The Advisory Panel Process: A Guide for Church Councils on Responding to Allegations of Abuse by Church Leaders

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When there is an allegation of misconduct against a church leader, what would your congregation do? Did you know there is a process to support churches like yours in responding to allegations of church leader misconduct?

At the recent Safe Church Ministry annual conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan, many volunteers like me were trained in this process, so that it will be available in every classis when needed. As the publication The Advisory Panel Process: A Guide for Church Councils, available on the CRC's Safe Church Ministry website, states: "An allegation of misconduct against a church leader is very stressful for a congregation... people may take sides, relationships can be broken, and intense feelings are likely to be involved." Because of the seriousness of these situations, and the potential for harm to all involved, following a well-established process is crucial.

The guide (see below) explains why allegations of misconduct can be so trying for congregations and individuals. "Many will find an allegation difficult to believe; they know the person accused and can’t imagine the allegation could be true. Even entertaining the thought of misconduct by a trusted church leader leads to intense feelings of hurt and betrayal. In addition, many people in our churches have experienced various kinds of abuse. The event can act as a trigger to their unresolved experiences and issues. For many reasons, which may be difficult to understand, deep emotional reactions are likely to occur. In the emotional confusion, there is a tendency to blame the one bringing the allegation as the cause of all the pain and trouble. We must fight against this tendency because it re-victimizes the one who has been hurt, like rubbing salt into a wound. This secondary wounding can be even more painful and damaging than the original experience. The way an allegation of misconduct is handled by the church greatly determines whether people are re-victimized or helped to heal."

Handing allegations of misconduct needs to be done with the utmost professionalism and care. Our denomination is blessed to have a synodically-approved processes in place, to guide churches in responding to allegations of misconduct against a church leader.

When should the Advisory Panel process be used? The Advisory Panel process is recommended when an adult brings an allegation against someone in a leadership position in the CRC. As the guide explains, "This process allows churches to take allegations of misconduct seriously, and when harm has been done, to respond with justice, compassion and accountability."

In the Advisory Panel process, a panel of trained Safe Church Team members (the panel) is formed to hear testimony from the one bringing the allegation (the claimant).

Why is a panel needed? Relationships in the church and on the council may compromise the process of seeking truth about the details of an alleged offense. Having an objective panel receive information regarding the allegation keeps the process in a more neutral place than if the church council attempts to respond on its own.

What happens during the panel process?

  • The panel hears testimony from the claimant
  • The panel also hears testimony from the one who has been accused
  • The panel determines if the allegation is more likely than not to have occurred and also whether the severity of the incident warrants further action.
  • The panel prepares a written report for the church council, who then determines appropriate steps of action.

As the guide explains, "The church holds tremendous power in its hands, which can either be a catalyst for healing and restoration, or for increased hurt and dissension." This Advisory Panel process guide is designed to help church council members understand their role in providing an effective response to allegations of misconduct against a church leader using the Advisory Panel Process. The process includes important safeguards for all parties involved and paves the way for ongoing care. To learn more, read or download a copy of the guide or contact the Safe Church Ministry office at 616-224-0735.

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