When it comes to sexual abuse, we heal better together—in community. The church sits on the cusp of one of the greatest crises of our time; how we respond to that today will influence our church’s trajectory. Christianity Today published stories about the recent LifeWay sexual abuse survey (link: https://lifewayresearch.com/2019/05/21/churchgoers-split-on-existence-of-more-sexual-abuse-by-pastors/) “10 percent of Protestant churchgoers under 35 have previously left a church because they felt sexual misconduct was not taken seriously,” CT reported. (link: https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2019/may/lifeway-protestant-abuse-survey-young-christians-leave-chur.html) As church leadership grapples with this millennial exodus, we must address this issue with winsome purpose. How? Five practical ways.
1. Develop and Communicate Safeguarding Policies.
If you do not yet have a child protection policy in place, an excellent resource is the The Child Safeguarding Policy Guide for Churches and Ministries by Basyle Tchividjian and Shira M. Berkovits. (link: https://amzn.to/2EEunr9) This resource empowers you to create policies and procedures that fit your church. It’s not advisable to simply grab policies from another campus and paste them into your context. Instead, wrestle through your unique demographic to develop standards that your staff own.
Many churches have created policies but have failed to clearly communicate them to their people. Consider having a white paper easily accessed on your website so everyone can view it, or email these core standards to every parent and volunteer so that these guidelines are known. Err on the side of over-communication.
2. Have a Plan for the Unthinkable.
Through well-articulated policies, we must do our best to prevent the unthinkable, not merely performing background checks, but checking references and digging deeper. But if a volunteer, leader, or attendee has abused in our midst, we must have a known checklist in place for how we will handle the situation.
Remember this: it’s not your job to uncover exactly what happened. You’re not an investigator with years of sexual assault experience, nor are you a trauma counselor. You are simply this: a mandatory reporter. You must report. At the first disclosure, call the authorities who will then investigate and properly handle the allegations.
If the situation involves a pastor or a volunteer, err on the side of transparency with the public. You can reassure the community by hiring a truly independent investigation firm. As well, choose to be proactive in warning other ministries or churches about the offender. Know this: pedophiles typically have hundreds of victims because of three factors:
- They’re not who you expect. They’re charming, well-liked, and upstanding.
- Churches have passed predators on to other churches, surmising that if they’re not preying on their campus, at least it’s out of sight. But the problem persists, and we are morally culpable for not warning another ministry.
- They are highly skilled. Preying on children is their full time job. This is why they can harm while their parents are in the room (as evidenced in the Larry Nassar case).
3. Share the Podium.
As a sexual abuse survivor and a Christ follower, I have attended church for decades, but I cannot recall one sermon that dealt with sexual abuse (or domestic violence for that matter). Never have I heard a survivor’s story from the front of the church (unless I was the one telling it). This has fostered the belief that I am fundamentally broken, that I am not normal. If you really want to bless the people in your church who have difficult stories, highlight those stories from the front. Redemption is a beautiful thing, and what better way to convey this by being honest about what the people in the chairs are battling?
4. Preach the Word.
If welcoming survivor stories makes you uncomfortable, consider preaching through one of the rape narratives of the Bible. Author Jen Wilkin asserts, “It occurred to me that in all my years in the church, I had never heard a sermon about Tamar. The other women on my teaching team couldn’t recall hearing it preached either. And no wonder—it is hardly ‘proper’ subject matter for Sunday morning. Tamar makes only the rarest of appearances in sermons or teachings, and when she does, her story tends to be subsumed, muffled, or downplayed by our concerns to preserve David’s reputation as ‘a man after God’s own heart.’” (source: https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2019/june/tamar-jen-wilkin-absalom-david-1-samuel.html) Sadly, we have bought into the lie that we must play at “Fantasy Church,” a place where we don’t speak of such raw things. But the reality is that 100% of the members of your church are affected by sexual abuse, either personally or through someone they know and love.
5. Rest, then Listen.
As weary shepherds, we are hard pressed on every side. And as burnout approaches, so does our ability to really listen to the people we shepherd. Through body and verbal cues, we can communicate to the broken that we’d rather have a problem-less church, where issues seethe conveniently beneath the surface. So in order to welcome difficult stories, particularly sexually abusive ones, we need to rest and find our strength in Christ. Only in that Sabbath place can we bear the burdens of our congregations.
What does bearing that burden look like? It resembles active listening, refraining from sharing platitudes and plastering on spiritual band-aids. Instead? Ask questions. Empathize. Pray. Weep alongside. This does not mean you’re opening yourself up to becoming the person’s long-term counselor, but it will greatly dignify their story if you simply listen. Develop a list of places and services the person can attend—recovery groups, counseling, trauma therapists, Stephen’s ministries, sexual abuse recovery seminars—so that you don’t have to bear the full weight of their pain. Most survivors I know say that the first step of their healing process began with someone simply listening to their story.
If we want to prevent further exodus from the church and foster healing for our members, let’s return to the gospel narratives where Jesus went out of His way to dignify the broken, hear the stories of the marginalized, and push against the protection structures of the religious elite. People who are broken by sexual abuse hunger for an encounter with someone like that. Why not create that haven now in your church or ministry?