If 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men have been sexually abused, 20% of our church communities are abuse survivors. They are our mothers, our fathers, our sisters, our brothers, our best friends, our grandparents, our Sunday school teachers, and even our pastors. They are us. The sobering reality is that our churches are filled with those who have experienced abuse and who simply don’t feel safe reporting it, let alone talking about it. To make matters worse, the abuse accounts that have flooded the news in recent months have triggered incomprehensible distress in the lives of so many survivors and have made the silence even more painful.
In all of this pain and darkness, I believe that God is giving us a unique opportunity to transform His Church into a community where no form of abuse is tolerated and that those who have been abused are welcomed, affirmed, and safe. I believe this transformation can only begin when ministers and church leaders become the greatest advocates for the many survivors in our midst.
Here are four practical ways we can demonstrate authentic advocacy:
1. Clergy must begin preaching about abuse. I don’t mean mentioning it in passing but stopping to preach entire sermons on abuse. There is no shortage of scripture that focuses on abuse related issues. These sermons must acknowledge the existence and prevalence of abuse inside the Church, but also include genuine lament concerning how the Church has so often ignored or marginalized the cries of abused while empowering abusers. Sermons must also focus on the reality that those who have been sexually abused often struggle with many spiritual doubts, concerns, and questions. We cannot pretend to know all the answers or to minimize the importance of such struggles. A sermon that simply affirms the reasonableness of having spiritual struggles in light of trauma can provide survivors a safe place to talk about them with pastors or others in the church. When preaching about abuse, it’s necessary that clergy reach out to abuse survivors and abuse response professionals to listen and learn. A minister who doesn’t seek out such counsel in preparation for preaching on such a sensitive and complex topic is not only acting foolishly, but could inadvertently re-traumatize many in the listening audience.
Preaching on abuse will help create a culture where silent survivors may finally feel safe to step forward to disclose and begin the long journey of healing. Earlier this year, my friend who is a minister of a church with about 80 members completed an entire sermon series on abuse related issues. This friend recently informed me that since preaching those sermons, approximately 25 church members (ranging from 65-85 years of age) have come forward to disclose being sexually abused! Though this number is staggering, what’s amazing is to hear how one sermon series on abuse contributed to creating an atmosphere for survivors to finally feel safe enough to step forward and speak…and begin to heal.
Perhaps a good way to start could be to preach a sermon about the #metoo and #churchtoo movements. It’s relevant and most of the abuse survivors in your church will relate to it.
2. Connect with local resources. Survivors often need professional assistance to help shed the shame fueled by abuse. Becoming familiar with local resources such as qualified trauma therapists, victims’ advocates, attorneys, and support groups will enable church leaders to connect survivors and others who may need their services. Clergy and other church leaders should also seek out and develop a relationship with local law enforcement. Our churches will greatly benefit from the guidance provided by law enforcement on issues such as child protection, dealing with known sex offenders, status of pending cases, and available other community resources for survivors.
Taking active steps to connect with these invaluable local resources communicates a strong message to the survivors in our churches that we take this issue seriously as we seek to love and protect them with excellence.
3. Develop an abuse safeguarding church policy. Does your church have an abuse safeguarding policy? If not, why not? If so, who developed it and when was the last time an abuse prevention expert audited it? If you have a policy, is it accessible for anyone who wishes to review it? These are just some of the many important questions all church members should asking as it relates to abuse safeguarding policies and procedures. A good policy must identify the various types of abuse as well as provide specific guidelines that minimize abuse from occurring. A safeguarding policy must also provide a protocol for responding to abuse disclosures in a consistent manner regardless of the identity or influence of the alleged abuser. Most importantly, safeguarding policies must satisfy best practice standards and be developed by church members in collaboration with victim advocates and abuse prevention experts - effective policies don’t come from cutting and pasting policies from other churches or organizations. GRACE provides such assistance with our safeguarding certification initiative (to learn more, see www.netgrace.org/certification).
4. Advocating requires being a friend and listening. I’m not sure about you, but all too often I find myself doing much more talking than listening. I think as Christians we have programmed ourselves to believe that we have to provide the hurting with answers….even when we don’t have them. Believe it or not, listening is one of the most amazing ways we can love and serve those who are struggling through the dark valleys of abuse and simply want to talk about it. They aren’t always looking for answers, but oftentimes are simply looking for us to love and affirm them through listening. When we listen, we communicate that the one speaking is valued and loved. Oftentimes, even when we do speak, we lack empathy for the hurting soul who has approached us. Statements such as, "Why can’t you just forgive and move on," are often no less traumatizing than the abuse itself. When we don’t empathize with our words, we will never be safe…or approachable. When we don’t empathize with our words, we don’t reflect Jesus.
Keep in mind, being a friend to the wounded does not mean that we pity them and turn them into our special project. It means that we validate them as human beings made in the image of God. It means that we don’t have all the answers, and that's okay. We advocate best for survivors by being a safe friend in a safe place. We advocate best when we're laughing with them, crying with them, and supporting then through it all. What we will often learn is that these amazing individuals will become our closest friends, who teach us and give us more than we could ever teach or give to them.
My prayer is that every minister and church leader will embrace the opportunity God is giving us at this moment in history and take concrete steps to transform our churches into safe communities where abuse survivors are welcomed, believed, protected, and loved. If God is our refuge, then our churches must be the places where these precious souls find safety and rest. Let’s begin this transformation today…