by Stephanie Krehbiel
Here’s something that shouldn’t be controversial, but is.
The vast majority of church leaders have absolutely no business trying to be leaders in the movement to end sexual abuse. Part of how church leaders mess up–particularly in strongly patriarchal traditions invested in male headship (and let’s get real, for all the change that’s happened, that’s still most of Christianity)–is in assuming that they do.
Their business is not to lead; it is to follow. Not for a designated period of penance. Not as part of a healing ritual that they can subsequently advertise. Not as a finite disciplinary sentence.
For the rest of their lives.
Patriarchal Christian masculinity is a powerful drug. It makes many church men believe that the world desperately needs their perspective on everything. It makes their followers believe that asking such men to step aside from leadership is somehow tantamount to cruelty. God is always calling these men to lead someone or something, even when what they know about that thing may be approximately two cents less than nothing. Particularly in the evangelical world, the spiritual quality that seems to most define men like this is their ability to imagine that they hear God in the voice of their own ambition.
When it comes to confronting sexual abuse, powerful church men have a pattern, and the pattern transcends denominations. First, after years and years of ignoring, enabling, hiding, and minimizing sexual abuse, they’re forced to notice that sexual abuse is too prevalent to be conveniently ignored anymore. Stories start to surface in their communities that can’t be covered. Survivors start to confront them more publicly, and in greater numbers. Mainstream media coverage blows their cover. So they act, and immediately, they try to lead. They organize symposiums and summits on sexual abuse. They speak with sober authority when the media calls. They assemble study groups and task forces and they hand-pick people who will submit to their leadership and tell them what they want to hear.
These men expound on the necessity of listening to survivors, but they can’t seem to conceive of a world in which people aren’t listening to them.
And then, inevitably, they start talking about healing, and positioning themselves as experts on how survivors should heal and need to heal. They cultivate suspiciously in-house quasi-professionals. They host high-profile healing services. They issue “laments”; they pray lavishly, conspicuously. The survivors who resist their leadership are labeled as pitiable victims who are resistant to healing. They will publicly pray for those pitiable victims, but they won’t actually listen to them. They certainly won’t accept leadership from them. The leadership they *do* accept from survivors is entirely conditional and rarely attached to positions with lasting power.
This kind of “leadership” causes endless strife within grassroots survivor networks. Some survivors are relieved to see church leaders paying any attention at all to sexual abuse, and want to give their pastors and priests and denominational leaders the benefit of the doubt. Some look at the pattern and are pretty sure they know where it’s headed, but they struggle to express that without being condemned as cynics and naysayers. And some, particularly those who are disabled, people of color, economically disenfranchised, and/or LGBTQ+, have already experienced being simultaneously tokenized and ignored, and know the warning signs, even as their identities as marginalized people lead other survivors to dismiss them, whether through ignorance or malice or both.
When we talk about church leaders pitting survivors against one another, we’re always thinking about this: these difficult conversations among people with complicated trauma histories, trying to work together, trying to figure out who we can trust.
Patriarchal leaders count on the divisions that they create when they bestow and withhold favor.
Patriarchal Christianity gives us one, easy answer: Trust the men who are already in power, because God put them there.
I have a different answer: Don’t.
Let me be as clear as I can: I am not asking men in church leadership positions to do nothing about sexual abuse. I’m asking them to devote themselves to the task of following people who have less social power than they do. That is not doing nothing. That is a lifetime’s worth of action.
The rest of us–knowing that power never yields without a fight, knowing that we may well wait the rest of our lives for so-called godly men to get a clue, and still be disappointed–can choose to trust only the people who have earned our trust. We can choose to accept leadership only from people who have proven their compassion and expertise. And just as we shouldn’t demand unearned trust from others, we don’t have to extend it. There’s nothing spiritually virtuous about refusing to question authority.
When powerful men tell us that God is calling them to lead us, we’re more than welcome to say: No thanks, dude. I have my own thing going on, and your opinion does not figure.
As for you, church men, godly men: Do you want me to clarify which men, exactly, I’m talking about? Do you feel the need to explain to me why I’m oversimplifying and why some men deserve more credit than I’m giving? Are you anxious to clarify what I’m asking you to give up, materially speaking, spiritually speaking?
Are you worried I’m talking about you?
Now: what will you do with that uncertainty?