(RNS) — When Jules Woodson saw the viral video of an Indiana church applauding a pastor who had confessed to sexual misconduct, her heart sank.
It was a scene Woodson had experienced before.
In 2018, Woodson came forward to confront Andy Savage, her former youth pastor who pressured her into performing a sex act when she was 17. After Savage left that youth pastor position, he had gone on to lead a megachurch in Memphis, Tennessee, and write books about marriage and family.
Woodson confronted Savage on social media about his past actions, leading him to admit his sexual misconduct in a church service. The congregation responded with applause.
The Indiana video revealed how abuse and sexual misconduct are sometimes handled in churches, especially those that are nondenominational or independent — years after the #Metoo and #Churchtoo movements revealed the scope of abuse and misconduct in churches and other institutions.
A pastor confesses a “moral failing” and steps away from ministry while seeking God’s mercy and restoration. The church stands by the pastor. Survivors are asked to forgive and forget.
“They are doing the same shit,” said Woodson.
In the viral video, taken at New Life Christian Church & World Outreach, a nondenominational church in Warsaw, Indiana, pastor John B. Lowe led the congregation in an altar call on Sunday (May 22), followed by what’s known as the “sinner’s prayer.”
Then he began to confess to adultery, which he said occurred 20 years ago.
“I will not use the Bible to defend, protect, deflect my past sin. I have no defense,” he said. “I committed adultery. To say it plainly, I didn’t make a mistake. I did not have an affair. I didn’t make a misjudgment. I sinned.”
Lowe admitted in the video that he had overseen church discipline for church members who were guilty of “sexual failure” but failed to confess his own misconduct. He then said the church was involved in a “biblical process” to restore trust.
After his confession, church members began to applaud.
Then a woman rose to the stage and rebuked the pastor and congregation, saying that what he was describing as adultery began 27 years ago, not 20, and that she was 16 years old when the pastor abused her.
“You did things to my teenage body that had never and should have never been done,” she said, standing at the church’s pulpit. “If you can’t admit the truth, you have to answer to God. You are not the victim here.”
After she spoke, a man identified as her husband took the microphone and described how the couple was getting help and working through “love and forgiveness.” He also held up a purity ring, saying his wife wore it at the time she was being abused — and then he dropped it on the ground.
“People have to be held accountable,” he said on the video. “They can’t just bamboozle people and say, ‘Well, I just committed adultery.’ It was far beyond adultery.”
After the couple left the stage, Lowe returned and faced angry questions. He admitted the survivor was 16 when his misconduct started.
In a statement posted online, the church said Lowe has resigned, following the revelations at the end of the worship service. The church also said a church member had come forward recently about Lowe’s misconduct — and that church leaders had learned of it and confronted Lowe.
“The woman in question and her family did attend together and addressed the congregation, indicating that improper sexual conduct first occurred when she was 16 years of age and continued into her twenties. She tearfully described living with the deep shame and pain over the ensuing years.”
Margo Stone, executive director of the Ministry Development Network, which helps denominations deal with pastoral misconduct, said that independent churches like New Life often lack the skills or experience needed to deal with cases of pastoral abuse and misconduct. Those churches often don’t understand the power dynamics involved between the pastor and the congregation.
“The pastor is still going to be seen as someone who needs to be revered, especially if it’s a very pastor-centric kind of church,” she said. “What happens is, as we saw with the Southern Baptists, the victims tend to get left in the dust or blamed for having pulled the pastor away from his ministry calling.”
Churches tend to see pastoral misconduct as a sin, rather than an abuse of power, Stone said. So if a pastor confesses his sins, the church is prone toward forgiveness and is tempted to move on and find ways to return the pastor to leadership, rather than dealing with the harm the pastor’s actions caused.
Congregation members are also often too close to a pastor to be able to properly deal with the misconduct. The pastor is the person they hear preach every Sunday, who visits them in the hospital, and who marries and buries them. So, it becomes difficult, said Stone, for church members to believe their pastor has been abusive.
Churches can also be overconfident in their abilities to deal with abuse while also rejecting the idea that they should look to outsiders and experts for help. They often believe the Bible gives them everything they need to know to deal with abuse and misconduct. That combination of overconfidence and a lack of knowledge often leads churches to mishandle abuse and neglect abuse survivors.
This dynamic has played out in the Southern Baptist Convention, where the response to abuse allegations has often been to say dealing with abuse is up to the local church. Complicating matters is the fact that most congregations are very small — the median congregation size in the United States is 65 people, according to the recent Faith Communities Today study — and run by volunteers.
Those volunteers, said Stone, often want to find a way to salvage their pastor.
She said that in the Indiana case, if the woman’s account is accurate, then abuse took place. “Sexually abusing a minor is not an affair,” Stone said. “If she was 16 and he was the pastor, then it’s sexual abuse.”
According to news reports, the Kosciusko County Prosecutor’s Office is looking into the allegations of abuse at New Life church.
Vanderbilt Divinity School professor Ellen Armour, who teaches about religion, gender and sexuality, said independent churches often lack the infrastructure needed to deal with abuse. More hierarchical churches, she said, have procedures in place to help churches when pastoral abuse or misconduct is alleged.
“It doesn’t mean that sexual misconduct by clergy doesn’t happen in those denominations. I’m sure that it does,” she said. “But they have the infrastructure to handle it.”
When dealing with abuse or misconduct, independent or autonomous churches could easily turn to resources from other denominations or outside groups for help, Armour said. But they rarely do, which can often lead to mishandling allegations.
“The reason these more conservative churches don’t have the resources to adequately address clergy sexual abuse isn’t that those resources don’t exist,” she said. “It’s because they’ve not sought them out — apparently preferring to sweep the problem under the rug, which only amplifies the harm to the survivors.”
Armour also sees theology at play in cases like the one at New Life Church in Indiana. People in more conservative churches, especially those that stress so-called purity culture, can often blame abuse survivors for somehow leading pastors astray. “They often blame the women, as if they were dressing inappropriately or acted inappropriately,” she said.
Woodson said videos like the one at the Indiana church reveal a “toxic theology” that treats pastors as heroes and uses theatrical acts of confession and forgiveness to cover up pastoral misconduct. She said the video shows no sign that Lowe actually felt any repentance or responsibility.
“If you were repentant, you would walk yourself to jail,” she said.
She said that those who rush to forgive leaders send a message that abuse survivors don’t matter. And churches often move on, leaving survivors on their own to pick up the pieces of their lives.
“The trauma does not ever go away,” she said. “Healing is a process and it can get easier. But it doesn’t go away.”
Woodson said she started shaking while watching the video from the Indiana church, half out of sorrow for what the survivor suffered, half for the courage needed to get up and confront a pastor.
“She was so brave,” Woodson said. “I just wanted to wrap my arms around her.”