#Churchtoo: Apology of Evangelical Pastor Accused of Sexual Assault Shows Why Sorry Isn’t Enough

Highpoint Church's lead pastor Chris Conlee praying for teaching pastor Andy Savage, accused of sexual assault.

As the #metoo movement shines a necessary, long overdue light on men in the workplace who have abused their power by sexually harassing and assaulting women, #churchtoo has entered this discussion while focusing on sexual violence waged, and often covered up by, men who serve as pastors and church leaders. One woman who felt emboldened to publicize her story recently, Jules Woodson, first gave her assailant, Andy Savage—then a youth minster at Woodlands Parkway Baptist Church in Texas and now a teaching pastor at Highpoint Church in Memphis—a chance to apologize to her personally. On December 1, 2017, Woodson wrote him an email with the subject heading “Do you remember me?”

Do you remember that night that you were supposed to drive me home from church and instead drove me to a deserted back road and sexually assaulted me? Do you remember how you acted like you loved me and cared about me in order for me to cooperate in such acts, only to run out of the vehicle later and fall to your knees begging for forgiveness and for me not to tell anyone what had just happened? Well, I REMEMBER. 

Savage never replied to Woodson’s message. Instead, he took to the stage of his megachurch pulpit to repeat “I’m sorry” into a camera. 2017 was a year of apologies in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein allegations that sparked the #metoo movement. Savage’s performance managed to omit key details, merely calling it a “sexual incident,” as he repeatedly assured listeners that it took place “over 20 years ago.”

Lead pastor Chris Conlee set the scene for Savage’s public confession after the worship band finished rocking out in praise to God’s love. The atmosphere suddenly shifted from raucous gospel music to the somber ambient tones and minor chords of an electric organ as Conlee intoned, “Highpoint Church, in all of our locations, everybody watching online, I want you to know that we love you in an incredible way, and we are sincerely sorry.” Conlee adds that he is sorry to all the guests who may be visiting or viewing a service for the first time, but prays that “what you witness today will give you incredible confidence in what love is all about,” as he begins to sob.

Steadying his voice quickly, he concludes, “any person here is not choosing any side but God’s side, and God’s side is that he is for Miss Woodson one thousand percent. We want, Andy wants, Chris Conlee wants, Highpoint Church wants, every church in existence wants, healing for Miss Woodson, and for anyone who has suffered in any way…this church exists for the sole purpose of healing brokenness in every person’s life. Here’s what we say, and it’s because it’s what Jesus says, only love covers a multitude of sins, only love never fails, only love works.”

Before Conlee gives Andy Savage the spotlight he audibly whispers, “love you” while throwing an arm loosely over his shoulder. Savage begins his confession by stating in no uncertain terms that he has “never wanted to minimize anything about what’s taken place.”

His story continues, “As a college student on staff at a church in Texas over 20 years ago, I regrettably had a sexual incident with a female high school senior in the church. I apologized and sought forgiveness from her, her parents, her discipleship group, the church staff, and the church leadership, who informed the congregation. In agreement with wise counsel, I took every step to respond in a biblical way. I resigned from ministry and moved back home to Memphis. I accepted full responsibility for my actions. I was and remain remorseful for the incident, and deeply regret the pain that I caused her and her family, as well as the pain I caused the church and God’s kingdom…this incident was dealt with in Texas twenty years ago, but in the last few days it has been presented to a wider audience. I was wrong and accepted responsibility for my actions. I was sorry then and remain so today.”

From the cover of Andy Savage’s forthcoming book, which has been put on hold by the publisher.

“Again, I ask for forgiveness from her and everyone involved. When this happened twenty plus years ago, I did everything I knew to do under the counsel I was given to cooperate with those involved, repent of my sins, take responsibility for my actions and seek forgiveness. I never sought to cover this up…in hindsight I see that more could have been done for Jules. I am truly sorry that more was not done. Until now, I did not know there was unfinished business with Jules. So today I say, Jules I am deeply sorry for my actions toward you, twenty years ago…my repentance over this sin twenty years ago was done believing that God’s forgiveness is greater than any sin [looks directly into the camera], and I still believe that. Since then, I have tried to live my life in keeping with that original act of repentance, for any painful memories or fresh wounds this created for anyone [again, looks directly into the camera], I am sorry, and I humbly ask for your forgiveness. I love you all very much.”

News reports have noted that Savage received a standing ovation from congregants that lasted twenty seconds.

Jules Woodson’s account of the same “incident” in the spring of 1998 when she was seventeen is far more detailed.

He turned onto a dirt road and continued to drive. There were trees all around. I could not see the main road anymore…I asked what was back here. He told me they were building a church. I thought, maybe that’s what this was about, maybe he has some secret to tell me, like perhaps he was moving to another church. We reached a dead end and he turned the truck around before putting it in park. We were stopped, and he turned the headlights off. Suddenly, Andy unzipped his jeans and pulled out his penis. He asked me to suck it. I was scared and embarrassed, but I did it. I remember feeling that this must mean that Andy loved me. He then asked me to unbutton my shirt. I did. He started touching me over my bra and then lifted my bra up and began touching my breasts. After what I believe to have been about 5 minutes of this going on, he suddenly stopped, got out of the truck and ran around the back and to my side before falling to his knees. I quickly buttoned my shirt back up and got out of the truck. Now I was terrified and ashamed. I remember him pleading, while he was on his knees with his hands up on his head, ‘Oh my god, oh my god. What have I done? Oh my god, I’m so sorry. You can’t tell anyone Jules, please. You have to take this to the grave with you.’  He said that several times. My fear and shame quickly turned to anger. I had just been manipulated and used. I swore to him I wouldn’t tell anyone just to get him to stop. We both got back in the truck. As he drove me home, I don’t remember there being any conversation. I was in shock.

The next day, Woodson courageously reached out to Larry Cotton, the associate pastor of Woodlands Parkway Baptist Church, and told her story. After she finished, Cotton immediately asked for clarification that implied she must have been a willing participant in her own assault, “So you’re telling me you participated?” Woodson describes being overcome with shame and guilt. In effect, she had to endure yet another form of abuse, in this case spiritual rather than sexual, as she reached out to church leadership for protection and help in a moment of extreme vulnerability.

In return, Woodson was put on the defensive and re-traumatized as the violence done to her was trivialized and her story silenced in the name of protecting her abuser and the image of the church. Woodson was told to never speak of the assault to anyone, including her mother or legal authorities. In addition, she was told that Savage would never speak to her again. Woodson describes her feelings in the aftermath of this treatment:

As days passed I remember feeling more and more hopeless. I was confused as it seemed that Andy got to go about his day to day life, within the church and outside of it, as though nothing had ever happened. In fact, he led a 2-day event at the church, known as True Love Waits, promoting sexual purity not only in abstinence from intercourse before marriage, but also abstinence in any physical contact, actions and thoughts which might lead to sexual arousal. The irony had not been lost on me. Yet, here I was sinking deeper and deeper into this pit of depression. I had nowhere to go, no one to talk to. After all, I was given one job by the person I had sought help from (Larry,) and that was to keep my mouth shut.

Eventually, in a fit of tears, Woodson broke down during a women’s discipleship meeting and shared some of what had happened with Savage. Rumors began to circulate among church members that there had been an “innocent kiss” exchanged between them, nothing more. It’s at that point that Savage resigned his position as youth minister and moved back to Memphis.

As leaders rush to defend themselves and deflect blame for the overwhelming support shown by white evangelicals for the likes of Donald Trump and Roy Moore, they distinguish the “true” from the false evangelicals via “theological criteria,” which they use as a shield and weapon. However, the public performance by pastors Savage and Conlee serves as a stark, ugly example of the self-serving limitations of the generalized, 4-point theological criteria. Such a list of characteristics does not suffice for determining or actualizing sound theological praxis.

While Savage uses the word “repentance” in his confession, it has no weight or credence as he tells his story. If Savage had truly repented, this story would not have resurfaced. Woodson wouldn’t have had to bear the burden of reminding Savage of the “incident” later, only to be dismissed then humiliated from a pulpit in front of thousands. No matter how many times Savage and Conlee repeat the words, “sorry,” “love,” and “healing,” their apologetic countenance only exemplifies worldly sorrow as discussed in 2 Corinthians 7:10, “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.”

“I’m sorry” as public display is not the lexicon of repentance; it’s the language of worldly sorrow. Repentance isn’t publicly and vaguely articulated in the tenor of grief, it’s shared privately and in specific detail with the intent to enact change; it’s an ongoing process inspired by the desire and capacity to embody a theological praxis that bears the fruit of transformation and salvation, for both the sinner and the person sinned against.

If any theological criteria should be honored during this publicly debated crisis of identity among white evangelicals, it’s the gospel of repentance, not the “Biblicism” that contends that men such as Savage are qualified to preach from the pulpit simply because they are men. If, as it has been argued, repentance is the first word of the gospel, should it not be a biblical principle and theological practice put to worldly use more often and purposefully than it is? Rather than the worldly sorrow inflected in their shameful apologies and blame shifting, white evangelical leaders might consider repentance their instrument and aim.

As the applause dies down, Conlee puts his hand on Savage’s shoulder and tells the congregation, “I know when you support Andy in that way, you are also supporting Miss Woodson. You are supporting her healing. You are praying for her, and we are willing, as individuals and as a church, to do whatever we can within the scope of what it means to offer spiritual healing, to do that, for Miss Woodson.” However, in the prayer that follows, Conlee demonstrates that his notion of spiritual healing has nothing to do with Woodson’s trauma and everything to do with upholding the work of, and his position in, the church.

“Holy Spirit would you take this prayer, and now, as thousands of people are praying, in agreement, in unison, would you touch Miss Woodson’s heart in a way that only you can, and heal her of the pain that was caused from this sin twenty years ago. God, would you also heal Andy, Amanda [his wife], and their family, from the lingering effects of this sin twenty years ago. And God, would you give every single one of us the ability to be more committed to what it means to love you, and to love other people and to live in such a way that we honor all people, and that we prove love works. We pray that in Jesus’ name, amen.”

Ms. Woodson watched this performance in disbelief and tearfully shared that she found it “disgusting.” She added that the violence against her had not been “dealt with,” because it had never been reported to legal authorities by the church. The statute of limitations has passed so the case can never be resolved in a court of law.

Meanwhile, Savage is taking a leave of absence from the pulpit. His public apology has called what happened with Woodson consensual, contradicting his pleas for forgiveness just days prior. During a radio interview, he dismissed his predatory behavior as the result of a “flirtatious environment” and called what transpired a “mutual organic moment.” In addition, the publication of his book The Ridiculously Good Marriage has been put on hold, as congregants wonder how Savage was granted the authority to teach a class on healthy relationships and sex within Christian marriage when the church knew of his history.

Until repentance is taken up by white evangelical leaders as vital theological praxis—an ongoing process of collective transformation that leads to practical, relational change with regard to sins of the past and present, including sexualized, racialized, and gendered violence and spiritual abuse shrouded in the lexicon of apology, love, and healing—expressions of worldly sorrow will only yield death.