Last week at #SBC21, messengers sent a clear message that we want our denomination to address the issue of sexual abuse and stand with survivors. As many survivors have pointed out, our decisions made at the annual meeting must be followed up by meaningful action or what we said is just words. Coming home, most messengers have little impact in what will happen at the denominational level with our committees, trustee boards, and entities. But you DO have the opportunity to take meaningful action at YOUR church. This post is meant to give you a starting point for you to address the issue of sexual abuse and make your church a safe place and one that walks along survivors. Here are a few steps you can take right now:
1. Commit yourself to getting this right.
Many have thought through the idea of standing for Christ in the face of severe persecution and asked themselves “Am I willing to die for my faith?” I have a more pressing and urgent question for you: Are you willing to “spend and be spent” for the souls of others – to protect the vulnerable, minister well for survivors of abuse, to stand for justice for those who have faced unspeakable abuse?
Getting this right WILL cost you something. Ask yourself:
- Am I willing to invest the time and resources necessary to get this right?
- Am I willing to face up to my own shortcomings in this area?
- Am I willing to learn from others and realize that there is much I do not know?
- When the reputation and finances of the institution or even myself are at stake, am I willing to put the care and protection of people first?
- Am I willing to do what is right, even if it comes at great cost?
- Am I willing to spend and be spent for others even if I don’t see the fruit of that effort or my effort is never acknowledged?
As Ed Stetzer stated this week, “we have to do the right thing, even when it’s the hard thing.”
Addressing the sexual abuse crisis in our churches and learning to care well is the right thing and will take your personal commitment to lead.
2. Commit yourself to knowing, believing, and telling the truth about abuse.
First, recognize that you pastor survivors of abuse. The sheer number of abuse survivors in the U.S. virtually guarantees, whether you know who they are or not, that you have people in your congregation who have experienced sexual violence and who continue to suffer the effects of trauma. Recent statistics from the CDC indicate that in the United States…
- One in five women have experienced completed or attempted rape during their lifetime (13.5% completed, 6.3% attempted), and another 11.0% experienced completed alcohol/drug-facilitated penetration at some point in their lifetime.
- One third of survivors of sexual abuse/violence were violated for the first time between the ages of 11 and 17.
- In addition to sexual abuse, 1 in 5 women will experience “severe physical violence” from an intimate partner in their lifetime.
Second, leave the whataboutism of false accusations behind. Multiple studies show that false accusations of abuse are rare (somewhere between 2 and 10%) and most disclosures of abuse are true. Forensic interviewers can spot false accusations. Further, research also indicates that it is exceedingly rare for false allegations to have any long-term consequences for the accused.
We must take ALL disclosures of abuse seriously. The problem in churches is not that we too often “believe women” but we too often doubt that the accusation is true or even could be true. When people hear that someone they know, respect, or admire has been accused of abuse, they tend to default to believing that person rather than the victim. Predators groom the victim and everyone around them to ensure that no one will believe the victim if they do speak out. 63% of sexual assaults go unreported. Many victims of abuse will never disclose because they quite reasonably assume they won’t be believed. We must change if the church is going to be a safe place for victims to disclose abuse.
Finally, realize that abuse happens everywhere. Face the fact that rather than churches being the least likely place for sexual abuse to occur, that churches attract predators. Abusers find churches to be easy environments to groom both victims and people around them. The worst assumption you can make is “it won’t happen here.”
3. Commit yourself to addressing abuse comprehensively.
To faithfully address sexual abuse in your church will require a fully-orbed, densely-layered strategy. Think through every aspect of abuse from prevention of abuse, responding to abuse disclosures, and ministering well to survivors of abuse. Here are a few areas to consider:
- Research best practices for safeguarding and reporting policies. Review current policies to make sure they are up to date, actionable, and being followed. If you do not have procedures in place for how to respond when an allegation of abuse is made, prepare them now. The resources and services at netgrace.org can help with policy preparation and review. Also, I recommend The Child Safeguarding Policy Guide for Churches and Ministries by Tchividjian and Burkovitz.
- Get training in how to prevent abuse and respond to disclosures of abuse. Learn the signs of grooming behavior. Understand how spiritual leaders can abuse their power. Create a culture that discourages predators from choosing your church. The ERLC’s Caring Well training is a valuable tool and is free to use. You might also work through a book like Diane Langberg’s Redeeming Power: Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church or Wade Mullen’s Something’s Not Right: Decoding the Hidden Tactics of Abuse–and Freeing Yourself from Its Power.
- Build a network of layleaders, pastors, abuse survivors, and community leaders. Build relationships with local police, social workers, counselors, foster care agencies, etc. (some of whom are already in your church) and invite them to share their expertise. Listen to survivors as they not only share their stories, but share how churches help or harm recovery. Work with others to help make church a safe place.
- Become trauma-informed and lead others to do the same. Learn the neuro-science, how trauma affects the brain, and what is needed for healing. Understand the need for physical, psychological, and spiritual safety. Read books like Trauma and Recovery and The Body Keeps the Score to gain knowledge. Learn how to shepherd those who have experienced significant trauma, particularly the trauma of abuse. Diane Langberg’s Suffering and the Heart of God, and the appendix for churches in her Counseling Survivors of Sexual Abuse are particularly helpful resources for ministering to survivors. Think through not only your policies (see above) but also what your worship and preaching/teaching ministries communicate to survivors of abuse. Learn about triggers. Learn how to apply Scripture in ways that help and not harm survivors. Rediscover the gift of lament.
I am sure this seems like a lot, and it is. But it is also important. Sit down and make a plan to take the necessary steps. Most of you reading this are in smaller, single-staff churches. Some of you are bi-vocational. Don’t go this alone. Find others who share the same commitment. Share with your leaders and members the importance of getting this right and make this a team effort. We CAN do this. Let us be faithful to minister well.