And today, it's a somewhat controversial topic I'm diving in with. Forgive me; this is a tough one.
Over the last three weeks or so, I've felt torn between being a Christ-follower and being a feminist. Between faith and critical thinking. Between standing with my church, my God and my fellow women.
Three weeks ago, a story broke in local media that the founder and lead pastor of my church had been accused of sexual misconduct in events dating back more than 20 years. The news shattered my heart.
I am not a stranger to powerful men taking advantage of women. I have seen it with my own eyes. I have helped to pick up the pieces afterward. I have witnessed the damage it does, in churches, in schools, in workplaces.
This does not make me an expert.
I believe with my whole heart that women must be heard. For far too long, women have not felt that they have a voice. I am grateful beyond measure that women have banded together to say "no more." And yet, from the beginning of the "MeToo" movement, I have had this itchy thought in the corner of my mind.
Because we are in an era where women must be heard and given credibility, there will be good men who become collateral damage.
It's dangerous territory, I know. But here are a few things you should know about me:
- I am cynical.
- I do not trust blindly.
- I question power and authority.
- I am more skeptical of leaders - particularly those in the Church - than most people I know. This is especially true when I consider those in my orbit who are also people of faith.
- I work very hard to be open enough that my mind can be changed when evidence shows I was wrong.
Given all that, I still find myself believing my pastor. Not blindly, but after reading documentation from both sides, looking into the legal firm the church hired to investigate the allegations, listening to statements from both sides, and reading the news coverage (both when the story first broke and when my pastor eventually decided to retire, six months before he intended to.)
The allegations vary from an affair (which was later recanted with a long apology from the accuser, who admitted to being very angry with the church) to compliments of physical traits, from invitations to hotel rooms to awkwardly long hugs.
All of this happened some 20 years ago. Which got me thinking about what my office environment was like back in the 90s.
Friends, I should have been fired daily, as should have my male boss. We were incredibly close. We had office dance parties. We often went to lunch together, unsupervised. He didn't always inform his wife of these lunches, because our relationship made her uncomfortable. (There was no need for this, but the older and wiser version of me would have respected her enough to draw different boundaries.) There was at least one time when he showed up at my apartment on a Saturday, because he was in the neighborhood.
We were friends. We had an environment of vulnerability, and being creative people, it made us better at our jobs. None of this was remotely untoward, but to an outside observer, it could have appeared incredibly inappropriate. If, today, he were in a position of power, I could come forward with allegations that would most certainly end his career.
But I wouldn't do that, because there's no there, there.
Many have asked, "what's in it for the accusers and their supporters to come forward now?" As if somehow having no motive equals instant credibility. Every day, people do things for no apparent reason. There could be any number of motives that we cannot see, or know, or understand. The first thing that springs to mind is the woman who alleged an affair only to later backtrack on her claims, admitting anger, saying she wanted to "take down" the church and my pastor.
I am no stranger to anger at church, and at The Church. I was angry for a long time. Church and I had a falling out for a number of years, and it's an anger I can still tap into if I think about it. So it is not beyond the realm of possibility that angry people went looking for other angry people, and at the right time they chose to use their anger as fuel. I don't know this to be the case, but I do know that not seeing a reason doesn't mean there isn't one.
Here's what I know for sure, and feel in my gut:
- You cannot prove a negative. In general, one cannot compile evidence to prove something did not happen.
- Absent evidence to the contrary, what we have is a he said/she said situation, and we live in a time when "she" has the loudest voice. (Again, I do not think this is a bad thing, overall.)
- The accuser who claimed the affair apologized in writing to a church elder, saying she was angry and she didn't realize they would take the claim so seriously. She admitted to lying, and to being embarrassed that everyone would know she lied.
- After the accuser recanted, a group of people in church leadership went looking for others who would speak out against our pastor. In any other time in history, we would refer to this as a witch hunt.
- An independent investigation was performed. It was paid for by the church, but the firm they hired to do it is known for being thorough. They have no ties to my church. They searched records both personal and professional and found no evidence of wrongdoing.
- My pastor has been a trailblazer in favor of women in leadership in the church, much to the chagrin of many who believe it is not biblical for women to lead. As such, he opened himself up to a catch-22, in that the appearance of impropriety is as damaging as actual impropriety. Because he served as leader and mentor to women, there were occasions when he was alone with them. Mike Pence might disagree. Billy Graham might disagree. But if women are to be truly equal, they will at times be alone with men in work settings.
- I believe my pastor. He has responded to every allegation, and while I do not claim to be able to tell when someone is lying, the evidence does not suggest it. He may not be innocent - and his responses have addressed this - but I do not believe he is guilty.
In a strange way, none of this matters now. Our pastor has stepped down from the church he founded 42 years ago. There was too much focus on this, and not enough focus on the true work of the Church. I wish he hadn't, because the optics aren't the best ... but he's not the sort of guy who cares about optics. He cares about Jesus, and if he can't effectively do the work of Jesus, he's going to leave that for someone else.
My point, then, is that yes, we must listen to women. But we must also think critically. We must recognize that if an awkward hug or a compliment of someone's arms happened 20 years ago, and did not become a pattern, the person in question likely changed with our culture.
I would ask you to think back over the last 20 years, and see if you are making wiser, better decisions with your relationships today. Then I'd suggest that we shouldn't expect anything different from the human beings we have placed in positions of power and leadership. We mustn't allow good people to become collateral damage because we cannot bring ourselves to look with critical eyes at those who allege wrongdoing.