Ask a YCW: Sexual Harassment Edition

Post Author: Askie

Dear Askie,

I’ve been really shocked and saddened lately by so many of my female colleagues, friends, and parishioners posting #metoo online with their stories of sexual abuse and harassment. I knew such things happened, but I had no idea how widespread this problem really was. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by this kind of behavior in Hollywood or Washington, D.C., but it’s deeply upsetting how many of these experiences seem to have happened in churches. We have trainings and policies to protect children and youth in the church, but it seems like so many of my younger female colleagues have experienced abuse both by other pastors and by parishioners. What can we do to protect them as well as female parishioners? As a middle-aged male pastor, what can I do to address this problem? I want to be an ally, but I don’t even know where to start.

Overwhelmed by the Stories

Dear Overwhelmed,

Thank you for asking this question. Too often, sexual harassment, assault, and abuse are framed as a “women’s issue” rather than one which affects us all and which we all must work to solve. These stories are overwhelming for all of us to hear, but it’s safe to say that the women around you are likely less shocked than you are. For many women in all walks of life, sexual harassment is simply a fact of life. It’s not a shocking tale of unimaginable horror, but a horribly common occurrence.

I hope my answer to you does not seem too harsh, but it’s important that you recognize the harsh realities that women live with day in and day out. The first step is to make sure you aren’t part of the problem. Since you care enough to write this letter, I’m going to assume that you are not groping anyone, exposing yourself, or coercing anyone into sex. However, the problem goes beyond these most egregious examples. Here are some questions to ponder:

-After a woman preaches a sermon, do you compliment her on her Biblical exegesis, or on some aspect of her appearance?

-Do you ask permission (“May I give you a hug?”) before touching others? If they hesitate or say no, is that okay with you, or do you seek to change their mind because it hurts your ego in some way?

-Do you tell jokes that are demeaning or sexualizing toward women, or laugh when other men do?

-Do you make “flirtatious” comments toward female colleagues or parishioners? Virtually any sentence starting with “If I weren’t married….” or “If I were 20 years younger…” is bound to end badly.

The first step is to make sure you aren’t contributing to the problem, and that your words or actions are not making women around you feel uncomfortable or unsafe. The next step is to work to actually change the system. Here are some ways you can do that:

-Believe women. When a woman tells you her story of harassment, assault, abuse, or just plain sexism, do not say, “I’m sure he didn’t mean it that way,” or “That’s just how Bill is,” or “Are you sure you’re not overreacting?” Instead, try, “I’m so sorry that happened to you. Are you okay? What support do you need from me?” Then listen to her answer. She may want the situation kept confidential, or she may want your help in going public or taking action. Let her make that decision. (Note: while adults may choose whether or not to report their abuse, if a child discloses abuse to you, you must report it to the proper civil and ecclesiastical authorities. This is both your ethical responsibility and the law in most jurisdictions.)

-Call men out on bad behavior. When a sexist joke is told, say, “That isn’t funny.” If someone is ogling a woman or acting inappropriately, call them out. If that one guy at church always hugs the young women and makes them uncomfortable, do not tell them to get over it or avoid him—tell him to stop. Practice saying, “That’s not appropriate,” calmly and firmly. You are in a position of power—it is your responsibility to use it for good.

-Accompany women when asked. If a female colleague says, “I’m really not comfortable visiting parishioner Joe alone,” offer to go with her. Joe will almost certainly be on his best behavior while you are there. Do not interpret this to mean that his behavior is the same when you are not there. Trust your colleague’s instincts and experience—she knows she is not safe alone with him, no matter how harmless he seems in your presence.

-Talk publicly about the issues of sexual harassment and assault. Talk about them with lay leaders and make policies for preventing, reporting, and addressing these incidents when they happen. Talk about the importance of consent and build it into your church culture—make sure people know that it’s okay to say no to a hug or other physical touch, during the passing of the peace or any other time. Help people remember that they don’t know everyone’s history—an interaction that seems perfectly innocent to you can be re-traumatizing to a survivor of sexual assault. When in doubt, remember what you learned in kindergarten, and keep your hands to yourself.

-When you preach difficult texts from the Bible, be conscious of how you choose to interpret and portray women’s stories. The world doesn’t need another sermon about Bathsheba the temptress seducing poor little King David. Instead, consider a sermon about King David who abused his power for his own sexual gratification and left tragedy and destruction in his wake. Consider asking a group of women—fellow pastors or laywomen—to read the texts with you each week and consider their perspectives on the Biblical stories. Read feminist and womanist commentaries to broaden your own perspective.

As you preach and lead as a pastor, remember that our two most important Christian celebrations—Christmas and Easter—both have at their core the stories of women who were not initially believed. Mary faced skepticism from Joseph and many others when she announced she was pregnant “by the Holy Spirit.” Mary Magdalene was the first witness to the resurrection, the “apostle to the apostles” charged by Christ himself to proclaim the good news, and yet the male disciples dismissed her words as “nonsense.” As you preach and teach about these women and others, encourage others to believe not only their stories, but the stories of the women around you today.

This is by no means a comprehensive list. The problem of sexual harassment and abuse inside and outside of the church is vast and pervasive, and it is not going to change or disappear overnight. But this is a start. As a quote from the Talmud says, “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” Do the work. Pay attention. Listen to the women around you. Believe them. Support them with the power and privilege at your disposal.

Thank you for asking this question, Overwhelmed. However overwhelming the situation is for you, know that you are only seeing the tip of the iceberg of women’s experiences. My prayers are with you as you seek to be a part of the solution.


Image by: surdumihail
Used with permission
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