In 1992, Synod adopted the report of the Committee to Study Physical, Emotional, and Sexual Abuse and also mandated the continuation of the committee’s work. In 1994 it was recognized that this work could not be done adequately by a volunteer committee and Synod adopted the recommendation that a full-time staff person be added to continue and amplify the work of education, prevention, and training.
Beth Swagman was hired and served the denomination for the next 16 years. Upon her resignation, Bonnie Nicholas served in a part time interim role, and then was appointed as the next full time director of what is now known as Safe Church Ministry (formerly the Office of Abuse Prevention). Except for a short interim time, the CRCNA has employed a full time staff person to coordinate/direct efforts in abuse awareness, prevention, and response for 25 years.
Some things change and some stay the same. Both the abuse of power and guidelines for responding to ethical and sexual misconduct of ministerial personnel have been agenda items at Synod in 1994 and also in 2019. In both instances, consideration of these issues came as a result of an overture from the prior year; and included discussion of a clear code of professional conduct for clergy. What we said in 1994 may sound familiar:
“The relationship of trust is fundamental and essential to the pastoral care of persons whom the personnel are assigned to serve. To violate that trust is a breach of pastoral responsibility that disregards the person’s dignity in a setting of unequal power at a time of vulnerability … The responsibility to assure that no sexual misbehavior takes place always belongs to the minister or pastoral personnel, irrespective of the provocation or apparent cause. Consent is never a justification nor defense for sexual abuse, harassment, or exploitation, and the situation or circumstances provide no exception.” (Agenda for Synod 1994, pp. 191)
The report that Synod adopted in 1994 was recommended to churches for study, prayer, and response; and the report is still relevant today. Much progress has been made, for which we can be thankful, yet there is certainly room for more progress to be made. In response to the question, “Where do we go from here?” The 1994 report responds:
As a denomination we must recognize that as long as we talk only about care for survivors and offenders, important as that is, we are missing a major factor contributing to abuse. A major contributing factor is societal and institutional. We need a radical change in our thinking about relationships between men and women and between parents and children, and we need changes in church policy and practice. We need to begin to focus more directly on prevention of abusive behaviors in the home and in the church. (Agenda for Synod 1994 p. 154)
Thinking beyond crisis management to proactive prevention will require a shift in our culture. This culture shift is critical to real and lasting change. The 1994 report points to cultural and institutional factors contributing to the problem, including:
We must face the fact that our fallen culture supports the belief that men have the right and the power to "own" women and to do with them as they please. We must face the fact that most survivors are women and girls and boys and that most abusers are men. We must acknowledge that the institutional church has for centuries supported a view of the relationship between men and women and between fathers and children which, in effect, gives implicit permission to abuse and then supports the abuser because of his position in the family and the church. Furthermore, we must acknowledge that pastoral care to offenders is given by men who are inheritors of the same messages that the offender has received. (Agenda for Synod 1994 p. 153)
The fact that we find ourselves in need a another committee to address the abuse of power 25 years after this insightful report tells us that we have not yet learned its lessons. The cultural dynamic of domination, rather than of partnership, can play out in ways that are easy to identify, and also in very subtle ways that are harder to discover. Intentional efforts are needed to listen, really listen to understand, our sisters in faith and others who have been marginalized by a power dynamic of domination rather than of partnership.
Policies and procedures are one thing. Changing culture is something else entirely. We must carefully consider how our culture provides a context that allows abuse to continue. Why? Simply because culture trumps strategy and policy every single time! Without changing the underlying culture, strategy and policy changes don’t stick, and real change doesn’t take place. How do we begin to create a culture where ALL people are valued as a unique image bearers of God, and therefore ALL relationships are sacred? How do we begin to create a culture where power is used to love and to serve and abuse is unthinkable?
Prayer for the next 25 years:
Lord, we thank you for your very presence with us as we seek to follow you in all things, including our relationships with one another. We thank you for progress that we’ve seen and for the gifts that you have given to Safe Church Ministry. We pray that you would open our eyes to see and to acknowledge the sin of abuse within our midst. Grant true repentance and change where it is needed. We pray for your wisdom, so that our actions would be effective to prevent abuse and to stand with you against it. We pray that we might have the courage to walk alongside those impacted by abuse, sharing your compassion and working to bring your justice. May you bring healing, Lord, to those who have been harmed and to the church, which bears your great name. Amen.