Over the past several years, stories of inappropriately addressed misconduct have left a tumultuous wake in many major churches and denominations: from Willow Creek and the Southern Baptist Convention to Sovereign Grace Ministries and more. Every disclosure or allegation of abuse is different, yet all of them require thorough discernment and proper care for those involved.
It’s common for people to believe it can’t happen in their congregation. As we’ve seen in these other instances, though, it can and it does happen even among “our” churches. Here are a few key things to keep in mind if your congregation finds itself navigating similar situations. (Material adapted fromSafe Church Ministry’s Responding to Abuse – A Toolkit for Churches).
First, listen and pray. Carefully and without judgment, listen to any disclosure or allegation of abuse. To be heard with empathy is one of the greatest needs of someone who has suffered abuse. By simply listening, you are already offering something more valuable than you might imagine. Remember to pray and take a deep breath; avoid a fast, easy, or flippant answer. These situations can be very complicated; remember you are only hearing one perspective.
If a minor is involved:
- Determine whether this is a reportable offense. In some states and provinces, failure to report can lead to criminal liability. When in doubt, report the incident to the proper authorities.
- Know who in your church to contact as a next step to properly deal with the situation.
- Affirm the child. If you are hearing a disclosure from a child, affirm that he or she is doing the right thing in telling you what has happened. Stay calm. Offer reassurance that the abuse was not his or her fault.
- Support those involved. The role of the church is to provide pastoral care to all who are directly involved. Confidentiality is especially important when a minor is involved, but it is also important to recognize that the situation may be too heavy for family members and those directly involved to carry alone. Community resources may be available to offer various kinds of support.
When a church leader is involved:
- Take a step back and a deep breath. It is shocking to hear allegations of abuse against a church leader, especially if it is someone you know and trust. Remember to listen and hear the allegation completely before making any judgment.
- Thank those who spoke up for their courage in sharing their story. Assure them that you care about them. Ask them what they want to have happen, and take your cues from them. This will help them to feel empowered again after the extreme powerlessness they have experienced in the situation of abuse.
- Know whom to contact. Connecting with a safe church team member can be especially helpful. They will be able to offer perspective, consultation, and an understanding of the Advisory Panel Process approved by synod for use in situations of alleged abuse against a church leader. To learn more about the safe church team in your area, visit crcna.org/safechurch.
Lastly, a note about abuse: When a church leader is involved in any sort of sexual misconduct, the relationship is an abuse of office, position, and authority due to the power differential in the ministry relationship. Synod 2016 adopted a new supplement to Church Order Article 83, stating, “One of the key dynamics in considering abuse of office is the imbalance and misuse of power. The power inherent in the role of office bearer represents a sacred trust and must not be misused” (Acts of Synod 2016, p. 865).
For more information, visit crcna.org/safechurch.