Abuse survivors and advocates are fuming over reports that a former megachurch pastor who confessed to sexually abusing a minor is planning to return to the pulpit.
Tennessee pastor Andy Savage resigned from his leadership position at Memphis’s Highpoint Church in March 2018, publicly admitting that he had sexually abused a teenager under his pastoral care about 20 years earlier. Savage’s resignation, which was driven by the advocacy of his accuser, Jules Woodson, helped fuel a nationwide conversation about how evangelical Christian churches handle sexual abuse allegations.
But less than two years later, Savage appears to think he’s ready to start over as the leader of a new congregation.
Earlier this month, Savage filed paperwork to register an entity called “Grace Valley Church” as a nonprofit, according to the Tennessee secretary of state’s records. The primary address for the church is a home near Memphis that belongs to Savage and his wife.
Watch Keep, a blog that tracks sexual abuse in Christian communities, first broke the news about Savage’s church plan on Saturday. The site released an audio recording that it alleges was taped at an “interest meeting” for Grace Valley Church. The man in the recording, who identifies himself as “Andy” and whom Woodson believes is Savage, can be heard explaining his vision of creating a judgment-free church for people like him who “got their hands on the wrong thing.”
In a statement released on Watch Keep, Woodson accused Savage of using “manipulative approaches” to garner support for his church. She insisted that “morally, ethically, biblically, Andy Savage was not qualified to be a pastor.”
HuffPost has reached out to Savage for comment.
Woodson said she was abused in 1998 when she was 17 years old, after an event at a Texas Baptist churchwhere Savage was serving as a youth pastor. She said the pastor, who was 22 at the time, drove her to a private location and forced her to perform sexual acts.
Woodson went public with her accusations against Savage in January 2018. Savage initially called it a “sexual incident.” Highpoint Church faced backlash after members were seen giving Savage a standing ovation after he read an apology letter during a church service.
After a short leave of absence, Savage announced in March 2018 that he was stepping away from ministry to “right the wrongs of the past.” He pledged that he sincerely wanted “the Church to get this right.”
Woodson said that, though she believes “God’s grace is amazing and available to all of us ― including Andy Savage,” that doesn’t mean he should go back to leading a congregation.
“Andy Savage and his supporters are setting a precedent within the church that men who have preyed upon the flock can still belong on the pulpit,” Woodson wrote. “This is dangerous, this is wrong and I believe that Andy’s message of ‘cheap Grace’ leads people astray from the truth of God’s Word.”
Woodson’s view was echoed online by prominent voices within the #ChurchToo movement, which seeks to shed light on sexual abuse and cover-ups that occur in Christian communities.
Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to go public with accusations of sexual abuse against former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, called out hypocrisy in evangelical churches on the issue of sexual abuse. Boz Tchividjian, founder of an organization that trains faith communities on how to create safe environments for victims, called the practice of putting abusive leaders back in positions of power “un-Christian.”
Other abuse survivors and advocates chimed in.
Mary DeMuth, author of “We Too: How the Church Can Respond Redemptively to the Sexual Abuse Crisis,” told HuffPost she was “truly grieved” that Savage was planning to open a new church. She said it proved that Savage still had a “gross misunderstanding” of the crime he committed.
“The message this sends to others is that it doesn’t matter if you preyed upon an underage girl and caused deep, persistent trauma in her life. You are saying his desire to do ministry trumps her trauma,” she said.
Savage’s use of Christian teachings about grace as a pathway back to the pulpit is similar to the argument made by another embattled evangelical pastor, Tullian Tchividjian. The preacher (who is anti-abuse activist Boz Tchividjian’s younger brother) was booted from jobs at two Florida churches for sexual misconduct in 2015 and 2016. One of the women he was involved with described what happened as sexual abuse (which he denied). This year, Tullian Tchividjian launched Sanctuary, a nondenominational Florida church that seeks to be a “judgment-free zone where people can come as they are, not as they should be.” The pastor insisted that his murky past was precisely what qualified him to minister to “broken” people.
But grace doesn’t come without consequences, DeMuth said. She believes the “cheap grace” that Savage and Tullian Tchividjian rely on leaves no room for justice.
“If we want to talk about biblical grace, that grace absolutely has to extend to the victim,” she said. “If grace only extends to the perpetrator, that kind of flippant grace becomes an enabler of evil behavior. It does not represent the hard-won grace Jesus fought for us on the cross.”