Of all his ministry duties, Robert Cunningham most enjoys the academic responsibilities: reading, crafting sermons, writing on faith and public life, and working on his dissertation.

But the Lord had other plans for the senior pastor of Tates Creek Presbyterian Church in Lexington, Kentucky. Over the past three years, his congregation has undergone two independent investigations into separate allegations of sexual abuse from its past.

Cunningham had no special training for abuse cases or familiarity with best practices for handling abuse allegations. But he had a deep awareness of what he didn’t know and a sense of responsibility to lead his church through scandals it did not ask for. For three years, he has worked to build a culture of openness, care, and justice.

In a landscape marred by cover-ups, incomplete investigations, victim blaming, and denial, Tates Creek has emerged as a model for how churches should respond to allegations of sexual abuse.

Cunningham was in his sixth year as senior pastor when the first case emerged in 2018.

The 1,000-member congregation—large by Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) standards—was healthy, growing, and planting churches. The Savannah River Presbytery, the PCA’s governing body in southern Georgia, told Cunningham that former Tates Creek youth pastor Brad Waller had confessed to inappropriately touching young men at a Savannah-area church.

By then, Waller’s time at Tates Creek was a distant memory for the church. He had left over a decade before, and most of his students were long gone, too.

“It would have been easy for us to say, ‘Okay, that’s weird. Hate to hear that. Let’s just keep moving on,’” Cunningham said. Instead, leadership decided to give the accusations a second look.

Cunningham has been involved in Tates Creek since his college days and knew the former pastor. He spent one summer as an intern for Waller before replacing him as youth pastor when Waller moved on in 2006. He called Waller and asked him whether any abuse happened when he was at Tates Creek. Waller said no.

Cunningham wanted to believe his former boss. But he suspected that he hadn’t heard the whole truth. A few phone calls to former members of the youth ministry confirmed his concerns. The church leadership contracted with GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) to open an investigation.

“I think it was that humility, vulnerability, and teachability that showed leadership to his church and demonstrated a great deal of encouragement and hope to sexual abuse victims not only from the church, but also from anyone who was watching what was going on,” Boz Tchividjian, then executive director for GRACE, told Christianity Today.

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With Tchividjian’s help, Cunningham crafted a public statement to communicate what the church knew, what it planned to do, how potential victims could contact investigators, and why all of these steps mattered. The statement also included apologies to the outside community and the abuse victims.

“I have literally wept on multiple occasions at the thought of high school and college students being abused at the church I love and pastor,” wrote Cunningham, who himself came to faith through Young Life in high school. “I am so sorry. I want you to know that all of this transparency, urgency, and energy is for you.”

The 2,600-word letter detailed what the church knew and when, what it planned to do, and the next steps.

“It is important for everyone to understand the difference between an internal and an independent investigation,” church leaders explained. “An internal investigation is when we (or our attorney) investigate ourselves. In this scenario, we maintain control over the investigation. An independent investigation, however, is inviting a third party to investigate us. In this scenario, we are relinquishing control over the investigation and inviting any and all findings and corrections. It was important to us that we choose the latter.”

Cunningham’s statement and approach to the investigation got the attention of abuse survivor and victim advocate Rachael Denhollander, who has become an advisor on sexual abuse issues. After all of her work trying to convince churches to be open about abuse allegations, she finally found one that seemed to get it right.

Immediate transparency, educating the congregation about biblical justice, and practical training on the dynamics of sexual abuse—these three hallmarks, according to Denhollander, signaled that the church took seriously its obligations to victims.

“They signaled to survivors that it was safe to come forward and told abusers that they would not be safe at Tates Creek,” she said.

Over the next two years, Tates Creek allowed GRACE to investigate, accepted its report, and implemented the steps recommended as future safeguards. Cunningham told the congregation that they would never move on from what happened and would always be open to new stories of abuse emerging, but the terrible chapter of the church’s history seemed to be ending.

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It was not. In October 2020, a former member of the Tates Creek student ministry told Cunningham he had been sexually assaulted by musician Chris Rice. The former student met Rice on one of several student and college retreats when Rice led music for the church between 1995 and 2003.

The call devastated Cunningham. He knew how hard another scandal and investigation would be on the church, especially with the issues of Christian celebrity and a COVID-19 pandemic added on top.

But it was also a sign that the church’s approach was working. The victim knew if he came forward and disclosed what happened, church leadership would take his claim seriously. And they did.

The church knew what it had to do. “We wrote the playbook,” the pastor said. “Let’s just follow it.”

Cunningham declined to comment on the Rice investigation while it was still ongoing, but said the allegations are credible and backed by corroborating evidence. The church is keeping the name of the accuser confidential—often necessary for a thorough and impartial investigation. Whatever the investigation finds, victims’ advocates hope that Christian leaders learn from Tates Creek’s example.

In the years since the #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements brought abuse to the forefront, evangelicals have become more eager than ever to train leaders to prevent abuse in their churches and respond to allegations with compassion, accountability, and justice.

In June 2019, the PCA formed a committee of theologians, counselors, and survivor advocates to study issues of abuse in the church and develop best practices for responding. The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) also published a 52-page report after the Houston Chronicle identified 380 credible allegations of abuse by SBC church leaders over 20 years. The SBC found widespread failure to properly handle claims or take abuse seriously.

But some victims’ advocates have worried that the recent study groups and statements don’t prepare churches to handle allegations. Too few churches have a formalized process in place, and pastors tend to be overconfident in their ability to understand and detect abuse, experts say.

Most churches err by conducting internal investigations or consulting with investigators who prioritize shielding the church from litigation above caring for victims. Few earn the trust of those who have been hurt.

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“When victims are abused in a church setting, they rightly feel unsafe coming back to a church setting. You’re not going to get to the evidence if you’re not using an outside investigative firm,” Denhollander said.

Cunningham said the critical element of his response was humility. He knew he had no training in investigation or managing a scandal. He preferred writing and teaching.

Back when he was named senior pastor of Tates Creek in 2011 he really had to wrestle with his own inexperience. At 31, he had a nervous breakdown while assuming the new role.

The process changed him from a young, “arrogant, self-sufficient” leader, he said, to a humble senior pastor who knew his limitations and sought the wisdom of others. That attitude became important to the culture of the church and enabled them to reach out for help when it mattered.

Denhollander said the Tates Creek leadership team “was already aligned with God’s heart on what the gospel looks like and caring for the vulnerable,” before they had to deal with a scandal.

And the church was willing to be vulnerable, put aside concerns about reputation, and trust that the light of truth would also be the light of God’s grace.

“I don’t know why pastors and churches think they have what it takes to navigate these waters and don’t just quickly reach out to experts who do,” Cunningham said. “Really, we just reached out to people who knew what they were doing and did what they told us to do.”

Megan Fowler is a contributing writer for Christianity Today based in Pennsylvania.

[ This article is also available in Français. ]

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