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Willow Creek Association releases resource on ministry and #MeToo

DeVon Franklin, from left, Jeff Lockyer and Danielle Strickland participate in a panel discussion with the Willow Creek Association near Chicago. Video screenshot

CHICAGO (RNS) — There are a lot of abuse survivors who don’t feel safe in church — and a lot of abusers who do, the Rev. Dale Ingraham of Curtis Baptist Bible Church in Campbell, N.Y., told a room of Willow Creek Association staff and Christian leaders last month.

Whether the abuse happened at home or in the church, congregations rarely address the topic, according to Ingraham, who co-founded a nonprofit called  Speaking Truth in Love with his wife, Faith, to address the issue of abuse in the church.

“I’ve really come to believe that one of the major reasons people are leaving the church is because of the issue of abuse,” he said.

A video of Ingraham’s remarks was published online this week, part of a series by the Willow Creek Association called “Ministry and #MeToo: A Learning Journey for Leaders.”

Filmed on Willow Creek Community Church’s main campus in South Barrington, Ill., the videos are part of the WCA’s response to allegations of sexual misconduct and abuse of power by Willow Creek founder and former pastor Bill Hybels.

Hybels, who retired early in April from both the church and association, has denied the allegations, but both the church and WCA since have admitted they mishandled those allegations. In a statement on the organization’s website, the WCA says it has “realized that we didn’t fully understand the issue or the plight of victims.”

“As the WCA prayerfully considered our path forward, we committed to engaging in a learning journey on the topic of sexual misconduct and abuse,” it said.

The goal of “Ministry and #MeToo” was to create resources that help Christian leaders understand and respond to sexual misconduct and abuse, the Rev. Liz Testa said in one of the videos. Testa is coordinator for women’s transformation and leadership in the Reformed Church in America.

Other topics covered in the video series include the psychology of abuse and how to both promote and protect women in ministry contexts.

Willow Creek Association President and CEO Tom De Vries. Video screenshot

Speakers — all from outside Willow Creek — included pastor, author and justice advocate Danielle Strickland; producer DeVon Franklin, who recently published a book titled “The Truth About Men”; and psychologist Diane Langberg, an expert on trauma and abuse. The videos also featured the stories of women who have survived sexual abuse.

In an introductory video, WCA President and CEO Tom De Vries noted the cultural change brought about by the #MeToo movement and the issues of power abuse and gender bias it has highlighted. Those issues are found in the church as well as the broader society, he said.

“The church is not immune — and it is not innocent,” he said. “Many of the experiences that are being shared have come under the sanctity of the steeple or the shadow of a stained glass window.”

The #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements have brought the church to a “terrible, awful, beautiful moment,” said Strickland, who is identified as a survivor in the videos.

“That’s the moment that we’re choosing to say, ‘God, how could you take something terrible and awful and tragic and horrible that’s still happening all over the globe right now and help your church not only identify and heal and repent but also move forward as a potential example of what to do in these moments?” she said.

The Rev. Dale Ingraham, of Curtis Baptist Bible Church, speaks at Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago. Video screenshot

Speaking primarily to an evangelical audience, Ingraham offered advice for church leaders who want to protect those entrusted to their care. Leaders can begin by recognizing there are both victims and abusers in their churches — and talking about it.

Growing up Baptist, Ingraham said, he heard plenty of talk in the church about sins like drinking, smoking, dancing and going to movie theaters.

But he never heard Christian leaders talk about sexual abuse at church or at Bible college, he said. He heard about abuse from his wife, who was sexually abused as a child, and from his mother, who revealed to him when she was 90 that she had been raped as a child.

When confronted with abuse, Ingraham said, “Most churches get it wrong.”

Church leaders often doubt the victim, he said, and err on the side of protecting the accused. That’s especially true if the alleged offender is a well-respected church member or leader. In those cases, he said, it’s easier to believe that the victim is lying rather than admitting that “this wonderful person could do such a monstrous and evil deed.”

The biggest mistake churches make, he said, is treating sexual abuse only as a sin — something that can be dealt with by the church. Abuse is a violent crime, he said, and it needs to be reported to the police.

Ingraham advised pastors to educate themselves and their congregations, to adopt good policies as a church, to believe victims, to turn over internal investigations to independent groups, to call the police and to stay in their lanes. Churches can care for victims spiritually, he said, but they also need to refer victims to doctors, psychologists and psychiatrists and trauma therapists for physical, mental and emotional care.

“Somehow we’ve got to figure this out as churches,” he said.

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.

7 Comments

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  • People should be leaving megachurches for all kinds of reasons, a main one being that they are an addictive form of religio-tainment which can cause large numbers of people to become socially irrational.

  • Couldn’t agree more. I am a former victim of child sex abuse. I am also completely healed. I only have been a Christian for about five years. Grew up thinking I was saved, but I wasn’t. Until I was saved, I could not be healed. True healing comes from the Holy Spirit and that can’t happen until He is in you. Just a fact. So, who do you trust as far as preachers? Tough question. Most conservative denominations are a mixed bag of godly leaders, wolves, and emasculated fools. Don’t even consider the liberal denominations. Very few people in those denominations are saved. Spiritually, they won’t be able to help you. The pastor who led me to the Lord and led me to healing is a 91 year old man named Jim Wilson in Moscow Idaho. He has a few videos on you tube from a conference he did in 2008. Look up Matt Meyer Jim Wilson to find the videos. That will be a good start. God Bless.

  • Thank you for sharing your testimony. Christ is so good, eh?
    Who do I trust? Online, I would say John MacArthur, Platt, Piper, Ligon Duncan
    God bless you, my brother

  • People will give Ingraham’s advice some real and deserved consideration (although #MeToo is no longer getting away with ITS mess either, and they better know it by now).

    But you aren’t echoing what Ingraham said, are you? Unlike his message, your message is hostile to megachurches, and even hostile to “normal” size churches for that matter.

  • I actually am hostile to churches which produced the work product of large numbers of Trump voters. There are many of those in both mega and medium sizes. But I’m not hostile at all to churches which do not, by their teaching, produce “modern political conservatism” in the members when those members go out into society.

    As for preventing all kinds of abuse against females, churches are not very good at it historically. This is because they are reticent to get into telling men and boys what should be told to men and boys. But they are falling all over themselves, anyway, to capture the metoo energy and redirect it to their own purposes because they can see that metoo is a real thing that might be otherwise competitive to their messages if they don’t get on board and spin something themselves.

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