Responding to Abuse Toolkit Step #2: Understanding the Power Dynamic

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Safe Church Ministry offers this resource, Responding to Abuse: A Toolkit for Churches. We often hear  from congregations requesting assistance as they face allegations and situations of abuse. We expect that trend to continue as sexual abuse comes out into the open from where it has been hidden and as the #MeToo movement continues to impact the Church. 

Step #2, Understanding the Power Dynamic

Key to understanding sexual abuse is knowledge of the power dynamic involved. Sexual abuse is not so much about sex as it is about misuse or abuse of power in relationship. Everyone has various kinds of power which come from various sources. Personal power is something that everyone is given, additional power can come from a position or a role or from status or cultural factors. In addition, when people come together there is strength in numbers, or communal power. An important question to ask in responding to any situation of abuse is, “who has the greater power in this relationship?” An important part of assessing the situation is to note how relational power is used and what the outcomes are. Power, when used appropriately benefits others; the outcome is positive, leading to life and flourishing. The opposite is true when power is misused or abused. When power used for selfish gain, to manipulate, or harm, people are diminished and negative outcomes result. Scripture teaches us that people, like trees, are known by their fruit. Becoming aware of who has the power, and then observing the fruit that results from the actions of those with power, can give important insight into any situation, and is especially critical in assessing situations involving abuse.

Church leaders, whether they are aware of it or not, possess a huge amount of power inherent in their position. Their positional power connects to the church community, the denomination, and to our Lord. Thankfully, not all sexual misconduct involves a church leader. Yet when it does, the impacts are especially harmful not only to the individuals directly involved, but also to the entire church community. Jesus, our redeemer and our example, used his infinite power in sacrificial love for others, dying on a cross, and empowering others through his Holy Spirit. We are called to follow his way. Synod 2016 recognized this power dynamic in adopting the following statement as a new Supplement to Church Order Article 83: “One of the key dynamics in considering abuse of office is the imbalance and misuse of power. The power inherent in the role of an officebearer represents a sacred trust and must not be misused”. (Church Order and Its Supplements 2016; p. 100)

Education about misconduct as abuse of power (not a consensual affair between persons of equal power) has been identified as a key prevention strategy. Baylor University School of Social Work is known for its extensive research on clergy misconduct, and also for its excellent resources on the subject. One especially helpful resource is a series of Bible Studies on the subject of power called “Power and the Christian”. This is an excellent resource recommended for study by church councils, staff and other ministry leaders. It is available as a free download: https://www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php/99706.pdf

The other side of the power dynamic is the significant and intense powerlessness experienced by those who have suffered abuse. They were powerless to prevent the abuse from happening, and may still feel powerless as the impacts of the abuse continue to affect their lives in ways that are completely out of their control. One important way to begin to restore power to those who have been victimized is to involve them in any decisions that will affect them. Any decision about how, when, and to whom any part of their story might be shared is their decision alone – it is their own experience and must not be shared without permission. They should also be involved as much as possible in any process decisions regarding the handling of the situation. Churches often make a big mistake in changing focus after abuse is disclosed to the one who perpetrated the abuse. We must not neglect those who have been harmed as the process moves forward, rather they need to be included in guiding the entire process. Their needs have been ignored, and their voices unheard in their experience of abuse. It is now up to us to listen, to focus our attention on their needs, and to allow them to make decisions on their own behalf. In this way, they will regain some of the power or agency that they have lost.

Questions to Prayerfully Consider:

  • Have we, as church leaders, ever carefully considered the power that we have in our own ministry relationships? How is our power viewed by others? How might the way we use power affect others? If we have not considered questions like these, what might we do together as church leaders to consider these important questions?
  • Has our church offered opportunity for ongoing leadership development, including offering mentoring and accountability relationships?
  • What is our church doing to train church leaders in ethical ministry relationships and boundaries? What resources are available in our community for this kind of training?

Ideas from Safe Church Ministry:

  • Read a book – “When Pastors Prey: Overcoming Clergy Sexual Abuse of Women”, "The Cry of Tamar: Violence Against Women and the Church's Response", or “The #MeToo Reckoning”, are good choices to help understand how sexual abuse happens, and to gain a greater understanding of the devastating impact of abuse within a church setting.
  • Create opportunity for mentoring – Developing ongoing open and honest relationships of mentoring, support, and accountability is valuable for church members and critical for church leaders. If you are a church leader, make it a priority to invest in deep relationships of accountability in your life.
  • View a webinar and have a discussion – Safe Church webinars are an easy way to learn something in less than an hour, and are designed to lead to good discussion. A special council meeting or retreat, a small group Bible Study, or adult education hour would provide good contexts.

Healthy Boundaries in Ministry Relationships – This webinar explores how healthy boundaries enhance ministry, how power dynamics influence ministry relationships, and how to avoid some of the common pitfalls that lead to boundary violations, conflict, and potential harm. 

The Church’s Role in Ending Child Sexual Abuse – One in four and one in six is NOT okay! One in four girls and one in six boys experience sexual abuse before age 18. What is the role of the Church in the face of these horrific statistics? This webinar examines how sexual abuse happens, what some of the impacts are, and then explores how churches can play a key role in ending this epidemic in our culture. 

Domestic Violence and the Role of the Church – Domestic abuse is a hidden problem, yes, even in our churches. This webinar can help us respond in practical and effective ways to this pervasive problem.

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