Women Deserve Better from the Church

Julie Joplin Media

On June 20, 2015, Lydia Humphreys was attending the Celebration Midwest church conference with several other members of Christ’s Church of Joplin. That night, Lydia says she was allegedly raped by a man who was also attending the conference with CCOJ. She reached out to elders of Christ’s Church of Joplin for help and support, but says “they have cast [her] away when [she] needed them.” 

Lydia had never been drunk before, but was given alcohol that night and remembers being put on a bed and falling asleep. She woke up during the alleged rape and pretended to still be asleep out of fear. Lydia says she “didn’t understand the extent of what was happening.” She was unable to get away until he had left the room. The next day, at the conference, she recalls him “trying to stay close” to her, asking continuously if she was “okay” or if “something was wrong.” 

Lydia told her brother what had happened, and then some close friends. “It was decided that going to church leadership was the next best step,” she writes in a March 14 Facebook post in which she names Zachary Bozeman as the alleged rapist, and several other men in church leadership at Christ’s Church of Joplin as the men who she trusted to guide and support her. 

The men named in the church leadership meeting are Tim Chambers, lead pastor, Lane Clevenger, pastor, and Jeremiah Anderson, pastor. At the time of the rape, Bozeman was working in the church’s children’s ministry, as well as leading a small group. Lydia met with these three men to tell her story and find support, but what she got out of that meeting was far from supportive. 

She confided in her brother, then later her older sister and brother-in-law, who took her to the doctor to get medication for depression and anxiety, and set her up with “the perfect counselor.” During Lydia’s meeting with CCOJ church leadership, however, she faced a different response. “I was always told that when in need you go to your church leaders. Your church is a safe place,” but in her case, Lydia says “I didn’t feel comfortable with them. I was always uneasy, every time.” Lydia was given the impression that “what Zachary did wasn’t that bad; that prayer and God would fix it.”

The church did agree to pay for “six sessions with a therapist,” but “they wanted a Christian therapist.” Lydia’s sister refused on her behalf, insisting that Lydia be paired with her choice, a counselor who is “specifically trained in sexual trauma,” She says “the church complied.” 

However, something the church did not do is remove Zachary Bozeman from his role within the church because of these allegations. During their initial conversations, Lydia told Tim Chambers that she did not wish to have Zachary removed from his roles, however, she followed up with Tim later and said he “had to stop letting Zachary work in children’s ministry.” Lydia says “We did background checks for the purpose of not allowing sex offenders into service. I felt like the children I had been so attached to were just as unsafe as I was. It scared me so bad.”

Humphreys reports that Bozeman’s abuse continued long after the alleged rape, as he would “follow [her] around downtown Joplin to assert his dominance and make [her] leave any bar or restaurant…” She says he “[forced] me out of every social circle I wanted to be in,” and “I understood then that this wasn’t something that was an accident, it was a power play and I was the toy.”

After she left the church, Lydia says “no one contacted me for two years. I was forgotten about because I wasn’t a vital part to a church I had been attending since I was five years old.”

SHIFT

The church, in its lengthy history, is absolutely no stranger to sexual assault and abuse, and yet, stories like Lydia’s are still common today. A woman is sexually assaulted, denied support, and left to pick up the pieces on her own. There are countless stories of women not only being denied support, but being actively silenced and punished for coming forward with their stories. How long will the church knowingly allow itself to be filled with predators? Is there any hope that the modern church can be a safe place for women?

Lydia’s account of her former church’s behavior sends up several major red flags. Lydia herself was unsure of what had happened to her for a length of time afterwards. “I really felt like I was going to get blamed for the situation and I was still unable to register that I had been raped. I knew it was a wrong situation but I was so confused.” Church leadership allowed her to feel confused and unsure of the situation, when it was clear what had happened to her. The state of Missouri deems clergy as mandated reporters. If CCOJ’s leadership gave no offer to Lydia to report this alleged crime, and did not immediately remove Zachary from their children’s ministry because of the allegations, can they be trusted to follow mandated reporter laws with children?

There is no margin for error within the church’s response to sexual violence. The time for dramatic reform has long passed. Churches should be handling this issue as an emergency-level problem. Every day, hundreds more people become victims of sexual violence. According to RAINN, an American is sexually assaulted “every seventy-three seconds,” and “every nine minutes, that victim is a child.” (RAINN, 2021) The Pew Research Center reports that approximately 70% of Americans identify as Christian. (Pew Research Center, n.d.) With such a high population, surely churches in the US understand that their congregations contribute to the RAINN statistics. With that understanding comes the responsibility to respond not only reactively, but proactively.

Additionally, racism has absolutely played a role within the church, and still does today. In June of 2020, Atlanta megachurch pastor Louie Giglio said slavery was a “blessing” for white people while speaking on a a racial reconciliation panel at Passion City Church in Atlanta, GA. (The Washington Post & Bailey, 2020) Any kind of intolerance and bigotry that is allowed within a community contributes to violence against the marginalized. Dr, Jameta Nicole Barlow, PhD, MPH, of the American Psychological Association, writes “African American women are at disproportionate risk of sexual violence.” (American Psychological Association & Barlow, 2020) 

Rev. Dr. Colleen Carroll and her church, South Joplin Christian Church, are a good example of how churches can be proactive in creating a safe place for women through both policy and culture. Rev. Dr. Carroll says SJCC follows “denominational guidelines” in establishing policies that protect against sexual violence, using small committees to uphold the guidelines, oversee screening and training of church volunteers, and monitor the ongoing safety of members, especially children and youth.” 

Beyond policy, Rev. Dr. Carrol says that “part of empowering women in our congregation is done by example, as both our pastoral staff are women, and more than half of our leadership (including elders and elected board members) are women.” She advises that churches looking to take action and adopt better practices of protecting and empowering women begin with open dialogue where “women are given equal space and decision-making power.” South Joplin Christian Church’s welcome statement identifies a commitment to equality. “We discuss this constantly… Beyond discouraging prejudice, we actively encourage diversity as a strength and an asset.” 

Another highlight of SJCC’s welcome statement is it’s expression of the church’s belief that “questions, discoveries and conversations” are important for their collective faith journey. It is not uncommon for churches discourage questioning of faith or straying from religious tradition. This opens a dangerous doorway to sexual violence goin unnoticed. Historically, the church’s patriarchal design has openly ranked women below men, ultimately reducing their credibility and respect within the church. When someone’s credibility is wrongfully taken from them, they become vulnerable to abuse. With nowhere to turn for support, the options a victim has after being assaulted are often nonexistent. 

Women deserve better from the church. With such high population statistics, it is unlikely that the church is going away, and therefore, it must be reformed. Until women are equally respected, protected, and represented within the church, it will not be a safe place for them. No person should accept anything less from their religious community. Churches should be looking into immediate leadership training on sexual violence, as well as sexism and racism, both of which fuel sexual violence. The issue of women’s rights is not a political one; everyone should champion the equal rights of all. The alternative is to support or be complicit in a society that encourages violence. 

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