Leaders, Talk About Power to Protect the Vulnerable

I can still see the young woman in her late 20s, crouched in the fetal position as she began to tell her story of abuse. Only months into my first pastorate and unaware of such stories, my wife and I were dropped into the deep end of the pool as we listened to our new friend. In barely audible whispers she recounted how her abuser instinctually sensed her vulnerability following a traumatic experience. Then came the gifts, the attention, the flattery, and the confusing physical contact.

In my naïveté, I expected the horror of the story to be measured by the level of sexual intimacy this married, adult predator forced upon his teenaged victim. I thought this was a story about sex. It was not. This was a story about power.

I don’t remember being warned by other pastors about the temptations of power. I knew to stay far away from misusing the other members of the triad—money and sex. But there were no cautionary tales about power. To be fair, financial and sexual transgressions typically involve more concrete, measurable actions. When it comes to power, no bell rings when scriptural arguments turn manipulative or when authority meant for protection is leveraged to mute the vulnerable.

Had I recognized that this was a story about power, I would have heard the ominous motif that runs throughout these stories—the silencing. Absalom tells Tamar, “Hold your peace, my sister . . . do not take this to heart” (2 Sam. 13:20) after she is raped by her half-brother. The modern stories vary, from shaming the victim for complicity to questioning the veracity of the account to urging immediate forgiving and forgetting. I have heard numerous tear-drenched testimonies that the coverup is more hurtful than the crime. Whether parents, pastors, or other authority figures, those with power had silenced the abused, shut down the channels of justice, and left the victims asking, with Tamar, “Where could I carry my shame?” (2 Sam. 13:13).

Following this listening session, my wife and I learned more about the dynamics of abuse from books, conferences, mentors, and other survivors. We witnessed panic attacks and sat in long periods of silence as words struggled from wounded hearts to frightened lips.

We discovered what questions to ask and how to support when suicidal thoughts evolved into a plan to end life. When these encounters exposed our own brokenness and fear of inadequacy, we sought help through counseling and support groups. We are by no means experts when it comes to abuse and the misuse of power, but we know the lay of the land.

#MeToo?

In light of this, I was as shocked as anyone to learn that I had been groomed by a sexual predator.

Not long after the lid was blown off the Harvey Weinstein abuse stories, I was listening to a podcast in which a journalist interviewed three women who survived the film producer’s attacks. It was gut-wrenching, nauseating, and heartbreaking to hear.

But then something disorienting happened. One of the women described the logic Weinstein used to persuade her to be in a situation in which he was entirely naked in front of her. She talked about how much it made sense in the moment, aided by her awe of being in the presence of one of Hollywood’s most powerful executives. Her description triggered something unexpected in me. I was washing the dishes and found myself reeling dizzily in the kitchen, not from empathy but as a memory surfaced from my experience.

When I was in my mid-20s, I met a much older, respected Christian leader who was well-known in my circles. Within hours of meeting he invited me to assist him on a speaking tour. During our travel I felt I had entered another realm of existence as we dined at nice restaurants with prominent pastors and seminary leaders.

The first night when we settled into our hotel room, he told me how special I was, that he loved me, and he gave me a long hug before lights out. We had been around each other a grand total of six hours. In the morning he explained that when he traveled with others, he liked to think of the bathroom as a locker room shower. He wanted to conserve water and get ready for the day efficiently, so I would shower quickly, then when I got out, he would be there waiting to hop in.

If we can pause the tape here, this is the moment when one of the Weinstein stories aligned with my experience. It was that sense of being in the presence of someone so powerful and lauded that you do not slow down long enough to dissect his logic. You just go with it because of who he is. Replaying the tape, that is also why I didn’t immediately discern the inconsistencies. Against his reasoning of why we were approaching our morning in this unusual way, he initiated a five-minute conversation after I got out of the shower. We stood there as the shower water ran, two men who barely knew each other, naked in a hotel room. I have no memory of what we talked about. But I will never forget when he looked down at the towel I held over myself for modesty and said, “Chris, you seem uncomfortable being naked in front of me.” We continued this routine for the remaining three days of our trip.

Tractor-Trailers, Not Tricycles

Later, I would think about how strange this was, and I would wonder if maybe other young men had similar experiences with him. But it wasn’t until I heard the Weinstein story that I began to recognize the situation for what it was. I shared this account with trusted mentors who specialize in abuse ministry, and their assessment is that this leader was grooming me for further sexual abuse. This abuse never materialized, as our paths never crossed again in such intimate settings, though he invited me to his home multiple times.

When the time comes for you to address the abuse that will cause upheaval in your community, remember that the weight of your advocacy for the vulnerable is much less than the millstone Jesus promises for those who sacrifice the weak.

Trying to navigate the upheaval of this treatment by a trusted leader has been its own rollercoaster. But once the ride slowed down, a larger question arose: What do I as a church leader take away from this story of the misuse of power? What do I have to say? To whom do I need to say it?

My strongest and simplest conviction is that Christian leaders need to talk about power. We need to acknowledge it, be cautious of it, and steward it for the good of those in our care. And the ones who need to hear this most are the ones who are least aware of power.

Predators are aware of the power they wield. The leader who groomed me knew exactly what he was doing, how he could leverage his celebrity and largesse to manipulate me in the direction he wanted. I would like to believe that the vast majority of evangelical leaders are not predatorial. Yet if we are not cognizant of how our presence, our speech, our use of Scripture, our confrontation of sin, and our concern for the institution we lead affect the individuals we serve, we can still do harm.

Let me put it this way: Leaders, we drive tractor-trailers, not tricycles. We who hold positions of authority in our families, churches, and organizations must not underestimate the wreckage we can cause when we fail to use our power wisely. A 4-year-old who drives her tricycle recklessly might be able to put a dent in the family van. A tractor-trailer driver who neglects the road for a text message could put the family in the hospital and the van in the junkyard. We who have been entrusted with power must be vigilant in how we use it.

What’s Next?

Though the Bible contains horrific accounts of the misuse of power, the climax of God’s narrative is Christ’s loving, sacrificial use of power to redeem us. As leaders, we must follow our Leader in sacrificially leveraging our authority for the good of those we serve.

How do we do this? Let me suggest three steps—and the perils of not taking them. I share both out of painful mistakes I have made and mistakes I have observed and hope not to repeat.

1. Create a Culture That Supports Victims

Whether you are a president, pastor, or parent, one of your most powerful roles is shaping your community’s culture. What is the tone of your leadership? Distant or empathetic? Domineering or patient? Can your people talk to you about their most devastating wounds? Do they know you can handle finding out that terrible things have gone on under your leadership?

Abuse flourishes in communities that, for whatever reason, cannot admit that abuse could happen in their midst. Out of a misplaced concern for the church’s reputation, or because the abuser is respected, or out of fear of a lawsuit, or because they simply can’t grapple with the evil that occurred on their watch, leaders try and sweep abuse under the rug, to the dramatic harm of the victims.

Put yourself in the shoes of someone you lead—if you were traumatized by another’s sin, where could you go to share that grief with others? Now prayerfully consider how to reverse engineer your community so that those who have been traumatized have space to disclose their hearts. Do you communicate the reality and prevalence of abuse both in the broader community and the church? Do you acknowledge that it can happen in your church? Are you willing to stand with victims when it does?

2. Protect and Advocate for the Vulnerable

A culture of humility about the possibility of abuse empowers leaders to take action to protect their congregation from predators. If indeed “the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick” (Jer. 17:9), then nobody in your community—yourself included—should be in unaccountable situations with a person with less power. Nobody gets a pass because of who they are, because the only person who can be perfectly trusted is Jesus. You must be cautious not to create paranoia or undue suspicion, but you must set a tone of vigilance to protect the vulnerable. Call everyone you serve to keep their radar screens on and engage or report anything suspicious.

Tragically, some of those you serve will experience abuse, whether within your community or outside it. If the abuse involves criminal activity or a minor, you must notify the civil authorities. Beyond dealing with the authorities, you must be personally willing to listen, empathize, and advocate for those harmed.

I imagine you are nodding your head in full agreement with the paragraph above. But the rubber meets the road when a good friend, beloved uncle, veteran deacon, or favorite professor is on the other end of credible accusations. It’s always easier to protect the person with power, and the institution as a whole, than the victim. This is why countless victims, even in Christian settings, can be thrown under the bus in favor of keeping the status quo.

Even though the leader who groomed me was eventually exposed, I only felt the courage to reach out for support from leaders who had proven track records of speaking out against the abuse of power, whatever it cost them personally or professionally. When the time comes for you to address the abuse that will cause upheaval in your community, remember that the weight of your advocacy for the vulnerable is much less than the millstone Jesus promises for those who sacrifice the weak.

3. Reclaim a Prophetic Voice

We live in a time of outrage overload. Our technology affords us constantly updated news and social media platforms for our fresh reactions. It’s easy to get upset, and we don’t always get upset about the things that matter. We need to reorient ourselves to the prophetic voices of Isaiah, Amos, Micah, John the Baptist, and most importantly, Jesus. I believe this will recalibrate our moral outrage, centering our concern on the misuse of power at every level of society—government, business, church, and family.

Leader, as you immerse yourself in the prophets, pray that God would restore your prophetic voice in our land. Speak out against the abuse of authority, whether it happens across the aisle or in your closest circle. Do not revere any power—political, cultural, social—more than you fear the Lord. As you take action on the issues that break God’s heart, you will inevitably challenge someone with power. For the sake of God’s name and the good of the vulnerable, I pray you choose courage over comfort in that moment.

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