The statistics on sexual abuse are staggering, and this should give pastors pause as they consider how to care for people who have been sinned against in this way. Fifty percent of women and one out of three men have experienced an unwanted or traumatic sexual violation. Studies show that many who have been sexually abused do not disclose until they are adults, and the average age of disclosure is 52! As shepherds, pastors are called to care for others in the Lord (1 Thessalonians 5:12), comforting and encouraging them in their grief and struggles.
The BCM/D Sexual Abuse Task Force is asking churches to develop an action plan to care for victims of sexual abuse, by which we mean identifying resources for options for care and putting structures in place that will support victims and their families. Here are three action steps you can take to move towards developing an action plan for caring well.
Victims of abuse are often protective of their stories and vigilant toward possible threats. They may reveal their story in small pieces to test if you can be trusted or if you will believe them. Hurrying them along or minimizing the pain of their experience can communicate that you don’t care. Rachael Denhollander, author of What Is A Girl Worth, says, “The most important thing you can do for a survivor is let them know that what they are suffering matters to you, and it matters to God.”
Abuse throws a victim’s life into turmoil, and those victims often struggle to restore meaning, regulate their emotions, and take steps toward healing. Take time to listen with compassion and empathy. I believe that as a pastor, I am better suited to walk with people through trauma as their friend rather than as their counselor. Caring for the abused as a pastoral friend means being available to listen with wisdom and patience as someone unpacks difficult memories and painful experiences. You may need to act depending on the situation, but separate what’s happening into two distinct moments: Listen well and then act.
- Educate yourself and identify resources
Familiarizing yourself and any church staff with local and community resources that can help is a good start. Visiting your local child advocacy center (every county has one), talking with local counselors, and asking for referrals to those specialized in dealing with trauma is a good way to begin to build your list of resources. Encourage your church to be generous and give to a benevolence fund and reserve some of those funds to help people pay for counseling. Since counseling is expensive, the people who need it most often refuse to pursue it due to cost and the risk of being vulnerable. If you can, take courses offered by disaster response groups like the Red Cross or VOAD (Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster) because they will often cover topics like shock, trauma and caring for those in a crisis.
Reading books like The Soul of Shame by Curt Thompson, Something’s Not Right by Wade Mullen and Redeeming Power: Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church can help you understand the damage caused by abuse and how to respond to it. Walk through the Caring Well curriculum at churchcares.com, especially lesson 9, “Pastoral Care After Reporting.” Visit traumahealingbasics.org for free, simple, practical tools that were developed by combining mental health best practices with biblical wisdom to learn about and respond to trauma.
- Put a caring well team in place
So often as pastors we have to move quickly from task to task, solving problems, but if we approach abuse in a similar way, we’ll miss what the victim needs most: someone who will listen, believe and help them take the next steps toward healing.
Oppressive trauma can lead to feelings of isolation. Ecclesiastes 4:1 says, “Again, I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors, there was power, and there was no one to comfort them” (ESV).
Churches are excellent at responding to the death of a loved one, the birth of a new baby and other hardships. Enact those same practices for victims and survivors of trauma. They, too, may need help with meals, transportation, and childcare. They also need to hear frequent messages of encouragement and hope. Responding well is a long haul, not a one-and-done. Providing this type of support communicates that they matter and are valuable.
Train the caring well team to understand the facets of abuse and trauma, and to seek input from the victim/survivor on how to best care for them while maintaining their privacy. Small group resources such as the Fearless Series for Women, a tool for Christian women to get the conversation started about sexual abuse and to help them dive deeper into healing, provide safe spaces for community.
As pastors educate themselves on abuse and familiarize themselves with local resources, they can help their people take steps forward in the most painful experiences of their lives. There are no easy answers and no simple solutions, but the image of the Shepherd displays the skills needed – patiently guiding those in his care to cool water and places of safety. If your church needs assistance in creating a response and reporting plan, please visit our Pathways page or reach out to Kris Buckman, BCM/D Children’s & Youth Ministry Consultant.
Keith Myer is pastor of Harvest Baptist Church in Salisbury, Md., and chairman of the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware Sexual Abuse Task Force.