'We are here to gather our courage': Wheaton College summit addresses sex abuse in evangelical churches
It's been a year of pain, fear and strained relationships for Nancy Beach.
The first female teaching pastor at Willow Creek Community Church, Beach was one of the women whose allegations of sexual misconduct against founder Bill Hybels led to his early retirement, the resignations of the entire elder board and the ongoing turmoil at the South Barrington-based megachurch.
"I had no idea, no way to foresee what would happen when I joined my voice with the voices of eventually nine other women in calling out the abuse of power and sexual sin in the life of our pastor," she said.
Beach joined her voice Thursday with some of the most high-profile figures in evangelicalism at a summit convened by Wheaton College. The Billy Graham Center held the one-day gathering to address sexual abuse and harassment within the church.
"We are here to gather our courage. We are here to face that some of our systems have created susceptibility and unanswered culpability," said Beth Moore, a prominent Bible teacher and author. "We are here to face that, without clarity of teaching and due diligence in training, we have on our hands environments where victimization thrives."
Even before the opening of the GC2 Summit on Responding to Sexual Harassment, Abuse, and Violence, the event faced criticism from activists behind the #ChurchToo movement, an offshoot of the #MeToo movement that toppled figures in Hollywood and politics.
Emily Joy and other organizers of a "counteraction" responded to the summit on social media Thursday, calling for a reckoning over a "purity culture" they say contributes to victim shaming and sexual misconduct. They argued the event -- framed as an "evangelical conversation" -- should have included outside experts, and they denounced comments by Ed Stetzer, the Billy Graham Center's executive director, in a Christianity Today article he co-wrote ahead of the summit.
"Some will say that evangelical beliefs are the problem, and we particularly understand that may come from some who have been hurt by evangelical churches," Stetzer wrote. "But, like the Roman Catholic Church has seen, it is often Catholics who can help other Catholics to begin change in their community -- and we are trying to help do the same in ours."
About 750 people registered to attend the summit in person. Three hundred others signed up to watch via livestream, along with more than 40 sites, including universities.
The speaker roster included counselors, pastors and advocates who challenged churches to bring more women into leadership positions and to erase the stigma placed on victims.
Addressing the gathering at the college's Edman Chapel, Moore did not describe the abuse she suffered as a child but called her home "her unsafe place." Her church was her "safe harbor," but it wasn't where she felt she could open up about the abuse -- a "terrible secret" that "nearly killed" her.
"I have often wondered what a difference it might have made if that safe harbor had not only been a place to hide but a place to heal," she said. "What if I had heard my pastor or my teachers or any of my leaders address what I was going through, call it what it was, say that I wasn't to blame and not to be ashamed? What if they shared a safe place I could go and tell what I endured?"
Beach cautioned against "unchecked power" in church hierarchy and acknowledged she was part of an "inner circle" of a church leader, without directly naming Hybels, who has denied allegations that surfaced this year.
"The irony is that I knew that this leader was responsible in many ways for opening up doors of opportunity for me and I was benefiting from the refracted light," she said. "So I ask you if you're in the inner circle of a leader, are you in any way complicit in allowing a pattern of abuse or abuse of power to continue?"
Beach also addressed what's known as the "Billy Graham rule" that maintains men who are evangelical leaders should not be alone with women who are not their spouses.
"My huge concern this year has been that we will swing another pendulum," she said. "Our fear of potential moral failure may well drive us to conclude that the answer is to go back to our safe comfort zones, to separate the genders as much as possible, to not invite women to the leadership table and also to establish 20 more rules of how we can't be in the same elevator or anywhere near one. I believe any overcorrection along those lines would be a huge mistake, a tragic loss for our community faiths. There is another pathway to healing and to health."
GC2 stands for "Great Commission/Great Commandment." The previous two GC2 summits hosted by the Billy Graham Center focused on the refugee crisis and mass incarceration.