The apostle Paul writes, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. …If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Cor 12:12 and 12:26-27). Paul’s words to the congregation in Corinth remind us that the body of Christ can suffer even now. We are the body of Christ, wounded and wounding, at times betrayed by one of our own members.
One of the most devastating wounds to the body of Christ today is sexual abuse (of adults, youth, or children) in ministry. This occurs when a person in a position of ministerial leadership, lay or ordained, violates the sacred trust of that office by inappropriately crossing sexual boundaries. Sexual abuse by persons in ministerial leadership is an abuse of the power. When a church leader engages in sexual behavior with someone, whom they should be serving in ministry, that leader is no longer serving the best interests of the other person but instead using that person and the position of ministerial leadership to gratify his or her own desires. When a ministerial relationship becomes sexualized, it ceases to be a ministry of the church, and the aftereffects can be devastating not only to the exploited congregant but to the entire congregation.
A congregation wounded by its own trusted leader suffers a type of trauma distinct from other traumas in the faith community: the perpetrator is in a position representing God. The very resources that a church typically draws upon—its pastoral leadership, judicatory personnel, and integrity as a community of faith—are thrown into disarray and distrust, hampering recovery. Every ministerial leader--everywhere—becomes tainted by distrust, stemming from one minister’s offense.
To recover vitality, a wounded congregation needs an intentional process of healing. The congregation must be able to come to terms with what happened and move forward in faith. A past that is not fully acknowledged has lasting and binding power over the present, which hampers our ability to imagine a better future. We must find ways to re-tell our congregational narratives to open us to the vast possibilities of God’s future, so that we are neither continually reacting to a traumatic past nor obsessed with nostalgia for a previous era.
With a deacon’s eye, I see a way to that future through specific practices of justice and compassion. The church can learn to identify, name, and address the wounds of violation due to sexual abuse in ministry. The church’s authenticity in tending to its own woundedness is essential to being a credible and reliable witness to the Gospel in a world, in which domestic violence, sexual abuse, and violence against women and children continue to be the existential reality for millions of persons. The ministry of healing is a moral imperative for the body of Christ, wounding and wounded.
The work of healing congregations is transformative. When a wounded congregation becomes a healing congregation, the wounded body of Christ becomes an agent of grace in the world, once again bearing witness to the Good News of Christ Jesus.