The following is a review of the ERLC Caring Well Conference, by Jennifer Michelle Greenberg, who shared her Survivor Story on Friday, October 4th, and spoke on the panel, “What Every Woman Needs to Know About Abuse.” The ERLC Caring Well Conference took place from October 3-5, 2019, at The Gaylord Texan Resort in Grapevine, Texas.
I am a survivor of over 21 years of child abuse, domestic violence, sexual abuse, and psychological abuse at the hands of my church-going father. But my dad wasn’t my only abuser. During my childhood I encountered many predatorial people both inside and outside the church. Some harmed me. Some could have, but God restrained their evil.
There was a church friend’s dad, who turned out to be a serial rapist. A perverted pastor who said sexually explicit things, and asked me when I was about 16, “What would it take to get you to spread your legs for a man?” A church pianist who tried to get too close when I was about 13, and was later imprisoned for raping his own daughter. A polygamist who claimed to receive dream-messages from God, and tried to bully me into attending his “Bible study,” during my late teens and early 20’s.
There were people who I told about my dad’s abuse, but who did nothing to help me. There were people who tried to hush me up by twisting Bible verses like, “Honor your father, which means don’t embarrass him.” And, “If you don’t forgive your dad, God won’t forgive you.” And, “Maybe if you’re a really good girl, and don’t complain, your dad will see Jesus in you, and change.”
So, I can say this with great confidence because of my experience:
The ERLC Caring Well Conference was a watershed moment in the life of the church. I don’t just mean the SBC, but the broader Christian church throughout America, both as a visible body and as the true spiritual Bride of Christ.
If you’d asked me 10 years ago, “Will there ever be a major Christian conference about sexual abuse in the church?” I’d have said, “Absolutely not. It’s considered shameful. Inconvenient. Uncomfortable. It wouldn’t sell enough tickets to cover the venue, let alone other expenses. Celebrity pastors are too proud to associate their names with such a depressing topic. Academic pastors can’t relate with victims, and don’t think emotional topics are important. Many pastors would rather protect abusers and sweep evil under the rug, than deal with the mess of reporting crime, counseling victims, and excommunicating abusers.”
However, on Thursday, Dr. Russell Moore opened the ERLC Caring Well Conference with a sermon titled, “The Church’s Response to Abuse is a Gospel Issue.” An emotionally invested audience of over 1,650 people cried, prayed, praised, and listened.
This set the tone for the entire event. Every speech and panel repeated the motif over and over: Jesus helped the weak. Jesus welcomed the outcast. Jesus blessed the little children. Jesus called sinners to repent. Jesus will judge evildoers.
Dr. Moore challenged pastors and church leaders: Will we be faithful shepherds who protect the sheep, or hired hands who flee when the wolves attack? (John 10)
So, what was missing from the ERLC Caring Well Conference?
All the sinful attitudes and hardness of heart I’ve become accustomed to and learned to expect.
I anticipated that at least one speaker would tout the virtue of forgiving and forgetting an abuser’s sin, whether or not they were repentant or currently abusing others. I expected filing police reports to be a minor footnote, rather than a clear call and highlighted plea. I expected taking medication for trauma-induced emotional injuries, such as PTSD, depression, or anxiety, to be shuffled into a small remote break-out session where no press were likely to wander.
Instead, I heard repentance preached as something we must demand and require of abusive people. And as something that’s more than just, “I’m sorry,” but that must incorporate real and measurable change and a desire for accountability. As something that doesn’t rule out consequences, or the necessity for boundaries.
Anger was acknowledged as the righteous and healthy response to evil. Depression was understood – not as sin or weakness – but as the natural reaction to depressing experiences and terrible loss. Anxiety was addressed – not as a moral failing or lack of faith – but as a reasonable response to stressful and traumatic oppression.
Abuse and sexual sin – topics once whispered about only in private – were spoken of boldly and without shame by high profile male pastors more concerned with glorifying Christ than protecting their brand or appeasing their home team. Abusive cultures were condemned as “evil” and “Satanic.”
From Genesis to Revelation, Lamentations to Romans, the Word of God was preached and elevated as our highest authority. Leaders and speakers called for sinners to repent, and hard hearts to soften. For the innocent to be protected, and the victimized cared for. For the wounded to process their grief and mourn, and for the church to mourn with them.
Very shortly, the ERLC will post videos of the speeches, panels, and presentations on their Vimeo account. Then you’ll be able to watch and see for yourself how speakers like JD Greear, Beth Moore, Justin Holcomb, Kay Warran, Mary DeMuth, Kimberlee Norris, Phillip Bethancourt, and so many others, shared the Gospel, stood up for victims, equipped the church, and called for accountability and justice.
Rather than attempt to sum up their brilliant words and hard work further (which could certainly never do them justice), I’ll share with you a few favorite moments that made Caring Well special to me:
Meeting Matt Boswell’s Band: On Friday, Jason (my husband) and I had breakfast in the ERLC hospitality room, and just happened to sit down by David Zimmer, Ryan Fogleson, and Wil Pearce. Like us, they’re metal music aficionados, so we had a fun time swapping stories and band recommendations. (Google Wind Rose, Diggy Diggy Hole for a laugh).
Megan Lively: After I gave my speech, there was a standing ovation. I’d managed to hold it together throughout the talk, even as the crowd was gasping and crying in response to my story. My adrenaline level was sky-high. Amid the roar of applause, I walked backstage (my big thought was, “Please don’t trip in and fall while everyone is clapping and watching!” Haha!) to see Jason, Megan Lively, and Vincent Lively, there to meet me. And I was finally able to let go of my composure. Megan and I hugged and cried, not out of sadness, but out of joy. I honestly couldn’t believe so many people would believe and respect my story. That so many would be moved, supportive, and respond with what was clearly a Jesus-brand love. It was overwhelming, and I cried tears of gratitude and relief. I can’t tell you how long I’ve prayed for such love. This isn’t normal. It should be normal, but it’s not. And to this day, a week later, I am still overwhelmed by how I saw God’s hand moving that day.
Rachael Denhollander: Then of course, we got to meet Jacob and Rachael Denhollander, and their darling little girl who is truly a warrior-toddler traveling around with her parents like a jet-setting pro. Rachael’s gracious kindness and poise despite a hectic schedule and exhausting topic, was inspiring. And yeah, I totally got her autograph in my copy of What Is A Girl Worth!
Leadership in Action: After breakfast one morning, I accidentally sat in on an impromptu meeting with ERLC leadership including Phillip Bethancourt, Travis Wussow, Daniel Patterson, and others. The information was out of context for me, but apparently, several survivors who are vocal critics of the SBC, ERLC, and Caring Well Conference, had showed up at the venue. After leadership discussed giving them a free booth at the conference so they wouldn’t have to protest in the Texas heat, it was ascertained that the hotel had a policy against allowing protests on the premises. As an alternative, leadership offered them free admittance. Hearing this discussion, and listening to the ERLC team consider the dynamics of the situation with such care and compassion, really impressed me – not only with how genuinely invested they are in this issue and with caring for people – but with how much mental and emotional energy was being expended to support this event.
Dr. Diane Langberg: I think the most moving speech I attended had to be Dr. Diane Langberg’s. She compared abuse enabling cultures within the church to The Killing Fields in Cambodia, and The Killing Tree to the cross of Jesus. I cannot do her speech justice, so trust me and just watch it. In fact, if you watch only one speaker from Caring Well, watch Diane Langberg. She’s a powerful, loving, wise voice for truth. And when you meet her in person, she is warm, humble, humorously witty, and maternal. I sincerely enjoyed our time together.
#WeToo: Meeting Mary DeMuth was another highlight. Mary gave me a necklace with two charms on it; a book that says, “A True Story,” and a circle that says, “Survivor.” Mary has been a faithful friend, confidant, advocate, and counselor as I prepared for Caring Well. I’ve found her inspiring for years, so to now know her and call her a friend and sister is God’s blessing. I brought my copy of WeToo with me to get her autograph but our overwhelming schedules prevented. I’m hoping to see her again soon.
MinistrySafe: I also enjoyed meeting Kimberlee Norris of MinistrySafe. Unfortunately, I missed her presentation, as I was speaking with Elizabeth Graham, Trillia Newbell, and Katie McCoy in the women-only panel. Our panel went late, and then I was talking to survivors afterwards for quite some time. However, since mine was women-only, Jason couldn’t attend, so he sat in on Kimberlee’s, “Practical Steps for Abuse Prevention.” He said it was very informative, and that he felt better equipped to protect our girls after hearing her. So, I’m really looking forward to watching that video when it’s up.
Russell & Maria Moore: We had just about every breakfast, lunch, and dinner with Russell and Maria Moore, who were such a down-to-earth, thoughtful, and compassionate couple. Despite spearheading the conference, they became a safe haven during off-hours to talk about kids, family life, sports, and … anything except the difficult topic on everyone’s mind. I found this to be an indispensable relief as we continued to plod through tough lectures, discouraging statistics, and heartbreaking survivor stories when Caring Well was in session.
Reconnect with Carmen: Carmen LaBerge was really fun to meet. I’d interviewed on her radio show before, but on a day when another host was filling. As you may know, she’s fun to follow on Twitter and listen to over the radio, but I can tell you, it’s nothing to meeting her in person. She’s one of those natural-born leader types. She has really profound insight into the issues she tackles, and grasps the importance and impact of theology on how we handle the day-to-day both in church and out. I’m looking forward to getting to know her better.
Friendships: I met so many people, I’m bound to leave out many. If we met and I don’t mention you here, please remind me, as it’s certainly just a slip of my brain.
I loved meeting Kyle J. Howard who wasn’t scheduled to speak yet shared wisdom and encouragement from the sidelines. Kay Warren was also a dear and precious soul who I was honored to hear speak and have lunch with a few times. Susan Codone is a quiet and calm haven, but when she speaks she is wise, strong, and has a witty sense of humor. Abby Perry, who interviewed me for Christianity Today, had previously interviewed me for Bustle, and it was lovely seeing her again.
Dan Darling, Elizabeth Graham, Jennifer Lyell, Kelly Rosati, Todd Unzicker, Seth Brown, Amy Whitfield, Andrew Schmutzer, Palmer Williams, Brad Hambrick, Chris Moles, and Leslie Vernick, were just some of the people who made last week amazing. I am so thankful to have met each and every one of them.
“Now, like Joseph in Genesis 50:20, I can say to my abusers, ‘You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good, to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.'”Jennifer Greenberg