“We’re Going to Plow Right Through It”

When Senator Mitch McConnell said on Friday that the U.S. Senate was “going to plow right through it and do our job,” he was speaking to a group of evangelical Christians at the Value Voters Summit.  His words were greeted with enthusiastic applause.  McConnell’s comments came one day after Franklin Graham, Ralph Reed and Robert Jeffress publicly pressed for a quick confirmation of Judge Kavanaugh.  But there is a problem here.  Male Christian leaders are not the best people to determine the legitimacy of a claim of sexual abuse.

I wrote last month that in one 20-year period the three largest insurance companies that insure American Protestant churches paid out 7,095 claims of sexual abuse by clergy or volunteer leaders.[1]

Evangelicals, just like the Republican senators, still don’t get it.  Sexual abuse is rampant, including within evangelicalism.

I have a number of friends who are therapists.  When we hear clients begin to talk about a religious leader from their past, we know what to expect, and it is tragic.  So many of the perpetrators are still in leadership positions within the church. But if the client is not willing to come forward, and few are, there is not a thing a therapist can do.  Your responsibility is to your client.

That Dr. Blasey Ford did not come forward until now is no surprise to any therapist in America. It is not unusual to wait years until a client feels safe enough to talk about abuse.  What she will go through this week will also be traumatizing.  I will be praying fervently for her.

In the study referenced above, 92 percent of the abuse occurred in a church office, and 39 percent in a counseling session in the pastor’s office.  Over 35 percent of the perpetrators were lead pastors and 31 percent were youth pastors. Almost all (98.8 percent) were male and 73 percent were white.  Over 80 percent were clergy and 20 percent were church volunteers.  Again, that is only within Protestant churches.

In 2004 John Jay College was given unprecedented access to files of the American Roman Catholic Church.  Between 1950 and 2002, they found four percent of all priests had allegations of abuse against them, with over 11,000 victims.  Astoundingly, only three percent of those cases were referred to law enforcement.  And remember, this study was done in 2004, long before the current revelations, including the most recent in the State of Pennsylvania.

Yet clergy, whether Roman Catholic or Protestant, continue to question the legitimacy of claims of abuse made by victims.  A senator diabolically says, “We’re going to plow right through it,” and evangelical leaders applaud.  I sometimes wonder if you have to be outside of evangelicalism to see the absurdity of the evangelical stance on abuse, misogyny and gender inequity?  I certainly did not see it as clearly when I was a male within that world.  And women in the evangelical camp are complicit.

The number of women who are supportive of abusers and critical of the women who confront abusers amazes me.  When Paige Patterson was forced to step down from his leadership position in the Southern Baptist Convention this summer, over half of the signers protesting his departure were women.

Not only are abusers not confronted, evangelical women willingly remain in denominations that refuse to grant them access to power.  An article in last Friday’s Washington Post[2]quotes current Southern Baptist female seminary students about why they would not want to be pastors.  Their comments sound like something from a 1950s television show.  One said she thought women were just too emotional to be pastors.  I guess she’s not read the statistics on emotional expression at work.  Women are no more likely to show emotions at work than men.[3]

Dr. Wayne Grudem, a leading conservative theologian, says 14 of the 83 positions of leadership within the church are only open to men.  Of course, all 14 are the key positions of power.  That pretty much guarantees women will not be in positions of authority in which they can actually root out sexual abuse within the church.

The words of Mitch McConnell and the response of the evangelicals in his audience made me nauseous.  It also made me exasperated.  Evangelicalism must pay a price for its arrogant misogyny.  I hope it begins on November 6, when Senators and Representatives who support the conservative evangelical agenda can be voted out of office.  If you are not registered, register.  If you are registered, vote.  There is only one way to stop a nation that is willing to “plow through” the credible claims of traumatic sexual abuse from a courageous woman.  And that is at the ballot box.

God help us!


[1]”Child Sexual Abuse in Protestant Christian Congregations: A Descriptive Analysis of Offense and Offender Characteristics:  Religions Journal, January 18, 2018 Andres S. Denny; Kent Kerley; Nickolas Gross

[2]”What Draws Women to a Religion That Says Men Should Be In Charge?”  Julie Zauzmer, Washington Post, September 21, 2018

[3]Williams, Joan C. and Dempsey, Rachel.  What Works For Women at Work, NYU Press, 2014.

The Perfect End to a Busy Day

Last Friday evening I returned from the Oregon Diversity Conference, where I spoke twice on the subject, “Is Life Really Easier For Men?”  The response was wonderful, and brought a whirlwind of emotions I will have to write about some other time.  But I was eager to get home.

I rushed straight from the airport to the monthly community dinner of Left Hand Church, where I serve as one of the pastors.  The evening was just what I needed.  Instead of coming home to an empty house, I came home to a backyard full of friends at Jen and Eric Jepsen’s house.

Most of the food was gone by the time I arrived, but the conversation was filling.  One group got into a long discussion about guns and how to keep our children safe.  One of our pastors had led a table discussion at a community gathering earlier in the week.  I joined another table, where the group was playing a “what if” game.  The questions were not the simple ones, like “What is your favorite tree?”  They were questions like, “What is the best part of your life right now, and what is the worst part?”  The answers were honest and moving.

I looked around the table and thought, “It is a great privilege to know these people.”    One woman is a mom who works closely with a religious community that has a person in sanctuary.  Another is a labor and delivery nurse who compassionately and competently serves mothers in one of the boundary moments of life.

One is a long-time elementary school teacher who loves her students with every ounce of energy she has.  Another left everything she knew to boldly fashion a new life for herself in Colorado.  The man at the table is a Colorado entrepreneur who serves on the board of the local homeless shelter.  Left Hand Church isn’t even nine months old, but the bonds of community are already powerful and strong.

Early in the 2000s, a group of people who became known as the New Atheists wrote about the damage religion has done to our species.  With the kind of confidence that comes from tunnel vision, they posited theories about the evolution of religion, and why it is bad for the species.  I understand their concerns.  Religion has done a lot of evil over the centuries, and is not exactly distinguishing itself for its restraint and fair-mindedness right now.  But the New Atheists begin with a false assumption.  They assume we are a species of individuals.  We are not.

We are a tribal species, one of only nine on this vulnerable planet.  Harvard and MIT sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson calls them eusocial species.  They have the ubiquitous selfish gene common to all species. But these nine species also have a tribal gene.  They thrive in tribes and will sacrifice themselves for the sake of the tribe. Humans are the only primates of the nine species.

Not all tribes are good, and yes, some religious tribes wreak havoc.  As someone who has been on the receiving end of that havoc, I will not dispute that reality.  But there is another side of religious tribes.  In their book, American Grace, How Religion Unites and Divides Us, authors Robert Putnam and David Campbell say, “By many different measures, religiously observant Americans are better neighbors and better citizens than secular Americans.  They are more generous with their time and money, especially in helping the needy, and they are more active in community life.” 

Their study found that the greatest benefit of religion did not relate to specific teachings about God, the Bible, heaven, hell, or even which religion you were a part of.  The greatest benefit of religion is how close people become to one another.

Mega churches thrive because they offer a great worship experience, not unlike what you might find at a good Broadway musical. They are transactional institutions. You show up with your presence and your offering, and you receive a great 75-minute experience and a ticket to heaven.

Transformative religion is not transactional.  It takes place when church attendance turns into lasting relationships and anonymity evolves into intimacy.  Contrary to popular opinion, that can be accomplished at big churches, but it requires more work.  It happens more naturally at smaller churches.  Unfortunately, most of the smaller churches cannot offer great music and preaching.

I love what God is creating at Left Hand Church.  Thanks to the brilliance of Heatherlyn, our worship minister, the music is wonderful.  And Jen Jepsen’s sermon last Saturday was just perfect.

We are a church of Millennials, GenXers, and Baby Boomers. We are gay and straight and transgender and married and single.  We do have our homogeneity.  We are all people who believe the truth will set us free.  In fact, most of us have paid quite a price for daring to live out that belief.

It is my prayer that Left Hand Church would continue to grow.  Aaron, Jen and I will do our best to help our members make that happen.  Churches that are diverse and open and honest and transformational are not everyone’s cup of tea.  But there are so many who are so desperate for a Christian community of honest spiritual seekers.  I believe we can meet their needs.

I am glad I rushed back from the airport.  I had one meatball, a little bit of chicken, and an amazing piece of upside down cake, but nevertheless, I left the dinner very full.

I Do Not Like Rollercoasters

When I was a kid we took a trip to Lake Chautauqua in Western New York.  After lazily lying by the lakeshore for a couple of days, we headed to a small amusement park in town.  While the other kids were excited, I was not.

There was a children’s rollercoaster that was probably no more than 50 yards long and 50 feet tall, but I steadfastly refused to climb aboard.  My friends thought I was being ridiculous. I knew otherwise.  I was saving myself from imminent peril.  I do not like rollercoasters.

I was sharing my last couple of weeks with my therapist (yes, we therapists usually have a therapist) and she said, “You do realize your life is an ongoing never ending rollercoaster, right?”  To have someone speak the words aloud was both comforting and frightening.  “Oh!  So there is a reason I feel like I’m flying up and down and flung all around!  It’s because I am!”  Let me illustrate.

Through the generosity of delightful a new friend, last week I was in meetings with some amazing corporate leaders.  When the afternoon was over I was in a rather melancholy mood.  I felt I could have done better in my presentation, and I was feeling inadequate.  It was the first time since I transitioned that I have been in a room with people at that level of corporate leadership.  Paul had no trouble fitting into those environments.  Paula struggled.

On my way home, as we sat on the tarmac waiting for the ramp to reopen after a thunderstorm, I called my co-pastor, Jen.  She talked me off the little ledge on which I had placed myself. Later that night she wrote these words: “Unfortunately I think your level of frustration and pain is commensurate with the level of comfort you felt as a powerful white male.  I’m not sure how to comfort you other than to say you’re doing very important work and I’m really excited to see where it will all lead.”

I don’t walk into any room with a leg up.  First, I arrive as a woman, and every single day I am reminded that women have far less power than men. Second, I am transgender, and even those who are supportive are usually a little wary upon first meeting a transgender woman.  My degrees, my 35 years of non-profit leadership, my breadth and depth of experience – once people know I am transgender, they are all discounted like a penny stock.

I have been toppled from my perch in the rarified air of white male power.  I have no doubt that cisgender women say, “Uh, huh. Now double that and you might understand my experience.”  People of color might suggest I triple or quadruple it. All of this is appropriately humbling, but it is still a rollercoaster.  And did I mention I do not like rollercoasters.

The fall from the peak of male privilege to being rejected by those you loved and worked with for years is gut wrenching.  No amount of harnesses or lap bars can keep you in your seat.  You hang on by your fingertips.  And then it keeps happening time and again.

With over 1.5 million views, my TED talk has been popular beyond my wildest dreams.  I receive wonderful emails from all over the world, followed by terrible emails from all over the world (well, mostly the nasty one’s come from the United States.)  In the past week I’ve been answering between 10 and 15 emails a day.  (I do not answer the nasty ones.)

My son’s book is done.  The book is entitled, She’s My Dad.  It’s Jonathan’s book, but I wrote responses to five of the chapters.  It’ll be out by the time we speak together at a big event later this fall.  I got the final edits last week.  It is so raw, and difficult, and painful and beautiful.  I had to read it in small snippets.  There were just too many emotions.

If you are transgender and trying to figure out if you should transition, be careful.  It is a road full of fallen branches and stones, and you must traverse it in the middle of a massive storm on the darkest of nights. It is not a journey for those who have not been called.

I suppose narcissists can travel it without too much trouble, because they don’t give a shit what other people think. But if your heart is easily broken, then prepare for it to be broken into a million tiny pieces.  Then, as you ride the transgender rollercoaster, those pieces will be thrust up into your throat and then down into your gut and then up into your throat. Over and over again. And did I mention, I do not like rollercoasters?

This Is The Reason

I have been memorizing sermons since the late 70s.  Memorization comes easily and is a critical part of my editing process. The message becomes streamlined and simple.  You forget things, and that is good.  What you forget is extraneous. You rarely forget the sections that advance the big idea.

My first draft is very different from the finished product.  If I preached the first draft, it would be a 45 or 50-minute sermon. Blaise Pascal apologized to a friend for writing a long letter.  He said he didn’t have time to write a short one.  It takes time to edit.  I wish more preachers understood that.  The hour-long message is rarely a masterpiece.  It is more likely a 25-minute message in need of an editor.

Going through the TED experience was a lesson in thoughtful editing.  My coach and editor, Briar Goldberg, works for TED and TEDxMileHigh.  She is a master of cutting and repositioning, pruning a 2500-word talk down to 1600 without losing an ounce of substance.  I wish every speaker could work with Briar.

Which brings me to my TEDxMileHigh speech last November.  If you speak for a TED or TEDx event, memorizing your talk is a requirement.  They encourage everyone to use their specific memorization method.  I rarely memorize word for word.  I memorize thought for thought, with key sections memorized word for word.  But I decided I would do my best to follow their word for word system.  Things progressed satisfactorily until the dress rehearsal.

I lost my place – twice!  The curators and coaches were not particularly concerned, but I was.  It had been decades since I lost my place in a message that close to its delivery.  Briar spent the better part of her evening with me, helping me figure out what happened.

Finally, she said, “Paula, forget everything we told you about memorization.  Start over and use whatever method you normally use.”  I took her at her word. I started at 9:00 PM and by 2:30 AM I knew I was ready.  In the process, I changed one single line.  I ran the line past Briar early Saturday morning, and she approved it.

The original line was, “Would I do it all again?  Of course I would, because the authentic life is worth living.”  What came to me around midnight was this line:  “Would I do it all again?  Of course I would, because the call toward authenticity is holy; it is sacred; it is for the greater good.”

Last Saturday I received a package that contained the mug pictured above.  I have no idea who sent it.  They did not identify themselves.  And with my talk having been viewed over 1.5 million times, it could be anyone from anywhere.  But whoever it is understands the significance of those words.  They are my understanding of God’s call.

Through a voice clearer than any I have ever heard, I was called to become Paula.  The message was not received with pleasure, but with surrender.  I screamed at God, “Don’t you know I am going to lose everything?  Don’t you know what my family is going to go through?”

All I heard was stony silence, but I knew I had been called.  I did lose all of my jobs and most of my retirement income.  My family did suffer, monumentally.  Not a day goes by in which I am not aware of how comfortable I could have been had I chosen not to answer the call.  Compared to my previous life, my life is no longer comfortable.

But it is good.

We live for future generations.  We live for our children and grandchildren and all who will inherit the world we create. It is good to leave the world a little more accepting, tender and compassionate than you found it.

Transgender people are as good and bad, healthy and unhealthy, brilliant and dull as any other human.  And women are not treated fairly in this world.  We are a very long way from gender equity.   But unless someone is willing to show those truths in a way that is not perceived as a threat, the world goes on its way, continuing in its destructive unknowing.

I let myself be known.  I answered the call toward authenticity.  And I have surrounded myself with others equaly dedicated to authenticity.  And because of Cathy and the kids and their spouses and Aaron and Jen and Christy and you, some days I get it right.  Some days I live for the greater good.

To whoever sent the mug, thank you.  Thank you for reminding me why we do what we do.