NASHVILLE, Tenn. (RNS) — Jennifer Lyell was trying to do the right thing. In the spring of 2019, Lyell, then a well-respected leader in Christian publishing, decided to publicly disclose that she was a survivor of sexual abuse.
She did so after learning her abuser, a former Southern Baptist seminary professor, author, and missionary, had recently returned to ministry. Lyell feared he would once again have the opportunity to abuse others and wanted to stop that from happening.
So, she wrote up a statement detailing the abuse and shared it with a reporter from a Christian news organization. Then things went terribly wrong.
Instead of reporting she had been abused, Nashville-based Baptist Press, which is overseen by the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee, reported in March 2019 that Lyell, then a vice president at Lifeway Christian Resources, had admitted being involved in a “morally inappropriate relationship” with her former professor.
The fallout was quick and devastating. Lyell was labeled on social media as an “adulteress” rather than an abuse survivor, with users leaving scores of vile comments about her on Lifeway’s Facebook page and the Baptist Press website. Pastors and churches called for her to be fired. She lost her reputation, her job, and even her health in the process.
Lyell told Religion News Service she wished she had never gone public. Instead of receiving support and compassion, she found herself trying to convince critics she was not responsible for the abuse she had experienced at the hands of the former professor. The article was eventually retracted, but the damage was done.
“It takes years and years to recover from trauma, and no one should be in the position of having to explain it to the whole public while they’re still trying to do that,” she said.
Lyell’s experience reveals the difficulty survivors often face when they try to speak up about their experiences. While churches say they want to care for survivors of abuse, those survivors are often viewed with suspicion, having to prove they are worthy of compassion and respect. And Christian theology about sin and about the roles of men and women often makes it difficult for survivors who come forward.
David Pooler, professor of social work at Baylor University, said sexual misconduct by clergy and other religious leaders is often labeled as “having an affair.” But that description misses the power imbalance at play.
“At its simplest level, it is abuse because it is not consensual,” he said. “A clergy person has enormous power. And because they, in a sense, represent God, they have more power than almost any other professional person that works with other people.”
He said people often turn to clergy when they are at their most vulnerable. And because of their power and influence, pastors and other religious leaders have a responsibility to set up boundaries in their relationships with other people. Pooler said abusive relationships with clergy often last for years. The abuser often spends years grooming a victim and then does not let the victim go.
“Once the person gets access, they keep that access,” he said.
And recovering from abuse as an adult is a long-term process. Survivors often deal with the trauma of the actual abuse along with a sense of betrayal and rejection from other believers, who often take the side of abusers. He said it is often easier for churches to blame victims than to look at the way they have empowered abusers.
Pooler said church members often become “nonprotective bystanders,” whose inaction enables abuse to continue and abusers to go unpunished. He also said churches often believe survivors were participants in their abuser’s sins.
Lyell told RNS that at first, she did receive a great deal of support from Southern Baptist leaders when she told them about the abuse she experienced. In the spring of 2018, after more than two years of therapy, she disclosed to her boss at Lifeway that a former professor named David Sills had first “sexually acted” against her — without her consent — during a mission trip he was leading while she was a seminary student. Lyell told RNS she did not initially report what happened because she was in shock, confused, and scared about what people would believe. Lyell says Sills, who was a surrogate father figure to her, eventually abused her again and then continued for years, even after she left seminary.
She did not revisit all the details of the abuse but did disclose those details to leaders at Lifeway and then to Al Mohler, the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where the professor was employed. Within days, the professor had been confronted and resigned. Lyell said that at the time, she did not want the seminary or Lifeway to publicly disclose what had happened to her.
Things changed, however, once the abuse became public. The leaders who had the information and ability to correct the inaccuracies supported her privately but were publicly silent.
She said Southern Baptist leaders do not hesitate to use their public platforms to debate theology or drive culture war issues but rarely call out abusive behavior in their own camp — especially if it means correcting other denominational leaders. They may, at best, support survivors or criticize fellow denominational leaders in private but will not use their power to do the same in public, she said.
“We say that we are not this hierarchy but in reality, we function like we are protecting the barracks of the Vatican,” she said.
Hilary Scarsella, assistant professor of ethics and director of women and gender studies at Colgate Rochester Crozier Divinity School, said survivors of clergy abuse can feel trapped because they know publicly disclosing the abuse may have consequences, both to their own faith and their place in the community.
“Survivors don’t just lose their trust in that one person,” she said. “They also risk losing their relationships with everybody else who has a relationship with that person — because when the chips fall, you don’t know how they’re going to fall.”
Scarsella, who also works with a nonprofit that advocates for abuse victims, noted that clergy abusers also often know how to use the theology of sin for their advantage. By admitting to having sinned and asking for forgiveness, they can mitigate the consequences of their actions and preserve a future in the church.
“Abusers in the church have figured out that if they are willing to admit partial, limited wrongdoing and if they are willing to perform apology, repentance and intention to do better,” she said, “behaving in sexually violent ways doesn’t actually diminish their prospects for leadership in the church.
“The church needs a way of understanding sin and violence that enables God’s grace without giving abusers back their power, their access and their good regard,” she added.
Lyell still attends a Southern Baptist church, in large part because of the friendship and support she has received from her pastor and his wife.
But her feelings toward the denomination’s beliefs about gender roles have shifted. The convention’s statement of faith says women and men are equal in God’s sight but have different roles in the church and the home. Today, she feels that belief, known as complementarianism, has created an unhealthy culture. Any criticism of complementarianism is seen as “a sort of gateway drug into theological liberalism.”
“I think a culture that believes that its righteousness is dependent on preserving and protecting the strictest form of complementarianism is a culture that sees women as a threat, sees women as a risk, sees women as more likely to sin,” she said. “And there were aspects of it certainly that I think is something that an abuser can use.”
Abuse advocate and attorney Rachael Denhollander said that Lyell’s story reflects a bigger problem with a complementarian culture that defends male leaders but views women leaders — and survivors of abuse — as “expendable.”
Denhollander, who has represented Lyell, pointed out that it took months for Baptist Press to retracte that article. And that retraction happened only after Denhollander had publicly criticized the SBC’s treatment of Lyell during a major conference on abuse in the fall of 2019. She said Lyell had repeatedly asked for the article to be corrected but her requests were denied and a number of Baptist leaders knew the story was wrong but failed to stand up for Lyell.
“Jen came forward at incredible personal cost to herself, to defend those who had no voice,” Denhollander said. “And these men couldn’t even lift a finger when she was defamed and crushed and destroyed.
Denhollander, an abuse survivor whose testimony led to the conviction of former national gymnastics doctor and serial abuser Larry Nassar, said evangelical theology had created a kind of “porn culture” in churches. “Women are seen first and foremost as sexual objects, means to an end,” she said, adding women are seen as temptresses, trying to bring a good man down and getting married is seen as a way of helping men deal with their lust.
After Denhollander’s criticism, Baptist Press issued a statement, saying it had “failed to convey that the heart of Lyell’s story was about sexual abuse by a trusted minister in a position of power at a Southern Baptist seminary.”
“Lyell came to us with an allegation of abuse and should have been cared for throughout the entire process. Instead, for many this incident may have contributed to a perception that the Southern Baptist Convention is not a safe place for sexual abuse survivors to disclose,” the statement read.
Russell Moore, a Southern Baptist ethicist and president of the denomination’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said the power dynamics involved in abuse have often been misunderstood in evangelical circles. Pastoral misconduct is seen as a moral failing rather than an abuse of power.
“When a pastor or leader is involved in a sexual scandal, the language of ‘affair’ is used, even when it’s a predatory use of spiritual power,” he said. “And for so long, people have been unable to understand those categories.”
Moore said he and his wife are friends of Lyell and he described her as “one of the strongest, most courageous and brilliant leaders I know.” He hopes she will eventually return to a leadership role in the church.
“Her story has already helped countless other people around the country, in ways that she may not even know about. I think her efforts to call attention to this horrible aspect of abuse are needed,” he added.
Lyell said she no longer trusts the convention, feeling like key leaders betrayed the faith she put in them. It took months for Baptist Press to retract the article and address errors in it — and that only happened after the former BP staff had been replaced and the article had been criticized by abuse advocate Rachael Denhollander.
Lyell urged denominational leaders as well as pastors to recognize the responsibility they have to protect survivors from more harm when they come forward.
“Christian leaders need to remember that they are called to be shepherds in the model of the Good Shepherd,” she said, “protecting the sheep even if the wolves include their fellow leaders.”