Tullian Tchividjian, Personal Survivor Story, Clergy Sex Abuse
Editors’ Note: This is Rachel’s story, and she is sharing what she recalls of her relationship with Tullian Tchividjian. She is sharing her facts, opinions, and what she believes to be true. Tullian is a public figure of interest. It is not defamatory to share opinions, beliefs, and personal stories publicly. In order to prove that she is being defamatory, it would need to be shown that she knowingly told lies, and did so with malice.
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PART #5 ~ IMPLICATIONS OF RACHEL’S STORY
#10. Thoughts from Julie Anne About This Case
This has been one of the most challenging cases I’ve worked on or investigated. For over nine months, I have known the personal stories of the key women involved. I have also read many stories of spiritual abuse from current and former staff members, and current and former congregants – from both Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church where Tullian Tchividjian was Senior Pastor from April 2009 through June 2015, and Willow Creek (Presbyterian) Church where he was on staff from August 2015 through March 2016.
Below are a few answers that might address some typical questions people have had while reading Rachel’s story:
How and when did Rachel connect with you?
Nine months ago – March of 2016 – Rachel first reached out to me at the Spiritual Sounding Board email I have posted. I went back and looked at that email. She said:
I thought you would be a wise person to talk to, since I see from your posts about him that your discernment was spot on from the start, and you have experience with this sort of thing.
What was Rachel’s purpose for connecting with you?
Rachel gave me a very condensed version of her story and the underlying message was this:
But with Tullian’s corporation, Liberate, relaunching now, I just feel sick at the thought of Tullian continuing to peddle the gospel for money and popularity, and more sheep getting hurt … and I hope I’m not participating by hiding truth.
I think this message is crucial. Some people are saying she wanted her moment of fame now that Tullian has moved along. That is not true. She has still maintained most of her privacy by only going by her first name; however, she is risking more harm to herself in her community where many people will know who she is. But she is putting that aside to help ensure more people are not harmed. Her private conversations with me have also underscored her intent.
Why did it take so long to tell her story publicly, and how did you care for her along the way?
When a woman is harmed by clergy sex abuse, it’s not just a sexual abuse issue. Probably more painful than the guilt about the sexual part of it are the emotional and spiritual abuse that go along with it. Rachel (and other women) had respect for Tullian, first of all as a pastor with spiritual knowledge and giftedness. There are devastating consequences to having a supposedly trustworthy pastor manipulate, deceive, and use his spiritual authority over you to seduce you and cause you harm.
Care for Rachel: When we are dealing with sexual abuse survivors, the emotional component makes things quite a bit more complex. Because this series is Rachel’s story, I’m referring specifically to Rachel, although the same process happened with other survivors. While Rachel held the key information to show that Tullian Tchividjian was unfit for the pastorate, it also meant that she would have to confess to her complicity and shame. Additionally, she had to consider how going public might impact her family, her pending divorce, etc. These conflicts worked against us in being able to tell the story as freely as we would have liked. We needed to tread lightly and allow for emotional and spiritual healing to place first.
Rachel needed to control her narrative and determine when she was ready to speak out without regret. I take my “Defend the Sheep” job very seriously. I’m very sensitive to the fact that once an identity is disclosed on the internet, it’s nearly impossible to keep info from spreading. So, I always erred on the side of caution, suggesting to Rachel that she wait a bit before publishing a comment. Several times, Rachel would tell me the next day that she probably should not post the comment.
This time, she was ready. We worked through three or four drafts of her story. She also previewed our background and analysis sections, but our conclusions were all our own. Rachel had the opportunity to slow down, stop completely, or wait. But she did not. She said she believed this was God’s timing for her story to come forward. To this day, Rachel sill believes it was God’s timing, and we do, too.
Why was it important to mention Kim in the articles, when the story is about Rachel?
We left some of the references to Kim in Rachel’s story because it was Tullian’s behavior toward Kim that first alerted Rachel to the fact that she was not dealing with a kind, loving man, but an evil man. This may have been the first time she saw him in his true colors and began unraveling the idealized image she had of him in her mind. This was a slow process of seeing who he really was behind the façade, but a pivotal one.
Why are some of Rachel’s comments missing, but you and other people have screenshots?
Rachel initially left comments online when she heard that Tullian was going to restart his Liberate Network organization. It angered her that Tullian felt he could go back into ministry, when she knew he was hiding his sexual sin and deceiving everyone. The comments she posted were true; however, she was not emotionally ready to come forward. It is common for survivors who are reeling from their experience to have bursts of anger and emotional rants – and these days, to leave ranty comments online. Thank goodness, various people got screenshots, as most of her rants got deleted by the blog administrators.
It’s also common for many survivors to repeat their story over and over again – not so much to tell me, but to tell themselves that it really happened. They were believing lies for so long, that they have a need to repeat the truth so it will cement in their minds. Keep in mind that what they experienced was “thought reform,” and it takes a long time to undo that bad thinking.
So, Rachel and I communicated off and on during that period. Every time a new story about Tullian would come out, we’d communicate. More things would come to mind, Rachel would process it with me. It took time for her to see that what happened to her was not just sexual involvement, but seduction through Tullian’s misuse of authority and his finding out about her personal vulnerabilities by taking advantage of his role as pastoral counselor.
What exactly is “spiritual abuse”?
Perhaps it is important to define spiritual abuse. I do not know anything about the person who wrote the following definition, but I think we can easily see in it how Tullian Tchividjian spiritually abused Rachel and others when he had a sexual relationship with them:
Spiritual abuse is a spiritual role-reversal where a shepherd, instead of clinging to and emulating the Great Shepherd by shepherding God’s people (Acts 20; 1 Peter 5; 1 Timothy 3; Ephesians 4), subtly demands that members exist to meet the shepherd’s needs (James 4:1-4). Rather than relating as a servant leader, the pastor “pulls rank” and “lords it over others” (Matthew 20:20-28; 1 Peter 5:1-6), not for the benefit of the flock, but for the benefit of the pastor. Rather than speaking the truth in love and rather than ministering grace and truth (Ephesians 4:11-16, 29; Colossians 4:3-6; Titus 2:10-12), the spiritually abusive pastor intimidates, judges, condemns, shames, and blames the sheep without regard for the spiritual wellbeing of the sheep (Jeremiah 23:1-4; Matthew 23:1-39). Definition from Bob Kellemen,
Why do victims come to survivor blogs instead of news agencies to tell their stories?
I think victims come to survivor blogs because they want to be in a safe place where they are believed and supported. Rachel could tell that I would not call her relationship with Tullian as an affair, but a misuse of spiritual authority in a sexual relationship, or clergy sex abuse.*
Outside media wants to tell a story, but they cannot be involved in long-term care and support. While I of course want to expose the truth, my first priority is always to protect and defend victims. After victims feel safe, then we can discuss if and when to go public.
*Side note: When Tullian in his text messages to his “social media posse” that he wanted people to “get that bitch,” referring to me, it was in response to my labeling Tullian’s conduct as clergy sex abuse. The accurate description of “clergy sexual abuse” changes the narrative from presuming equal culpability for both parties, to assigning primary culpability for the one in the position of power/authority. Breaking this role of trust is why in many states, clergy sexual misconduct/abuse legally means that the other person’s “consent” cannot be used as a defense by a religious leader who is an assault perpetrator. He tried to change the focus to her previous affairs, and was also minimizing it as just affairs when it is much more than two equal, consenting adults. This was not on an equal playing field when Tullian was Rachel’s pastor.
What ways have you seen national organizations and media keep Tullian Tchividjian “in control” of the narrative?
Before the IT department at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church caught and confronted Tullian about his clergy sexual abuse with Rachel, Tullian had a huge platform that promoted him and his theology. Tullian used his own blog, books, podcast, LIBERATE conferences, pulpit sermons, Facebook, and Twitter to sell his brand. He also had articles published at other websites, and spoke at other churches and conferences.
He still has a faithful following (though it clearly has dwindled some due to his series of sexual scandals). For instance, his book, One Way Love: Inexhaustible Grace for an Exhausted World, was on Christian Living Top Seller lists seven different months in 2014 and 2015. And his Twitter followers are at 106,000; his public Facebook page “likes/follows” are at about 16,000 (as of December 7, 2016).
So, when there’s been any news about Tullian, the media has had easy access to him. They knew where to find him and could get a statement. He also had crisis manager and PR agent Hunter Frederick answer on his behalf during some of the most intense parts of the 2015 scandal. So, he had things covered, either in person or by proxy.
That is not at all the case for his victims. They have been silenced and shamed. When Rachel tried to speak out, her comments were deleted. She has no blog, and she had no platform from which to tell her story – until she came to me and my little ol’ blog. Spiritual Sounding Board is not big, but there is a small following and I do have a following on Twitter (3,000 followers) and Facebook (1,300 likes/1,200 follows). Most importantly, I have networked with others who are concerned about abuse in the church, and they also help to propel victims’ stories into Twitterland and on Facebook. In this case, it was the small, but loud and clear voices of people who defend victims who put this story in the spotlight.
To his credit, only Leonardo Blair of The Christian Post has reached out to me to gain access to the victims, and that was spring of 2016. No other Christian news agencies before or since have. (To date, Leonardo has already at least 15 news articles about this situation for them.) At that time, victims were not emotionally ready to talk. They still want their identities protected. But at least now, we have enough primary sources to vouch for Rachel’s personal stories, and we have credible evidence (private investigation invoice/check, etc). Not only that, Tullian has admitted that he had a sexual relationship with Rachel.
In the absence of access to the women who are primary sources of factual information about Tullian’s character and behaviors, mainstream Christian news sources tend to use language that reinforces reported abusers. For instance, they typically talk about an affair, which implies mutual consent and involvement as peers. Instead, they should talk about seduction, which implies careful selecting, intentional grooming both emotionally and sexually, and eventual crossing the line into sexual engagement. That term – seduction – implies a significant power differential being used, with far more culpability going to the womanizer and less complicity to the woman he victimized. We plan to deal with the issues of language like this in a separate post sometime soon.
What are some things that surprised you about how Rachel has responded to the process of going public with her account of what happened?
I remember the first time I read Rachel’s words of appreciation to Brad and me in Part 3, and the fact that she mentioned it a number of times. It was tempting to edit out some of those words of gratitude. We both felt a bit embarrassed to have the focus on us. That was never our intention.
But we left her original wording alone because it was authentic, and also to show another important point. Rachel has been able to recover so well emotionally and spiritually, in part because we believed her and her story. We validated her. She knew that her story was safe with us and that she could trust us. At any time she could vent to us and share frustrations.
Both Brad and I have experienced spiritual abuse and understand that process. We want to encourage those of you who have friends or family who have gone through spiritual abuse that you can play an integral part in the recovery process of someone’s life. You can help them go beyond confusion and grief into forgiveness and hope.
And to be honest, most of what we do is listen. Rachel just needed to be heard and believed. And the added bonus is that we have a new friend and very likely, Rachel will encounter others who will benefit from her experience. That ripple effect of compassion toward other survivors is the work of Christ. This is the beauty from ashes.