By Aaron Earls
On October 15, 2017, #MeToo trended for the first time on social media as thousands of victims shared their experience with sexual harassment and assault.
For some survivors, they see encouraging signs of churches caring for those who have suffered and removing abusers from places of power. For others, the year has been another season of disappointment and frustration at the lack of changes.
Where is the church on the one-year anniversary of #MeToo?
Beginning of a movement
In the midst of sexual assault accusations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein surfacing, on October 15 last year, actress Alyssa Milano urged assault and harassment victims to share their story on social media using the hashtag #MeToo. The phrase, first used by activist Tarana Burke in 2006, quickly went viral.
In the first 48 hours, #MeToo had been shared nearly a million times on Twitter. By the third day, 45 percent of American Facebook users had a friend who posted “me too.”
In 48 hours, the hashtag had been shared nearly a million times, with many sharing how they had been a victim themselves. By October 17, Facebook reported that 45 percent of U.S. users had a friend who posted “me too,” according to a CBS News report.
Victims have been encouraged to come forward. This has been a positive impact of the movement, according to Trillia Newbell, a writer, speaker, and sexual assault survivor.
“Obviously, because of the movement we’re seeing people speak out,” said Newbell in an interview with Facts & Trends. “More victims are sharing their stories. They are coming out of the shadows and vulnerably sharing their hurt, which is courageous.”
The stories have led to virtually all pastors being aware of the movement. Today, according to a Lifeway Research study, nearly 9 in 10 Protestant pastors say they have heard of the Me Too movement.
Has the church changed?
Of those pastors who have heard of Me Too, many say it has brought changes to their church.
Almost 6 in 10 (58 percent) say their congregation is more aware of how common domestic and sexual violence is. Sixty-two percent say their congregation now has more empathy toward those experiencing domestic and sexual violence.
“Christian organizations can no longer ignore the issue,” said Newbell. “They are being forced to make decisions and to implement change to start thinking through this topic and how it relates to the church.”[epq-quote align=”align-right”]“My prayer is that the church can be prepared to be the place for the broken and the brokenhearted and that we can love and care for them.” — Trillia Newbell[/epq-quote]Newbell said she recently spoke at a conference on the topic and had pastors thanking her and telling her about the steps they were trying to make in their churches. “At this point, most of them are trying to get educated about the issue and deciding what policies they need to have in place.”
But for Newbell, it has to move beyond policy implementation to care for survivors.
“As people are getting bolder to share, we need to be prepared to care, to love, to serve, and also to know counselors who can serve in the most appropriate ways,” she said.
“My prayer is that the church can be prepared to be the place for the broken and the brokenhearted and that we can love and care for them.”
But that hasn’t been the experience of sexual abuse and assault survivor Susan Clabaugh, a writer in Missouri, who says her church has not recognized the Me Too movement.
“I personally have not seen a response from the church at all,” she said.
When she writes about the topic, she says “people are hesitant to comment on it. No one wants to speak out, but they resonate with it.”
Clabaugh spoke with another survivor who said her church recognized the movement and said they would not stand for their leadership abusing anyone. However, the church’s leadership said there must also be forgiveness on the part of victims.
“So this survivor responded to her pastor, telling him that forgiveness is one thing, and that takes time, but trust is something else,” said Clabaugh. “You don’t put someone who’s done something like that back into a leadership position. The pastor brushed her off.”
The way forward
Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research, said this has been a painful reminder for many in the pews that their leaders are sinners as well. “For many, it has brought a sense of dread, waiting to learn what previously unknown issues will come to light,” he said.
“We can say ‘Enough!’ and become callous to all the stories. Or, we can say ‘Enough!’ and seek to prevent this behavior in the future and to care for victims now.” — Scott McConnell
The Me Too movement has forced church leaders to make a choice. “We can say ‘Enough!’ and become callous to all the stories. Or, we can say ‘Enough!’ and seek to prevent this behavior in the future and to care for victims now.”
For many churches and pastors this issue hits close to home. According to Lifeway Research, three-quarters of pastors (76 percent) say they know someone who has been sexually harassed. One in 5 say they have personally experienced domestic or sexual violence.
Other churches have dealt with sexual harassment with their staff. Twelve percent of pastors say someone on their staff has sexually harassed a congregation member at some point in the church’s life. Sixteen percent say a staff member has experienced sexual harassment in a church setting.
As they’ve confronted the reality in their own congregations, 4 in 10 pastors who say have heard about Me Too say they are now more inclined to preach about domestic and sexual violence.
Speaking about the issue from the pulpit is a small, but important first step, said McConnell. “By acknowledging it and seeking to raise awareness about it, pastors can communicate the church takes harassment and abuse seriously, cares for victims, and desires to affirm the inherent dignity of each person created in the image of God.”
Aaron is the senior writer at Lifeway Research.
Carol Pipes and Joy Allmond contributed to this article.