Tullahoma pastor resigns after abuse survivor shares story

The Tennessean/September 14, 2022

By Liam Adams

A prominent Tullahoma pastor resigned from his church on Wednesday, just days after The Tennessean told the story of Valerie Swope and her experiences as a clergy sexual abuse survivor.

The pastor, Christian Watts, cited questions from congregants in recent days about his leadership in a post on Facebook announcing his decision to step down from Life Change Church.

"I am deeply sorry for any pain and sorrow this has brought upon you," Watts said in a post on the church's Facebook page.

Watts has acknowledged that when he was Swope's youth pastor at a Southern Baptist church in Louisville, Kentucky, he had sex with her starting when she was 16.

"I have peace in this moment because of his resignation, that he will no longer be a pastor at this church," Swope said in a statement Thursday. "My heart goes out to Life Change Church who have been blindsided with difficult truths and I pray for their healing and protection."

Swope initially reported what happened in 2002. She then began sharing her story more publicly in 2019 at a time of growing awareness of clergy sexual abuse within the Nashville-based Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination.

In-depth report:A survivor's journey and how Southern Baptists are rethinking sexual abuse response

Since then, clergy sexual abuse has been one of the most difficult issues the SBC has grappled with.

Voting delegates at the 2021 SBC annual meeting passed a nonbinding resolution saying a pastor is no longer qualified if they are credibly accused of sexual abuse. Then, this past May, investigators with Guidepost Solutions concluded a third-party investigation into SBC leadership and revealed in a report details about convention leaders failing to support abuse reform measures.

Life Change, founded by Watts in 2017, started as a Southern Baptist church. It left the convention three days after Guidepost published its report.

Watts said in a prior statement Life Change's decision to leave the SBC was unrelated to the timing of Guidepost's report.

Swope's case was investigated by Louisville police in 2019. Though a felony in Kentucky today, prosecutors determined they couldn’t charge Watts for his actions back then because of laws at the time, according to Swope.

Watts said in a prior statement, “it is important to note that an illegal relationship never happened.”

In the past few years, Swope shared her story with Southern Baptist pastors and ministers, Southern Baptist officials at the local and state levels, and advocates and other survivors.

"Thank you to those that have patiently journeyed with me for years, but special thanks to the many strangers and survivors who joined the fight. You are all examples of true faith and hope," Swope said in her statement Thursday.

If Life Change had remained in the SBC, it could have been subject to a review process into whether the church met convention standards on pastoral qualifications. The end result of that review process could have ended with a similar result following a vote to kick the church out of the convention.

A similar line of inquiry seemed to come from Life Change's own ranks.

"Two of the key attributes that are essential of a church leader is to have impact within its community are trust and integrity," Watts said in the Facebook post. "These two attributes are being called into question when it comes to my leadership."

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