesday night, I’ve come to the point where I feel compelled to offer some thoughts.
For starters, let me deal with the log in my own eye: 20 years ago, I too was a young youth minister while finishing college, and I remember (sometimes with an accompanying facepalm) plenty of foolish mistakes and times when I sinned against those in my youth group or congregation. Throughout my adult life I’ve also faced my share of temptations toward sexual sin and other sins, and have failed in succumbing to those temptations more times than I wish were true. And, again thinking back to my late teens and early 20s, I remember times when, even as a Christian, I was inappropriately physical with women I was dating.
Which is to say: I don’t believe that sexual sin is unforgivable, nor is the truth of sexual sin in a man’s past an automatic disqualification for ministry. And I do believe that every pastor fails his congregation, sometimes makes grievous mistakes, and sins against them. I’m certainly example #1 of all of these.
But the situation with Andy Savage is different.
I don’t know Andy personally, and frankly had never heard of him before very recently. I don’t know all of the circumstances or details of the history of what happened in Texas 20 years ago, nor do I know all of the details or circumstances about how things have unfolded in the last few weeks at Highpoint Church. I don’t profess to be an expert on sexual abuse or the abuse of power. (My brief account of events below can be supplemented easily by articles in the Kansas City Star, CBS News, and the New York Times, among others.)
But from what I do know, I can tell you that the situation with Andy Savage is different. It’s not just a case of a pastor involved in an “unfortunate incident” that can be easily reconciled or dealt with “internally.” And it’s not just a case of past sin, even sexual sin. There’s a difference between sexual sin and predatory sin.
Andy Savage, taking advantage of his position and authority as a pastor in a church, drove a 17-year old girl under his pastoral care into the woods and sexually assaulted her. Afterward she spoke to another pastor on staff, Larry Cotton, about the assault; instead of pastoring her well and seeking justice and healing, he instructed her to keep silent about it and, by all appearances, he and the rest of the staff sought to cover it up. Andy Savage was gradually relieved of his responsibilities and allowed to leave to serve another church. Nothing to address this abuse and assault directly was ever done, as far as I can tell, until very recently. And for the most part what action has been taken is as frightening as it is disappointing.
While Jules Woodson has had to deal with almost two decades of shame, nightmares, and PTSD from being sexually assaulted by her pastor, that pastor has been allowed to continue in a long career of ministry, eventually co-founding a megachurch, publishing several books, and hosting a radio show. And for most of those 20 years, Jules Woodson remained silent—until sharing her #MeToo testimony on a website in early January. She also posted a copy of an email she’d sent to Andy Savage in December.
Following this, Andy Savage first responded by Twitter and a statement on his blog (neither of which is available to the public any longer). I had a chance to read his statement before it was taken down, and was disappointed by the subtle gaslighting, deflection, and downplaying I read there. He referred the an “unfortunate sexual incident” that he “regretted”—with no mention of his failure to be truly accountable for his actions, or of the other pastor’s neglect to provide protection and support of Savage’s victim.
For reasons I don’t know (but I speculate that it was because it became clear to the leadership of Highpoint Church felt that the blog statement was not going to make it all go away), Andy Savage presented an “admission” to his congregation this past Sunday after a lengthy, qualifying introduction by co-pastor Chris Conlee (it was live-streamed; click here to see the “testimony” on YouTube). In it, he did not recount anything about his assault of a teenager, but claimed that “in agreement with church staff, I took every step to respond in a biblical way” and that he “accepted full responsibility for [his] actions.” He asserted that “this incident was dealt with in Texas 20 years ago” and claimed that he believed everything had been done that was needed. When he was done with his statement, the congregation rose for a standing ovation, and Chris Conlee spoke further about how grateful he and Andy were for the support of the congregation, then he prayed for Andy, the Savage family, and for Jules Woodson.
To be fair, Andy Savage’s statement on the video seems utterly sincere and he apparently demonstrates what can only described as remorse. And, giving all benefit of doubt to Savage, it may indeed be that he did everything that he was counseled to do by his fellow staff and the pastors he served under—which casts troubling light back on Larry Cotton and the others on staff, at very least. On the other hand, according to my fellow pastor Mike Sloan, outward sincerity is something that abusers can summon at will—and given the facts that Andy Savage has at various times changed his story, hidden his Twitter feed from public viewing, taken down his initial blog post, rationalized his actions and response, and blamed Jules Woodson for being complicit, this may be exactly what he is doing.
Even if he is utterly sincere and remorseful, the situation is still troubling. So what is so troubling about this? What makes this situation different?
First, Jules Woodson should have been supported, protected, loved, and encouraged by her church family—especially by the pastoral staff. She should never, ever have been made to feel that she was at fault or complicit in any way; they should have believed her, disavowed any shame on her part, and offered counseling and pastoral care. The way that she has been dealt with, then and now, is generally shameful and embarrassing for the church.
Second, let’s acknowledge plainly that, whatever happened in the moment or in the wake of Andy Savage’s sexual assault of Jules Woodson, no true justice has been sought for this. Final justice, of course, belongs to the Lord—and yet Christians are also commanded to seek justice in the world as faithful living in the Kingdom. Jules Woodson is the victim of assault, and deserved to have justice pursued on her behalf instead of what she received.
Third, this was not simply “sexual sin”—which, as a pastor, would have been similarly troubling and threatening to his ministry—but was a clear case of abuse of power and assault. In some states there are laws that categorize any sexual contact between a pastor and someone under his care as sexual assault, regardless of age or consent, because of the recognition that pastors are people in positions of authority. Add in the fact that she was still 17 and under her parents’ care and authority, and (regardless of what Texas law may stipulate about ages of consent) it was also a clear breach of ethical boundaries. Nothing about this “sexual incident” was okay or “normal” or anything like that.
Further, it raises the honest question: “Who else?” Andy Savage claims there has never been another incident like this one in his life. Let’s hope and pray that is true. But there are markers, as Mike Sloan pointed out to me, of the traits of an abuser. If that’s the case, there may be other victims as well who, like Jules Woodson, have been shamed and guilted into lonely silence. And if that is the case, it’s fair to say that those victims too have been robbed of pastoral care, mercy, and justice.
Also, Andy Savage, Larry Cotton, and the rest of their staff sinned and erred by not dealing with the situation publicly, openly, and decisively. He shouldn’t have been allowed to resign, but should have been fired. It should have been announced to the congregation that he was fired for sexual impropriety with a member of the youth group for whom he was given care. And he should have been placed under the public discipline of the church, and not simply allowed to “move home” to avoid continuing to deal with it.
Next, it appears that the leadership of both churches (though Highpoint perhaps less so) are caught up in a pattern of self-protection, more concerned about avoiding controversy than about addressing sin in a biblical way. This is evident, among other things, in casting Andy Savage as a “victim” in this whole situation alongside the true victim he assaulted. I can appreciate Chris Conlee’s attempts to be careful with how he worded things and also to speak of the need for support and healing for Jules Woodson, there were many statements that he made which made me feel like he was downplaying the reality of things and trying to separate what Andy Savage did from the fallout that it wreaked in Jules Woodson’s life. If anything (and again, giving as much benefit of doubt as possible), it almost seems like Andy Savage realizes that, then and now, there are far more consequences to his sin against her than anyone else will acknowledge—or possibly even than anyone else will allow him face. Once more I’ll reiterate that I don’t know the circumstances intimately, but I could totally believe a situation where, as a twenty-something, he wasn’t permitted to speak as freely or accept the consequences as fully as maybe even he himself felt was right.
Finally, the response of Highpoint Church as a congregation is disturbing. I’ve been in congregations where one person starts clapping and everyone else, not knowing what’s appropriate or not, just follows along. And I certainly recognize that having one of your pastors stand up and make a statement (however devoid of details) confessing to serious sin in the past would make for an awkward moment. But whatever the right response to this situation is, a standing ovation isn’t it. I know someone would say, “They weren’t applauding sin; they were applauding God’s grace which is big enough for any sin.” Still, it doesn’t feel right to me.
Where do we go from here? I’ll simply speak pastorally in a few directions.
To Jules Woodson: I am so, so sorry that you have faced all that you have. I’m sorry that someone you trusted and relied upon took advantage of that and abusively assaulted you sexually. And I’m sorry that others whom you trusted afterward betrayed you the way they did. You’ve never received the justice that your assault deserved, or the support and love that your church congregation had pledged to you. You’ve had to face two decades of pain, suffering, shame, loneliness, and false guilt because of the abuse of power and sexual violence of a pastor. My heart aches for you, and I pray that somehow you will find the true peace that Christ offers to sufferers.
To Andy Savage: I recognize that you saw the grievous nature of your sin almost immediately and owned that before Jules, and I acknowledge the remorse that I heard in your words as you spoke to Highpoint Church recently. I pray that those were truly sincere and not merely an abuser’s façade. I acknowledge that you simply may not have known what to do 20 years ago, and thus may have relied too heavily upon the counsel and guidance of men you trusted and who failed you. But your conscience, then and now, were and are telling you what was right, and you have followed the wrong path instead of heeding it. A video live-stream with a brief apology is not sufficient for the suffering your sin brought to another’s life. The apparent efforts made by you and others to minimize and cover up this sequence of sins appears manipulative, not repentant. As a fellow pastor and your brother in Christ, I would urge you to step aside from your leadership in the church, seek counseling and come to real terms with what havoc you brought into Jules Woodson’s life, and open yourself up to hearing from her directly about the pain you caused, admitting it and seeking true forgiveness.
To the leadership of the congregations involved: I appreciate that Larry Cotton has been put on leave of his current congregation in light of how he failed to act appropriately years ago. I urge Highpoint Church to take this matter at least as seriously, and not present abuse and assault as something applaudable or as an opportunity for an object lesson. Don’t downplay the severity of your pastor’s sins, or cast him as a victim in this scenario. Be willing to speak boldly and frankly about sin, even if it risks bringing controversy or makes your congregants ill-at-ease. Please, don’t protect or shelter abusers and give them the cover of the leadership dealing with matters “internally”—handle them with appropriate transparency and in accordance with the law and with the ethics that Scripture demands of treating those who are vulnerable and victimized with dignity, respect, and justice. Be bold and faithful enough to practice biblical discipline even (especially!) when it comes to the leadership of the church.
To believers in the Memphis area and elsewhere: please, demand of your church that they treat sexual abuse and child victimization as seriously as they possibly can. Ask them if they have child protection policies in place, and if they do not then ask why. If they are dismissive or flippant about the issue, then it is likely time to find a new church. And if you need to talk through this topic and don’t feel you have someone to talk to, feel free to reach out to me—if I don’t know the answers, I can put you in touch with someone who will.
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