News

At Wheaton summit, prominent evangelicals share stories of sexual abuse

Jenny Hwang, from left, Tammy Schultz, Nancy Nealious and Ed Stetzer participate in a panel discussion at Wheaton College on Dec. 13, 2018, during a summit on sexual abuse and misconduct. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

WHEATON, Ill. (RNS) — For popular Bible teacher Beth Moore, the church always has been a safe harbor.

That was especially true when she was growing up. Church was a place where she could escape from the sexual abuse she experienced at home, she said.

“I’ve seen glimpses with my own eyes what a church can do for victims of sexual abuse and assault. I am a survivor,” Moore said.

Moore was a featured speaker at a one-day summit on sexual abuse and harassment Thursday (Dec. 13) at Wheaton College in suburban Chicago — and one of many who described their own experiences of abuse and harassment.

Some shared their stories of sexual abuse for the first time, including bestselling Christian author and pastor Max Lucado and child advocate Kelly Rosati.


RELATED: Ending the year #MeToo went to church, Wheaton summit to discuss evangelical response


“We’re trying to help amplify a conversation others have started,” said Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton, which organized the summit.

Evangelicals have not always done a good job of listening to survivors, Stetzer told attendees at the summit, and “we want to do better.”

“We’ve tried to listen to survivors today — you’ve noticed the overwhelming theme was people who have walked through this journey.”

About 750 people registered for the event, according to organizers. Another 300 signed up to watch the livestream, and more than 40 groups livestreamed the event, including churches, universities and the headquarters of the Evangelical Free Church of America.

It comes as a survey from Nashville, Tenn.-based LifeWay Research earlier this year found that about two-thirds of Protestant pastors say members of their congregation have experienced sexual or domestic violence. Fewer than half of those pastors said their training equipped them to address the issue.

At the summit, prominent evangelical Christians from a number of denominations urged churches to educate themselves about mandated reporting laws in their states regarding sexual abuse, pressed for more female leaders in the church and denounced abuses of power by church leadership.

Attendees join in a song at Wheaton College on Dec. 13, 2018, during a summit on sexual abuse and misconduct. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

And a panel of trauma and counseling experts from the college shared a clinical understanding of how trauma affects survivors and how the church can help them heal. They stressed the importance of believing survivors when they come forward and simply sitting with them in their sorrow.

“We expect someone who’s experienced trauma just to get up and be OK, and because things have been shattered, it’s going to take time to put them back together,” said Nancy Nealious, a trauma recovery and licensed clinical psychologist in the Wheaton College Counseling Center.

In his closing remarks, Lucado revealed he was sexually abused as a child by a community leader. That’s why he said he accepted the invitation to speak at the summit — because he understand the difficulty of “regaining a balance, having gone through this type of situation.”

As he listened to other speakers, he also said he felt the need to repent for what he called “locker-room banter” from his days playing football, for conversations with women in which he “could have done better” and a condescending attitude he has adopted at times as a senior pastor. Men need to listen and to hear the stories women are sharing, he said.

“Now is the time for across-the-coffee-table conversations that begin with this phrase: ‘Help me to understand what it’s like to be a female in this day and age,’” Lucado said

Max Lucado speaks at Wheaton College on Dec. 13, 2018, during a summit on sexual abuse and misconduct. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

The conference was not without its critics.

Former evangelicals Emily Joy and Hannah Paasch, the creators of the #ChurchToo hashtag, were not invited to speak at the summit. The two offered their responses to its sessions throughout the day on social media, stressing the view that evangelical beliefs, including the claim sex should be reserved for a man and woman within the context of marriage, help create an environment where abuse can occur.

Kelly Aten, a community group leader at Renewal Church, a nondenominational congregation in West Chicago, Ill., said she appreciated that speakers made clear sexual abuse is a sin. But they could have clarified that the abuser — not the victim — had sinned.

Survivors already may be dealing with feelings of guilt or shame, as well as a “blame culture” that too often asks what she was wearing or what she did to invite the abuse, said Aten, who attended the summit with a group of female leaders from Renewal.

And abuse is not just a sin, said Aubrey Sampson, a member of the church’s preaching team who identified herself as a survivor. It’s also a crime — a point she said more speakers could have made clear.

Beth Moore addresses participants at Wheaton College on Dec. 13, 2018, at a summit on sexual abuse and misconduct. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

Still, those in the group said they had learned a lot and hoped to take what they have learned back to Renewal. They hope to create an environment where people can feel safe and experience healing.

“The leaders in our church need to be equipped and encouraged and empowered to know, ‘What do we do?'” Sampson said. “How do we lead our people? How do we shepherd our people well?”

That was something that had resonated with them in Moore’s talk.

The Bible teacher recounted new headlines every month exposing crime and coverups in churches and other Christian institutions. She pointed out how secular groups have responded.

Now, Moore said, it is the church’s turn.

About the author

Emily McFarlan Miller

Emily McFarlan Miller is a national reporter for RNS based in Chicago. She covers evangelical and mainline Protestant Christianity.

21 Comments

Click here to post a comment

  • Having a degree in psychology, sociology & human behavior, we had a lot of testing, as well as, actually going through counseling ourselves, as part of our licensing procedures.

  • Many seminary programs, as well as denominational credentialing processes, require a certain amount of psychological testing and therapy. Sadly, much of it started out as a way to make sure that no undesirable homosexuals made it into the ranks of the ordained. It was years before the fields of psychiatry & psychology realized that you can’t accurately identify queers with a test.

  • To what purpose?

    I am fairly familiar with a couple of the Boards of Psychology and if there is any testing, the results are not a matter of public record.

    I believe any testing takes place as part of the academic process prior to applying for a license.

  • I am fairly familiar with a couple of the Boards of Psychology and if there is any testing, the results are not a matter of public record.

    I believe any testing takes place as part of the academic process prior to applying for a license.

  • From the article, the conference was a step in the right direction. The organizers, sponsors and participants deserve credit for it.

  • Don’t stop with that narrow set of people in authority.

    There should also be more training and emphasis on mandatory reporting. Laws vary from state to state. In my home state, the standard is: If a mandated reporter has reasonable cause to know or suspect that a child has been subjected to abuse or neglect, or observed the child being subjected to circumstances or conditions that would reasonably result in abuse or neglect, the mandatory reporter shall immediately upon receiving such information report or cause a report to be made of such fact to the county department, the local law enforcement agency, or through the child abuse reporting hotline system.

    Many health care agencies have annual skill and safety “fairs.” In my experience, and in talking with friends, mandated reporting isn’t given enough stress.

  • At random, here (and what else are comment sections for, really?)

    1) One good way to not have to repent of “locker room banter” is to, whenever possible, not be in locker rooms. Most men know, or should know by now, that all-male environments from kid stuff (sports teams, scouts, sibling brother competition), to fraternities, to military experiences, to seminaries, to prisons, to barber shops, to pool halls/taverns, to golfing/hunting/fishing trips, to elderly spit-and-whittle gatherings are MOST notable for their subject spectrums running from merely stupid to far more negative. Going along, getting along in these settings is an act best avoided if one would prefer to have actual sensibility and not have to feel a need to repent of what one heard or said.

    2) I have a private theory that the more hours one has spent holding hands with someone else, the less abusive one is likely to be in all respects. Can’t prove it. Wish we could scientifically test it. I think there is magic in holding the hand of a child, an elderly person, a girlfriend, a sibling, a spouse, maybe even just a randomly adjacent person in a prayer circle. If I was a pastor, I would never miss a chance to preach up all the harmless and healthy excuses for people to do some serious handholding. Just sayin’.

    3) The Bible, only with hints, provides a wide-open opportunity for preaching on the ideal non-romantic relationship between males and females who are not marrying. What if Jesus was a sinless man and actually modeled the best with his friend, Mary Magdalene? What if he helped her get out of a mess (the demons cast out) and befriended her, respected her, trusted her, cared about her as a person, a confidante, a friend, an equal helper among those in his circle. What if we men were called to think about this more than we do? What if we were asked to venerate two different kinds of Mary, in different ways and for different reasons. I don’t knock the female face put on religion with veneration of Mary, the mother of Jesus. But Jesus had another Mary in his life who we are led to believe was important to him. Why don’t we talk her up more? We could. The Bible would give room for this kind of preaching. Motherhood is dandy. Virginity too. But there is MORE that would be worth hearing from our pulpits to build up women and give food for thought to men.

  • What you can accurately identify with tests is fairly limited.

    What you can predict with tests is even more limited.

  • “Most men know, or should know by now, that all-male environments from kid stuff (sports teams, scouts, sibling brother competition), to fraternities, to military experiences, to seminaries, to prisons, to barber shops, to pool halls/taverns, to golfing/hunting/fishing trips, to elderly spit-and-whittle gatherings are MOST notable for their subject spectrums running from merely stupid to far more negative.”

    Boy, was THAT a revealing comment!

    You may want to change your on-line name from FriendlyGoat to Felix Unger.

  • If I remember right a mainstream Church tested a charismatic up and comer and realized he was dangerous.

    That’s the reason Jim Jones had to found his own denomination.

  • So your church should not be focusing on the grievous sexual harm that befalls innocents that grace the pews? Kind of negates all that talk about get healed and stuff, eh?

  • You just contradicted yourself. If your church can’t focus on the troubled and ill residing on the pews, what is the point of attending?

  • No contradiction whatsoever. The focus of the church is Christ and Him crucified and that is what the world wishes would end. That doesn’t mean the church shouldn’t help people. It just should not be their number one priority – salvation comes first.

  • So, before a broken spirit and body receives healing, it must first capitulate and hope it’s enough to warrant aid? This is what I’m taking away from your “logic” about church.

2019 NewsMatch Campaign: This Story Can't Wait! Donate.

ADVERTISEMENTs