Chris Conlee, the former senior pastor of Highpoint Church in Memphis, Tenn., is starting a new church, also in Memphis. Conlee left Highpoint two years ago after it came to light that he had knowingly supported an admitted sexual abuser coming on staff as a pastor. That pastor, Andy Savage, resigned from Highpoint only a few months before Conlee did and has since also started his own church.
“Not only has my abusive pastor @andysavage started his own church, but the pastor that hired him and supported him (and was subsequently fired), Chris Conlee, is coming back to Memphis to start a new church,” said Jules Woodson, who is the woman Savage assaulted 22 years ago. “Where and when does the madness end?”
Not only has my abusive pastor @andysavage started his own church, but the pastor that hired him and supported him (and was subsequently fired), Chris Conlee, is coming back to Memphis to start a new church. Where and when does the madness end? #ChurchToo https://t.co/HEYKSCM19b
— Jules Woodson (@juleswoodson11) August 10, 2020
In a separate tweet, Woodson added, “Pastors who abuse their flock, and those that cover for them, have permanently disqualified themselves from the pulpit. That’s it.”
Jules Woodson Blows the Whistle on Andy Savage
In 2018, Jules Woodson publicly accused Andy Savage of sexually assaulting her in 1998 when she was 17 and he was 22. At the time, he was the youth pastor at the church she attended in Texas called Woodlands Parkway Baptist Church, now StoneBridge Church. In 2017, she reached out to Savage privately about the assault and received no response. Woodson then went public with her story and filed a report with the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Department in Texas. Authorities were unable to take any action, however, because the statute of limitations had passed.
Woodson says that Savage had known and groomed her for several years prior to the night he assaulted her. That night, he was giving her a ride home when he parked the car in a dark and isolated area, asked her to perform oral sex on him, and fondled her breasts. Woodson shared with journalist Julie Roys that after what seemed to be several minutes, he stopped and got out of the car, saying, “Oh my God, oh my God, what have I done? You have to take this to the grave with you.” Then he took Woodson home.
Woodson did not tell her parents what had happened, but did share her experience in detail with associate pastor Larry Cotton, who at one point asked her, “So you’re telling me you participated?” After hearing that question, Woodson said, “Not only did I suddenly feel this immense guilt for doing what Andy had asked me to do but I also started to feel that this was my fault somehow because I didn’t stop him.”
Cotton told Woodson he would tell head pastor Steve Bradley and that the church would take care of it. But nothing happened, and Savage actually went on to lead a True Love Waits event. Woodson says it was not until she shared part of her story with her female discipleship group that the church took any action. And what church leaders ended up doing was telling the congregation Savage had made a “poor decision” and allowing him to leave the church quietly. Not only did they throw him a going away party but they also never called the authorities or reported the crime.
Savage was a teaching pastor at Highpoint when Woodson went public with her story in 2018, and he responded in a statement saying,
As a college student on staff at a church in Texas more than 20 years ago, I regretfully had a sexual incident with a female high school senior in the church. I apologized and sought forgiveness from her, her parents, her discipleship group, the church staff, and the church leadership, who informed the congregation. In agreement with wise counsel, I took every step to respond in a biblical way.
The pastor stated he had informed Chris Conlee about the “sexual incident” before he was hired at Highpoint. Conlee confirmed this and expressed that he and other church leaders were “100 percent committed” to Savage and his family. Savage also made an apology in front of the Highpoint congregation, to which the church members responded by giving him a standing ovation.
Woodson disputes Savage’s claim that Texas church leaders informed the church body and that Savage apologized to her. She told WMC Action News 5, “His apology isn’t enough because number one, he’s lying about how he handled it. He never came to me, the church told him he couldn’t talk to me and they told me I couldn’t talk to him.”