Andy Savage officially resigned from his role as teaching pastor at Highpoint Church in Memphis on Tuesday, March 20. You can read his full announcement letter on Highpoint’s website.
“Apologies are important, but more is required,” Savage said in the letter. “I know that stepping down once, or even a second time, still doesn’t make things right for Jules. But addressing my own acts of abuse this way acknowledges the importance of confronting abuse in our culture and in the Church at large.”
Last month, Savage told his congregation the story that launched an investigation at Highpoint as well as Savage’s leave of absence. In 1998, Savage was a 22-year-old youth pastor in Texas, and he sexually coerced a 17-year-old girl, Jules Woodson. When Woodson told another pastor about what happened, she said the church asked her to be silent. She was denied justice, and Savage left the Texas church after a few weeks. Twenty years later, #MeToo gave Woodson the courage to seek justice again, and she reached out to Savage. He did not respond to Woodson, but confessed the sin, calling it a “sexual incident,” to Highpoint, asking their forgiveness. The church responded with a standing ovation.
This story is heartbreaking for many reasons.
- A youth pastor abused his power
- A young girl was sexually assaulted
- A church attempted to cover-up a sinful crime
- Justice was denied for 20 years
- And a church disturbingly applauded the story
But because the sin was brought out of the shadows and into the light, the story does not end here. Savage said this in his letter on Highpoint’s website about what he learned:
“Throughout the last two and a half months, I’ve had the opportunity to spend much time in prayer and God’s Word, as well as to reflect on the thoughts shared by so many who responded to the post by Jules Woodson and to my statement on January 7th. Your passionate opinions on this important matter have truly helped me to gain perspective that I simply could not have achieved on my own. I have come to understand Jules’ vantage point better, and to appreciate the courage it took for her to speak up.
As I’ve reflected during my leave of absence, I have come to see that many wrongs occurred in 1998. Another wrong was the failure to follow due process afterward; Jules deserved, and did not get, a full investigation and proper response 20 years ago.
Of course, this does little to relieve the suffering Jules experienced because of my mistakes and the neglect of due process that followed. I sincerely want to get this right. I want the Church to get this right. I want Jules, finally, to see it gotten right.”
Here are two things we, the church, can learn from this story and a few thoughts as we move forward.
1. Remember who the victim is
When Savage confessed his sin to Highpoint on a January Sunday morning earlier this year, he quite literally had the stage and focused the story on his own sin, repentance, and the way he sought forgiveness. After hearing a fragment of the whole story, the church responded in a standing ovation.
Since then, Savage sees it differently. He said in his letter:
“When Jules [Woodson] cried out for justice, I carelessly turned the topic to my own story of moral change, as if getting my own life in order should help to make up for what she went through and continues to go through. Morality is meant to guard against injustices, not to minimize them, to compensate for them, or to obscure them. I agree with Jules that, of all places, we as the Church should be getting this right.”
Although sin hurts the sinner as well as the victim, and restoration on both sides is worth celebrating, justice and restoration should be first about the victim.
2. When a crime is committed, call the police
This seems like a simple rule of thumb, but in the moment when leaders learn of a crime like sexual assault in their church, fear and confusion can cloud their judgement on how to handle it. Churches can prepare for these chaotic moments (that hopefully will not ever occur) by having a protocol in place. How many universities, businesses, and churches could have avoided a lot of pain if they had reported crimes to the police rather than attempt to deal with crimes internally? Churches maintain the right to govern themselves, but situations like these can easily look like a cover-up and can cause further damage.
Despite the wrongs committed in the Andy Savage case, there is hope.
Things we can be thankful for:
- Justice for Jules Woodson
- Sin was brought out into the light
- A church was quick to forgive
Things we can pray for:
- Healing for Jules and her family as they move forward
- Healing for Andy and his family as they move forward
- Healing for Highpoint as they grieve the loss of their pastor
- Healing for the broader American church because stories like these are always hard to hear.
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