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A painful process

Churches should consider in advance how to respond when pastors or other leaders face accusations of sexual sin or abuse

A painful process

Andy Savage (YouTube)

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.


  • My Two Cents
    Posted: Mon, 01/29/2018 04:03 pm

    "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." Broken law or not, doesn't this man see anything morally reprehensible about a youth pastor having sexual relations with a girl in his youth group?


  • Koni in WA
    Posted: Mon, 01/29/2018 09:19 pm

    I guess I don’t get it.  In the little I’ve read about all of this (only read it in WORLD), I believe that there are pieces missing  - or I am missing them as I read.  I feel this is another instance of the church wanting to pile onto the world’s bandwagon.  The #metoo movement is in full swing so we want our own scandals to act outraged about  as well.  There have always been plenty of these issues in the church…but I feel this was trying to be handled by the individual and the church as well as could be expected - and now the christian world is all up in arms because they weren’t privy to the details.  

    The church Andy was youth pastor of should be the first in line of  blame chain.  Not to say he isn’t responsible for his own actions - but they set him up for failure. In what universe does it even feel right to place an unmarried person in charge of young men and women that he is barely older than.  Once the deed was done I read that he apologized and asked forgiveness of God and the young lady.  He believed he had done all he should to make the best of the situation and thought it was over.  If he would have been more mature (or had been monitored more closely by his church) he would have be able to move more successfully into a more complete forgiveness/restoration process.  

    I further read that he confessed his sin to his wife before marriage and his present church before employment.  So far it seems he is not covering up his sin…but is trying to move on with his life - believing he had covered the bases.  Time passes - 20 years later he has built a ministry and feels that the sins of his past are over and forgiven.  Then the news come out about his past sin and he has to repent and ask forgiveness all over again.

    Do I feel his first church acted rightly, by no means.  What Andy did was wrong, but a church trying to cover over sin for the sake of their reputation is worse.  Do I feel what Andy did was right - of course not, but in his immaturity he thought he had taken care of it and that his dismissal was the end of it.  Did he try to get out in front of it, yes by confessing to those he thought he needed to. Should he have received applause from his church?  No, there are other ways to show solidarity, applause connotes recognition of a job well done - no "well done" here, sin is sin.  We need to remember; we are all sinners - just assume that all of us have pastors and church leaders who have things in their past that they’ve confessed and God has forgiven. Why should we dredge up decades old sins that were dealt with - does Christ’s blood have an expiration date? 

  • Paul B. Taylor's picture
    Paul B. Taylor
    Posted: Mon, 01/29/2018 09:46 pm

    The issue of sin and its consequences is difficult to address because it is both spiritual and legal.  Our first response to such accusations, even after the incident or incidents have occurred perhaps decades ago, is to acknowledge that in private the sinner has repented of the sin and shown evidence of salvation or assurance that one is a member of the invisible church by that repentance.  However, in the world, this is not a consideration.  The sin has been addressed: the sinner has not returned to the sin, yet there are still consequences for the sin from the view of the world.  I think that we must consider Christ on the cross and his terrible suffering as he provides expiation for our sin.  I don't think that it would be improper to see that part of His suffering includes the knowledge that many sinners who have been purified from their sin by the His blood will still suffer the consequences of their sin from the world.  We cannot avoid the consequences of such sins, even though they will be blotted out of the Book of Life by His blood.  And, this is painful to say, but we must not try to escape such consequences in a way that would make the world hate Christ more.  The spiritual consequences may have been resolved, but the legal consequences must also be addressed.

    Posted: Mon, 01/29/2018 11:48 pm

    For a good read on the common factors in clergy sexual misconduct and how the church can handle it, see Betrayal of Trust: Confronting and Preventing Clergy Sexual Misconduct by Stanley Grentz and Roy Bell.

    As for this particular story that occasioned this article, it seems that the woman is still haunted by various aspects of the original church mishandling the abuse (silencing the real story from his resignation), and the fact that the leader in question moved right on to another church position with little further consequence; thus her story comes out now seeking some form of resolution. The story also shows how difficult it is to do church discipline after a church leader is forced to resign, but then dropped by the church and he moves away, rather than assigning him a mentor, counselor and requiring both accountability and staying out of ministry for a period of three or four years minimum. It also shows how easy it is to hide past sins from resumes, applications and reference letters, and how church hiring policies are not as careful as they should be in checking out a leader's past ministry more carefully.   

  • Hans's picture
    Posted: Tue, 01/30/2018 05:24 am

    What part of "above reproach" is so difficult for us to understand? How about when a guy does something like this, he is walked through a period of discipline and restoration to the church body (preferrably a different church body who is aware of the situation), and he is defrocked and permanently barred from the ministry? He violated the sacred trust given to him. That shuts the door on a future behind the pulpit as far as I am concerned. The church has shown way too much concern with restoring these guys to ministry as if grace somehow entitled an individual not to face lasting consequences for their actions. The victim has to carry this with her for the rest of her life; why does he get to carry on?

  • Marie S
    Posted: Tue, 01/30/2018 07:00 pm

    It is so encouraging to see so many men commenting with Godly, wise thoughts.