To protect the privacy and confidentiality of those who call the Safe Church office, we offer this story as a composite of actual situations we have helped Christian Reformed congregations with in the past six months. While the individual names and the congregation are fictional, they reflect common trends we are noticing and the type of assistance that Safe Church can provide.
Consider the following scenario:
John, an elder of Atown CRC, calls the staff at Safe Church Ministry. “We need your help,” he says, his voice tentative and uncertain. “We have a situation, and we are not sure how to handle it.”
As I chat with John, he shares with me how a year and a half ago, the church had hired a second staff person, Michael, to expand the ministry of the church. The congregation and the council loved Michael. He was charismatic, gregarious, and gifted. People were clearly drawn to him. But a couple of months ago, Michael’s wife, Nancy, had met with John and shared with him that things were not going well in their marriage. Michael seemed increasingly angry, frustrated, and even violent. He frequently belittled her and made her feel bad. She no longer felt safe.
At first John had chalked it up to a lovers’ spat—a rough patch in Michael and Nancy’s marriage—but it became increasingly clear that this was something different. Each time John saw Nancy, he noticed that she was growing more and more skittish, guarded, and withdrawn. It was clear that Michael was the cause.
“The situation seems to be escalating quickly,” John notes. “This is clearly abuse. What do we do?”
After chatting with John and praying with him, Safe Church connects him with his classis Safe Church coordinator. The Safe Church coordinator follows up with Nancy, spends time talking to her, listening to her story, and discerning with her how to go forward. The Safe Church coordinator also works with John to find Nancy an advocate, someone who can support her and guide her through the next steps in reporting the escalating abuse to the authorities and in helping the church council understand and attend to the needs of Nancy and her kids.
Fortunately, the classis has a counseling fund available for those victimized by abuse. As a result, the classis Safe Church coordinator is able to secure funds for Nancy to get the counseling she needs to support her journey toward healing.
Additionally, the Safe Church coordinator works with the church council to discern how to follow up with Michael. The council decides to suspend Michael’s employment, temporarily with pay without prejudice, until they have a clearer understanding of what is taking place between Michael and Nancy. Eventually, Michael is let go from his role in the church. After Michael is suspended, several female volunteers who worked with him came forward with complaints about Michael, citing concerns about controlling behavior and demeaning interactions with them.
Several months later, John calls Safe Church again. The experience with Michael had been grueling and hard. It had taken its toll on the congregation. Michael did not take his dismissal well. He threatened to sue the church for wrongful termination and bad-mouthed members of the council, accusing them of lying.
The congregation didn’t know whom to believe. Some sided with Michael and others with the council, creating enormous tension within the congregation. John knows that the church will be dealing with the fallout for months, perhaps even years, to come. He wants to know how to safeguard their church from this happening again.
Staff from Safe Church Ministry works with the church to establish better hiring, screening, and accountability practices, including implementing a code of conduct that staff are required to sign. They also make a number of recommendations about revising the safe church policy, putting literature about domestic violence in the women’s restroom, and identifying a safe person in the congregation to whom people can report abuse.
Today, Atown CRC is on its way to becoming a safer church thanks to the commitment of the council, the work of the classis Safe Church coordinator, and the resources of Safe Church Ministry.
This month is domestic violence awareness month. If you suspect that someone is being victimized by abuse in your congregation or if you yourself are being abused, don’t hesitate to reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org for help.