Jules Woodson, a mom of three young girls and a full-time flight attendant, didn’t set out to become the face of the #ChurchToo movement. She also didn’t set out to be sexually assaulted by a man she trusted for spiritual guidance.
As reports of harassment, assault, and abuse in Christian communities continue to break, Woodson is choosing to endure public scrutiny in hopes that she can be part of making a change. She wants to prevent the proliferation of sexual and spiritual trauma in the church through sharing her story.
A legion of powerful men such as Andy Savage, Bill Hybels, and the leaders of Sovereign Grace Ministries stood behind pulpits in well-buffered institutions. For many high-profile pastors, not even accusations of rampant sexual misconduct can pry away their microphones and platforms. And then there’s Jules Woodson, a woman whose survivor’s perspective on her abuse only she can offer. Yet she can’t even get an email to her abuser returned.
In 1998, Andy Savage, a youth pastor at Woodlands Parkway Baptist Church, took advantage of seventeen-year-old Woodson. Savage entered Woodson’s life when she was fourteen years old. Because he was her youth pastor, she looked up to him as a spiritual authority and a safe person. Like many from the True Love Waits era, Woodson was trained in the ways of waiting for a godly man to sweep her off of her feet. Pastors were treated with utmost respect—they were, after all, the ultimate “godly men.”
So when Woodson’s charismatic youth pastor went out of his way to get to know her, broke rules in order to be alone with her, and encouraged her to confide in him, she trusted him. And when Savage drove her to an abandoned area where he asked her to perform oral sex, she complied. But, as Woodson told me, “compliance is not consent.”
Their church at the time crafted a face-saving exit for Savage. Simultaneously, they compounded Woodson’s pain and confusion by instructing her not to tell anyone else what happened, never following up with her to offer pastoral care, and failing to inform Woodson’s parents of the series of events despite pledging to do so. Savage went on to spend the next two decades in ministry positions at other churches, most recently Highpoint Church in Memphis, Tennessee.
In December 2017, Woodson confronted Savage via email with no response, and she ultimately went public with her story. On March 20, 2018, Savage resigned from Highpoint Church and admitted to abuse of power in his treatment of Woodson two decades prior.
Despite Savage’s step in the right direction, however, “the conversation must not end here,” Woodson wrote in her public response to Savage’s resignation letter. “This needs to be a wakeup call for everyone.”
I join Woodson in her desire for further conversation, which led me to reach out to her and start what she and I both hope will be the first of many discussions between Christians on issues of power and abuse.
Power through Position
“I want people to understand that abuse of power manifests as manipulation,” Woodson told me. “[Andy Savage] was not just some guy who thought I was pretty. This was my youth pastor who knew me since I was 14. He watched me grow up. He knew about my parents’ divorce and how hard that was for me. He knew I had received unwanted sexual attention. He knew how vulnerable I was, and he took advantage of me.
“[Savage]’s treatment of me affected every aspect of who I was—physical, emotional, mental, spiritual. Everything. My whole relationship with Christ, my whole being [was affected]. This is why Christians must seek to understand abuse. It’s not just sexual; it’s spiritual.”
When Chris Conlee, Lead Pastor at Highpoint Church, took the pulpit the Sunday after Andy resigned, he spoke of Highpoint as having been wounded and in need of healing. Conlee wept onstage as he discussed Savage’s resignation. He expressed far less emotion when referring to to Woodson’s sexual assault. In fact, neither Conlee nor Savage have used the words “sexual assault” in their public statements about the event. With each statement they appeared to have one primary interest in mind: ending the conversation that Woodson hopes is just beginning.
For Conlee and many others, the centermost character in this narrative is Savage. Conlee and Savage make the story’s theme sin rather than crime, forgiveness rather than justice. They render Woodson’s trauma a mere unfortunate consequence of Savage’s sin. If God can forgive Savage, the assumption goes, Woodson can get over the past too.
“People say that because this happened twenty years ago, I’m holding onto unforgiveness,” Woodson told me. “That’s not the issue. Forgiveness is a very personal thing. I want to talk about the bigger problems that allow abuses like this to happen so they don’t happen again.
“Many people have stories like mine, but for some reason God has brought mine to the forefront. I’m asking Him to help me communicate to survivors that they are not alone, and to create change in the church.”
Woodson hopes to start a candid discussion about the dangers of elevating pastors to the point that they are exempt from accountability or correction. In her response to Savage’s resignation letter, Woodson wrote that “there is a systemic problem within the institution of the church that props people up in places of power.”
Consider the public responses to both Savage and Woodson. Savage offered an incomplete admission of sin (not crime), and received a standing ovation. Woodson, on the other hand, shared her story, and has been lambasted online, as though she is attacking Savage rather than speaking of the moment he attacked her. Defenders of Savage cite the large flocks he has led to Christ. He is a sinner just like the rest of us, they say, so why should he have to lose his pastoral position over one sin?
A pastor’s gift of preaching or charismatic personality should not matter more than his character. When performance supersedes integrity, leaders minimize and justify their sins, ignoring the real pain they’ve inflicted and damage they’ve caused, and guide their followers to do the same. For Woodson, this happened both at Woodlands Parkway Baptist Church where the original crime occurred, and has continued to happen in Highpoint’s response.
Savage’s position and pastoral clout have protected him in ways Woodson was never protected.
Woodson’s response to protection of powerful pastors at the expense of the vulnerable, as well as the response of many who have called for Savage’s resignation, is steeped in scripture (1 Timothy 3). “The Bible calls for our pastors to be above reproach,” she said. “And when you sexually assault someone, you are no longer above reproach. When you knew about a pastor who sexually assaulted someone and you don’t report it, you are no longer above reproach. Sexual assault is not a mistake; it’s a crime.”
Humility through Respect
Woodson’s grip on grace is profound. Even as she relayed to me a season of profound darkness after she was assaulted and the church sought to silence her pain, she spoke of a desire for pastors who have committed sexual crimes as well as those who have covered them up to repent—taking full ownership for their culpability. She wants them to experience forgiveness, to have a church family who cares for them, and to participate in corporate worship. “But,” she says, “they are simply no longer above reproach in the way Scripture calls for pastors to be.”
In Savage’s resignation letter, he wrote of the perspective on his actions and their effect on Woodson he gained through others’ passionate opinions. “Perspective,” he says, “I simply could not have achieved on my own.”
Savage is right—the powerful often cannot achieve understanding of power and abuse on their own. But this isn’t because the information is inaccessible. Rather, it is because the powerful often overlook the powerless, and can afford to do so at little to no cost to themselves.
In many church settings, women are powerless in comparison to their male church leaders. The existence of authority or church hierarchies is not an inherent evil, but a refusal to acknowledge and steward power well is. Long before horrors like assault or abuse occur, church leaders need to implement intentional, accessible pathways for women’s voices to be heard.
By building habits of friendship, community, and collaboration, men and women in the church develop mutual respect, shifting the balance of power so that the vulnerable are less likely to be exploited. Men in church leadership need to ask themselves if they consider their perspective lacking without female input, or if they believe they know enough without us.
Had Savage, the original church leaders, and even the Highpoint Church staff considered the personhood of a seventeen-year-old-girl as prized as her youth leader, they would have treated her differently. Churches must take seriously the fact that girls and women are more often than not treated as lesser than men in the world. They must also acknowledge that this treatment is far too often reinforced and compounded by the church.
Woodson should have spent youth group learning about the Bible and healthy belonging in Christian community. She should have been loved and respected by her youth pastor. Instead, Savage and the pastors who protected him treated Woodson as expendable. Her value within the church was tied to how powerful men chose to regard her.
Pastors must not squander the opportunity to lead their congregations in a robust understanding of Christian community. Leaders should speak of the inherent dignity of every person made in the image of God and be honest about the fact that some people within the church have more power than others.
The goal is not to induce guilt over power or authority, but to consider the systems in which we exist and ensure that they are not harming the vulnerable. Christians must steward authority for the good of others.
When the glory of God and the dignity of others are of utmost importance, wisdom for how to dwell with one another becomes clearer: physical attraction is no excuse for abuse of power. Teenage vulnerability is no excuse for sexual assault. Pastoral position is no excuse for minimizing sin, the desire for a good reputation no excuse for silencing the wounded.
Regardless of charisma, gifting, or ministry success, no man—not Andy Savage, nor Bill Hybels, nor a leader of Sovereign Grace Ministries—should be considered above scrutiny. God calls those in church authority to higher standards of character and behavior, which necessitate high standards of accountability.
Healing through Accountability, Justice, and Grace
Woodson wants those whose vulnerability has been exploited to know that hearing others’ stories of abuse is what led her to share her own.
“You are not alone. If you want to share your story, I will stand beside you. I know how much it takes to come forward and speak about these things publicly. Survivors who speak up are speaking for the next person. So if I can speak my story for you, you can tell your story for someone too.
“You may choose to share your story anonymously, or privately, or publicly like I did. Those can all be valid choices. No one should be forced to share their stories publicly. I just want people to know they are not alone, because I know how it feels to feel alone in this.”
I asked Woodson what she would say to a pastor who wants to understand, prevent, and respond to sexual assault within the church.
First, Woodson said, church leaders must acknowledge abuse as a real and credible problem. While stories in each church will have their own nuances, nearly every church has been touched by abuse. Some will be cases of abuse similar to Woodson’s in which a church leader is the perpetrator; some are domestic cases within homes. This fact must be acknowledged and considered when setting policies, making hiring decisions, and holding church leaders and members accountable.
Pastors and other church leaders knew that Savage was breaking rules in order to be alone with Woodson, and they gave him a pass. Those who could and should have protected Woodson chose not to do so, protecting power and position instead. This should not be, and naming abuse as abuse is a step toward changing the systems that protect the powerful at the expense of the powerless.
Second, Woodson told me, church leaders must respond to assault and abuse not merely as a sin but as a crime. Assault and abuse must be reported to the authorities. When scripture speaks of respecting our governing authorities, that includes reporting crime (Romans 13).
Third, Woodson implores church leaders, as well as all Christians, to “listen to the stories of survivors. We’re not coming forward for attention. No one wants to be famous for having been sexually assaulted. Having my personal story exposed has been traumatic and overwhelming.”
“But we are telling our stories,” she continues, “because we know it’s hard for people to understand things they’ve never been through. We have been through it, so we’re telling you our stories. I don’t want fame or money. I’m telling my story to get healing and closure for myself, to let other victims know they’re not alone, and to create change in the church.”
Last, Woodson says churches need to pursue and implement resources for recognizing red flags and toxic patterns in order to prevent abuse, such as GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment), an organization that empowers the Christian community through education and training to recognize, prevent, and respond to child abuse.
Woodson implores her fellow believers to stand on the side of a God who “see[s] the trouble of the afflicted,” a God who “consider[s] their grief and take[s] it in hand” (Psalm 10:14). By amplifying the voices of survivors and refusing to shine the spotlight only on the accused, we can be part of preventing further abuses of power.
Cover image by Kai Pilger.