Hope for Change in an Age of #ChurchToo Sexual Abuse
How reformer Megan Lively urges the Southern Baptist Convention toward justice and mercy
I have spoken to Megan Lively before, and I know she lives in North Carolina, but the southern drawl on her voicemail recording still surprises me. Megan sounds like a person who not only would say “bless your heart,” but you would genuinely believe that she intended to bless you. By the time the beep prompts me to leave a message, I feel like I’ve been handed a glass of pink lemonade and welcomed onto a whitewashed front-porch swing.
On May 22, 2018, The Washington Post reported that a former student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary said she told Paige Patterson, the president of Southeastern at the time, and other seminary administrators, that a fellow student she was dating had forced himself on her in 2003. According to her statement given to The Post, none of the seminary administrators reported the incident to the police, and they discouraged the student from reporting the incident herself.
Six days later, Megan tweeted that she was the woman referred to in the article. Patterson was fired on May 30. But, for Megan, Patterson’s firing was not her chief motivation in going public. She shared her story because of an unignorable, overwhelming impulse to protect other vulnerable women.
“It was never about me,” Megan says. “It was never about getting someone back. It wasn’t about getting someone terminated. It was about helping women.”
Just after I hang up, Megan texts (“Will call right back. Laying down a kid.”) then calls me a few minutes later. We talk about motherhood in the summer—each of us have two children apiece—which is to say we talk about how we have rearranged the puzzle pieces of our days in order to have this conversation, and have now barricaded our respective selves into quiet (enough) places to talk. We talk about how my family just drove from Madison, Wisconsin, all the way home to College Station, Texas, and how Megan’s family will leave for their annual trip to the beach the next day. I would tell you more about the beach, like where it is, but very little about Megan’s private life remains private anymore.
Before Megan’s assault, she was, to use her words, “ingrained in Baptist everything.” Megan attended Campbell University, a Baptist school in Buies Creek, North Carolina, where she was a student worker for the religion department for all four years, president of the religion club, and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Religion. Then, she headed off to Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, NC where she studied from the fall of 2002 until January of 2005.
Megan was raped in 2003, which is important, because people often assume she left the seminary due to her assault. She couldn’t have, really, because she didn’t understand what had happened to her as assault. Patterson told her it wasn’t, and the seminary put her on probation for two years—a decision she assumed to be punishment for the crime of allowing a man into her apartment.
Megan left the seminary because her grandfather had Alzheimer’s and she wanted to take care of him. She tried to continue on with her classes, but caregiving became all-consuming, so she withdrew from school.
“So many people in the seminary world—many students—said to me, ‘I can’t believe you’re doing this. I can’t believe you’re leaving school,’” Megan recalls. “And I said, ‘This is what I’ve been learning for three years. We’re to care for our families.’
“I didn’t drop out of school. I didn’t give up on my education. I put it on hold to care for a family member I loved dearly.”
“It was never about me,” indeed.
If you want to understand Megan, you have to understand this caregiver part of her. It ripples throughout everything. Megan shares the darkest trauma of her life publicly because she doesn’t want anyone else to experience the silencing she did. She stays in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) because she believes that she can help make it a safer home.
This wasn’t always the case. Between 2003 and 2018, Megan largely avoided SBC life beyond attending church. And she didn’t have a conscious thought about what had happened to her at Southeastern. But in 2018, Megan started suffering flashbacks. During an argument with her husband, Vincent, one night that May he asked what she was so angry about. Megan told him what had happened for the very first time.
“Megan,” he said. “You were raped.”
Megan never used that word, which is not to say that she had not reported her assault in 2003. She had—thoroughly and in detail. But she had been dismissed and even blamed for the incident, so she shoved the trauma deep inside her. Megan knows now that the pain was seeping out of her—in her recurring anxiety, in frenzied busyness, in her belief that anything bad that happened was her fault. But for fifteen years, she just tried to choke it all down.
Megan and Vincent decided to meet with their pastor the next day. Then, Megan wrote to Bruce Ashford, a friend from her days at Campbell who now serves as provost and professor of theology and culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
“He responded,” Megan tells me, “in the way every man should.”
Ashford told Megan how sorry he was and said that if she wanted to press charges, administrators from Southeastern would go with her. He asked to inform Danny Akin, President of Southeastern. And then Dr. Akin called Megan and said he had the documentation of her reporting right there in his hands, and he offered to send it to her.
“I didn’t feel crazy anymore,” Megan says. “He read me my file and sent me my file to show me that I did report it. I wasn’t crazy. I did remember everything correctly.”
In the months that followed, the support Megan received from Ashford and Akin would become vital. She was reluctant to share her file with Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Southestern’s sister school in Fort Worth, TX where Patterson was president at that point in 2018.
She knew what would happen, and it did. Once she went public, “things got bad.”
“I had to tell my family. Some family members questioned me because of [the] politics [of the #MeToo movement]. I had people reaching out to me from college and seminary asking why I didn’t tell them—not from a place of ‘you weren’t a good friend,’ but from a place of ‘I could have helped you.’ But that’s the way it felt at the time, like I was in the bottom of a pit, and everyone was just throwing stuff at me, and angry.”
And yet, Megan kept speaking, kept telling her story, kept believing change could come from within the SBC for women like her.
“If you want to understand Megan, you have to understand this caregiver part of her. It ripples throughout everything.”
Some survivor advocates have scrutinized Megan’s choice to remain within the SBC, in part because Megan upholds the SBC’s stance on complementarianism—a view that men and women have different but complementary roles, and that prioritizes male leadership in the church and home. At times, these differences have left Megan on the outskirts of the survivor community. But Megan believes a long-term commitment to inspiring change from within is the most loving and strategic path to take.
“I don’t want an overnight fix,” she says. “If I lose 5 pounds in a week, I’m going to gain it right back. But if I develop healthy habits, it’s probably going to stay off. It takes a while to create these types of changes. So between that fact, and the way I was treated when I came forward, that’s what gives me hope with [the SBC].
“There’s no black-and-white way to grieve or heal. I think when we start expecting others [to grieve or heal in a certain way] it clouds our judgment or expectations of people.”
Don’t mistake Megan’s desire to make room for different pathways for grief, healing, and advocacy as a lack of urgency. She’s fighting right now for the SBC to cover 100 percent of legal costs, counseling, medical doctors, and medication for any survivor who was abused in an SBC church, college, university, or other entity. By the time Megan finishes describing this to me, I’m ready to hand her my credit card if that’s what will make this happen by the end of the day. But, according to Megan, change that will last has to be the priority, so she’s open to discussions of whether a policy like this should be implemented at the Convention level, state level, or within each entity.
“It hasn’t happened yet but I’m hopeful that it will,” Megan says. “They took some steps at the Convention.”
By “the Convention,” Megan is referring to the 2019 SBC Annual Meeting, which took place in Birmingham in June. At the meeting, Southern Baptists passed two amendments to their constitution that strengthened their position on sexual abuse. Outside the meeting, survivors and advocates gathered at the For Such A Time As This Rally, protesting sexual abuse and mistreatment of women in Southern Baptist churches.
Megan facilitated a group of Southern Baptists who went out to talk with the participants a few hours before the rally started.
“I coached everyone [who went out to meet the rally participants],” Megan says. “I told them to keep in mind that a lot of the women there had been hurt in settings where they were being prayed for or Scripture was being read to them. I said that anyone who felt the urge to pray for survivors should do so silently. When you don’t know what a woman has been through, you can have all the best intentions in the world, but because you don’t understand where they’ve been, you don’t get it. I told them that the biggest thing we needed to do was listen.”
It was Alabama in June, so in addition to listening, the small band of Baptists brought the rally participants water. Megan wasn’t sure if she wanted me to share all of this—she doesn’t want the spotlight. She doesn’t tell me this story like someone who wants you to tweet at her and tell her how great it was that she walked out of the air-conditioned convention center with Dasani in her hands to talk to the sweaty survivors outside. She tells me this story like she just knew going to the rally—before it began so as not to distract from the rally itself—was the right thing to do in a way that’s painfully obvious and simple. She tells me this story like all she was doing was putting one foot in front of the other in the best way she knew how.
That’s really how Megan seems to go about life in general. In between toddler naps and afternoon carpool, Megan calls state Baptist conventions in an effort to better understand their polity and practice so that she can advocate for change in the most effective ways. When the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention asks her to speak at their upcoming conference on responding to abuse, she says yes. And she talks to 3-5 survivors on a daily basis.
“I listen, and listen, and listen. They talk to me because I get it. I know what it’s like.”
Megan connects survivors to people in the SBC who need to hear their stories. She knows that her continued support of the SBC means she’ll be misunderstood or critiqued. She also knows it’s what faithfulness looks like for her—to God, to survivors, to the church she feels called to remain in.
“I think the SBC took a period of time to listen and literally lament before they even started considering what they were going to do…that’s important. They were willing to hear the really bad things before they started working on a solution.”
This, of course, is a point where many disagree with Megan. Some on the outside, and even some on the inside of the SBC don’t see listening—they see stalling. They don’t see lament; they see PR. But Megan says that unless people stay involved in the process, they can’t speak effectively to what’s really happening.
The database, for example. People want the Southern Baptist Convention to implement a database of church leaders who are sexual abusers in SBC churches. People want this so badly that the Houston Chronicle went ahead and made one. And maybe the database is good, maybe it’s a step toward greater transparency and safety.
But, as Megan pointed out, a database would not have prevented her assault. And many other women have told her the same about their abuses.
Megan has talked to survivors who would rather see an abuse prevention and response certification for churches. The SBC wouldn’t be able to require it because of their structure, but Megan believes it would be “a contagious thing—so good that you’re going to want to do it. The good churches will want to do it and those that don’t are going to be frowned upon.”
Megan’s hope for change is only to be outmatched by her commitment to being part of it. She knows that no one change or implementation will make a church completely safe. But she also knows that Jesus cares for the vulnerable, and that he loves the church, and that he calls those who follow him to pursue justice and mercy.
So, she keeps showing up, with her voice like sweet tea and her commitment like North Carolina basketball fans. As long as there are vulnerable people in churches, Megan will keep telling the story about the worst days of her life, and she’ll keep collaborating with the leaders in the SBC who have cared well for her, and she’ll keep caring for her fellow survivors. It never was about her.
Photos by Melanie Grizzel.