As the #MeToo movement hits the church, many churches are requesting information about how to respond. Safe Church Ministry is working on a toolkit for churches. Responding to immediate needs will be a part of that toolkit. We hope that this article is a helpful preview.
It may help to understand that abuse does not happen randomly; often a grooming process has taken place for some time that sets the stage for abuse to occur. See, Responding to Abuse Toolkit: Grooming, for more about how grooming works in an abusive relationship. In addition, situations of abuse seem to become very complicated very quickly, like a spider web, or an onion with many layers. It may seem overwhelming. Though each situation is unique, it’s helpful to know common tendencies and common needs that arise.
The first rule of abuse is to expect denial from everyone (including you!). We simply don’t want to believe that these things really happen. So when they do happen, when we must face an allegation or a situation of abuse, we must overcome our own tendency to deny or minimize it. Of course we wish it would quickly go away, but these situations usually stay around for quite some time, often affecting not only those directly involved but the entire church community for many years.
Fight Tendency to Misplace Blame.
In addition to our tendency toward denial, we must also recognize another tendency. There is a tendency to blame those who have experienced the abuse. There is a feeling that they have “caused” the trouble by coming forward, or for other reasons, that this is somehow their fault. There are several reasons for this tendency. One is that it makes us feel safer if someone did something to “deserve” the abuse that they’ve experienced. Then we can continue to maintain the false assumption that it could never happen to us.
When a child is involved, it’s easier to see who is really at fault; the adult bears the responsibility for any infraction against a vulnerable child. We all know that it’s the responsibility of adults to care for children. Yet this line can seem fuzzier when two adults, or two teens are involved. We need to go back to carefully consider the power dynamic in the relationship. It’s also helpful to understand grooming behavior, which we will discuss in a separate article. Sexual abuse doesn’t usually occur “out of the blue”, there is often a long grooming process that helped create the opportunity.
Another reason we have a tendency to blame those who have experienced abuse is because often the person who is alleged to have perpetrated the abuse is someone we know, perhaps a beloved church leader, perhaps someone who has been instrumental in effective ministry, or a family relative. People who abuse others are not monsters, they are people just like all of us.
The Response of the Church is Critical.
The way the church responds to an allegation or a situation of abuse is critical. It can be handled in a way that leads to healing and moving forward, or, it can lead to further harm and divisiveness. Lack of response, or a wrong response, can multiply the harmful consequences, causing even more destructive harm than the original abuse. Every situation is unique, has numerous complicating factors, and the best answers are not always clear. Yet we are called to be the very Body of Christ in the midst of it all. Our concern is more than practical, it’s ecclesiastical as well.
The church is called to be a witness, reflecting in our relationships with one another the very love of our Lord toward his Bride, the Church. As the church follows its high calling, our faith is encouraged and the power of the Lord is revealed. The opposite is true when we neglect this calling and follow other paths of self-protection and fear.
Don’t Go Alone.
A single church or congregation rarely has all the resources needed when a situation of abuse is disclosed or an allegation of abuse is made. It’s important to reach out to others who have valuable expertise and enlist their help in dealing with the situation. Local resources are best as laws that pertain to a given situation vary from state and from province to province. Legal help may be required. Child abuse must be reported to the proper authorities immediately.
In addition, there are many community organizations that offer services such as: consultation, counseling, group work, assistance with filing complaints, etc. And there are denominational resources such as Safe Church Ministry and Pastor Church Resources. Working together with others can lead to a much better understanding of the issues, as each brings a valuable perspective to the table. Better outcomes are the result. There is no good reason not to connect and get assistance from others when facing difficult situations of abuse.
Enlist Walk-Alongside Advocates.
In some cases, it will be difficult for the same person, a pastor for example, to minister to the needs of the various people involved in the same situation. It may be helpful to seek an advocate or support person to walk alongside each person who is directly involved. It’s best if advocates are not church council members since church council members need to maintain a certain degree of professional distance to maintain a good perspective on the entire situation as it unfolds. They need to be able to fully hear all the voices and not be too closely tied to only one perspective. Council members must do their best to withhold judgment until a more complete picture is revealed (this is difficult).
Recognize Unique Needs of Each Person.
Everyone close to the situation will have unique needs, which is why Safe Church recommends having a small abuse response team in place, ready to handle these situations. The team should be small to maintain appropriate confidentiality, while still being able to respond to the needs as they arise (perhaps 3-4 people). The response team should include a safe church team member, someone who has been trained in the dynamics and impacts of abuse. Other possible members could be church staff, council members, or mature Christians who have a heart of compassion for this kind of ministry. It is the council’s responsibility to make sure that a response team is in place should the need arise.
Summary of Immediate Needs.
Those who have survived abuse commonly need:
- To be listened to and believed (perhaps over and over again)
- An acknowledgement of the harm that has been done
- To not be judged for their behavior, ways of coping, attitudes, or questions (trauma can influence the very ability to respond)
- Reassurance that responsibility for the abuse lies with the one who abused
- Validation and normalization of reactions, feelings, and responses
- To experience justice, which may need to include an official public response
- To make own decisions, a sense of being in charge of own life
- To be supported by someone willing to walk the journey, whatever path is chosen
Those who have abused someone commonly need:
- To be held accountable by acknowledging the full extent of their actions and harm caused
- To have long-term accountability structures in place to prevent future harm
- Professional help by those with expertise in sexual abuse interventions (long-term group work has been shown to be most effective for some people)
- The opportunity to make some form of restitution
- To willingly participate in any disciplinary processes
- To be supported by someone willing to walk the journey, whatever path is chosen
Dealing with a situation of abuse can be very draining and last a long time. Be sure that you have your own support networks in place. And remember Safe Church is here to be a resource for you, never hesitate to contact your Classis Coordinator or Safe Church Ministry directly.
Questions to Prayerfully Consider:
- Are we ready to respond to someone who has experienced misconduct by a church leader? Do we have a response team in place? Are we familiar with the Advisory Panel Process, approved by synod? (See Step #4)
- Do we know how to respond in helpful ways to those who have suffered abuse outside of the church, such as a domestic abuse situation or sexual assault or harassment?
- Are we aware of information and resources available through Safe Church Ministry, and also through local community organizations that can assist us when situations of abuse arise?
Ideas from Safe Church Ministry:
- Read and discuss articles and/or “scenarios." Articles can be found in many places and also on the Safe Church page on The Network. Safe Church has also created this “scenarios” discussion starter for church leaders and small groups. If possible, have a safe church team member facilitate the discussion.
- Partner with local organizations. Possible organizations include domestic violence shelters, sexual assault crisis centers, men’s resource centers, or children’s aid organizations.
- Create opportunities for education so that abuse is acknowledged openly, and people can begin to recognize and challenge power that is misused in abusive ways.
- Contact your local safe church team member or Safe Church Ministry. We’re always happy to hear from you and will do our best to offer additional ideas and be available for consultation or assistance.