Remember Andy Savage? He was the megachurch pastor from Memphis who sexually assaulted a 17-year-old girl two decades ago when he was her youth pastor. He finally admitted to the public what he had done after the victim went public with her story.
He didn’t admit everything, though. What he called a “sexual incident” was actually a case in which he drove the girl to a secluded area, whipped out his penis, and pressured her into giving him oral sex. Yet when he issued his “apology,” members of Highpoint Church gave him a standing ovation. It was an appalling moment — indicative of how low evangelicals have sunk during the #MeToo movement and the Trump era. Savage later announced a “leave of absence” from the church.
Things didn’t get much better after that. After Savage stepped down, Pastor Chris Conlee (below) blamed the critics, comparing them to the Devil. He told the congregation that the other side — I guess that refers to people against sexual assault — want the church to just disband. That wasn’t accurate. We wanted more accountability from church leaders. We wanted to know how Savage worked at Highpoint for so long when the other church leaders supposedly knew what had happened. We wanted an apology from the church leaders. Maybe a donation to a group working to prevent abuse and take care of victims. Or a sermon series about consent and power and sex, and how the idea of “purity” may have contributed to the problem.
We wanted to see some appreciation for the bloggers and social media critics and victim herself for holding Savage accountable.
You know. Meaningful things.
Earlier this month, the church received some more big news: Conlee was going to step down, too. He didn’t give a reason for the resignation other than there being a disagreement with the church trustees… but, frankly, it didn’t matter. He was complicit in the Savage story by defending him during the entire controversy. He supposedly knew what Savage had done but never said anything about it. So good riddance to the guy. (When a reporter reached out to him for comment, all he said was “Jesus. Honor. Gratitude.” Which I suppose is a list of things no one should ever think of when his name comes up.)Not surprisingly, when Conlee was allowed to give a brief goodbye, the congregation gave him a standing ovation, too. Because they haven’t learned a damn thing.
Now, some of them are angry for a different reason. They want to know why Conlee resigned out of nowhere and they’re blaming the church’s trustees for pushing him out.
The church held a special session for members and trustees last Tuesday to try and sort through some of this. However, the “family meeting” didn’t go well, in part because the leaders didn’t address the multiple elephants in the room. Why did Conlee resign? What were the differences of opinions they had? How were they addressing the abuse problem?
And most importantly: Why weren’t the congregation’s questions being answered in a public, transparent way?
Just listen to the audio of the event near the 40:30 mark, when the crowd revolts against the idea of speaking with the trustees in private and just starts yelling out questions. It’s a completely shit-show.
This is about internal church drama more than anything — which would mean it’s really no one else’s business — but that drama exists in part because of a lack of transparency with members and a desire to move past the issue of abuse before ever truly reconciling with their mistakes. That’s why it’s a story that goes well beyond the church walls.
Jules Woodson, the woman whose revelation about Savage sent this church spiraling, said Conlee’s resignation was a start, but the church still had a long way to go:
I think Chris Conlee’s resignation was a necessary step and I’m grateful he is no longer in the pulpit for now though I am confused as to why it took 6 months for Highpoint to realize this. I also feel that the leaders missed an important opportunity yesterday to affirm to the world that in moving forward, they will be a church that no longer tolerates abuse and will become a safe and supportive place for all victims. Instead, they were vague about the resignation in the official statement they released and told reporters who reached out that they were not commenting.
A new pastor isn’t going to solve everything. And it doesn’t look like the trustees care enough to address their own faults. There’s even less of a reason today for any decent Christian to be involved with that church. What we don’t know is whether they’ll be brave enough to leave a church that had comforted them for so long but has done so much damage to so many others.
(Portions of this article were published earlier)