Reflections on the 25th Anniversary of Safe Church Ministry

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My journey with Safe Church Ministry began in 1989 when I was 1 of 7 people appointed to the Study Committee on Abuse. Following the denomination’s tradition of putting initials to assignments, the committee was referred to as “SCONAB.” From 1989 until 1994 when the committee was dismissed at Synod, the committee acted as conscience for the church. The committee revealed the underbelly of the church—its culture of abuse; it expressed the hurt and pain of countless people; and it championed justice while speaking against cheap grace.

In 1994, Synod approved the formation of the abuse prevention ministry. Synod took a brave step because it could not have anticipated all that followed. In truth, no one knew what God had in store for the CRCNA. As Abraham and Isaac trudged up to the mountain top with a knife and a bundle of sticks, what was God up to? What did He want us to do?

Looking back, I am amazed at what God has done and continues to do through the ministry of Safe Church, and through the people God has placed where, when, and how to carry out His perfect plan.

Safe Church Ministry (in its earlier years “Abuse Prevention Ministry”) has always been blessed with committee members and advisory team members who showered the ministry and me as its director with wisdom, expertise, theological support, legal support, emotional support, and many acts of kindness that brought joy to weariness and brought hope to frustration.

As Safe Church Ministry grew, so did the classis volunteers. The classis safe church teams grew in strength and size, and more importantly, the team brought a local presence to a bi-national church employee trying to handle fires in 1000 congregations. Not enough can be said for those volunteers, some of whom have become paid staff in their classis. Their faces, their voices, their endless phone calls and visits, emails, texts (not available before I left!) kept the heart of the ministry beating. Safe Church Ministry could never exist alone or compartmentalized. The church had to embrace the ministry, and it did—through the teams’ constant work of education and through their compassionate response to victims.

I have often wondered what early church members thought about Paul, formerly the bad actor and persecutor Saul. “You expect us to trust this guy after what he did to our friend, Stephen, and many other saints?” Fast forward 2000 years, and I can so clearly recall victims saying over and over again, “How do I trust the church? Why should I trust you? What has changed since I was abused? What difference is my coming forward now going to make?” 

Victims did not then, and still today many do not today, trust the church as an institution, church officials in their hierarchical roles, and church procedures which oft times seem weighted toward “forgive and forget.” Considerably less dramatic than Paul’s experience, I was privileged to hear and witness the conversion of many pastors and church leaders to recognizing the harm and damage done to children and adults under the guise of spiritual formation or spiritual authority. Many denominational leaders, pastors, classes and church leaders took on the institutional church at Synod, at classis meetings, and countless casual meetings or trainings to lead others to that conversion. So many pastors led the charge: They made a path for me, and in doing so created a credible path for healing and restoration. 

The last highlight is not the least of them. Without the support of Faith Alive and its championing Preventing Child Abuse, Responding to Domestic Violence in the Church, and many other written materials (now electronically available!), the broader church would not have had the tools to bring about change. Policies and procedures, like the Advisory Panel Process, were instrumental in changing behaviors and opened the door a bit wider for change in the culture of abuse. Policies gave us a tool which although not foolproof raised awareness of abuse in more locations and reached more people than any other tool. Procedures gave us a tool which although not perfect was a visible testimony to the church’s gritty determination that we can bring justice, accountability, and healing. Without the change in culture, however, the church will continue to experience how easy it can be to manipulate policies and procedures to stymie truth and growth.

God started this process of transformation of a church becoming a community that was willing to identify the sin of abuse and begin a journey toward restoration from the harm and becoming reconciled to the God of grace. I am humbled that I should have been given a part in this process. What was God thinking? What is He up to now?

With gratitude to God,

Beth A. Swagman

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Thank you so much Beth for sharing these reflections. So much resonates with me - especially the part about the compassion and commitment of so many safe church volunteers, coordinators, and committee members who are the very heart of the ministry, and who have, "brought joy to weariness and brought hope to frustration." And I agree wholeheartedly that it was God who started this transforming work, and continues to work through his people, the church.

"What is God up to now?" We'll have to wait and see.

Thanks again! 

Thank you Beth, for pioneering this ministry, and Bonnie, for your continuing leadership. It is with joy that I celebrate  the miles that the church has come. Yet, the need is so great, that it saddens me. So, today I will celebrate, for tomorrow I will pray, and dig in some more!

In His Hands,

Elizabeth Schultz