Numbers, not souls: a culture ripe for abuse

An investigative reporter at NBC Charlotte, Stuart Watson, has done a series on the Southern Baptist megachurch, Elevation Church, and its pastor, Steven Furtick's 16,000 square foot home currently being built in North Carolina. In the most recent report, the NBC Charlotte I-team obtained a confidential Elevation report:

Elevation is the largest megachurch in North Carolina, and one of the fastest-growing churches in the United States. The church has kept its finances secret even from donors, asking staff and some volunteers to sign a confidentiality agreement which threatens to sue them if they disclose internal numbers. 

Elevation’s founding principles called “The Code” state “we are all about the numbers”, and emphasize a reliance on numbers as metrics for growth and success. In one promotional film for Elevation, congregation members identify themselves by the “number” of the order in which they joined the church. 

One of the megachurch leaders that serves on the Elevation Church board of elders is Jack Graham, pastor of Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas. Graham is accused of covering up child sex abuse by a former staff minister, John Langworthy, now a convicted child sex offender in Mississippi. According to this story in the Christian Post, Graham, along with 4 other megachurch pastors on the elder board, helps decide Furtick's salary and influences his ministry.

What kind of influence is Jack Graham passing along to Steven Furtick? From what I have personally experienced in speaking out about abuse at Prestonwood, the message seems to be that people are numbers, not souls. And the more numbers these megachurch pastors have to brag about, the less value each individual has. The perceived greater good of protecting the image of the institution becomes paramount.

In any large organization that amasses wealth and power from its constituents, where there is no transparency and accountability, the environment is ripe for abuse and the cover-up of abuse. When the souls of those constituents become numbers that lack individual value, should they decide to leave, they are easily replaced by others eager to take their number among the masses. Numbers are impersonal and lack moral relevance.

When confronted with crimes against children in a church like Prestonwood, do the leaders see the souls of those children harmed? Do they see the souls of the children who will be preyed upon when the accused minister is pushed away to a new, unsuspecting church and community? Several years after the failure to report Langworthy to the police, Jack Graham was again confronted about allegations of child sex abuse by another youth minister on his staff. Again, no report was made to the police about this minister and according to a church member at the time, Graham said that he has to sacrifice the few for the good of the many.

It is so difficult to be immersed in these abusive cultures and speak out. From my personal experience and hearing from victims, there are people, acting on behalf of churches where abuse has occurred and covered up like at Prestonwood, who intimidate and threaten those who muster the courage to break the silence.

In the summer of 2011, while we were still members of Second Baptist, a megachurch in Houston, I tried to seek information about the allegations of child sex abuse by former music minister Eddie Struble. I had been contacted by some concerned parents. I have since found police reports and spoken with the parent of a victim. In seeking information, I emailed several Second Baptist staff members. I received a voicemail from David Dixon, executive pastor who said he found it "somewhat insulting" that I would insinuate that if they had knowledge of abuse they would not report it. David also emailed me to tell me that he was aware of my emails to other staff members and for me to contact him directly and "not anyone else."

I've written about being estranged from my parents, because they are very angry at me for speaking out publicly about the abuse that occurred at Prestonwood. I have heard from one of Langworthy's victims and his parents who have told me that my dad called, as a deacon of Prestonwood, and told them to leave Langworthy alone, back in 1989. My dad also warned me and my husband in August 2011 after my interview aired on WFAA:
You and Amy are going to pay a big price for what has been done here. I'm telling you. You don't go on witch hunts from 22 years ago. You don't.

What Joe Paterno taught me: it's time to stop keeping secrets by J.C. Derrick

 I received an email earlier this year from a brave survivor after she read about Langworthy's conviction in the Clarion Ledger. Here is an excerpt used with permission:
Reading Langworthy's story has brought back so many of the painful feelings and memories I've experienced related to my own abuse at the hands of my grandfather. For whatever reason, I just really wanted to write you and let you know a little about me.

Reading about your parents turning against you broke my heart for you. It's so hard to be brave. Please just know that you have probably prevented many others from being harmed, and your efforts have not been in vain. I pray that your parents will have their hearts softened, and their eyes opened to the truth.

Whew, I feel like I've talked in circles with this letter. Again, I want to say thank you for standing up for victims and for taking a hard, brave stand against evil. The pain never really completely goes away, and healing is a process. I'm always surprised when something triggers the sadness. Reading this story surely did, but that's okay. The cycle of abuse can only be broken when the truth is told.


Unknown said…
I am proud to know you Amy and I am inspired by your courage!

David Clohessy, Director, SNAP, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, (7234 Arsenal Street, St. Louis MO 63143), 314 566 9790 cell (

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