As awareness of Ravi Zacharias’ sins and abuse spreads on the internet, there have been a number of reactions. There has been a great deal of disgust and anger (and properly so). Some have offered opinions (“I never liked him anyway” or “I’m throwing his books away.”) Others have shared guidelines like the Billy Graham Rule (never be alone with a woman who isn’t your wife (Another version of this rule adds the clause, “without your wife present,” perhaps to give more latitude for ministry). There have been helpful, harmful, and ignorant comments.
One thing has struck me: Pastors need to do everything in their power to prevent further damage, protect those within their ministry from harm, and be prepared to act when someone speaks up.
When I was in seminary, I was on the platform with my mentor just before a worship service at my home church. He grabbed me by the shoulder and turned me so I could see everyone assembled and preparing for worship. I loved these people.
“About a third of the women in the room have encountered some form of sexual abuse in their lifetime. Those are the ones who’ve said something about it, so there are probably more.”
What? I frowned and swallowed hard. I looked at him, wrestling with the implication. “What?”
“You need to be ready to address it because someone will eventually come to you.”
I’m thankful that he took the moment to prepare me. I just wasn’t aware.
Pastors who haven’t prepared to deal with the reality of abuse might find that they wind up making the situation worse. I’ve heard horror stories of how pastors (and churches) handle disclosures of abuse. They’ll try to initiate reconciliation within the church. They nod and share the number of a Christian counselor. Worse still, they silence the person who worked up the courage to find their voice and speak. Within the community of those who have endured abusive trauma, those who speak up encounter a reaction called “DARVO.” This stands for Denial, Attack, and Reversal of Victim and Offender roles.
Rather than believing the speaker, the allegation is denied… swept aside. The tone shifts into one of intense questioning or digging out details, which feels like an attack. The injured one quickly finds that they are treated as the offender — disturbing the peace of the church or ‘making ridiculous allegations’ — while the abuser is treated as the victim. This kind of response shames the one who has been wronged, silences their voice, and validates the suspicions that they have grappled with internally: This is all my fault. No one will believe me. No one will help.
Shepherds are called to protect and care for the sheep. The hireling runs away when there is danger and leaves the sheep to be consumed by wolves. It should never be this way in the church of the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ.
Maybe I’m the kind of person people trust. I think my wife deserves a lot of credit for my reputation of being approachable. Over the course of my ministry, people have spoken up and shared the painful secret that someone abused them.
I believe it is important to thank someone for trusting you with their secret and to tell them you believe them. Take the time to actively listen and let them tell you as much of the story as they are willing to tell. Many times there are additional crises occurring that motivate a disclosure — depression, drug or alcohol use, physical abuse.
I’d advise you to stop promising people everything they say is confidential. Years ago a man sat down in my office and asked if everything he told me was covered by ‘confidentiality.’ I laughed nervously and said, “Sure, unless you’re a threat to yourself, someone else, or national security.” Later, pacing on my front lawn, a lawyer assured me that what I’d been told wasn’t covered by privilege — there was a threat to someone, and I needed to make a report.
As a pastor, you need to know what you need to do when someone is being abused. Many states have laws requiring that if a minor discloses something, you must make a report. God has given the state the authority to punish evil and reward good (Romans 13:3), and since abuse is a crime against the state, doing the right thing means making a report. Find out what your local laws are. Find out if your local law enforcement has a special division that handles these kinds of crimes. Take the time to go meet with people who work in these agencies and find out how they work and how to reach out to them.
Make sure that you’re ready to believe those who’ve been hurt. If the abuse happened within the church, you’re going to need to work through how the church is going to deal with the present situation, and if it happened inside the church, make sure it never happens again. Whatever the situation, you need to act immediately. Work to make sure the victim receives needed support and that the offender is held accountable.
With adults, the right actions of response are less defined. We’ve loaned our guest room to people in domestic crisis. We’ve arranged for the church to pay for counseling. We’ve spent months sending texts or making phone calls expressing support, sharing scripture and prayers, and encouraging them to take bold steps.
Here’s what I know. Predators are usually very good at what they do, and they convince their victims no one will believe them and they convince everyone around them that nothing is wrong — everything is just fine. It takes an enormous amount of courage and trust for someone to speak up to a pastor, ministry leader, or friend. Everything seems fine until someone speaks up — and the shepherd needs to be prepared to do the right thing in that moment.
Keith Myer is pastor of Harvest Baptist Church in Salisbury, MD and the Director of Missions for the Eastern Baptist Association. He’s married to his high school sweetheart and is the father of four boys: Sam, Jack, Max, and Hank.