A vice president at LifeWay Christian Resources joined the #MeToo and #ChurchToo moments roiling the Southern Baptist Convention with a statement March 11 claiming she was sexually abused by a seminary professor who resigned last year due to an undisclosed “personnel matter.”
Jennifer Lyell, vice president of book merchandizing and publishing at the SBC entity in Nashville, Tennessee, said the professor first acted sexually against her on a mission trip in 2004, establishing a pattern of abuse that continued for more than a decade.
Lyell, who leads the second-largest business segment of LifeWay’s 10 ministry areas, said she long remained silent because she was trying to protect the perpetrator’s family. She is speaking now, she said, because she learned he was being appointed as a missionary by an agency outside the Southern Baptist Convention.
Had she not come forward, Lyell said, anyone doing an Internet search on her abuser “would have no way to know the truth behind his resignation.”
“There are plenty of reasons to stay silent in a situation such as this,” she wrote. “But we must not be silent. We must clearly tell the truth so that our churches and ministries are safe and as pure as can be.”
Lyell, 41, discussed the subject of abuse in evangelical churches during a recent podcast on women in leadership with the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
“It’s impossible for me to address this question without acknowledging that I experienced sexual abuse both as a child as well as an adult,” she told Better Together podcast interviewer Trillia Newbell. “So I’ve experienced sexual abuse specifically both outside of the church as a child and in the context of Christian community as an adult.”
Lyell, who received a master-of-divinity degree in theology and missions from the Billy Graham School at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 2005, said stories of women abused by powerful men coming out the last couple of years have been “very challenging” for her to hear.
“The hardest thing for me has been whenever instances of abuse, exploitation, sexualization of women, sexual assault of women come to light and the church is quiet, the church is dismissive.” she said.
That, she continued, doesn’t apply to just top-down hierarchies like the Roman Catholic Church.
“We don’t have one voice that can speak for us, but we certainly have key leaders,” Lyell said. “When those leaders who are on the national stage are silent or are somehow dismissive of the significance, it has been one of the biggest seasons when I have struggled with rage, of just desperately wanting to unbridle my voice as much as possible and shout to the roof, shout to the mountain, shout to anyone who will hear, ‘This is not OK, and you don’t understand what this is.’ But I don’t know if that’s helpful, so I’ve sought to be prayerful and to be quiet.”
Lyell said she has only recently come to acknowledge that telling her story is important so “that people begin to understand how prevalent this is around them.”
Because of “various circumstances” in the Southern Baptist Convention and her own life, she recently decided the leadership team she works with “needed to know what I was walking through.”
As she shared her story with the group of about a dozen employees, mostly men who have worked for her for years, “the thing that I heard from most of them was how surprised they were that this could happen to me.”
“What they meant and what many articulated was that ‘you’re so strong,’” she related. One, a parent of two daughters with different personalities, volunteered that he might have worried about such things happening to the shy, quiet sister but not the one who is outgoing and outspoken.
“Part of why I began to speak was to say there is no type to which this happens,” Lyell said. “There is no single circumstance in which this happens. There is no limitation to how far this can go.”
In her written statement on sexual abuse, Lyell said part of her former professor’s grooming was to treat her as part of his family. Over the years she spent weekends and holidays with them. Their grandchildren treated her like an aunt and the adult children were like siblings.
“It looked idyllic on the surface,” she wrote. “Except the pattern of inappropriate sexual activity continued throughout the relationship.”
She said she now regrets “so idolizing the idea of a whole family that I protected it despite what was happening within it.”
In her Feb. 19 podcast, Lyell said she has “a real heart” for families connected to an individual publicly accused of sexual abuse.
“Abusers generally have families,” she said, citing high profile cases such as Jerry Sandusky and Larry Nassar. “In the aftermath of these things coming to light, which they should and they must, there’s another set of victims. Their family is upended. Their worlds are turned upside down as well.”
“It is a challenge and a struggle as someone who is the one who is abused to take the step that you know is going to create that disruption in someone’s life,” she said. “I think there are so many reasons why people don’t understand why abuse victims don’t come forward, and that’s one I’ve not heard people talk about but I think is key.”
Lyell identified two things “the church needs to realize and understand” – that “sexual abuse does not only happen to children” and that “sexual assault is not only rape.”
“When you understand those two things, you understand the breadth of what you’re dealing with,” she said.
Lyell said it is important that recent attention to abuse awareness not become “just a moment” in culture but remain a continuing concern for the church.
“I recently was doing some research and realized that where we live in Nashville, there is not any support group that operates in the context of any churches for sexual abuse survivors,” she said.
The reason, she hypothesized, is “the perception that no one will come.”
“Well, no, people will come,” she said. “So there’s work for us to do. Some of that work we’re beginning to do at LifeWay and to look at how we can serve in that way.”
“Where I think it needs to change is to go from where [churches] are just being preventative — by doing things like background checks and education with children’s ministry — or reactive, to instead broadening to understand how big sexual abuse is, how many it impacts,” she said.
“The same thing with sexual assault, and then have some kind of ongoing ministry within the context of every local church, whether that’s a prayer ministry or a support group, that engages those who have been impacted by these issues.”
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