by Mary DeMuth
Over the past two years, we’ve seen unprecedented accounts of sexual abuse within our ranks. We’ve heard stories of survivors finding their voices, only to be met with insensitive comments (Why didn’t you disclose earlier? What were you wearing?) or platitudes (God will work it all out. The past is the past; let it go).
This has to change. Our churches need to become safe places. What does a healthy, healing church look like? Here are four traits.
They have an ethic of empathy.
Healthy church and ministry leaders practice active listening, refraining from making snap judgments or plastering on scriptural Band-Aids. Instead? Leaders ask open-ended questions. They pray and weep alongside. A safe church also has developed resources for those who struggle—things like Bible studies, recovery groups, counseling, prayer ministries or Stephen’s ministries. Empathetic, safe churches are also trauma-informed. The leadership understands that those suffering in the aftermath of sexual abuse need trauma therapy and counseling. They know when to refer. Just like a pastor would not reset a broken limb, a healthy church leadership has developed relationships with those outside the church who can tangibly offer informed healing.
They have a protective plan.
Every church should have a tailor-made child protection policy in place. It’s not enough to retrofit another church’s hard-won policy. These strategies must be contextualized, and they are best created and implemented through a group of caring people. Many churches have child-safeguarding committees whose purpose is to do just this. An excellent resource is The Child Safeguarding Policy Guide for Churches and Ministries by Basyle Tchividjian and Shira M. Berkovits. Good policy involves robust background checks, triple to quadruple-layered reference checks, bathroom procedures, security protocols, the possibility of cameras (but not using them as a panacea. Cameras don’t negate due diligence), and robust training about sexual predation.
If your church does not have a visible plan in the form of a handout, an email (or series of emails), or displayed on its website, inquire. Encourage leaders to be overly communicative about this important topic.
They have a proactive plan.
In addition, church leadership should have an internal checklist that details how they will respond if an allegation comes to their attention. What we have seen over the past two years are reactive churches circling the reputation wagon rather than churches that have methodically walked through preordained steps. Typical processes look like:
• Err on the side of belief. In the case of children, it is exceptionally rare for them to make a false claim.
• If the allegation involves a minor and/or is a crime (rape), report it immediately to the authorities. Do not perform an investigation on your own--this is the job of trained professionals.
• Appropriately deal with the employee or volunteer (this usually means severing ties).
• Inform the congregation immediately.
• Hire an independent investigative body so you can learn from what happened and restore trust with the congregation.
• Apologize, grieve, and lament what has happened.
• Contact the press and express the above.
• Warn other ministries about the predatory person.
• Pay for trauma-informed counseling for those abused.
They talk about sexual abuse.
Healthy churches are unafraid of talking about sexual abuse in an appropriate manner. If they don’t, survivors in the pews feel utterly unseen. As both a sexual abuse survivor and a Christ follower, I have attended church for decades, but I can recall less than five sermons that dealt with sexual abuse (or domestic violence for that matter)—even though both exist within the counsel of Scripture. Seldom have I heard a survivor’s testimony from the front of the church (unless I was the one telling it). This has fostered the belief that I am fundamentally broken, that I am abnormal. Redemption is a beautiful thing, and what better way to convey this by being honest about what the people in the chairs are actually wrestling with?
Providing workshops for parents and training for volunteers is also vital, particularly when discerning pedophiles, who typically have hundreds of victims before they are caught. They’re not creepers in windowless vans trolling neighborhoods. No, they’re typically charming, well-liked, and upstanding. If a church trains parents, and parents empower their children, we can begin to unmask the predators in our communities.
When it comes to the epidemic of sexual trauma in our midst, isolation is a poor substitute for healing. That’s why so many have found their voices in the #MeToo era. I’ve learned over the course of my decades-long healing journey that an untold story never heals. The truth: we heal better together—in safe community. It is my sincere prayer that church represents Jesus Christ well, the One who embodied the Good Shepherd (who chased the broken one, sacrificing himself) and the Good Samaritan (who inconvenienced himself to bring healing).
Mary DeMuth is the author of over 40 books including her latest: We Too: How the Church Can Redemptively Respond to the Sexual Abuse Crisis . She and her husband Patrick, former church planters in France, co-teach a Life Group at Lake Pointe Church in Rockwall, Texas. They have three grown children. Find out more at http://www.wetoo.org.