My friends, it’s time for Baptists to have a sustained conversation about the sin of sexual harassment and abuse. We have waited much too long to talk about the inappropriate touches, inappropriate jokes, inappropriate suggestions, inappropriate leers that happen all too often, mostly to clergywomen but sometimes by clergymen too. As leaders, we have been silent, too embarrassed, too squeamish, or perhaps too frightened to call out harassment within our circles.
This week more startling claims about sexual harassment and abuse have been made about prominent male leaders and celebrities. Many of current claims are about abuse that occurred decades ago, and a common response has been “Why didn’t the victims speak up earlier? Why didn’t they report the abuse when it happened? Why did they wait? Why now?” All victims of abuse know the answers to these questions. Fear, shame, embarrassment, doubt, humiliation. Most victims experience feelings of isolation. Many doubt whether their stories will be believed. Many question their experience, wondering “Was it really all that bad? Was it just a joke? Did I misinterpret what just happened? Is this my fault? Did I do something to deserve this treatment?”
Until recent days, most women have not felt safe enough to talk about their experiences, and that is true for clergywomen. Many, many clergywomen have not felt like their own churches were safe spaces in which they could confront harassment. Clergywomen haven’t felt secure enough in their positions to talk about the abuse. Baptist clergywomen, especially Baptist female pastors, are caught in a precarious position. They often find themselves without the emotional and social capital or the pastoral confidence to speak out. They fear that saying something will result in the loss of their jobs. They fear being forced out of ministry or labeled as a troublemaker.
The recent #metoo campaign has initiated a shift of power in this country, allowing women to share their stories, speak their truth, talk about what has happened and what is happening to them. The sudden outburst of support for victims of sexual harassment and abuse has inspired and freed clergywomen to recognize that they are not alone and they too will be heard and believed.
I appreciate this campaign for many reasons . . . it has shed light on the ever-present reality of sexual harassment and abuse, it has empowered women to speak boldly and bravely, it has created a sisterhood of support as women have stood together and offered encouragement and care to one another, and it has opened the door of possibility for change. Baptist clergywomen have embraced the light, the empowerment, the sisterhood, and the possibility for change. They too have joined in sharing #metoo stories.
And yet, I know that the job of working for reform in our Baptist world must not and cannot be pushed onto the shoulders of those who have been harassed and abused. Baptist leaders, Baptist pastors, Baptist people of influence must use their voices, their platforms, their pulpits to call for an end of harassment and abuse. We cannot be silent, and we must clearly and specifically identify the abuses we have seen and heard about and name those abuses as sin. It’s time for leading Baptists to do their part.
Pam Durso is executive director of Baptist Women in Ministry, Atlanta, Georgia.