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At Wheaton Summit, Evangelical Leaders Share Stories of Abuse

At Wheaton Summit, Evangelical Leaders Share Stories of Abuse
Nancy Beach presents at Wheaton College on Dec. 13, 2018, at the summit on sexual abuse and misconduct.
RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

For popular Bible teacher Beth Moore, the church always has been a safe harbor.

That was especially true when she was growing up. Church was a place where she could escape from the sexual abuse she experienced at home, she said.

“I’ve seen glimpses with my own eyes what a church can do for victims of sexual abuse and assault. I am a survivor,” Moore said.

Moore was a featured speaker at a one-day summit on sexual abuse and harassment held December 13 at Wheaton College in suburban Chicago—and one of many who described their own experiences of abuse and harassment.

Some shared their stories of sexual abuse for the first time, including bestselling Christian author and pastor Max Lucado and child advocate Kelly Rosati.

“We’re trying to help amplify a conversation others have started,” said Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton, which organized the summit.

Evangelicals have not always done a good job of listening to survivors, Stetzer told attendees at the summit, and “we want to do better.”

“We’ve tried to listen to survivors today — you’ve noticed the overwhelming theme was people who have walked through this journey.”

About 750 people registered for the event, according to organizers. Another 300 signed up to watch the livestream, and more than 40 groups live streamed the event, including churches, universities, and the headquarters of the Evangelical Free Church of America.

It comes as a survey from Nashville, Tenn.-based LifeWay Research earlier this year found that about two-thirds of Protestant pastors say members of their congregation have experienced sexual or domestic violence. Fewer than half of those pastors said their training equipped them to address the issue.

CRC ministry resource: Responding to Abuse: A Toolkit for Churches

At the summit, prominent evangelical Christians from a number of denominations urged churches to educate themselves about mandated reporting laws in their states regarding sexual abuse, pressed for more female leaders in the church, and denounced abuses of power by church leadership.

And a panel of trauma and counseling experts from the college shared a clinical understanding of how trauma affects survivors and how the church can help them heal. They stressed the importance of believing survivors when they come forward and simply sitting with them in their sorrow.

Related Banner story: A Safe Place to Share

“We expect someone who’s experienced trauma just to get up and be OK, and because things have been shattered, it’s going to take time to put them back together,” said Nancy Nealious, a trauma recovery and licensed clinical psychologist in the Wheaton College Counseling Center.

In his closing remarks, Lucado revealed he was sexually abused as a child by a community leader. That’s why he said he accepted the invitation to speak at the summit—because he understands the difficulty of “regaining a balance, having gone through this type of situation.”

As he listened to other speakers, he also said he felt the need to repent for what he called “locker-room banter” from his days playing football, for conversations with women in which he “could have done better” and a condescending attitude he has adopted at times as a senior pastor. Men need to listen and to hear the stories women are sharing, he said.

“Now is the time for across-the-coffee-table conversations that begin with this phrase: ‘Help me to understand what it’s like to be a female in this day and age,’” Lucado said
The conference was not without its critics.

Former evangelicals Emily Joy and Hannah Paasch, the creators of the #ChurchToo hashtag, were not invited to speak at the summit. The two offered their responses to its sessions throughout the day on social media, stressing the view that evangelical beliefs, including the claim that sex should be reserved for a man and woman within the context of marriage, help create an environment where abuse can occur.

Kelly Aten, a community group leader at Renewal Church, a nondenominational congregation in West Chicago, Ill., said she appreciated that speakers made clear sexual abuse is a sin. But they could have clarified that the abuser—not the victim—had sinned.

Survivors already may be dealing with feelings of guilt or shame, as well as a “blame culture” that too often asks what she was wearing or what she did to invite the abuse, said Aten, who attended the summit with a group of female leaders from Renewal.

And abuse is not just a sin, said Aubrey Sampson, a member of Renewal’s preaching team who identified herself as a survivor. It’s also a crime—a point she said more speakers could have made clear.

Still, those in the group said they had learned a lot and hoped to take what they have learned back to Renewal. They hope to create an environment where people can feel safe and experience healing.

“The leaders in our church need to be equipped and encouraged and empowered to know, ‘What do we do?'” Sampson said. “How do we lead our people? How do we shepherd our people well?”

That was something that had resonated with them in Moore’s talk. The Bible teacher recounted new headlines every month exposing crime and coverups in churches and other Christian institutions. She pointed out how secular groups have responded.

Now, Moore said, it is the church’s turn.

Ⓒ Religion News Service

The discussion on the floor of Synod 2018, the annual general meeting of the Christian Reformed Church, revealed that the CRC is beginning to take seriously the problem of abuse in the CRC and there is a desire to want to do more. Safe Church Ministry has made grants available for regional groups of churches who have yet to set up a safe church coordinator. Director Bonnie Nichols said to date two classes have completed the application for a grant. Information on which regions have this in place and who serves which region can be found here.

The Banner has a subscription to Religion News Service and occasionally re-publishes articles of wide Christian interest, according to the license. Links to resources from the Christian Reformed Church have been added. The original story can be found here.

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