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Reportando la Verdad.
Restauración de la Iglesia.

Restore 2023 Day 1: ‘Powerful & Necessary’ Truths on Abuse to Spark Church Reform

Por Josh Pastor
restore conference 2023 mullen callentine thompson
On October 13, 2023, speakers at Restore Conference at Judson University in Elgin, Ill., included Dr. Lainna Callentine (left), Lori Anne Thompson, and Wade Mullen. (Photos: Lee Furney)

About 200 survivors of church hurt and abuse, church leaders, and allies gathered at the Restaurar conferencia this week for “incredibly powerful and necessary conversations” surrounding abuse and failed leadership in evangelical faith communities.

The two-day conference was organized by El Informe Roys (TRR) and hosted at Judson University, a Christian college in Elgin, Illinois. Attendees came from 32 U.S. states, two Canadian provinces, England, Malawi, and the Netherlands. 

Attendee Dan Goulson, host of the Dear Christians Podcast who drove from nearby Geneva, described the first day of Restore as, “Incredibly powerful and necessary conversations that need to be had in every circle of Christianity.” First day topics included recognizing spiritual abuse, rehabbing from the addiction to leadership, how evangelicals’ harmful teachings on sex enable abuse, and surviving beyond white evangelical racism. 

Laura Barringer, co-author of popular book Una Iglesia Llamada Tov and one of 10 speakers on Friday, stated upfront in her talk that Restore is unique among other events. “Women and men who tell the truth and resist power—because they love God—are heroes of my faith,” said Barringer. “And that is largely what this conference is about: resisting power and telling the truth for the sake of the Church.” 

A former church planter-turned-popular author, Lance Ford, said the multifaceted abuse crisis has been enabled by church structures that look more like corporate America than the New Testament.

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“It’s the system, stupid,” said Ford. “In the 80’s and 90’s, churches turned to the secular world for management and leadership advice. But the Apostle Paul said the wisdom of this world is foolishness to God.”

Author and longtime professor Wade Mullen, who serves with Godly Response to Abuse in the Church Environment (GRACE), underlined how often churches fail to respond well to an abuse crisis. ”The most profoundly impacted become the most easily forgotten, when leadership turns their attention away from the needs of victim survivors and toward the work of protecting their own image,” he said.

Mullen described what adult clergy sexual abuse survivor Chellee Taylor of Orlando, Fla., faced at her former Southern Baptist church. After being sexually assaulted by a pastor, Taylor resigned from her staff position per demands of the church—where her abuser was applauded at his final service. 

Taylor and her husband, Peter, traveled to Restore. “I am finding that healing comes where I least expect it,” she said in an interview with TRR. “I came to the conference wanting to hear the speakers, but I’m actually finding a lot of healing in community with people who love well.” 

En un comunicado a TRR, Judson University President Gene Crume said the school is “blessed to welcome . . . Christ-followers from across North America and around the world” to Restore. He added: “Perhaps more importantly, the conference restores hope that through Jesus Christ we can make a difference and help brothers and sisters heal, forgive, and become renewed again.”

Ford summed up the day’s expected outcome in the language of a tent revivalist. “Hell fears what we’re doing here today!” he exclaimed. 

Rooting out abuse in the church

Speakers unpacked the complex ways that abuse plays out in churches and relationships. 

Ken Garrett, a pastor and abuse survivor advocate in Portland, Ore., started the day’s sessions with an in-depth look at escaping cult-like faith communities. He listed red flags of abusive systems, including isolation of members, violations of their private lives, and secrecy and elitism of leaders. 

“The church was the lowest-hanging fruit for (this man) to have a group he could control,” said Garrett, describing a ministry his family left after years. “It was his narcissistic supply . . . Over the years, the whole thing went off the rails.”

The session replaced one planned for author-advocate Mary DeMuth, a past Restore speaker. On Tuesday, DeMuth fijado she “came down suddenly with strep and COVID” which necessitated a last-minute change. At last year’s conference, DeMuth had filled in for a speaker while also serving as emcee.

Later, Sheila Wray Gregoire, author of She Deserves Better, elucidated how popular Christian books on marriage and sex have enabled abusive patterns. She recounted how she has clashed with Focus on the Family and other evangelical  groups, which she says have advanced messages that often enable sexual abuse in dating relationships as well as in marriage through “obligation sex.”

“The abusive messages in our evangelical resources are horrifying,” said Gregoire. “Abuse says: You don’t matter. He gets to use you however he wants . . . It’s not difficult to imagine how this can be harmful.” 

Restore speakers portrayed the abuse crisis as frequently a problem of silence and shunning, as reflected in Taylor’s recently reported story. 

“The abuse isn’t what crushed me,” Taylor told TRR. “It seems that speaking the truth is what crushed me, because that’s what made the church come against me.” 

Barringer, whose second book, Pivot, has just released, praised such courage as a catalyst for change. “Truth telling and resisting power probably came at great risk to yourself and to your family, to your reputation. I am grateful for you, I believe you, and I have the greatest respect for you.”

Taylor said that Barringer’s statement was “so validating.” She added: “If somebody else can hear my truth and feel safety in that, that’s enough for me.” 

Racism, relationships, and realizations

In a day of addressing taboo church topics, it concluded with perhaps the most hot-button issue—white evangelical racism. 

Prior to introducing Dr. Lainna Callentine, Roys recounted her own evolution, when previously she said she had minimized examples of racism shared by her African American friend. 

“Six years ago, I probably believed there was alguno racism in the church,” said Roys. “But I didn’t really believe her.” Roys said that reporting a story of how people of color at John Piper’s Bethlehem Baptist Church were shunned by leadership, changed her views. 

Roys recounted: “I had to say to Lainna, ‘I’m sorry that I didn’t see that, and I’m sure that hurt you. And that was wrong of me.’” 

lainna callentine
On October 13, 2023, Dr. Lainna Callentine addresses Restore Conference at Judson University in Elgin, Ill. (Photo: Lee Furney)

Callentine, a physician and educator, began with a slide noting all the popular rhetoric she’s heard when addressing racism among conservative Christians. Phrases included: “I don’t see color.” “You’re playing the Race card.” and “My family did not own slaves.” 

For years, she had developed a science curriculum popular among evangelical homeschoolers and been a member of Focus on the Family’s Physicians Resource Council. But Callentine said, when she raised issues of racism, invitations to speak dried up and her calls weren’t returned. 

“I have been hurt and othered my entire life in predominantly white spaces,” said Callentine. “I was never part of the family. I am so tired of not being believed . . . Today, in the words of Maya Angelou, I am no longer beholden to the white gaze.” 

She did not point to easy answers for deeply rooted issues of racism. But Callentine said her connection with Christian friends, some of them white, have helped her. “They have borne with me the pain and loss that I have endured over the last several years,” she said. 

Whether evangelicals can respond adequately to the abuse crisis also remains an open question. 

“Every time I held out hope for my church to do the right thing, they constantly let me down and they only hurt me more,” said abuse survivor Taylor. “So, hope is a difficult thing for me.”

Advocate and podcast host Goulson said he was encouraged by the authenticity he saw among leaders. “Each of us need to have realizations and own our part in these issues, as Julie did in her confession, which was open and honest.” 

He concluded: “Difficult and even, at times, painful conversations need to happen in order for the grace of God to really be able to be made known and felt.”

Periodista independiente Josh Shepherd escribe sobre fe, cultura y políticas públicas para varios medios outlets. He and his family live in the Washington, D.C. area.



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