7 ways to welcome abuse survivors in our churches

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Front of Church - photo courtesy of Spencer Tweedy via Flickr

Front of Church - photo courtesy of Spencer Tweedy via Flickr

Churches should be some of the safest and most welcoming communities for those who have suffered from sexual abuse. Sadly, today these are some of the places survivors feel most vulnerable as they are often shamed, silenced, and judged.

This is most tragically illustrated by the case of a young girl who was sexually abused by a missionary doctor on the mission field. When she finally stepped forward and reported the abuse, the missionary leaders made this little 13-year-old girl sign a “confession” letter in which she had to acknowledge having “participated in a physical relationship” with the offender and end the letter with “…I know what I did was very wrong, and I am very sorry for it.” Years later this survivor told me that this damning letter is what shamed her into decades of feeling worthless and being silent. It doesn’t take a demand to sign a confession for a church to become an unsafe and unwelcoming place for survivors. Hurtful comments, the embracing of alleged perpetrators, the failure to offer assistance, and the pretending that this offense doesn’t exist in the Christian community are just a handful of ways that further wound survivors and drive them out of the very places that should be their refuge.

Front of Church - photo courtesy of Spencer Tweedy via Flickr

Front of Church – photo courtesy of Spencer Tweedy via Flickr

I want to share seven ways that I believe will help transform our churches into some of the safest and most welcoming communities for survivors of abuse.

Be a friend and listen: One of the best ways to serve survivors is to simply be their friend and listen. This does NOT mean we pity them and turn them into our special project. It means that we spend time with them, laugh with them, cry with them, and support them. It means that we validate them as human beings made in the image of God. It means that we don’t have all the answers, and it’s ok. Too many survivors have been traumatized by churches that fail to protect them, and then turn around and ignore them or tell them what to do. Perhaps we can help these amazing survivors shed the shame by being a safe person in a safe place.

Know the available resources: Survivors often need professional assistance to help shed the shame fueled by abuse. Becoming familiar with local resources such as qualified therapists, victims’ advocates, attorneys, and support groups will enable us to introduce them to our church communities and to any survivor who may need their services.

Acknowledge & address spiritual struggles: Those who have been sexually abused often struggle with many spiritual doubts, concerns, and questions. Criticizing or judging these struggles will only fuel more shame as survivors are pushed away from yet another unsafe place. On the other hand, offering no response or simply providing oversimplified answers can minimize the importance of these struggles in the lives of these individuals. Sometimes we answer best by simply connecting individuals with sound spiritual resources that may provide them a starting point to address their particular spiritual struggles. This can be anything from recommending a book, blog, or podcast to encouraging them to become part of an abuse-survivor support group at the church. It could also mean connecting them with a clergy member or other professional who has worked through many of these spiritual issues. Before recommending any particular spiritual resource, it is critical that we seek the counsel of Christian child-protection experts and other Christians who have the training for and experience with serving survivors. Organizations such as GRACE and Together-We-Heal are equipped to provide such assistance.

Connect with local law enforcement: Developing a relationship between our faith communities and local law enforcement is invaluable. Believe it or not, most law enforcement officers are thrilled when people in the community seek them out for advice and help. Our churches would greatly benefit from the guidance provided by law enforcement on issues such as child protection, dealing with known sex offenders, status of pending cases, and available community resources for survivors. In most cases, this as easy as calling the local law enforcement office and scheduling an appointment with the officer who supervises the investigation of abuse cases. Simply let him/her know that your church is seeking guidance on issues related to abuse. I highly recommend having a member of the church leadership be a part of this meeting. Connecting with law enforcement will communicate a strong message to the survivors in our churches that we take this issue seriously as we seek to love and protect them with excellence.

Start an abuse-survivor support group: Support groups often create safe places within our churches for survivors to be honest and vulnerable as they continue to walk the long and difficult road of healing. Giving survivors a safe place to speak freely about their abuse and struggles can offer real healing from the isolation they have experienced. When survivors know they are not alone, they can encourage one another by walking through the often difficult journey together.   Though one doesn’t have to be a survivor to start such a group, I highly recommended that we seek out the invaluable input and assistance of survivors when putting together such a group. Developing and supporting this group is a powerful way a church can communicate that it values, protects, and cares for those suffering in its midst.

Develop response protocols: Work with the church leadership and outside child-advocate experts to develop a protocol for responding to abuse disclosures. How we respond to abuse disclosures is perhaps the single most important way we demonstrate value to those who have been abused. A protocol that follows the law and places the needs of the survivor first is needed in every church. I will be writing more about this in future posts.

Speak Up: We serve survivors best when we are their biggest advocates. Those who have been abused should find their greatest and most vocal supporters inside the church. Shaming, silencing, and judging have no home in a community that loves and advocates on behalf of abuse victims. Unfortunately, there are still many within the walls of the church that don’t see it that way. That is where we step in and speak up. We speak up for these amazing survivors, constantly encouraging them with our words and actions to hold their heads up high and walk away from shame and silence. We speak up because it is these unsung heroes who so often teach us, inspire us, and reflect Jesus. We speak up because Jesus speaks up for all of us. We speak up because it is our privilege.

Transforming our churches and faith communities into places of refuge for those who have been violated, judged, and marginalized is what the Gospel is all about. If God is our refuge, then our churches must be the places where these precious souls find safety and rest.

Let’s begin this transformation today…

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  • Wendy

    Years ago, a friend offered to go with me to a support group. We didn’t share the same abuse background, but the physical presence of a friend meant that I was not alone. I was not being pushed aside. I was not being sent away to be “fixed.” I was valuable enough for another human being to care and to spend time with me in a healthy way. That single moment was part of a huge turning point in my journey. The scary, dark, narrow pathway that I was traveling alone and in secret was suddenly brightened by a traveling companion who shined a little light (however shaky and inexperienced that is). The traveling companions have changed over the years — and, although that was hard for me at first to “let go” of people I grew to trust, it has been a gift to expand my connections to meet many trustworthy people. Some walk alongside me for a short time; others longer. Some go deep; others just listen or keep company. Being with safe people in safe environments has made me feel human again. “Being there” is often a missing element for many of us survivors. We are thankful for those who stand with us and dare to stay at our sides.

  • Amy Aldrich

    Listen, Listen, Listen!
    Friends, we all want to talk soooo much more than we want to listen.
    And when we listen, we will hear key words that reveal a history of harm…and when we carefully, gently ask for more of the story, and catch the story well with our hearts…healing can begin.
    Healing can begin when we LISTEN…

  • Cindi

    Proverbs 16:4, Romans 9 and John 15 describes the spiritual position perfectly of those who you excuse with just having “spiritual struggles.”. I find it very sad that according to these chapters and many others that these “spiritual struggles” conclude that these people, although they have been abused, they do not know God. Past abuse isn’t the problem. According to John, if you were called or chosen then you would see the light as He is in the light, instead the total purpose in life is to fulfill Proverbs 16:4.

    “For by grace are you saved through FAITH, and ‘THAT’ (FAITH) not of yourselves, its a gift of God lest any man should think they have the right to boast about their faith”. Believe me, I don’t condemn people for their unbelief, currently they just aren’t one of saved and therefore He has not yet or possibly, will never life in them.
    Instead I pity them because along with others, the Bible says those outside of faith in Christ are dead spiritually, and we know that something that is dead can’t make decisions and if your dead spiritually you can’t decide for Christ. Pretty hopeless for non-believers unless the SPIRIT of God draws them to God.

    I suspect you will continue these people to attack Christ. “You will be hated by all non believing men for my names sake” Jesus. And “They will hate you because they really hate me first”. You serve the same purpose as Judas. So, your doing just what Jesus said you will do. Pretty cool when one thinks about how you fit into the chess game and you believe and think your making yourself move on the board.

  • Learning to be a survivor

    I wrote out a long comment after reading this post, but decided not to post. It was mostly me reflecting on the truth of what is stated here. God has brought people beside me in the journey that I have been walking and it has brought and continues to bring a great deal of healing.
    As I read through the list, I was flooded with thankfulness for those who have done these specific things for me and have shown incredible patience as has taken me a lot of time to trust them and to begin to understand and heal.
    Cindi, As I read your response, my heart breaks for you. I don’t fully understand your comments, but if these are things you really believe, my heart hurts for you. What has happened that has hurt you so, that you are ready to lash out at other hurting people?
    I am one of those you are accusing. I have been broken by past abuse – abuse done in the name of God. God’s Word was used to abuse me, to cover and excuse abuse, to conceal abuse, to silence me, etc. I was broken and considered completely useless to the world of Christianity that I grew up in. There was room for the offenders, but never for the victims.
    You might see me and others like me as being too far past the love of God. I have felt that myself, but it is a feeling and not truth. As unbelievable as it may seem, Jesus came for broken people like me. Please read Ezekial 34. It is an incredibly beautiful passage that addresses the shepherds who abuse their flock. God has harsh words for them. Then he promises to come himself and he says how he will care for those sheep that were trampled by various shepherds.
    You accuse Boz of serving the same purpose as Judas. Really? Do you really believe that? Honestly, I read that and thought you were joking. I don’t feel any need to defend Boz. His actions speak louder than any words that a person can state – for or against him. He answers to an “audience of One.” For that, I am thankful. I don’t think you or I or anyone else can dissuade or distract him from wanting to honor God in the things he says and does. I am thankful for his work. It points to a God of love, a God of hope, a God of healing. He isn’t spending his life making powerful people seem more powerful. He is spending it reaching out to those who are hurting. I don’t fully know why, but am thankful. His work shows me a glimpse of the heart of God.
    Do you remember seeing how Jesus was described in the N.T.? He LOVED those who were cast out. He loved those who the Pharisees condemned. He reached out to those who were hurting in many different ways and loved them. His love, in time, drew them to see truth, to see hope, to see God’s love.
    Do you not see that Boz is doing the same? I don’t mean to exalt Boz to the position of Jesus, but he is a follower of Jesus. The evidence of that is how he acts towards those who are broken.
    I so much want you to understand! In the end, it won’t matter what you think of Boz, but it DOES matter what you think of Jesus. Do you see and have a glimpse of his love?
    People reached out to me when I was the most broken. I had NOTHING to give back. Their was nothing about me that would have motivated anyone to show me mercy and kindness, yet they did. Their actions point directly to who Jesus is, to his love, to his ability and desire to heal. Do you not see that as a picture of Jesus?
    I hope that if you can’t now and that when you do, your heart will overflow towards others who are hurting and be able to love them as Jesus does.

  • Your words are both amazingly powerful and incredibly encouraging. Thank you.

  • Cindi – Not sure how to respond to this comment that is dripping with anger, judgment, self-righteousness, and wholly lacking in compassion, understanding, and love. Having a difficult time seeing Jesus in anything you wrote. I pray one day you will encounter the Gospel that liberates, not enslaves. It would be best for me to let that be the limit of my response.

  • Amen! So very very true. Thank you.

  • This is so good to hear and such an encouragement to all those “friends” who walk alongside survivors, not to judge or “fix” them, but to simply love them. Thank you for sharing this!

  • Tracey Cullers

    Survivors have super-tuned sensitivities for their own safety. There should be chairs and benches and space in the back of every church –warm and inviting spaces that are open for people to sit, or stand, or watch from a corner. It is critical that they make the decision over whether it’s a safe place or not. For every group action, there should be an unobtrusive alternative for people who choose not to participate. If there is an emotional speaker, have the follow-up prayer or blessing be in a neutral, kind voice. Hot coffee, bottles of water . . .available at all times.

  • Regan

    I was sexually abused by not only a family member, but he was also a pastor growing up. Later in life I was then physically abused by an ex husband who was an usher in the church. Though the abuse was extreme and damaging, I can quickly say it was not as damaging as what I received in the church as a response. I never defended myself nor told my story but was attacked so viciously that the church helped take my children from me for the abuser. I lost custody of them. They now have been missing for three years as they were kidnapped by the father who abused me physically and sexually. The church did more harm to me than I ever received from either party. I was constantly accused of adultery, prostitution, etc. none were even close to truth. I have not been in a church in over two years now. I know God is not like His church today. I admit fully I’ve shied away from God. I’m weary from being attacked by His people. I’ve no energy anymore among my brokenness from my missing kids to also stand under their attacks. Christians first response is always you must have done something wrong. They forget it rains on the just as well as the unjust alike. I know I did nothing wrong. I don’t understand why God allowed my abuse or even more so by His church. I just know I was not being punished for wrong doing as they say. I’ve found churches to be the most dangerous place for me to be, which breaks me even more because I truly love Gods people. They just don’t love me. I struggle with believing He does anymore. With all that said, a church that would truly do what you described, would be a miracle. I wish I had encountered that. Instead I encountered many ‘Cindi’s. The pastor of my church did support me but never to the point of speaking up for me in the four walls of the church. It would have made a huge difference. I am grateful he supported me outside those walls though. I pray a church like you described does happen one day. I’ll be first in line for harbor when it does.

  • Learning to be a survivor

    I am so incredibly sorry for the hurt you have experienced and are experiencing. I don’t understand it. The hardest part in reading what you shared is to realize that it followed on to hurt your children and is still hurting you and your children today. I am so sorry! I can’t imagine the hurt you must feel!!
    Churches are powerful. If they offer kindness, compassion, and hope, the effects from that are enormously healing, but if they offer judgement and condemnation, the effects are shattering.
    I hope that soon, things will be resolved in a way that will flood you and your children with hope and healing!

  • Regan

    I very much agree that church is one of the most powerful bodies in the world, if not the most. It’s sad to see how today’s church chooses to use that power. I’m by far not the only one who had suffered this way. That’s what makes me even more sad. I’d rather mine be an isolated case. However, it’s far from that. Thank you for your kindness.

  • Cindi,

    Jesus was all about helping the oppressed and victims. He cared for the orphans and widows and those who are defenseless. I think it’s important to care about the things that Jesus cared about. You make God out to be an angry God. Interestingly, those who are abused in a religious environment sometimes have secondary abuse issues: spiritual abuse – because they feel that God abandoned them. It’s a very difficult road for them and some abandon their faith for a time.

    I think your response would scare someone away from an attempt to come back to a loving and compassionate God. It’s important to remember what He said in Matthew 18:6:

    but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.

    I think God has far more anger towards those who lead a little one astray than someone who has difficult coming to him because of sexual abuse. Thankfully, he is the perfect judge of hearts.

  • JoDee

    I was sexually assaulted at my work by a complete stranger who had been paroled only a couple months before I was attacked. I went to the church that I was attending for help. I was a told that my personality was to blame and was then asked, “What part of the attack are you willing to take responsibility for?” Then they told me I should thank God for his sovereignty that “nothing worse happened.” Then I was avoided like the plague.

    I have stopped attending church because I fail to find much of Jesus there. What I find are people that feel it is their loving job to search for sin and shame the individuals they find it in. They use fear to control and manipulate others; discounting the Holy Spirit. I applaud the ideas that you suggest in this article, I really think they are needed to make church safe.

  • Regan

    Like I said earlier, I wish my experience was isolated but there are many of us that are treated this way. I even had one woman tell me because I wore a bright red dress once to church that I looked like a prostitute. The dress was not showing any cleavage whatsoever and was way past my knees. She said therefore she had warned the wives I was after their husbands. I was in shock. I wish you healing very much so because I know your pain. Just remember, God is nothing like today’s church.

  • Amanda

    One of the most freeing talks I EVER heard about this was an aside to a different conversation. I went to see Josh McDowell because it was part of a required chapel for work. He was talking about being abused as a child and knowing his boundaries. He said that he had the right to determine what happened to his body, that if he didn’t want to be touched while people were praying for him he had that right, that if he was uncomfortable with people standing behind him he had the right to ask them not to. I started crying (at a work event) because I had never heard that in a church before. It made me feel like I have that right too.

  • Rebecca

    Yes, I seek to be a friend and love like Christ and listen with my whole heart and receive the stories that bring sleepless nights, even though I sometimes do some things wrong and maybe even cause flashbacks. It’s a difficult road walking with survivors, but even though there’s much pain, it’s worth every step. I’ve I’ve been blessed to read of others who are seeking to do the same.

    And yes, there are deep, deep spiritual struggles. “Where was God when this was happening to me? Why didn’t He help me?” I’ve refrained from giving answers, but I know the answers are there, and I want to walk with people while God is showing them His answers, bit by bit.

    Reading these comments has again brought me to tears. The deep needs of some, the hard-heartedness of others. Especially the hard-heartedness.

  • Matt

    “This does NOT mean we pity them and turn them into our special project….”
    So so so true. There is nothing worse than being “helped” and then hearing your story as a sermon illustration.

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  • Jon

    I’ve experienced similar treatment at the hands of the church. I was raped at 9 by a man, several months before 9/11. I already had some sort of idea that I was gay at the time, which is why I sort of “let it happen” our at least that’s how my mind processed out at the time. I remember watching tv after 9/11, when Jerry Falwell got on national tv and proclaimed that the homosexuals and abortionists were to blame for 9/11. I knew he meant me. I thought I’d anyone every found out about the abuse our my homosexuality that they might try and put me on trial for the attacks! LU and the southern Baptist types pay a lot of lip service to preventing sexual abuse, while in reality they are the abusers themselves. Its like a pedophile trying to fix himself. It doesn’t work.

  • Elpirata Cofresi

    You’re forgetting the most important one. Atone. The Christian churches, both Catholic and Protestant, have treated rape and child sexual assault victims appallingly — most especially those victimised by ministers of religion in these churches. The harm done is not safely in the past, but ongoing: through denial, stigmatisation, minimisation, rape apology, shielding of perpetrators, and innumerable other ways.

    Before you do any of the excellent things suggested in this article, start at the beginning. Speak the truth — loudly, publicly and repeatedly; in season and out of season — about the crimes for which the Christian churches bear responsibility. Do public penance for them. Pray for the victims, from the pulpits and the altars, that they may receive healing from the grievous wounds inflicted upon them by wolves in shepherds’ clothing. Speak out against those who deny the Church’s need for repentance.

    So much evil has been done to the victims, and their public humiliation at the hands and through the tongues of those who profess to speak in the name of Christ is continuing. The work of reparation has not yet begun.

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