More than one out of four people have experienced or are currently experiencing abuse, yet over half of all Protestant pastors do not know of any survivors of abuse in their church. This is concerning. Abuse can have huge spiritual consequences, and survivors need to be reassured of their Savior’s love.
The church can begin practices that create a culture of trust and understanding. It can become a place that makes survivors feel that it is a safe to disclose their abuse to a member, pastor, or other church leader.
Actions that signal the church is safe
- Establish a procedure to respond when someone comes forward to talk about abuse. Know how you’ll respond to a personal disclosure or a parent or guardian’s disclosure about what happened to their child. Procedures must be regularly reviewed and updated with current best practices. Churches will find the local abuse shelter or crisis center helpful. They can provide training about working with survivors and review the church procedures for disclosures.
- Develop a network of church member advocates who are trained to respond to survivors. Regularly publish the names of the advocates along with contact information in the bulletin and other church communications. Some survivors feel a fellow member is less threatening for this conversation than a pastor of other church leader
- Talk about it in sermons when appropriate. This lets people know the pastor is aware of the issue. It can open doors to disclosures and for people to seek spiritual help.
- Audit how families are portrayed in the church. Pastors with no personal background in abuse tend to portray parents as loving figures in children’s lives. This is not the reality for everyone. Survivors find great comfort in hearing an acknowledgement that some experience childhoods that are not happy or safe.
Responding to a disclosure
The response a survivor receives to their disclose of abuse is critical. Church leaders can have a profound effect on the journey of a survivor. An understanding of trauma is an important first step for all leaders. The survivor’s story can sound fantastic, even unbelievable, to those not trained to understand trauma and its effects on people. Important components of the response include:
- Listen. Listening to a survivor’s story is powerful all by itself. It means listening only. The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld is a picture book that tells the story of a youngster whose toy block tower falls over. Many animals advise him about how to react, but only the rabbit listens and empathizes, giving the youngster room to react in his own way. The default response for many is to make suggestions to the survivor and try to find solutions. The story gives church leaders perspective about the power of listening.
- Believe. A survey by Not in Our Church found that an overwhelming majority of pastors (75%) underestimate the level of violence experienced within their congregations. Believing is often the most difficult thing to do, especially if the abuser is known and has cultivated respect. Believing a survivor’s version of their abuse is important. It gives them permission to continue sharing their thoughts and feelings about what happened. This validates their experience and can increase resiliency. The person who discloses abuse is revealing something that causes them shame and humiliation. They will only reveal such experiences if they have trust in the person they tell, and that trust must be honored in the moment of disclosure.
- Don’t expect too much and don’t rush the work of the Holy Spirit. Survivors of abuse, especially abuse that is ongoing, have many issues that can take a lifetime to work through. They need someone to walk with them and help them where they are. Church leaders can put up unintentional barriers by expecting too much from the survivor. For example, when someone who has been abused reveals their experience, their first and primary need generally is to be believed and have their faith in the Lord supported with gospel assurances. In their pain and shame, it is devastating to be confronted with the law and be told they must forgive the abuser. This is not a realistic request to make of every survivor. Rather than requiring forgiveness, gently introduce the idea and then listen to the survivor. They may have more healing to do before this is possible.
Support for survivors of abuse is a vital part of gospel ministry. Start by learning more about the trauma caused by abuse. Then implement ways your church can faithfully serve victims/survivors of abuse.
Michelle Markgraf, Freedom for the Captives
- Step One: Form a Child Safety Committee
- Step Two: Create Urgency
- Step Three: Know Your Volunteers
- Sample Site Assessment Checklist
- Step Four: Assess Your Space
- Sample Standards for Interactions with Minors and/or Vulnerable Adults
- Step Five: Implement Guidelines for Youth Leaders
- Step Six: Train adults to recognize and respond to abuse
- Step Seven: Support abuse survivors
- Step Eight: Create guidelines for responding to abuse
- Step Nine: Educate children about personal safety
- Step Ten: Review and maintain your child protection program