Women within the Christian writing and publishing industry are coming forward with allegations and complaints of sexual misconduct ranging from “accidental” touching to being pinned against walls and fondled, from invasive “mentoring” relationships to requests for sexual favors at writers conferences.
These accusations follow the #MeToo movement that brought widespread sexual misconduct allegations to light over the past year, as well as the more recent #ChurchToo movement, in which several church leaders’ sexual indiscretions surfaced.
The list of men in Christian publishing circles who have recently been accused of sexual misconduct, ranging from inappropriate comments to unwanted touching, include publishing professional Dennis Hensley, literary agent Chip MacGregor, magazine editor Ben Wolf, and writing mentor Jeff Gerke.
Numerous allegations surfaced in late 2017 as Christian writers conference directors began talking to one another via a private Facebook group about attendees’ reports of unwanted sexual advances. By January 2018, patterns of inappropriate and abusive behavior, as well as names, emerged—and directors are taking action.
The tipping point for many accusers was the resignation of Dennis Hensley from Taylor University in Upland, Ind., in July amid allegations of sexual impropriety. Hensley, who was a familiar face at Christian writers conferences and directed Taylor’s Professional Writing program, stepped down prior to the conclusion of an investigation into what the university called “significant and credible allegations of serious misconduct.”
Jim Watkins, a friend of Hensley and former director of the St. David’s Christian Writers Conference, investigated sexual harassment claims against Hensley with help from others and took those findings to Taylor University, prompting the school to take action.
“I have... personally talked with many of his victims including a student and many at writers’ conferences. My heart breaks for these women and the serious sexual misconduct they have endured,” Watkins wrote in a statement posted on his website.
In an article in Fort Wayne’s Journal Gazette on July 13, Hensley is quoted as saying, “I thought I should take the high road and retire... and just call it quits and let this thing die its own death.”
One of Hensley’s early accusers, former Taylor University student Rachel Custer, described to PW a 2004 event involving inappropriate hugging and attempts by Hensley to kiss her, saying they would be “special friends” and this would be their “little secret.” She immediately reported the incident to the Taylor dean of students. To her knowledge, a letter was placed in his file regarding the incident. In response, according to an article in the Chronicle Tribune, Hensley said, “When she reported it, the way she remembered it was totally exaggerated.”
Also among the accusers willing to go on record is Brenda Wilbee, author of 10 books including the Seattle Sweetbriar Series (Revell), who recalled an incident in 1983 at the Seattle Pacific University Writers Conference. She picked Hensley up at the airport, and he invited her to his room to continue their conversation about the Christian publishing business. He sprawled on the couch, according to Wilbee, promising to get her on the conference circuit if she “agreed to a rendezvous with him,” she said. “Without him, I had no hope of succeeding. It was all about who you knew and he knew everybody. The threat was clear. I said no.”
Wilbee said Hensley begged her for sex, tried to block her escape, and followed her to her car, where he tried again to kiss her. The attack ended when she honked the horn, and then he blamed her for “wearing a pretty dress.”
Hensley was contacted by PW and, on the advice of counsel, chose not to respond to any questions.
Writers conferences and email exchanges were the venue for several women’s allegations of harassment by literary agent Chip MacGregor. However, out of fear for their careers, many of PW’s sources refused to go on record with their accounts, which included inappropriate touching, lewd comments, and suggestive emails.
Lorilee Craker, a former client of MacGregor’s and author of 15 books, including Money Secrets of the Amish (Thomas Nelson), ran into a wall when she brought up sexual misconduct stories to other industry professionals regarding inappropriate behavior and comments that occurred over the course of many years, starting in the mid-2000s. “On the rare occasions when I would tell people in the industry about my experience with Chip, they would invariably shut me down,” she said. “ ‘Oh, I don’t want you to get a reputation for talking out of turn’—a silencing line if there ever was one. The message was that ‘gossip’ was a worse crime than anything else.”
MacGregor, who lives in Oregon, spoke to PW about the allegations: “I had acted like a jerk and been inappropriate on numerous occasions… I’ve never attacked or harassed anyone, but my behavior was inexcusable, and I’m sorry.” He said that “any sexual activity was, in fact, consensual—but looking back on that time, I’m ashamed of who I was and how I acted.”
Ben Wolf, editor-in-chief of Splickety Publishing Group (SPG), who has made the rounds of Christian writers conferences, has also come under scrutiny for allegations of sexual impropriety that include inappropriate emails and conversations as well as requests for sex.
Wolf responded to the allegations in a statement to PW: “In the summer of 2017, I made inappropriate comments to a female peer in the publishing industry who had routinely exchanged similar inappropriate jokes back and forth with me for several years prior.
“I immediately apologized to all affected parties as soon as concerns regarding my words were brought to my attention, and I regret that any of it ever happened. This incident is the only one of its kind, and I will never repeat this mistake.
“Any other allegations leveled against me regarding supposed misconduct, harassment, bullying, and/or manipulation and the like are blatantly false, and I categorically deny them.”
Writing mentor and teacher Jeff Gerke has been removed from speaker lists amid allegations of sexually inappropriate behavior. Gerke, who started Marcher Lord Press, a Christian sci-fi/fantasy publisher (it has since changed hands and become Enclave Publishing), faces allegations of inappropriate emails, requests for sex, and sending suggestive photos.
When asked by PW about allegations of inappropriate behavior at certain faith-based writers conferences, Gerke admitted to one “emotional affair.”: “Because the emotional affair was consensual (and initiated by the other woman), I’m surprised to see it depicted as sexual harassment. She was as fully engaged in it and as culpable as I am.”
Nevertheless, he added, “Over the past few years, I have sought out and received intensive Christian therapy, deep retraining of my thinking and behaving, and excellent marital counseling with my wife. I am deeply sorrowful for my actions.”
Due to the rising number of sexual harassment accounts, conference directors are taking steps to safeguard attendees. Many conference directors, including those at the Florida CWC, SoCal Christian Writers Conference, and Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference, have created a code of conduct for faculty members, spelling out appropriate behaviors at conferences. While it is often impossible to definitively prove allegations of sexual harassment, the accusations are being taken seriously by conference directors. Some directors encourage or require speakers to have roommates to allow for accountability. Faculty members are encouraged or required to eat conference meals with the group rather than leaving the grounds. Directors are also encouraging conferees and speakers to come to them if anything happens that makes them feel uncomfortable.
“We’re not turning a blind eye anymore,” Florida Christian Writers Conference director Eva Marie Everson said.
Kathy Ide, director of the SoCal CWC and Mount Hermon CWC, is encouraging male and female speakers and attendees to schedule one-on-one meetings in public settings rather than alone in a separate rooms, to never accept rides with anyone they don’t know well, and to stay on conference grounds except during conference-planned group activities.
Ide and other directors have started talking directly to conferees and speakers about appropriate behavior, as well as emailing the code of conduct to faculty.
According to directors interviewed by PW, sexual harassment at Christian writing conferences is generally considered uncommon, but more stories are coming to light and better responsiveness is needed.
“The most important thing for directors now is to just be aware,” Everson of the Florida CWC said. Keep your eyes open, and don’t think that it can’t happen at your conference. Because it can, and it could be the last person you expect.”
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Watkins investigated Hensley on behalf of Taylor University. He did not.