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Pastor Who Hired & Supported Accused Sexual Abuser, Andy Savage, Starts New Church

By Christina Darnell
Chris Conlee with Andy Savage
In 2018, Chris Conlee (R), former pastor of Highpoint Church in Memphis, Tenn., affirmed former teaching pastor, Andy Savage (L), after Savage apologized in for a sexual incident with a high school student 20 years earlier. (Screenshot: YouTube)

A pastor who resigned just over 2 years ago for supporting accused sexual abuser, Andy Savage, is starting a new church—and one of the abuse victims is speaking out.

“Not only has my abusive pastor @andysavage started his own church,” Jules Woodson tweeted Sunday (August 9), “but the pastor that hired him and supported him (and was subsequently fired), Chris Conlee, is coming back to Memphis to start a new church. Where and when does the madness end?”

Chris Conlee was senior pastor of Highpoint Church in Memphis, Tenn., when then-teaching pastor Andy Savage was accused, in 2018, of sexually assaulting a minor 20 years earlier as a youth pastor.

Jules Woodson said that in 1998, when she was 17 and Savage was 22, he offered her a ride home and, on the way, pulled the car over and coerced her into performing oral sex on him. He then made her promise to “take this to the grave” with her.

Savage was a student pastor at a Texas church at the time. Woodson says she told church leadership, who said they would handle it. No one filed criminal charges. Savage left the church, and the church threw a going away party for him.

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In January 2018, in the midst of the #churchtoo surgence, Woodson reported the incident to the Montgomery County (Tex.) Sheriff’s Department. They did not prosecute Savage because the statute of limitations had passed.

Savage said he had repented, and Conlee knew about the alleged assault when he was originally hired. When Woodson went public in 2018, Conlee came to Savage’s ardent defense, expressing “total confidence in the redemptive process Andy went through” following the assault, according to The Christian Post.

After an investigation—and media firestorm—Savage resigned from Highpoint in March 2018. Conlee resigned a few months later in July after leading the church for 16 years.

“It is with profound sorrow that we share with you the news that Chris [Conlee] has resigned as Lead Pastor of Highpoint. We have arrived at a point of respectfully agreeing to go in different directions for the Kingdom,” the church had said in a statement at the time.

But then last week, after two years away, Conlee’s wife, Karin Conlee, announced in a blog post that the couple was returning to Memphis to start One City Church. They are also launching Race for Reconciliation, a “local race and a national education platform.”

“We can’t shake from our hearts the role that we believe the church should have in the city’s healing,” Karin Conlee wrote. “There are other jobs out there to pay the bills, but our calling is to pastor. So, we start over in faith.”

Her only nod to the past controversy was that she has a “little apprehension” about returning. “I think of the way Satan likes to work. Silence, half-truths and division are three of his favorite weapons. In relationships, we often fill in gaps of silence with distrust,” she said.

In response to Woodson’s tweet over the weekend, Rachel Denhollander, a sexual abuse survivor known for her work to charge and convict USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, said “I stand with @juleswoodson11.”

Savage started his own church, Grace Valley Church, in Memphis late last year.

Christina Darnell is a freelance writer who has contributed to MinistryWatch, WORLD, The Charlotte Observer, and other publications.



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16 Responses

  1. “There are other jobs out there to pay the bills, but our calling is to pastor. So, we start over in faith.”

    methinks they doth protest too much.

  2. I don’t understand where the issue is. The guy who was involved in this incident from 20 YEARS earlier resigned from the church. Why did the lead Pastor step down for acting in accordance with the belief system he preaches about? Isn’t that the point? People can become new reactions because the old has past away? The Christian faith rests on FORGIVENESS of sins through Jesus’ death as propitiation for those sins. No, I’m not throwing Mrs. Wooden under the bus or discounting the profoundly awful issues that an incident like the one she’s alleged can cause. But I will say that THIS is where the rubber meets the road. If she is trying to find peace by going to church and being a professing Christian, but she won’t let this man, who had no part in any sexual misconduct, live and work for God the way he can, she may be having issues that need addressing herself. The lead Pastor said and did EXACTLY what the Bible says he’s supposed to do. He had faith in the other man’s salvation.

    1. Do you not believe there are actions that permanently disqualify one from pastoral leadership? I mean, no one is arguing that the man be permanently excommunicated. But he can still be a forgiven and active member of the church without being its spiritual leader. As a shepherd, He violated one of his flock in the most vile way. Twenty years ago or not, that trust cannot be violated without long-term consequences.

  3. Beth, I concur that my salvation is based solely on Christs death and resurrection. Yet your post lacks some accuracy in that their is no “allegation”, only facts. Andy Savage admitted his choice of violating a minor. The pastor knew of the facts that Andy admitted to, making a choice himself to attempt restoration of Andy by hiring him. The choice Pastor Conlee made was a HUGE mistake because he failed to consider the victim in declaring “his confidence in Andy’s redemptive process” Sin in any type always has consequences, Conlee’s failure was excluding the consequences to the victim.
    Victims of sexual abuse suffer a life long curse, suffering in silence in the majority of cases. COUNTLESS people have left every denomination on the planet and stopped involvement in an active faith life, blaming God for it all and turning their back on the Lord.

    Take a step back and think……had the church that hired Andy Savage as a student pastor made the right choice to act in a truly Christian manner and got law enforcement involved immediately in 1998 this conversation would not exist, Pastor Conlee wouldn’t have this mess to contend with and most importantly Jules Woodson wouldn’t have to spend the last 22 years fighting the devil who constantly reminds her of the offenses and failures of those Pastors who were supposed to protect her as a member of their flock.

    Your contribution raises a good honest question…….what are we as believers to do with the Andy Savages of the world ?? Yes, forgiveness is the only real choice a victim has to start the process of their own restoration to a healthy emotional, mental and spiritual state. The challenge to the Church Body Universal as we start the long process of forgiving the offender as they start living as new creations in Christ is what consequences are we to avoid ??
    Never confuse forgiving me with absolving me from the consequences of my sinful choices, disaster occurs when the two are confused.
    For example , I can forgive a pedophile who desires forgiveness because Christ lives in me but NONE of us would permit that same person to be involved with children…yet it’s not a secret that this very example exists in every denomination and is regularly readily forgiven when the offender apologizes and never has any intention of repenting. It’s just another layer of lipstick on a pig.

    You would benefit greatly from a conversation with a victim who has lived in silence to grasp the octopus like tentacles of damage they have lived with.

    Kind Regards,

  4. Unfortunately there are too many hidden secrets among men who are in pastoral leadership. Perhaps the reason is the unwillingness of those in the body to forgive completely any wrongs done. Pastors and leaders are not allowed to make mistakes when it comes to sexual moral issues per congregations (at least not get caught). If so, they are exposed to the world and it is supposed to never be forgotten.

    I wonder how many more marriages would be broken up permanently if spouses did not forgive and not hold their partner in shame for the rest of their marriage life. I wonder how the average person in the pew, who supposedly has been walking with God for years, if they had their personal failures exposed and were not allowed to serve in any area in the church from here out because they were told they could not ever be trusted again; who would be eligible to serve in ministry. Nobody!

    We should be against sin and there should be consequences for those who wrong others and continue in sin, However, these consequences should be governed more by a moral law and how the church Biblically has been commanded to operate – not according to me too movements or outside influences.

    We are told to restore our brothers and sisters in the faith who fall; upon their repentance. There is no Biblical support for kicking people out of the call of ministry permanently for their past failures. The American church is one of the worst places I know in society that kills their wounded and broken and cast them aside for any exposed moral failures. This is why people are turned off.

    The Bible says the world will know we are Christians by the way we love one another. Love is patient, love is kind, love forgives, love holds no record of wrongs, it hopes all things, bears all things, believes all things. The world is still waiting to see this type of love, then they will know that they can come into the church and find hope – and not be scared to make a mistake. This is one of the things they say – I CANT BE PERFECT, when I am then I will come to God. They say this because they are watching how we handle imperfections.

    Its much easier to please God than other people. God treated and forgave everyone and let them move forward. His church seems to not share that same heart. Any kind of pressure on the church that makes them look bad in the media will cause this church of love to distance and remove beloved servants regardless of their record of moral accomplishments, the mistake is highlighted, even when they are sorrowful and forgiven. Appearance is chosen over God’s mandate to forgive and restore.

    The Bible says a leader should have several witnesses that go against them if taken in sin and they must be reproved before all. This means prove again their worthiness. God’s idea is called a second chance. When Peter failed three times to acknowledge Jesus, he got a second chance. When the woman was brought to him after being caught in adultery, she received a second chance. Israel and its leaders repeatedly forsook God but when they cried out, God would restore them. If you look at your own life, whether you repeatedly yielded to lust, lied, stole, etc. God gave you another chance after chance. Shame on us. We can’t give mercy because we don’t realize how much mercy we have already received ourselves.

    1. Hi Ben, If we’re reading the same bible(I think we are) I missed the part where the sins of others are never supposed to be forgotten. The theme of Grace
      Is woven throughout the old & new testaments, forgiveness is a key daily living command. Yet it is not singular , it has another side, that of consequences.
      Whether in this life or our heavenly life consequences exists as part of HIS design. Some of my sins in my life thus far have produced consequences in this life, for example, my sin got me a divorce and the consequence was the dissolution of my marriage and and the ensuing wreckage my son had to endure during his young life. Then there are the sins in thought and deed known only to me and HIM. Scripture teaches me my sins will brought to the light when I have to account for my life when I stand before the throne in the heavenly life. No matter now or then, I will see consequences for my decisions no matter what my reasons are for choosing them. And Yes !! Jesus has already forgiven me.

      Please don’t confuse forgiveness with consequences. We are commanded to forgive through out Scripture but nowhere are we told to stop consequences.
      We can be merciful as individuals and we are doing that when we decide to allow the repentant leader to serve in a church ministry position OTHER than in the position they served in before. To put the repentant leader back into the ministry he/ she was in previously is not being being merciful to them at all.
      To do that is cruel, it is not right to stick temptation right under their nose.
      There exist many places to serve in ministry that won’t provide the identical environment for temptation. Serving the Lord in ministry can be anywhere,not only a church. Prisons , hospitals, Rescue Mission, the needs are countless and on the rise. Their opportunity for that 2nd, 3 rd chance and more abound.

      I must be direct on this point…… sexual abuse of a minor (or any human)is NEVER to be equated with an imperfection. Sexual abuse is deliberate ,well thought out and lies just beneath the skin until the opportunity arises to act on the pre conceived thoughts. It’s not a lightning strike type of action. Malice exists long before the act. My pastor mentor of decades ago taught me an adage I’ve seen many times in life thus far……..”an affair outside marriage occurs in the head long before it happens in the bed”

      You note well that some are turned off by the failings of those in church in their response to those caught up in sin…yes a few stick their snoot in the air and cast the stink eye upon those who could use a hand up. Yet what is missed by many is the reality of how many churches are kind, welcoming and unconditional in their love and acceptance. For example
      There exist some denomnations who are heavy into virtue signaling with message boards and rainbow flags to make a statement.
      While many others preach”Sinners & Hypocrites welcome here”.
      I was one of those you quoted, thinking I had to be perfect before God would accept me….it had nothing to do with me watching the body react to sin ….it had everything to do with my own false pride and projecting my failures on them all the while making excuses and rationalizing my failures.

      If I understand you clearly , the splinter vs. the log in the eye story Jesus related is of great concern to you. That’s a great daily living reminder in light of todays environment and it needs to be observed and practiced in context.

      The failure of our church leaders on a personal level and at the corporate level
      To report to our civil authorities a crime committed by a brother/ sister seems born in fear of consequences. No matter what we do in the secular or Christian realm to stop consequences…………IT ALWAYS FAILS, WE CAN’T STOP GRAVITY, WE NEED TO STOP TRYING. Doing the right thing is very painful but always begins the much needed healing process for all concerned.


  5. Some of these comments make me sick to the stomach. Christian leaders are held to a higher standard than other members of the church. Why is this not understood? James 3:1 cautions that many should not become teachers, preachers, leaders for his very reason. Leadership is not a light undertaking and you are held, rightfully so, to a higher standard of judgement by God and man. Church leaders are called to be of good conscience and to use SOUND JUDGEMENT. Pastors are entrusted by Jesus to shepherd Jesus’ flock. The people in your care for spiritual leadership and guidance are not your flock. They belong to God and he has entrusted you to care for them the same as he would. They are not yours to use and abuse as you please.

    The real issue is that many of the people standing in the pulpits simply should not be there. Any so-called pastor who coerces a young girl into performing oral sex on him (which is essentially rape) had no business in ministry to begin with. This individual is sick and perverted.They should be turned over to the authorities to be investigated because molesters rarely act out only once. The public deserves protection from such a person and his victim deserved justice. Any pastor who fails to use sound judgement and enables a person he knew sexually abused a minor also does not belong in ministry. He’s disqualified himself. I’m beginning to feel like “restoration” is just a code word for letting evildoers off the hook. There seems to be an old boys network in churches where men rape and abuse and other men “restore” them without any justice for the wrongs committed. Then Christians who speak up get the guilt trip about forgiving when there hasn’t even been true repentance for the act committed. Amazing.

    Worrying about the forgiveness of man should be the least of these two men’s cares. They violated the trust of a young girl they should have protected and God himself. If either of these two had any humility at all they’d accept that their own actions (not people’s lack of forgiveness) have disqualified them from ministry.

  6. Was wondering…

    Seems, in the Bible, there are 17+, very tough Qualifications…
    For any elder, who desires to be an overseer…
    Given by Paul, and most likely Jesus…
    To Timothy and Titus?

    Those be some tuff “Qualifications.” Yes? ;-)

    Seems, “most” congregations do NOT know the 17+, very, very, tuff Qualifications, for those elders who desire to be overseers, bishops. Or they just “Ignore” them. Look at ALL the failures of church leadership. Seems those who “Higher” these overseers do NOT apply the Qualifications to those apply for the pulpit JOB. (?)

    In my experience, “most,” who call themselves overseers, who do know the “Qualifications,” will just “Ignore,” and “Twist,” the 17+, tough Qualifications in 1 Tim 3:1-7, and Titus 1:5-8, so they can maintain their “Titles,” and their Power, Profit, Prestige, Honor, Glory, Reputation, that comes with those “Titles.”

    If a pastor, overseer, does NOT meet the Qualifications?

    Shouldn’t they just remove themselves?

    And be a good example to the Flock?

  7. Here’s just three Qualifications in Titus…
    That “most” pastors, overseers, would be leaders…
    “Ignore,” or “Twist.”

    1 – Must Be *BLAMELESS.*
    2 – *JUST,* 3 – *HOLY,*

    Titus 1:5-8 KJV
    …ordain elders in every city…
    If any be *BLAMELESS,*
    the husband of one wife,
    having faithful children
    NOT accused of riot or unruly.
    1 – For a bishop “Must Be” *BLAMELESS,*
    as the steward of God;
    NOT self willed,
    NOT soon angry,
    NOT given to wine,
    NO striker,
    NOT given to filthy lucre;
    a lover of hospitality,
    a lover of good men,
    2 – *JUST,*
    3 – *HOLY,*

    1 – *Must Be*
    Strongs #1163, die. – It is necessary (as binding).
    Thayer’s – necessity established by the counsel and decree of God.
    This *must be* is the same Greek word…
    You *must be* born again. John 3:7
    Seems to be a small word but very important. Yes?

    Strongs #410 anegkletos – unaccused, irreproachable, blameless.
    Thayers – cannot be called into account, unreproveable, unaccused.
    Dictionary – Without fault, innocent, guiltless, not meriting censure.

    How many, pastor, overseers, would be leaders, who honestly examine themselves, seriously considering this one qualification, can see themselves as BLAMELESS, above reproach, without fault, innocent, and thus qualify to be an overseer?

    And if you can see yourself as BLAMELESS?
    Is that pride? And NO longer without fault? :-)

    The Bible talks about elders who desire to be overseers.
    And Qualifications for elders who desire to be overseers.
    Can you have one without the other?

    If a pastor/elder/overseer does NOT Qualify???

    Will they remove themselves?
    And be a good example to the Flock?

  8. Here are two more “Qualifications” found in Titus…
    That most pastors, overseers, “Ignore,” or “Twist.”

    2 – JUST
    Strongs #1342 – dikaios {dik’-ah-yos} from 1349;
    Thayers – 1) righteous, observing divine laws
    1a) upright, righteous, virtuous, keeping the commands of God
    1a2) innocent, faultless, guiltless
    1a3) used of him whose way of thinking, feeling, and acting
    is wholly conformed to the will of God,

    3 – HOLY
    Strongs #3741 – hosios {hos’-ee-os}
    Thayers – 1) undefiled by sin, free from wickedness,
    religiously observing every moral obligation, pure holy, pious.

    Now that’s three tough Qualifications for
    “pastor, overseer” – Yes?
    1 – Must Be BLAMELESS.
    2 – JUST. 3 – HOLY.

    If WE, His Ekklesia, His Church, His Sheep, His Body…
    Take seriously the many tough Qualifications in 1 Tim 3:1-6, and Titus 1:5-9…

    The number of Biblically Qualified – pastor, leader, reverends – is quite small. ;-)

    But, will these UN-qualified, pastor/leader/reverends, “Remove Themselves?”
    And be a good example to the flock?

    Do you know many? any? pastors, overseers, would be leaders?
    Who meet just these three qualifications?

    What should a pastor/elder/overseer do?

    When they do NOT Qualify?

    Ps 138:6
    Though the LORD be high,
    yet hath he respect unto the lowly:
    but the proud he knoweth afar off.

    Ps 40:4
    Blessed is that man that maketh the LORD his trust,
    and respecteth not the proud,
    nor such as turn aside to lies.

  9. Hi Coonman

    Thanks for your reply.

    Yeah… What if…

    What if each Seminary, when accepting applications, were to focus on these many tough Qualifications for pastors, overseers, would be leaders? Maybe some of these folks who mess up, who think they are “Called” to ministry, “Called” to be pastors, overseers, would be leaders, might think twice realizing they do NOT meet the Qualifications. Then they can be a blessing to the Body and…

    GO… and do something else.

    Of course the Seminary is NOT likely to do this since most of them say they are training pastors, overseers, and would be leaders. If the Seminary were to focus on, and take seriously, the many tough Qualifications in 1 Tim 3:1-6, and Titus 1:5-9, the number of Biblically Qualified Applicants who want to be pastors, overseers, leaders…

    Would be quite small. ;-)

    The least the Seminary can do is to focus on, and take seriously, the many tough Qualifications when these folks graduate and make sure they understand the Qualifications.

    And warn them… This is serious…
    If you know you do NOT Qualify when applying for a pulpit JOB… (?)…

    GO… and do something else.

    And… if somewhere in the future… You realize…
    You NO longer meet these 17+, very tough Qualifications…

    GO… and do something else.

    Jer 50:6
    “My people” hath been “lost sheep:”
    **THEIR shepherds**
    have caused them to *go astray,*

    1 Pet 2:25
    For ye were as *sheep going astray;*
    BUT are now returned to
    the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.

    {{{{{{ Jesus }}}}}}

  10. Aw, but if they did this, where would they get enough students to keep their seminary going?
    Would they truly trust God?
    There is where the rubber hits the road. $$$$$

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