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

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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.

Whitney Young Jr. is credited with the saying, “It is better to be prepared for an opportunity and not have one than to have an opportunity and not be prepared.” We may not tend to think of an allegation or situation of sexual abuse as an opportunity, yet that’s exactly what it is. It’s a wonderful opportunity to meet someone in their place of hurt and to minister with the Lord’s compassion and justice.

The response of the Church is critical. Churches have been known to take a path that leads to further harm and devastation. Even well-intentioned actions by faithful Christians can lead down this path when there is a lack of understanding about the issues involved. Another path leads toward a journey of restoration and healing, not an easy journey, but one filled with the transforming power of our Lord. The choice is in our hands; are we prepared to choose the right path?

An effective response to abuse is not possible without understanding the dynamics and impacts of abuse, especially the power dynamic. The way to think about abuse is to see it as misuse or abuse of power. For example, sexual abuse is not so much about sex as it is using sex to maintain power in a 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?”

Next, 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 is used for selfish gain, to manipulate, to control, or to harm, people are diminished and negative outcomes result. Scripture teaches us that people, like trees, are known by their fruit. Being 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, which is inherent in their position. It’s connected 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 office bearer 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.

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. Trauma has serious impacts, which must be considered. Impacts such as heightened vigilance, intrusive thoughts, night terrors, depression, anxiety, and despair can contribute to the sense of powerlessness and feeling out of control. These are normal responses to traumatic events and may require professional intervention. Denying these impacts is not helpful; rather space and time are needed to work through them.

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’s their own experience and must not be shared without permission. They should also be involved as much as possible in any process decisions about how the situation is handled. Churches often make a big mistake in changing focus after the abuse has been disclosed to the one who perpetrated the abuse. We must not, throughout the process, neglect those who have been harmed. 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’ve lost. And it’s impossible to overestimate the power of a listening ear. You don’t need to be a therapist to listen with compassion and empathy to listen to someone’s story. And by doing so, you’ve given that person a precious gift, letting them know they are valued and heard.

Ideas from Safe Church Ministry:

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.

Do a Bible Study together in a small group, a church council, or a ministry leadership group. Baylor University School of Social Work offers an especially helpful resource, a series of Bible Studies on the subject of power called “Power and the Christian.” It is available as a free download here.

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 one hour 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. 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 that needs to be addressed, yes, even in our churches. This webinar can help us respond in practical and effective ways.
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