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Andy Savage, teaching pastor at Highpoint Church in Memphis, Tenn., continues his leave of absence as church leaders review his ministry in the wake of public revelations of a grievous encounter two decades ago between Savage and a 17-year-old girl.
The issue of WORLD Magazine dated Feb. 3 includes an article asking: How should churches handle sexual sins from 20 years ago?
I’ve been thinking about another crucial question: How should churches handle accusations of sexual abuse or other sexual sin by a church leader when it’s first discovered?
Before offering a handful of important points for churches to consider, here’s a brief review of some of what we know about the encounter between Andy Savage and Jules Woodson:
Woodson was a high-school senior near Houston, Texas. Savage was her 22-year-old youth pastor. Woodson says that on a spring evening in 1998, Savage drove her to a secluded area and asked her to perform oral sex on him. Woodson did.
Savage confesses the encounter was sinful, but he describes it as consensual, and says he doesn’t think he broke the law since the legal age of consent in Texas is 17.
Woodson doesn’t claim Savage forced her into sexual activity, but she says she was a stunned teenager who felt overwhelmed and scared by the request from a youth pastor she admired. She considers the encounter a sexual assault.
Texas authorities said this month that the statute of limitations has run out and no charges would be filed against Savage: “Using the current statute we would have some possible options but we are limited to the law as it was at the time of the offense in 1998. As a result, we are unable to investigate and seek justice to the full extent of what … we normally would in such a case.”
Woodson recently wrote about the episode publicly, and Savage confessed publicly to his church, saying he had also sought forgiveness from Woodson two decades ago. (Highpoint leaders confirmed Savage had told them about the sin before he joined the church staff.)
Woodson says the church that she and Savage attended near Houston—Woodlands Parkway Baptist Church—dismissed Savage after his offense, but she maintains they tried to conceal the full truth about what happened. Steve Bradley, still pastor of the congregation now called StoneBridge Church, denies that church leaders conspired to cover up sexual misconduct.
Woodson says she originally reported the incident to associate pastor Larry Cotton, and she contends he mishandled the response. Cotton now serves on staff at the Austin Stone Community Church. Leaders at Austin Stone have placed Cotton on leave, and say they’ve asked a third party organization to investigate. A statement from Austin Stone leaders said they grieved for Woodson: “No one should ever be subject to sexual sin from any church leader.”
That’s a crucial starting point for churches that are thinking ahead about how to deal with similar allegations:
• Take seriously the power dynamic between a church leader and a church member
In some states, the law recognizes what should also be clear to Christians: Church leaders and counselors carry an inherent weight of influence and responsibility as spiritual authorities, so sexually transgressing against church members (whether consensually or by force) is particularly heinous.
Texas statutes deem certain encounters sexual assault if a clergyman “causes the other person to submit or participate by exploiting the other person’s emotional dependency on the clergyman in the clergyman’s professional character as spiritual adviser.” In some cases, such laws are used in instances of pastoral counseling relationships that include sexual misconduct over a period of time.
In whatever way the law might apply or might not apply in specific cases, the underlying principle is important: Abuse of spiritual authority can lead to a range of serious harm, including spiritual trauma that can be hard to overcome.
• Know the law in your state
Many states, including Texas, require clergy to report any suspected abuse of a child. It’s important to know the particulars in your own state about what the law requires in connection with mandatory reporting, including how age of consent might or might not apply. If there’s any doubt or questions, call local police to make sure.
• Act swiftly
In Savage’s case, he did leave the church in Houston after admitting his sin to the other pastors. But it’s unclear how long he remained in his own pastoral position. Given the seriousness of the encounter, it seems unwise not to sideline immediately a church leader as soon as such events come to light.
After he left Texas, Savage returned to Memphis. The next year, according to his LinkedIn profile, he became pastor of college students and young singles at Germantown Baptist Church.
In a recent radio interview, Savage said he didn’t tell the leaders of Germantown Baptist what had happened with Woodson because he was embarrassed. Germantown released a statement saying its leadership didn’t know about what happened in Texas until Savage publicly acknowledged it this month.
The Highpoint Church website says Savage “helped launch” Highpoint in 2002, and Savage’s LinkedIn profile describes him “a founding elder” at Highpoint. In a sermon after Savage’s public confession, Highpoint Lead Pastor Chris Conlee said Savage began employment as a staff member at the church, starting teaching two years later, and was named a pastor in 2009.
• Be transparent
Church discipline with a repentant sinner can sometimes be a private process. But when it involves a public leader, or a sin that could affect other people in the congregation, greater transparency is often required.
The details of all that transpired at Woodlands Church aren’t clear, but Woodson says the pastors didn’t disclose the severity of Savage’s encounter with her to all the church members. Instead, she says the church hosted a going-away reception for him, where he told members he had made a poor decision and needed to move on.
In the least, it’s important to discuss letting parents of other youth or children know when a church leader has committed a serious offense of this nature. There are no public indications or accusations that Savage acted in this way with other young women. But a church dealing with a similar situation would have no way of knowing whether other youth were affected. Transparency encourages openness among others.
• Develop policies in advance
Moments of crisis can catch church leaders flat-footed if they haven’t already developed policies for responding to allegations of abuse or misconduct. Every situation will require its own attention and wisdom, but broad policies for how to proceed can provide grounding and accountability.
• Help the victim
Again, it’s unclear what transpired in the days and months after Savage’s encounter with Woodson, but it is clear that Woodson doesn’t think church leadership helped her sufficiently. Hopefully, the investigations will hear from all sides, sort through the details, and come to a clearer picture of what happened.
It’s critical for churches to make sure suffering members get help, and to consistently follow up to find out if more pastoral or counseling assistance is needed.
• Pray for wisdom and get good counsel
As others have pointed out, there’s no sin Christ can’t forgive, and He often works wonderfully to restore repentant sinners and give them fruitful lives of service. But repentance doesn’t remove all consequences, and churches must painstakingly pursue Biblical wisdom and common sense to determine what’s best not only for someone who’s committed a serious offense, but also for those he would serve later.