Don Follis | Let women rise up, speak the truth and lead

Don Follis | Let women rise up, speak the truth and lead

The #MeToo movement began by exposing predatory male behavior and hypocrisy in liberal enclaves in Hollywood and the mainstream media. Now it is spreading through the rest of society. The #MeToo movement has given birth to the #ChurchToo movement. In a poignant May 12 New York Times Op-Ed piece, Peter Wehner wrote that the evangelical Protestant world now is being shaken by revelations of sexual abuse and sexism.

Just last week, Prominent Southern Baptist Leader Paige Patterson was removed from his position as president of the formidable Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth. It came amid an evangelical #MeToo moment: a huge backlash from women upset over comments Patterson made in the past that are now perceived as sexist and demeaning.

The Washington Post reported last Tuesday that Patterson allegedly told a woman who said she had been raped that she should not report her allegations to the police and encouraged her to forgive her alleged assailant. Proceeding Patterson's removal, more than 3,200 mostly Southern Baptist women signed a letter to the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary board, asking that Patterson be removed from his office.

An incident deeply troubling to me occurred in March when Pastor Bill Hybels resigned from his senior pastor position at the prominent Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago. I have attended Hybels' conferences, read his books, been inspired by his leadership and prayed for God to give him wisdom.

Most impressive, I watched Hybels work tirelessly to see women promoted right along with men to positions of top leadership at the church. Today, the head of the elder board at Willow Creek is a woman, as is the new senior pastor of the 30,000-member congregation, 42-year-old Heather Larson, recommended by Hybels himself.

Ironically, some of the women Hybels persistently cheered on — many of them ministry colleagues — have now come forward to accuse him of improper sexual conduct and inappropriate behavior. Hybels denies the charges. It’s a mess. I believe the women.

Last Summer, on my study break in Phoenix, Ariz., I attended Phoenix Seminary in Scottsdale. Just a few miles from the seminary is Highlands Community Church, a 5,000-member megachurch. Two weeks ago, founder and pastor Les Hughey, 64, resigned after several women accused him of sexual misconduct when he was a youth pastor in California decades earlier. Hughey claims the conduct was consensual, although he was married at the time and the women now speaking out were just teenagers.

Wehner in the Times op-ed piece says, “Complicating matters has been the rock-solid support of white evangelicals for President Trump, a man who has been accused by nearly 20 women of sexual misconduct and has a long history of misogynistic attacks; and for the losing Republican Senate candidate from Alabama, Roy Moore, who was accused of varying degrees of sexual misconduct by 9 women, including one who was 14 years old when the alleged incident occurred.”

All this sobering news has caused me to reflect on my 40 years of ministry in East Central Illinois. Way back in the day, when I was a young campus minister at the University of Illinois, Barbara Kern was the secretary of our ministry. She spoke truth to this young man, confronted me when I needed correction and persuaded me that women are strong and called to the ministry just as much as men.

One of my first campus ministry colleagues was Suellen Shay, now a dean at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. Shay is one of the most self-assured leaders I ever met — smart, intuitive and caring.

Back around 1990, I worked on a ministry team with Barbara Linder, then a leader at New Covenant Church in Champaign. She taught me how to minister to children. She introduced me to Advent and other church traditions. She was creative, organized, clear and humble.

In the early 2000s, I hired Jen Albrecht from Calgary, Canada, to work on my team when I directed the local logistics for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s Christmas student mission conference. Albrecht is one of the funniest, brightest women I’ve ever met, a truly outstanding administrator.

From 2003 to 2009, I served on the pastoral team of the large Vineyard Church of central Illinois. Pastor Dianne Leman was on the preaching team and was my supervisor for part of the time. Not only is she a passionate communicator from the pulpit, she loves to read and has an infectious love of learning.

In just a few weeks, the smartest, wittiest and most discerning woman I ever met, Jennifer Follis, and I will celebrate 40 years of marriage. She can cut through the fog like few people I have ever met. Her uncanny wisdom at just the right moment has saved my backside hundreds of times.

Without question, women leaders have made me immeasurably better than I am. What man in the world in his right mind wouldn’t want that? Thankfully, the #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements are causing evangelical Christians to confront misogyny and patronizing behavior in lots of churches across the land. Bring it on.

And no, we haven’t seen the end of it yet. Let the women rise up and speak. Let the church stand with the victims of sexual abuse rather than the perpetrators. Just imagine if a watching world saw evangelical leaders give even a fraction of support to women who have been assaulted, often by the very pastors called to protect them, compared with the passes evangelical leaders hand out to Mr. Trump for his sexual transgressions.

Don Follis has pastored in Champaign-Urbana for 35 years. He directs retreats and coaches leaders via Contact him at, and you can follow him on Twitter (@donfollis).

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