Dear Church is a semi-regular blog featuring pastors and other church leaders. Views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Southwest California Synod of the ELCA. This entry is a guest post by Pastor Jennifer Chrien of Shepherd of the Valley, Simi Valley.
The statistics have been quoted many times before. 1 in 6 women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape. 1 in 33 men has been in the victim of an attempted or completed rape. These numbers don’t include the many people who experience sexual harassment or other forms of sexual violence. Just as one example: 65% of women and 25% of men report having experienced street harassment.
There are many more statistics I could cite. The numbers become mind-numbing. The stories are heart-breaking. In private conversations, every woman I know can tell a story of being harassed, assaulted, groped, leered at, or made to feel unsafe existing in public. Often we diminish our own experiences: it wasn’t “that bad,” it wasn’t “really rape.” We know that others have experienced far worse, so our story doesn’t count.
(I want to be very clear that men and nonbinary people are also, sadly, victims of sexual harassment and assault. Their stories matter. Their experiences count. This isn’t only a “women’s issue.”)
In the wake of the public attention to Harvey Weinstein’s longstanding history of sexual harassment and assault, a message began trending on social media: #MeToo – a campaign which was actually started several years ago by a black woman, Tarana Burke. It invited people to post those two little words if they had been sexually harassed or assaulted. It spread like wildfire.
We like to think of the church as a refuge from the brokenness and sinfulness of the world. We like to think that, within Christian community, we are kinder to each other. We like to think that we are better at “doing unto others.”
Dear church, here’s the truth: we are not exempt. We are not immune. The sound of #MeToo echoes within the walls of the church. Victims are sitting in our pews, our classrooms, our church offices. Christian community doesn’t protect us. Gender or age or marital status doesn’t protect us. Pastoral authority doesn’t protect us.
I asked colleagues to share their experiences of harassment or assault in church. Not the ones that happened on the street, or at a bar, or on a college campus. The ones that happened within the “refuge” of the church.
Here are just a few of the stories I heard (identifying details have been removed):
“On internship a man complained to the senior pastor that he could not focus on the sermon when I preached because he couldn’t not sexualize me. The solution they came up with was for him to get my preaching schedule in advance so he could choose other services to attend without the distraction of my presence in leadership.”
“One of my (male, married) seminary classmates told me that the sexual tension increased every time I walked into the room.”
“I was on internship when an older male parishioner whistled at me. I was so shocked/embarrassed that I ran into my office and shut the door.”
“A young man about my age told me how hot I was repeatedly on internship and would comment about my ‘tight jeans’ I would wear to church functions. When I told the pastor he laughed at me.”
Several stories cropped up again and again. Comments on the pastor’s appearance:
“So many ‘You’re too pretty to be a pastor!’ comments. I can’t count them.”
“A clergy man in our conference kissed me on the mouth and told me I ‘must be the prettiest little pastor in the synod.’”
“A male colleague in my former call routinely said in worship when we had joint services together, ‘I won’t be surprised when all the men switch to her church. I’d rather watch her preach than me too!’”
“I’ve had multiple experiences of church members suggesting using/leveraging my attractiveness to get people to come to church.”
“When I first told my congregation I would seek ordination, a member of the church council remarked, ‘If you’re preaching, at least all the old men will come to church.’”
“After worship, a woman introduced me to her friend who was visiting. In front of a group of middle-aged women, she said something like, ‘If my pastor were this cute, I’d find the sermons a lot more interesting!’ And they all laughed about it together, as if I weren’t even there.”
Stories of boundary violations:
“There is an older man in our congregation who consistently makes sexist jokes. One day before worship, this same man requested that I give him a hug because ‘that’s what all the pretty girls do’ in a very inappropriate and suggestive tone. I walked away. Later I reported the incident to my senior pastor and was told that I shouldn’t confront this man because it ‘would hurt his feelings.’”
“My former sexton used to come in the office all the time to tell me how beautiful I was. He’d sit down on my couch and wouldn’t leave.”
“A male colleague kept propositioning me via Facebook and made really sexual remarks on Facebook posts. I kept saying not interested, stop it, etc. It didn’t… I later found out this clergyman did this to countless other women.”
“A colleague always hugged for the peace even though it really bothered me and I told him so. He just said ‘I’m a hugger’ and forced me to hug him anyway.”
“Many men in my field education congregation kissed my cheeks after I asked them not to.”
And stories of unwanted touch:
“A funeral home director ran his hand up my thigh while he gave me a ride in the hearse to the gravesite service. He was my ride back and I felt trapped. I said nothing… I never told anybody in my last ministry context because it didn’t seem ‘bad enough.’”
“When I was on internship the council president would come up behind me in the communion line and rub my shoulders.”
“An older man in my home congregation pinched my butt multiple times as I walked out the church doors. The pastors told me to cut him slack since he’s old.”
“Male parishioner came to Christmas Eve service one year drunk. Met me outside the church in the dark with no one else around and pulled me close and kissed me on the lips. Hard and long. I didn’t feel I could say anything to anyone because I didn’t want to upset anyone in the parish, especially this man’s wife.”
“I had a retired clergyman put his hand on my butt after a funeral as we were processing out.”
“When I was young, older men in church would pinch my butt, sometimes when we were in line for communion.”
Are you tired of reading these stories? So am I. I’m tired of living these stories. I’m tired of my friends living these stories. I’m tired of the church allowing this behavior to continue in the name of some misguided understanding of Christian unity, or simply out of fear of rocking the boat.
The church should be a safe haven. It should be a place where we treat one another with compassion and respect. It should be a place where we don’t have to worry about being harassed, demeaned, assaulted. If we want the church to be that place, if we want the church to be safe, then the first step must be admitting that it’s not. It’s time to see the log that’s in our own eye.
No more excuses. No more tiptoeing around the issue. No more silencing. Dear church, your people are crying out, #MeToo. When will you start to listen?