“This Is Spiritual Violence”: An Interview with Becky Posey Williams

Becky Posey Williams leads training sessions and talks extensively to clergy and others about how to be alert to the dynamics of power and vulnerability that fuel sexual misconduct. She is senior director for sexual ethics and advocacy at the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women (COSROW) of the United Methodist Church. COSROW has been a prominent advocate for women in the church for decades. Its attention to sexual misconduct includes training for clergy, regular statistical reports, and guidance to alleged victims. The website umsexualethics.org offers resources for prevention of sexual misconduct and responses to it. Williams spoke to Reflections in summer 2018.
What clergy and other leaders need to hear …
It’s important that leaders hear that they have control over what their response is going to be if they face an inappropriate encounter. I tell them: You are moral agents. The burden of safety falls on you. You hold the power. You don’t get to blame another person if boundaries are violated.
They need to know how to answer this question: What will be your response if someone makes a sexual advance on you? Chances are good that is going to happen. Clergy need to be aware that their inherent power is very attractive to some people. Such individuals find the clergyperson appealing and attractive – a charismatic leader who says all the right things! Leaders have to be prepared for this.
Another question to prepare for: What is your response going to be if you witness someone else crossing a boundary or speaking in a way that’s degrading or sexist or sexualized?
Why abuses are shrouded in silence or explained away …
We’re silent because we don’t want to be the ones who get the pastor in trouble. Or we’re speechless over what we just witnessed and we just hope and pray it doesn’t happen again. Or for some church members it’s extremely difficult to believe that someone who is so beloved and revered could be guilty of misconduct. There are other rationalizations I’ve heard many times. In the case of a demeaning comment: Oh, that’s just John. That’s just the way he talks to women. He’s been doing that for 40 years. I can assure you I’ve known him forever and he didn’t mean it the way it was interpreted. But the way it was interpreted and heard was belittling and sexualized, and that’s a problem. It’s 2018 and we must confront this.
Why do we enable it? One reason may be: We don’t want to address the fact that we do that too. Or, it’s exactly what we heard in the house when we were growing up, and it’s hard to face. But it’s time to overhaul these attitudes and beliefs. Holding a person accountable isn’t punitive. It’s about caring enough about people to bring it to their attention.
How misconduct at church often starts …
Here’s a likely scenario: A layperson reaches out to clergy, the one person you can trust, because you are feeling very vulnerable – your marriage is in trouble, you’re worried about being alone and financially insecure. You bring incredible self-doubt and self-questioning to the counseling meeting. Then to have your spiritual leader affirm you as someone who is worthy and desirable! The imbalance of power in this scenario is clear. The possibility of boundary violation is in place.
I tell clergy groups: Unless you’re credentialed as a counselor, don’t do it. I think pastors are invited to think they must be good at everything. And if word is out that a minister is good to sit down with, it is easy to get caught up in the approval. Can we as churches have honest conversations about our expectations of clergy and not put pastors under the pressure of being counselors? They should be encouraged to refer individuals to other practitioners in town.
The need for a continuous conversation …
Are we willing to make it a priority to be in continuous conversation about power, gender, and authority? And will we question our assumptions about these things, so we don’t keep making the same mistakes? Will we provide the means to assess how we could be better in our responses to complaints of sexual misconduct? Is policing our own the best strategy? Title IX in a university setting might be a model. Whatever the solution, the point is: Are we willing to weave this conversation into our life of faith? We have an obligation to get this right. We know it’s unacceptable that harassment and abuse are happening in the very place where we are all trying to feed our souls as spiritual beings. This is spiritual violence.