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Last month I had the privilege of spending a day with Rev. Dr. Marie Fortune and Emily Cohen of Faith Trust Institute along with ecumenical colleagues. Based in Seattle, it is a faith-based organization that provides written and video resources for the prevention of sexual assault, domestic violence, and church leader misconduct.

The day was packed full of learnings, so I will only share a few here. Safe Church recommends the work of Faith Trust Institute if you want to explore further.

Our day was centered around maintaining healthy boundaries and responding to misconduct from a denominational perspective. Prevention strategies were touched on, but most of our time focused on intervention and response. Some important strategies to prevent church leader misconduct are education (around creating and maintaining healthy boundaries), accountability (talking things out and raising warning signs with peers), self-care (meeting needs outside congregational ministry), and clear policies and expectations (standards of professional conduct). These are essential, but intervention is necessary when prevention fails. Policy and procedures are needed to hold offenders accountable and prevent further harm.

One conversation critical to the ministry of safe church is working through the concepts of power and vulnerability. As these words carry connotations, it is important that people understand what is meant by them. Power in itself is neutral; it is a relational and conceptual context. Power means a group or individual has access to greater resources as well as a potential for helping or hurting those with less power.

Vulnerability is also relational and contextual. It refers to an individual or group having access to fewer resources as well as a potential for being helped or hurt by those in power. Power is not a feeling, it is a fact of resources. Leaders, in their role, always carry more power than the people they serve God with. The goals of healthy boundaries are to maintain the integrity of the ministerial relationship and to protect those who are vulnerable (congregants, clients, employees, students, etc.).

Another important distinction is between boundary crossings and boundary violations. Boundary crossings are a fact of life that are neutral activities in and of themselves (communication, touch, emotional intimacy). The question needs to be for what purpose and in whose interest is this for. Boundary crossings become violations when they are not in the best interest of the other and this results in experiencing harm. There may or may not be intent in violating boundaries. And so, when a minister/leader violates boundaries of a congregant, client, employee, student or staff member:

  • It is a violation of role (and a breach of fiduciary responsibility)
  • It is a misuse of authority and power
  • It is taking advantage of vulnerability
  • It is an absence of meaningful consent (consent requires capacity and a peer relationship)

When boundary violations and harm do occur, there must be clear policies and procedures to follow. Find more information of Safe Church’s Advisory Process Panel here.  Rev. Dr. Marie Fortune and Emily Cohen shared some excellent thoughts on the steps needed after harm has occurred. They referred to this as Elements of Justice Making.  It begins with the survivor telling their truth, which is their work. 

Our work as church begins with acknowledging the violation and the harm. We need to have a gesture of compassion with a priority of protecting the vulnerable. There needs to be methods of holding the individual accountable and providing restitution for the survivors to cover financial wounds incurred by harm (counselling needs, losses). Lastly, survivors need a way of being set free, of being restored to community. Forgiveness and healing may come but should not be expected, forced, or as a topic until adjudications and reparations are made. These elements are still critical if complaint is unfounded. In their experience, this possibility is extremely rare (an example of 3/5000 complaints were unfounded).

Finally, they raised the basic components of a policy that maintains the integrity of the ministerial relationship and protects those who are vulnerable. 

  • There needs to be clear policy language: clearly state what behaviours constitute misconduct (stated broadly without only saying “inappropriate behaviours”). 
  • There needs to be clear procedures to follow insuring due process. This should be a neutral process that assumes innocence of the accused and assumes good faith for the accuser. If information is easily accessible, it strengthen resources of survivors and may dispel some fear. 
  • There must be an adjudication to determine the validity of the complaint and clear consequences to hold accountable. 
  • The outcome must be communicated appropriately. 
  • When hiring leaders, there must be a requirement to disclose previous complaints, preferably through a file or a letter of good standing from other churches/denominations.

These are a few of my learnings from the day, but we encourage you to look through and consult Faith Trust Institute. As well, Safe Church Ministry is planning to release a policy toolkit soon and we are here to support you in making your church a place where all may worship free from abuse.

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