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


Safe Church Ministry is working on a new resource called, “Responding to Abuse: A Toolkit for Church Councils.” We are hearing from congregations requesting assistance as they face allegations and situations of abuse. We expect that trend to continue as the #MeToo wave begins to hit the church. We will be posting draft version pieces of this new resource here on The Network. Step #1 is entitled Be Prepared, and is focused on primary prevention rather than response (this step will be featured later).

We begin here with 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 sources such as position, status, or cultural factors. An important question to ask in any abusive situation is, “Who has greater power?” Then 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 situations.

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:

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, throughout the entire process. Their needs have been ignored, and their voices unheard in their experience of abuse. It is up to us now 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 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 our power is viewed by others, and how the way we use power affects others? If not, what might we do to help us 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” or "The Cry of Tamar: Violence Against Women and the Church's Response" to help understand how this kind of abuse happens, and to gain 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.



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