On June 15th, 2017, I attended PCA General Assembly in Greensboro, North Carolina to witness the passing of a measure that rebukes Georgia Foothills Presbytery for repeatedly throwing out and failing to investigate my formal complaint concerning Faith Presbyterian Church in Watkinsville, Georgia. The complaint pertains to multiple adverse actions by Faith’s Session against me over a six year period from 2009-2015. During that time, the church predicated my continued employment as a worship leader on reconciling and cohabiting with an abusive spouse. They fired me from my job when I remained separated from him. They subsequently took additional unjust actions that included authorizing a shunning by former close friends, removing me from my small group, and secretly bringing a licensed professional counselor who never met with me into a Session meeting to advise on my mental state without my knowledge or consent. While my complaint about these matters was still pending before the Presbytery, and as I continued to speak out in the face of obfuscation by two layers of church hierarchy, Faith’s Session indicted me for “contempt toward the church and its leaders” as part of a formal disciplinary process that, to me, appeared intended to either shut me up and bring me under their control or dispose of me via excommunication. The Session told me that they were going to put me on trial behind closed doors without observers, appoint themselves as the judges, require me to submit my witness list to them for their approval in advance, and only allow members of Faith Presbyterian to testify. When I leveraged Book of Church Order rules that would have compelled certain relevant testimonies and necessitated the appointment of outside judges, the Session tabled the indictment, telling me that I had “made it impossible” for them to prosecute it.
I attended five consecutive Presbytery meetings from September 2015 through January 2017, submitting and resubmitting my formal complaint, waiting months each time for a response, and having it dismissed each time for minute procedural reasons. The reasons given for dismissal were as trivial as one of the resubmissions being done in an email copied to the Session and Presbytery simultaneously, rather than first to the Session and then to the Presbytery. Another submission was thrown out because I submitted by email rather than by physical mail. One submission received no response because the commission appointed to handle it failed to convene at all.
My first contact with the Presbytery occurred in late July, 2015. I copied Rev. Charles Garland, at the time the Stated Clerk (highest officer) of Georgia Foothills Presbytery, on an open letter to Faith’s congregation detailing and providing documentation for the abuse I had experienced and the actions the Session had taken against me. Charles called me a few days later and berated me so severely over the course of the nearly two hour phone call that I decided to start recording about 45 minutes in. I hadn’t planned to record but I was aware that it was legal to do so, since my divorce attorney had previously advised me to record abusive communications from my ex. Georgia is a one party consent state, meaning that one can record any conversation that one is a party to and is not required to notify the other parties. Here’s a clip of the phone call. (This may be upsetting or traumatic for those who have experienced abuse.)
During the hour and fifteen minutes I recorded, Charles interrupted and talked over me more than 60 times, compared me to my ex husband, called me “crazy,” implied a threat of suing me with his comment about calling a lawyer, described me as “childish” and deserving of condescension from pastoral leaders, said that my story was “crap,” and called me an assortment of other names including “pariah,” “crazy,” “tormentor,” “manipulative oppressor,” “odious,” “off-putting,” causing “revulsion” and “deep dislike,” “violent,” “frightening,” “aggressive,” “the abuser,” and, repeatedly, “a problem” that needed to “go away.” He told me to “let it go or go yourself,” i.e. drop the complaint or leave the church.
I spent two months trying unsuccessfully to find out who Charles was accountable to within the Presbytery. I called PCA headquarters but was unable to find out who I could speak to. (The Presbyterian Church in America happens to be headquartered about 45 miles away in Lawrenceville, Georgia, an Atlanta suburb within the bounds of Georgia Foothills Presbytery. The Stated Clerk of the entire denomination, Dr. Roy Taylor, is a member of our Presbytery and teaches Sunday School at the church Charles Garland pastored during these events.) Finally, I heard from the Shepherding Committee that was appointed to adjudicate my original complaint. I shared the recording and a transcript of the call with the committee and requested no contact with Charles. Two days later, Charles emailed me with a non-apology apology that I had been offended, saying that his intent was “to offer a rebuke that would persuade [me] to change course.” Over the next year and a half, there was no acknowledgement from any of the Presbytery officers dealing with my case nor any of the elders at Faith Presbyterian that Charles had sinned, been abusive, or done anything seriously wrong at all. In one meeting I attended with two friends present, one of the Shepherding Committee officers compared Charles Garland’s tone to that of Jesus and the prophets in Scripture calling out those who were self righteous. The chair of the committee said he couldn’t be sure the recording was even real; perhaps I had digitally altered it. He joked, “Maybe Charles was having a bad day. Maybe his wife threw a frying pan at him.” I was repeatedly told to accept Charles’ apology and meet with him to reconcile with him; there would be no accountability.
Reviling, or verbal abuse, is one of the most serious sins in Scripture. 1 Corinthians 5:11 lists it as one of six egregious sins (alongside sexual immorality, greed, swindling, idolatry, and drunkenness) that result in someone being immediately put out of the church. The PCA Book of Church Order delineates the commission of “base and flagitious” sins “such as drunkenness, uncleanness, or crimes of a greater nature” as matters which require a pastor to be suspended or permanently removed from the ministry, irrespective of repentance. Certainly, speaking to a vulnerable church member in this manner is damaging and out of keeping with Biblical character requirements for church elders. Common sense infers that this was no anomaly: a man in a position of considerable church power who verbally eviscerates a woman in their first conversation under the circumstances I’ve described is a man presumably accustomed to dominating and controlling others through verbal abuse. This time he just happened to get caught.
Prior to the next Presbytery meeting in January 2016, the chair of the Shepherding Committee, who was acting as my point of contact in lieu of Charles at the time, received a full transcript and academic analysis of the phone call from Dr. Valerie Hobbs. Dr. Hobbs is a Senior Professor in Applied Linguistics at Sheffield University in the U.K. who studies and writes about issues affecting women in Reformed churches. She is one of several respected, published authorities on abuse in the church whose feedback I’ve sought in dealing with this situation. She has read much of the correspondence pertaining to my case and communicated directly with various involved parties, and her letter expressed her concerns as an outside observer.
Dr. Hobbs’ analysis was addressed to and intended for all officers of the Georgia Foothills Presbytery. The Shepherding Committee chair confirmed its receipt prior to the meeting, but then did not pass it through to the other officers. During the meeting, he made a motion calling for Charles Garland’s reelection as Stated Clerk. It passed unanimously, and I sat and listened as various elders commended Charles for his service.
Prior to the next Presbytery meeting in April 2016, with Dr. Hobbs’ permission, I emailed her January letter and the recordings of Charles to every Presbytery officer whose email address I could find on a church website, and attended the meeting holding a 15″x20″ sign in my lap that reads “Justice, not Abuse.” (It was the first occasion that I displayed the sign, which has gone on to become a primary bone of contention for leaders and members at Faith: the very most important issue in all of this is that I am bad and wrong for holding a sign.) During the meeting, an Executive Session was called and all non-officers were asked to leave the room. The Executive Session lasted for 20-25 minutes. Afterward, Charles remained at the front of the sanctuary, glibly cracking jokes when speaking to the gathering, with most of the elders laughing appreciatively. No action was taken, and the Presbytery offered no response to me or to Dr. Hobbs.
Before the next meeting in September 2016, I filed a formal complaint about Charles Garland with the Presbytery. I cited the relevant passage in the Book of Church Order pertaining to “base and flagitious” sin, making the argument that by doing nothing, the Presbytery was either making the statement that Charles hadn’t committed the sin of reviling or that reviling wasn’t a base and flagitious sin. I pointed out the dangerous precedent this sets for anyone experiencing verbal or emotional abuse, since it demonstrates that the church considers these to be, at most, very trivial offenses, or even tacitly approves of them.
Then I painted a dress with Charles’ quotes from the phone call and wore it to the meeting.
With Charles presiding, the Presbytery appointed a commission of two to respond to the complaint. The Presbytery also, for the fourth time, appointed a new commission to respond to my original complaint against Faith PCA. I was never contacted by either commission.
When I arrived at the January 2017 Presbytery meeting, both commissions had, unbeknownst to me, already ruled to throw out both complaints. All of the elders in the Presbytery had received copies of the rulings, but no one had contacted me. The Presbytery voted unanimously, with no discussion, to pass the commissions’ rulings without saying what the rulings were. I stood up and asked the moderator to summarize. He did not. While he requested that someone provide me with a paper copy, Charles Garland emailed me the rulings himself (despite my request for no contact.) Here they are:
I’ll draw attention to a couple of quotes:
“The reason [the Faith PCA complaint cannot be put in order] is that the Session of FPC acted in accordance with the Holy Scriptures and the Book of Church order (BCO) with regards to Jessica Fore and the other members of FPC who are mentioned in Jessica Fore’s charges.”
“We further find that the Clerk attempted to rebuke Ms. Fore for what he perceived to be her litigiousness and refusal to be reconciled with her church and its officers. We find the Clerk’s conversation to constitute an attempt at rebuke, rather than “reviling.” We find that the allegations do not raise a strong presumption of guilt.”
In other words, everything the church and the Stated Clerk did was fine. Amazingly, the commissioners didn’t even bother disputing whether the things I alleged at Faith PCA really happened, or defining “reviling” versus “rebuking”; they just said that the Session’s and Charles Garland’s actions were OK. Neither report bothers to offer any substantive biblical or factual support for its positions. The Charles Garland report contains at least six factual errors (inaccuracies and critical omissions) that Dr. Hobbs attempted to correct in an email to its authors, since she was mentioned in the report. Her email was ignored. No Presbytery officer objected to any part of either ruling. Charles Garland, an Elder in good standing, has just moved to Arizona to head up Grace Tucson, a brand new church plant with strong ties to RUF campus ministry.
Once the rulings were passed, only an officer of the Presbytery (i.e. only an ordained male PCA elder serving a church in Georgia Foothills) would have had the right to bring these matters before a higher church court. None did so. “The system” had successfully cut me off at the knees, as it has done to so many others. The PCA offers zero judicial agency for a layperson seeking accountability for abuse or wrongdoing if her Presbytery decides to close ranks and shut her up. Since I started blogging about my situation, I’ve been contacted by other women with similar experiences in other Presbyteries. I’ve heard from women excommunicated for fleeing marital abuse, or simply struck from the rolls of their church through disciplinary erasure and denied a trial even as they begged their elders to look at evidence of domestic violence. The few who press the issue with their Presbyteries instead of quietly disappearing find that justice is slow at best, but most often nonexistent. Abused women are disposable.
Providentially, out of the blue, I was contacted in May 2017 by a PCA elder in another part of the country who knew about my situation. I learned that the 2016 minutes for Georgia Foothills Presbytery had landed in front of someone on the Review of Presbytery Records committee who cares about abuse in the church, and this person had flagged the minutes for review. RPR voted to cite Georgia Foothills Presbytery with an “exception of substance” on three consecutive sets of minutes covering every presbytery meeting in 2016. It passed something like 50-2 in committee and was then bundled into an omnibus vote on the floor of General Assembly, where it passed without public discussion. The exception states:
The court did not address the substance of the complaint thereby denying a member the ‘watchful care, instruction and government of the church’ to which the member is entitled. Although the complaints were ruled administratively out of order, they constitute reports affecting the Christian character of those subject to the presbytery’s authority. Therefore, the Presbytery ought to have instituted the procedures in BCO 31-2.
BCO 31-2 is a passage pertaining to church discipline:
It is the duty of all church Sessions and Presbyteries to exercise care over those subject to their authority. They shall with due diligence and great discretion demand from such persons satisfactory explanations concerning reports affecting their Christian character. This duty is more imperative when those who deem themselves aggrieved by injurious reports shall ask an investigation. If such investigation, however originating, should result in raising a strong presumption of the guilt of the party involved, the court shall institute process, and shall appoint a prosecutor to prepare the indictment and to conduct the case.
So, if I understand correctly, the Presbytery is being instructed by the denomination to investigate Faith and hand out indictments (which can lead to various consequences including excommunication and loss of leadership positions) wherever there is wrongdoing pertaining to my case. If the Presbytery doesn’t answer the exception satisfactorily, then the case is supposed to go before the Standing Judicial Commission (SJC), the highest court in the denomination, in 2018.
There are some who see the RPR citation as a victory and an example of the system working, and in one sense that’s true. There’s finally an official acknowledgement that my case has been mishandled. It was a nearly unanimous decision by dozens of pastors from all over the country looking at a sparse outline of the facts. The failsafe by which Presbyteries are held accountable kicked in. And it was completely out of my hands that it happened, which I believe is from the Lord. My hope is that it can lay a foundation for broader change so that churches stop revictimizing abuse survivors.
On the other hand, it’s taken eight years of egregious wrong to get to this point– five since I started raising longstanding issues with my session privately and two since I brought my situation before the Presbytery and the congregation. In the process, I’ve been pushed out of Christian community for all practical purposes and defamed at multiple levels of the church. When I have talked about abuse publicly, my ex husband has repeatedly contacted an elder at the church to threaten me. The investment of time and mental energy necessary to document everything, attend meetings, and jump through hoops is like having an unpaid extra job. General Assembly has lobbed my case back into the Presbytery’s court, where there has been no demonstration of repentance or internal accountability working thus far. There will be no external oversight or accountability for another year. The Presbytery is in no hurry to right wrongs: they will pass out the RPR ruling at the September 2017 meeting and respond to it at the January 2018 meeting. I have no direct right of appeal before the Standing Judicial Commission: my case is at the mercy of the Presbytery and whoever reads the minutes at next year’s RPR. Should I attempt to directly contact anyone with influence, I will be accused of “circularizing the court.” With regard to the impact on my own life, it is far too little, far too late.
We need a national conversation about these issues– not just about abuse and domestic violence, but about the systemic cover up, silencing and disposing of victims in the church. In the PCA, it must begin at the Presbytery level, with men who are willing to engage in meaningful advocacy for women who have no voice, even at the possible risk of their own standing with their peers. If you’re a PCA elder and stories like mine bother you, do something real about it. Learn about abuse. Listen to survivors and their advocates. Bring their stories to the floor of your Presbyteries and General Assembly. Advance overtures and constitutional amendments that protect them. Bring real accountability and real consequences to churches and church officers that oppress abuse survivors.
Georgia Foothills Presbytery convenes tomorrow, September 19th. I will be in attendance and appreciate your prayers.