Sunday night, after a quiet day of reading and watching television while my husband stayed tucked in bed fighting off a cold, we watched the news together, and looked on in horror and recognition as a story broke about a pastor in Tennessee who had confessed to the 1998 sexual assault of a seventeen year old girl in his youth group. The news program showed footage of Andy Savage apparently remorseful, as he confessed to a megachurch audience. They gave him a standing ovation.
A standing ovation.
I have something to say about all this.
In 1999, living in the very same town (I currently live just five minutes from the church where Savage was a youth minister), my husband was also a youth minister. Though he doesn’t specifically remember Andy Savage, it’s likely they at least attended the same monthly youth minister luncheons that were held at the various churches around our town.
And in October of 1999, my husband stood in front of the congregation and confessed, at three different church services, a sex addiction.
There was no standing ovation.
Thankfully, he never touched a member of his youth group. His struggle was with the fantasy world of pornography and adult bookstores, not with the flesh and blood reality of teenagers.
I will never, as long as I live, forget the glare of the lights and the wide eyes of the church members as we stood on the stage, hand in hand, and Travis told everyone his deepest, darkest secret. This was a move that was required by the church leadership if he wanted to receive a severance salary.
Unlike Andy Savage, whose church leadership demanded silence, both of him and the young lady he abused, our church leadership insisted on full and public disclosure.
I don’t think it is coincidental that last week I downloaded a double episode of Oprah’s Super Soul podcast, with guest Brene’ Brown . The universe was getting me ready to see this story on the news and in my social media feed. Last night, on the way home from work, Brene’ spoke her mantra to Oprah: “You share with people who earn the right to hear your story. It’s an honor to hold space for me when I am in shame.”
As my husband stood in the sanctuary and, in a broken voice, told 2,000 people, most of whom were complete strangers, his darkest struggle, I felt like we had been raped. It was as if our clothes had been ripped from us, and we stood bare for all to see. My children also had to bear the burden of the sidelong (or worse, pitying) looks that were sent their way over the next few months as we struggled to keep attending the church where every room, every person, and every worship service sent us spiraling back into shame. Two years later, when I sat in a therapist’s office and told her this story, she was horrified and told me, in no uncertain terms, that we had been victims of profound spiritual abuse. I have often wondered how many men sat in the pews that morning and breathed great big sighs of relief that their own garage stash or computer files hadn’t been found yet. My husband got to be the whipping boy, the sacrificial lamb, for them.*
Is it any wonder I can’t do church anymore?
There has to be a middle place- somewhere between public shaming and standing ovations. A place where healthy confession is possible, accountability is attainable, and healing is administered for all.
I am beyond thankful that my own husband didn’t ever actually touch a kid in his youth group. We have a close friend, A., for whom that was not the case. Earlier in our church work, Travis was compelled to share his struggle with a fellow youth minister who, it turned out, was crawling a similar path. They went to the same support group together. A. didn’t come out unscathed, either. He molested a youth group member.
There’s a lot to think about here: impossible standards of perfection that set young men up for deep, internal sexual struggle; spouses who suffer in silence as they try to raise children and create the model home, knowing that they dare not speak a word because their family’s very livelihood depends on maintaining the veneer of holiness; how to maintain accountability that is safe for both ministers and their charges.
But standing ovations? No. Andy Savage has to make this right with a humble apology to Jules Woodson. She needs healing. Savage and the church leadership must stop making excuses and hiding behind the passage of time. Because I know that if my own experience is any indication, 1998 can feel like five minutes ago. Shame can rear its ugly head at any moment and utterly incapacitate you. I hope Woodson gets the love and joy she deserves. I hope Andy Savage can move forward in honesty. I hope his wife has courage and a couple of love warriors** by her side.
And I hope that his current congregation learns how to support, but not idolize, the penitent minister. I hope they know who the victims are and I desperately hope that they have compassion and love for all concerned.
May the Divine One breathe healing and peace on all of these broken people. And may we all know that we can be broken and healed, as well as being instruments of grace and healing.
*There was one particular family who sat in our shame with us. They listened as we cried, watched our kids while we went to therapy, and never gave us that pitying look. They know who they are, and they are blessedly still in our lives. Most folks just ignored us or tried to pretend nothing weird had happened. I get it- once you’ve seen someone’s nakedess, it’s hard to go back.
**Love Warrior is a phenomenal book by Glennon Doyle. A recovering addict, Doyle was married to a sex addict herself. She knows this journey. I highly recommend this book, which was fortuitously and prophetically given to me this Christmas by my eldest daughter.