With so many churches covering up abuse or ignoring it altogether, its vital that we be serious about tackling abuse. The reality is that many, many people don’t trust the church anymore. I’ve heard survivors vow to never grace a church building again. Sadly, we’ve given them plenty of reasons not to and it breaks my heart. With that said, there are things that we must do if we are ever going to truly be a shelter for the oppressed. These are my suggestion, and I’d like to hear what others would add.
#1 Confront the issue head on
We preachers like to tip toe around uncomfortable subjects. I used to be so worried that I would offend someone and they wouldn’t come back. I don’t intentionally offend people, but I’m no longer afraid of doing so either. We have to to quit sanitizing our language. I’ve literally heard preachers say, “There are people out there doing bad things.” Seriously. We’ve got to stop intentionally keeping people naive. I still get requests when I speak places not to say anything that is “offensive.” My response usually is, “With all due respect, adults raping children is offensive to me. If you’re not willing to get offended for their sake, how can I trust that you will actually protect them from their rapists?”
I’m not at all suggesting that we use gory details and traumatize our audience. But our language needs to be direct and strong. “Abuse” is way too generic. Acknowledge that both adults and children are being raped, neglected, beaten, and verbally assaulted.
#2 Recognize that you know that some in the audience are currently being abused
Every time I speak at a church, there are multiple survivors of abuse who speak to me afterwards. There are no exceptions. Many survivors I’ve spoken with feel emotionally invisible. They wonder why nobody within leadership has ever seen or acknowledged their pain. Jesus publicly said, “He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). Jesus was quoting from Isaiah 61 and he simply summed up his mission. Why did the poor and oppressed feel safe to speak to Jesus and not the other religious leaders? It was because Jesus was crystal clear that his mission was to set them free. He never pretended like everyone had it together. Quite the opposite. Jesus routinely acknowledged, embraced, and protected the poor, the sick, and the oppressed in every town he went to.
#3 Be ready to respond to allegations of abuse
Have a plan for how you will respond if your message empowers survivors to speak up. Most importantly, have a plan for how to respond if one of your fellow leaders is the abuser. I cannot overstate the importance of this point. Of the dozens of churches I’ve consulted with, over 80% of the alleged abusers were in some form of church leadership. Take it from someone who had to turn in his own father, reporting someone you love, respect, and admire is one of the most difficult things you will ever have to do. Be prepared and make no excuses. If someone in your congregation discloses that a church leader is abusing them, be prepared to take action immediately. If it is with a minor, assume that you are a mandated reporter and report it immediately to law enforcement. Talk with the parents and hold their hand through the entire process. Assure them that you will not protect the abuser, no matter who he or she is.
If an affair is uncovered or if there was spiritual abuse, be prepared to take action to protect the person who discloses the abuse. Removing someone from leadership and keeping quiet about the abuse is immoral and unethical. Let the church know the reason why the person had to be removed. I get nauseated every time I find out that a minister was fired for misconduct and the church leaders lie to the church and say he “resigned.” Then the person moves to another city or sate and reinvents himself. Pennsylvania and Texas have “Pass the Trash” legislation that prevents school administrators from turning a blind eye to teachers who abuse students then seek employment in another district. We churches need to stop “passing the trash” too.
#4 Come up with a plan to bring healing to survivors
One of the fair criticisms of my church leaders has been that I preach a lot about oppression but don’t offer enough solutions. Survivors especially need to know that we are going to do more than just preach about it. Jesus didn’t just protect. He provided hope. He believed in the oppressed and admired their faith. I recently began working with local agencies to network survivors in the community with our church. They need more than just sermons. They need to know that people believe in them and that there is hope and joy.
If all people ever hear is that there are tons of evil people out there and that churches keep perpetuating abuse, they’ll get discouraged real quick. Offer a tangible solution to the problem and cast that vision to your church. Invite people to join you in this mission to help the oppressed. But be sure to have a clear plan.
Do you have any suggestions?