Editor’s Note — The Alabama Baptist is allowing anonymity for the source of this first-person article in keeping with common journalistic practices of not publicizing victims of sexual assault. TAB leadership knows the source and his family, has confidence in his interpretation of the situation and would like for his story to be added to the current conversation on sexual assault taking place in Southern Baptist life. If you are struggling with a similar issue or would like to talk with the source please email firstname.lastname@example.org with your request and we will pass it along.
It has been a year ago now that news of my termination from a Southern Baptist institution was made public. Jennifer Davis Rash of The Alabama Baptist was the only journalist who contacted me for a statement following the initial release of the information. Instead of rushing to press, as many other publications did, she declined to run a story with only partial information.
In my opinion she acted in the spirit of Proverbs 18:17: “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.” For that act of Christ-like kindness and journalistic integrity I am so very grateful.
There are many reasons for victims of sexual assault to stay silent: shame, confusion, intimidation, fear of retaliation or a desire to protect people and institutions — just to name a few. But there is also “a time to speak” (Eccles. 3:7).
My hope is God will use my broken experiences to comfort someone who, possibly even at this very moment, is enduring a situation similar to my own.
My story of sexual assault
In 2017, while traveling for a conference with ministerial colleagues, a female contact arranged for me to meet with members of her organization. However, when I arrived the woman was alone.
I know the “Billy Graham Rule” and have always been careful never to meet alone with a woman. But because it was broad daylight and in a public place I felt safe.
At the end of our professional meeting, however, she made a startling comment out of the blue. She held up her phone, showed me a picture of my boss and then remarked she could call him right then and claim I had raped her. It would be my word against hers, she said.
I panicked. Having seen first-hand how even false allegations have destroyed entire ministries I felt utterly vulnerable. How could I prove something that didn’t happen? As I tried to figure out how to handle this situation I made efforts to appease her, hoping there was some other explanation for her threat. But this only made the situation worse.
In the weeks that followed my trip the threats escalated. Eventually I became compliant to her demands and threats. My lack of courage, utter hopelessness, fear of losing my family and fear of jeopardizing the Church’s reputation resulted in a completely nonconsensual, unwanted sexual assault that has left me traumatized to this day.
During that season one of my colleagues made a thoughtless comment: “I’d rather hear that a Christian leader has died than fallen.” In my broken mind that comment took root, and in the darkest moment of my life I bought a rope and decided to go ahead and just be with Jesus.
God spared my life that night and gave me strength to tell my wife what had been happening. Emboldened by her understanding and support I found the courage to cease all contact with the assailant, regardless of the consequences.
The next day the threats became directed toward my boss and he was sent evidence of what appeared to be an affair.
Within hours, and under the threat of a public scandal, my boss brought me into his office, told me my service with the institution was over and handed me a pre-written letter of resignation. I refused to sign it and explained I had been sexually assaulted and threatened.
“What in the world does that mean?” he asked. I explained again I had been sexually assaulted and did not have an affair. He told me to stop lying and that truth and repentance were the only two words that mattered. Determined to bring me to a point of repentance he began listing the names of all the people and Christian ministries I had disappointed with my “adultery.”
Both requests to draft my own letter of resignation — one that would detail the circumstances of sexual abuse — were refused. Anything I said was seen only as evidence of unrepentance so I finally gave up.
Under more duress than I have ever felt in my life I explained a final time I had been assaulted and then signed the prepared statement of resignation, admitting to a “moral delinquency” that disqualified me from ministry. At the end of our brief meeting my boss told me to exit the building through the back door so his secretary wouldn’t have to look at me.
The days that followed were a blur. Escorted by security I cleaned out my office. My wife and I sold our house, packed whatever belongings could fit inside our car, said goodbye to a few friends and drove away in search of a new life wherever God would lead us.
Everything was gone. My speaking invitations were canceled. My articles and chapters were pulled from various publications. I was stripped of publishing contracts for nearly a dozen books and, now unemployed, had to repay thousands of dollars in book advances.
As word of my resignation quickly spread, my wife and I received hundreds of emails, text messages and phone calls. One of the first messages expressed hope that I would “feel refreshed in repentance,” that I would “come to know restoration and love in [my] relationship to [my wife] that will be nothing short of miraculous,” and that I wouldn’t “lose sight of a grace greater than even the worst of sins.” With every buzz of the phone came a fresh layer of trauma. With every new article published about me online I felt the assault happening over and over again.
It would have been far easier to admit to having had an affair, be restored and eventually return to ministry. There’s a place in the church for repentant sinners.
But if I told the truth I risked being seen as an unrepentant adulterer and there’s no place for that in Christian leadership.
My sin, however, was not lust or adultery. My sin was fear (2 Tim. 1:7). In hindsight I know I should have immediately informed my wife and employer of the situation. But the fear of not being understood kept me quiet. I wrongly thought that I could handle it alone.
Throughout the last year my wife and I saw a very different side of the Church we love and have served for so many years — it was a Church that not only shoots her wounded, but often does the wounding as well.
It has taken me a long time to forgive my assailant and even longer to forgive my boss. I can’t blame him for his actions because I also have succumbed to the power of threat. If I had been in his shoes I might have done the same thing.
Women seem to be more familiar than men with the realities of sexual assault. Many men, including myself for many years, grow up with the belief that because we are typically physically stronger than women we are not vulnerable in these ways.
But male sexual assault often has nothing to do with physical strength and everything to do with power, control, leverage, manipulation and threats. When you have something to lose — a marriage, a family, a ministry, a reputation, a livelihood — it’s much easier than you think to give into small demands first, and then larger ones, in order to save and protect those you love.
I wonder how many men are going through something similar today. As men we feel extremely embarrassed to talk about this issue. If, somehow, we do manage to admit to being sexually assaulted we are often not believed and shamed, even by our closest friends and family.
Encouragement to male victims of sexual assault
Let me offer a few words to men who are experiencing, to whatever degree, the trauma of being sexually abused. I desperately wish someone had shared these words with me.
- If you are suicidal, please stop reading right now and call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.
- You are not alone. Recent studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have found that “over one year, men and women were equally likely to experience nonconsensual sex, and most male victims reported female perpetrators.” If you apply these statistics to Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) numbers more than 100,000 adult men affiliated with the SBC have potentially been sexually assaulted.
- You might feel trapped and that there’s no way out, but you do have options. If you need someone to talk to — someone who will believe you and support you — call the confidential National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-4673.
- Sexual assault is not an affair. It is not a moral failing. Threat removes any possibility of consent.
- Run as fast as possible to a licensed professional counselor who is a Christian and who has clinical training in trauma recovery for male victims of sexual assault. My own hesitancy to do this resulted in substance abuse, added trauma and unhealthy coping mechanisms.
- If you choose to share your story, you have the freedom to do so whenever you want, to whomever you want and in whatever way you want. No victim of sexual assault should ever be forced to share the intimate and painful details of his trauma unless he chooses to.
A challenge to SBC leaders
The temptation to mishandle allegations of sexual assault and distance ourselves from victims is real, especially when the fear of negative public image triumphs over the desire to protect the individual.
As Southern Baptists listen to survivors and create policies to protect these men, women and children there are some nonnegotiable principles to follow. The list below is far from exhaustive, but it’s a place to start. Any one of these would have made a tremendous difference in my termination meeting.
- Every allegation of sexual assault must be taken seriously, no matter the plausibility of the allegation, the age or gender of the victim or his or her position within the church, ministry or institution.
- Follow your policies and procedures ruthlessly. It’s not enough to merely have good policies for handling allegations of sexual misconduct if you do not follow them.
- Don’t allow your previous experience with handling cases of adultery to cloud your ability to recognize sexual assault. Offer to call law enforcement and defer to experts who can conduct independent investigations.
- When it comes to handling personnel matters, maintain the highest standards of policy and principle by resisting the temptation to pick up the phone and control the narrative.
- Offer pastoral care. Pray with and for the victim. Refuse to utter words of disbelief, shame, judgment or intimidation.
- If you have not been formally trained to counsel victims of trauma and sexual abuse do not attempt to counsel them. You will likely retraumatize the victims. Keep a list of trained professionals who can help victims of sexual assault.
- Ensure that your theology allows for a correct and biblical understanding of men and women. Women can be assailants. Men can be assaulted.
A challenge to the Church
The Church is uniquely positioned to inflict greater damage on victims of sexual assault than even the secular world because of our power to shame survivors spiritually. Our churches must become sanctuaries — safe havens — for those who have been traumatized.
- Confirm allegations of sexual misconduct before reaching out with messages of dismay or calls for repentance. Getting this wrong causes unimaginable harm to victims of sexual assault. Real lives are at stake.
- Equip yourself to understand male sexual assault. This issue is far more common and complicated than we realize, and there are a growing number of educational resources online.
- Choose your leader wisely. If you have concerns about a person’s godliness, maturity, conversational priorities or character, be absolutely certain that God is calling you to that place before aligning yourself with — and submitting yourself to — that leader’s ministry.
- Resist the temptation to gossip, whether publicly or privately. “Whoever slanders his neighbor secretly,” says the Lord, “I will destroy” (Ps. 101:5). Gossip, as Paul listed it in Romans 1:29, is just as much a sin as sexual immorality and nothing has the power to rot a Christian’s fruit of the Spirit like social media.
A denomination at a crossroads
Born and bred into the Southern Baptist denomination I have spent my entire vocational ministry preaching from her pulpits, teaching in her classrooms and writing for her publishers. Jesus loves His Church, including His Southern Baptist bride, and so do I. God has guided us through dark times — through controversy, scandal and necessary theological corrections — and I believe He will guide us still, so long as we continue aligning ourselves with the truths of Scripture.
Our denomination has come to a crossroads but we do not stand here alone. At the center stands a cross and a Christ who knows exactly what it’s like as a man to be assaulted. As part of the humiliation of Roman crucifixion Jesus was stripped of His clothes, blindfolded, slapped in the face, spat upon and hung up, naked and exposed, for all the world to see. Jesus’ closest friends and disciples, the leaders of His Church, abandoned Him to protect their own lives and reputations.
Male sexual assault is a difficult conversation but it’s one we need to have. If our denomination continues to mishandle allegations of abuse, especially now that we’re aware of these issues, then the words of Jesus, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34), cannot be said of us.