Social media is blowing up about a culture of sexual harassment and assault. The sordid tale of Harvey Weinstein’s pattern of predatory behavior against women has opened up a larger conversation about the almost universal experience of sexual exploitation of women. We have been ogled, called “babes,” touched without permission and raped. This does not just occur in the entertainment industry, but in every profession, including ministry.
Many clergywomen have voiced their experiences of violation, often perpetrated by friends in seminary, senior pastors and judicatory leaders — many of whom were publicly affirming of women in ministry. Baptists are not absent from this tale of abuse, and our refusal to talk about it forthrightly has only given license to predators. I am grateful that Baptist Women in Ministry is working on a major project addressing sexual abuse.
Far too many of us have a story of unwanted attention and worse, usually entailing a major power differential. Male colleagues have propositioned their female colleagues; some male pastors have taken advantage of vulnerable counselees; men have felt free to comment on women’s appearance in a sexually suggestive way; male professors have sought hugs and endearments from female graduate students or younger women colleagues; and, women have been silenced when speaking about these behaviors. Not surprising, the cycle has gone on. That is why so many Baptist women in ministry are posting “Me, too.”
There have been some serial predators in moderate Baptist circles, and only in conversation with other women in ministry have we discovered our similar stories of untoward actions by these men. They did not lose their ministerial credentials, and often they moved on to even more lucrative professional pursuits.
Experiences such as these bring shame to women, vocational redirection for some, and deepened awareness of how systems protect abusers. When a female pastor lodged a complaint about a pastoral colleague on the same staff (multiple women of the church had complained of his behavior toward them), many of the congregation took his side and departed when he left. They believed him incapable of such, and they did not trust the word of the female pastor. Why would she even need to bring it up, they wondered.
Patriarchy had certainly conditioned them to believe the male pastor instead of the female, even though she had higher rank on the pastoral staff. Congregants were more upset with her for calling for the discipline of this minister than upset with him for his violation of ministry ethics.
I have my own stories, as will many readers of this column. As a seminary student, a married doctoral student who was my Greek instructor began to stop by my study carrel in the library, inviting me to go out with him. He would say things like, “If only I had met you before I married,” and other inappropriate things. I refused his invitations, and I am not sure if my grade was lowered from an A to an A- because of that.
I was once invited for a weekend of preaching, and the pastor came to pick me up at the airport alone. I had thought his wife was coming, too. He kept asking if I wanted to go shopping or stop and get a drink. I managed to persuade him that I really needed to finish preparation for the varied events of the weekend. I kept my distance the rest of the weekend, making sure I was not alone with him. I later learned of other women who had experienced this kind of behavior — and more — from him.
As more women enter the ranks of ministry, some men have reacted to what they see as a threatening incursion with renewed diminishment of women, often through sexualizing them inappropriately. Women must call this out for what it is: predatory behavior. In a time when the president of the United States can brag about sexual assault, many men are emboldened to act on their worst impulses.
I am thankful that many are speaking clearly about a culture of sexual predation. This conversation is hardly finished, and many are finding their voices.