by Vanessa | 19 October 2023 |
Nowadays when I go to a store, I stop breathing and my heart starts pounding when a man walks up behind me. Should I turn around? I ask myself. How can I make myself small so he doesn’t notice me?
I didn’t always feel this way. This hypervigilance started after I was inappropriately touched by a member at my church. The trauma was further compounded by church leadership that betrayed me and my family when we reported it.
I’m a fifth-generation Seventh-day Adventist. I love God and have been involved in my local church since I was a child. I transferred my membership to the Countryside Adventist Church in Sauk Rapids, Minnesota, in 2019. I was very happy to be attending the same church as my grandparents.
What happened there
In 2021 my mother was working in the church kitchen when a male church member in his 60s—a relatively recent convert to the church—came into the kitchen. I watched from the fellowship hall as this man came up behind my mom and with no warning whacked her bottom very hard with a dustpan. She exclaimed, “Ouch!” She turned around, confused and upset, and firmly asked, “What are you doing?” The man just laughed.
I stood there, frozen. I had never witnessed something like this before, especially from someone I had been attending church with for several years.
Several months later my sister was in the church foyer visiting with some guests when she sensed someone behind her. She looked around, and that same man had come up close behind her, towering over her, just a few inches away. She quickly moved. He laughed loudly at seeing her discomfort.
The next day, my sister was in the church kitchen alone, stirring a pot on the stove, when the same man came into the kitchen. He said hello, then suddenly reached out and forcibly poked her in the side next to her breast with his finger. Shocked and scared that he might touch her again (or worse), she put the spoon down and immediately left the kitchen.
On August 13, 2022, as I was entering the church kitchen after potluck, this same man hit me on the bottom with a plastic container in his hand as I walked through the doorway.
I felt scared, repulsed, and humiliated. I left the kitchen as fast as I could. Something was very wrong. This married man is more than three decades older than me, and I didn’t know what he would do next.
My mother, sister, and I reported all of these incidents to the pastor. I had full confidence that we would be treated with respect, and measures would be taken to keep us safe.
I was wrong. Instead, over the following months we were retaliated against, criticized, and shunned. Our feelings and our experiences were minimized and invalidated at every turn. I felt the weight of being revictimized by the pastor and elders.
It would eventually come out that the offender, who had just been voted in as a church elder, had a criminal record: he had twice been convicted for solicitation of prostitutes, having just gotten off probation in 2020. [Adventist Today was able to verify his criminal record on the Minnesota Public Criminal History Search.]
When we pointed this out in subsequent discussions with the pastor and elders as a matter of safety, we were told that that had all happened in the past—he was now a changed man.
The problem, the pastor and elders would say, was us: we were overly sensitive to this man’s “playful” gestures.
Several weeks after we reported him to the pastor, the offender served as greeter, which meant we had to walk past him to enter the church. I felt unsafe and intimidated. He knew we had reported him, and he was angry. He threatened to sue me and my family for reporting what he had done. He yelled this, and other defamatory statements, in the church parking lot at my grandfather, also a church elder, in the presence of other church members.
Of course, the offender denied this inappropriate touching had ever happened, even though I had witnessed the incident with my mother. He told people we were making up this story so he couldn’t be an elder.
The pastor and elders treated our situation like it was a joke. There were letters and meetings, most of them without us present. One of the elders suggested in an email that our family should stay home from church so the offender and his wife could feel comfortable attending. He said it was our fault that we were uncomfortable at church because we didn’t follow Matthew 18:15.
The elders, he said, shouldn’t “pander to [our] whims.”
Ironically, the head elder, who was so insistent that we follow Matthew 18:15, refused to meet with us so we could sort through the hurtful things he said and did to us.
Because we received no help or support at our local church, we contacted the Minnesota Conference office a total of 11 times, much of it regarding the retaliatory behavior from the elders, especially the head elder. Karen Lewis, Minnesota Conference ministerial director, encouraged us to file a police report. When we did, the officer told us that what the offender did to us is “sexual assault/5th degree criminal sexual misconduct.” The district attorney didn’t deny these things had happened to us, but he did say there wasn’t enough evidence to convict the offender.
After receiving our report in September 2022, the Minnesota Conference counseled the pastor and local elders to take the following steps:
- File a formal criminal complaint with the local police department
- Limit [the offender] from attending church services until the matter is resolved
- Request that the church take no action deemed as retaliatory or disciplinary against [our] family
- Appoint a spiritually mature female to act as a counselor to the elders on this matter….
- That the local leadership undergo sexual harassment training, thus becoming better equipped to handle such complaints should they emerge in the future.”
The conference officers also reminded them that the church prohibits sexual harassment, and believes that local church members have the right to worship free from an intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment.
What the pastor and elders failed to do
Of the above-mentioned guidelines, the only one followed was the pastor reporting to the police.
The offender was allowed to continue attending church without restriction for 10+ weeks after we reported him. He was only limited from attending church when we reached out to the conference (again) in November.
For a period of time, the pastor and elders took our volunteer duties and board positions away because, they said, they didn’t know who was lying, us or the offender, and they wanted to be “fair.” (This action was later reversed by the intervention of Karen Lewis from the Minnesota Conference office.)
The elders quoted Scripture to say that we were being vengeful and sinful by reporting a crime. When my mother reached out to a female friend from another church for help, the head elder tried to intimidate her into silence by saying, “You had better be careful who you are talking to about this.”
When we reminded the pastor, who was admittedly somewhat inexperienced, that his initial instructions had been to secure a female advocate for us, we got no response; that recommendation was never acted upon. Instead, we were questioned by a panel of elders (all men) as to how we knew the offender touching our private areas was sexual; he was, they continued to insist, just being playful!
The only sexual harassment training for pastor and elders, to our knowledge, was given by one of the conference officials. The elders openly discredited and discarded the official’s training, telling us, “[The official] doesn’t have any training; I’d like to talk to someone who really knows.”
I should add that we also called End It Now and the North American Division Women’s Ministries (twice) asking for help. It is sad to have to admit this, but we received more support and healing from the Minnesota state authorities than from our church.
Meanwhile, back at church…
In the congregation, things only got worse.
One elder wrote that “We may have already lost [the offender and his wife] because of an overly sensitive family that may need to grow up.” What is “overly sensitive” about not wanting to be touched—indeed, struck hard and poked—in our private areas?
Not once did anyone in leadership voice concern that we might leave the church. Nor did they reach out to any of us after we stopped attending. The way that the offender was supported and reassured stood in stark contrast to the utter lack of spiritual and emotional support we received.
The three of us women felt perpetually exhausted by the conflict, like we were being run in circles so that we would wear out, be quiet, and leave.
In January all of us were traveling out of state when, without our knowledge or permission, the head elder (who had already intimidated us to not speak to anyone in church about our situation) announced our police report to the entire church congregation while on a live YouTube broadcast, stating that the church was going to have a business meeting regarding how to “heal” after someone files a police report against another member. (Not, let it be noted, after someone inappropriately touches another member!)
After much intervention on our part, this meeting, which they planned for when they knew we were going to be out of town, was canceled.
We eventually had to send the head elder a cease and desist letter, at the pastor’s request, to get him to stop harassing us.
The final verdict
On August 11, 2023, we finally received an email response from the new Minnesota Conference president, Jeff Scoggins. He wrote that while he was “sorry about all of the problems you and your family have been having” and he wished there was a way to solve it,
We are dealing with opinions, judgments, feelings, and a lot of “he said, she said,” which makes for an impossible situation to resolve. We would spend weeks and months and get nowhere. We can’t force apologies, there is no way to investigate adequately to know what actually happened, and there is no way to know for an outside party to ever sort out who is to blame for what.
He said it wasn’t his intention to “discount at all what you have been facing” and
…it’s not that I don’t believe that you have been mistreated. It’s just that for anyone else outside of the situation to fix the problem is an impossibility. … I think it would be best for you to worship at another church and rest in the assurance that God will judge everyone according to their deeds. Only He is able to do that accurately and appropriately. I know what has happened to you (and so many others) is not fair or right. That is the sad reality in our broken and sinful world currently. However, God will put all things right in the end. In the meantime, He wants us to press forward in the mission He has given us to share His love with our neighbors and friends. That will help us to better handle the unfair things that happen to us [emphasis added].
So the solution was for us to be quiet and wait for the last judgment. In the meantime, we would have to leave our home church so everyone else there could go back to being happy together.
This ruling from the conference president allowed the pastor and elders to continue to act toward us as they had before. They could retaliate against us with no accountability.
We followed the recommendation of the conference president, which means my family and I now drive a significantly longer distance to another congregation, and no longer worship in the same church with my grandparents.
How did this happen?
As one of a diminishing number of younger people in church, I’ve felt devastated that men decades older than me—supposedly wise and godly men—were treating our experiences with such disdain, brushing our experiences under the rug and blaming us. Instead of respecting our boundaries, they said we were “overly sensitive” and needed to “grow up.”
The only one who tried to defend us was my grandfather, a long-time member and elder. Eventually my grandfather would be officially censured by the board for speaking up forcefully for us in church. (My grandfather tried repeatedly to reach the pastor to speak with him about the meeting—but the pastor never returned his calls.) My grandparents were devastated by this public censure, having been faithful church members in good standing their whole adult lives.
I was heartbroken and traumatized by it all. For a while I cried every day, and all three of us women felt emotionally distressed. My sister and I took days off of work to attend meetings trying to resolve this situation, as well as to attend therapy.
My life has been unalterably changed. The sense of safety that I once had is gone. It’s scary to realize what a man can do to me, and simply lie and get away with it. My faith in church leadership has been diminished: it is impossible for me to understand how men in the church can act this way and not be held accountable.
It appears that in the Countryside Adventist Church, abuse and harassment are allowed in the name of (to quote our conference president) “the mission He has given us to share His love with our neighbors and friends.”
Beyond “End It Now”
I’m appealing to you, leaders of the Adventist church, to use the End It Now initiative not just to “create safe churches,” but to require (not just suggest) that local church leaders follow a mandatory protocol when abuse is reported, instead of allowing untrained persons to respond however they choose.
And there should be consequences when they don’t follow that protocol. The pastor and elders at the Countryside Church did not implement the counsel and training from the conference and, as of now, there is no accountability for that. What’s the point of having directives if the conference can’t enforce them?
The Minnesota conference says they prohibit “sexual harassment of any form” and that “local church members have a right to worship and fellowship free from an intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment.” But when we reported that both of these had happened to us, the final word we received was that it was impossible for anyone “outside of the situation to fix the problem”—so we should go worship at another church.
I love the Adventist church and I want to see it thrive. But it cannot thrive when abuse is allowed to go unchecked. Don’t just tell long-time members to go to somewhere else when they’re treated like this. How many more will have to come forward in order for our church leaders to act wisely to address this problem?