4 Suggestions for preachers to broach the subject of abuse

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?

19 Replies to “4 Suggestions for preachers to broach the subject of abuse”

  1. Church leaders need to have a plan / policy for holding other church leaders accountable too. My town has a ministerial association. All churches should hold one another accountable for their behavior.

    They need to stop operating so independently of one another. They should share resources and education with one another.

    They should rebuke, discipline and expose church leaders in the community when their own churches fail to do so.

    They should notify one another of perpetrators in the religious community (leaders and others), and not allow them to make the rounds in area churches.

    When a perpetrator moves to another church, but the churches are unaware of one another’s problems, the perpetrator is able to force his (family) victims to start all over again in the process of finding support. Or he finds a fresh selection of victims to prey on.

    I am absolutely heartsick over the devilish independence cultivated by churches.

    1. I completely agree! I preach in the Churches of Christ, where we have no governing body. People generally celebrate the autonomy of each independent church, but the downside is that there is no accountability. We “pass the trash” routinely because usually local churches quietly fire the preachers, don’t inform anyone, and they move on to the next church. If the abuser is an elder or deacon, they are just asked to “resign” but they continue to attend the same congregation and the church is none the wiser. You are so right that there needs to be a plan and policy for holding church leaders accountable.

  2. Hi Jimmy

    I really like your fourth point. And I acknowledge that it’s very hard to put into practice! To bring a congregation to the place where they are both happy for the church to do that, and equipped to respond well to the victims who might gravitate to your church is not easy.

    The congregation must be made aware about abuse, educated about both the mentality and tactics of abusers and the responses of victims, and taught how to not make victim-blaming statements inadvertently.

    That last thing I mentioned isn’t easy! Many people make victim-blaming remarks without being aware of it. Victim-blaming is the sea we all swim in in our culture. And it’s a long learning curve for bystanders to understand how to speak about abuse in ways that (a) do not obscure or minimise the wrongdoing of the oppressors/abusers, and (b) elucidate and honour the victims’ responses to the abuse.

    I have learned a lot from Alan Wade about how to honour victims’ responses. Here is our tag for Alan Wade at A Cry For Justice. If you read the posts under that tag, you will get a glimpse into what he has taught me.

    https://cryingoutforjustice.com/tag/allan-wade/

    1. Thank you for the tag here. I’ve found it especially difficult in our congregation because, not only are there survivors of domestic and sexual abuse, several of the survivors were my father’s victims. I find myself being very careful to the point of almost avoiding them because I always fear their making an association with me to my father.

      One of my father’s brave survivors spoke at an abuse symposium we did this past summer and it broke my heart to learn that several people had badgered her about why she wasn’t at church more often. She eventually found somewhere else to worship (which I completely understand and support), but others weren’t as understanding. Most in the church didn’t know who my father’s victims were, but it’s still no excuse. It’s always bothered me that Christians just assume that people who don’t grace the doors of a church building every week are just “not committed.” There’s usually a lot more going on just beneath the surface.

      1. We live in a small rural area. I gave up going to church while my ex still lives in the same place. Churches seem to be the only place he has any in with. I left the church we attended together. I am not welcome back until I want to deal with my “selfishness” and “unforgiveness.” I have tried several different churches, but he finds out where I am. Then he finds some sympathetic souls to pour out all the horrible things I have done to him. Next thing I know, I am defending myself and being cross examined about all my parenting decisions. I am a single mom of 7, we have been through a lot, I work full-time and go to school full time. The last thing I want to do on a Sunday morning is talk about my ex and his problems. I just want to put on something nice, worship God and relax a bit with people that love me. Sadly, I experience equality, acceptance and a neutral playing field (like the rules apply to everyone not just me) in every other sphere of my world. My work, my school, children’s school, library, store…..don’t give out information on me. If he were to walk in and throw a fit, he would be removed. He doesn’t bother me at these places. It is only churches that he gets coddled. It isn’t the pastors.

        It is also hard because the answers to the questions are not ones that I am just willing to tell just anyone. They are my secrets and my children’s. Things that only my therapist knows. I am a really intelligent person with a variety of interests. I can carry a conversation on about almost anything, BUT folks at church insist on THAT subject. I spent 18 years trying to figure out how to “help” my ex. If that was what I wanted to do, I would still be married to him and attending the isolated abuse-perpetuating church. (Well, actually I would probably be dead, but you get the point).

        Jimmy, I enjoy your articles. You nail it, spot on, every time. Thank you for making a difference. When the darkness surrounds us, we can choose to rail against it or light a candle. You are lighting a candle. I hope and pray others do, as well. One day it will be a raging fire of light, driving out the darkness.

        1. I’m so sorry this is your experience. The church is definitely light years behind the secular world when it comes to protecting and caring for others, at least in certain areas. I always say that bad theology leads to bad practices. This is a case-in-point. We’ve got to do a much better job.

          Thank you for your insight and for your encouragement! Sometimes all it takes is a candle and God will fan that into a big flame! I’m encouraged by the many survivors who keep letting their voice ring out! Thank you.

        2. Hi Kendra, if you are not already aware of it, I think you will find the blog A Cry For Justice helpful. I lead that blog. It focuses on domestic abuse in a Christian context. Here is our FAQ page.
          https://cryingoutforjustice.com/faq/

          And before you submit a comment to the blog, I suggest you read our New Users’ Info page as it gives tips for how to guard your safety while commenting on our blog.
          https://cryingoutforjustice.com/for-new-users/

          We understand what you are talking about. “c”hristian abusers are very skilled at winning allies in churches. And after the victim escapes from their clutches, the abuser spreads slander about her in any church she attends, if he can. It’s one of the many tactics of post-separation abuse to further isolate the victim which skilled abusers use.

      2. Hi Jimmy, you said —

        “I’ve found it especially difficult in our congregation because, not only are there survivors of domestic and sexual abuse, several of the survivors were my father’s victims. I find myself being very careful to the point of almost avoiding them because I always fear their making an association with me to my father.”

        Have you ever sat down with each of those victims (or emailed them) to tell those survivors how you feel — your sense of awkwardness and caution in relating to them? Maybe it would help if you told them how you are feeling and asked them for any comments they may have about that. They may or may not have sensed your trepidation. If they have sensed it, they may or may not have interpreted it differently from how you see it. They might even be feeling a bit hurt that you seem to be walking on eggshells around them. Would it help to clear the air?

        And when you are drafting a sermon that alludes to any of this abuse stuff, would you consider running past those survivors what you are planning to say, and asking them if they would be triggered by any of it? They might even have helpful suggestions to make to you about how to word those parts of your sermon even better than what you have written in your draft. .

        I suspect that some of them might feel greatly encouraged and honored that you asked for their feedback like that. 🙂

        1. I have spoken with my father’s survivors and I deeply, deeply respect them. They know my struggles and I know theirs. These are the emotional ripple effects of abuse that go on far beyond what most people can imagine. It’s very difficult to minister in the same church where this abuse took place at the hands of my father. There are so many associations that I have, and I was not abused by him. I can’t imagine what his victims must feel. We are all very open about those feelings and God has blessed those conversations. I appreciate the wisdom in your response!

          1. Thanks for explaining that, Jimmy.

            You’ve given me a little more insight into what it must be like for you and your father’s victim-survivors to all be in the same church together.

            I honestly think I can only have the faintest idea what that must be like, but you’ve helped me get a bit more of a glimpse into it.

  3. I and my children survived abuse. I almost died following the advice of my former pastor and an elder that knew about it. They continue to lie and cover it up to this day (6+ years later). Our journey to healthy is long story , but today I am back in college, working towards being a community psychologist to help others. I think one key thing would be to have pastors and church members actually get involved with Domestic Violence shelters, network and talk to therapists, cops and medical workers. I have found a lot of respect for my faith from these people. Most want to help too. I was made to fear law enforcement and “non-Christian” counselors. I think they might be a great ally.

    1. Great point about getting involved with DV shelters, networking with therapists, police, and med workers. Every time I’ve gone to court with someone on a DV case, there was a social worker from a shelter who was there just to have a presence. They have ALWAYS been fantastic and I can’t say enough good things about the quality of training and experience. Same with therapists and law enforcement. I’ve found in our town that these organizations are desperate for churches to reach out to them and network. It just doesn’t happen where I’m at. Churches become islands to themselves when they have so many wonderful resources and people all around them who are willing to be involved.

  4. Pastor, you always do such a wonderful job. I bookmark much of what is shared so that I can reference it later, if needed.

    This is just an observation. Victims tend to be or become the object of gossip during or after the abuse, or criminal act, or whatever the situation. When it’s disclosed to the church, openly, that may lessen the clicking tongues—but gossip has a way of starting and spreading no matter how well leadership tries to handle things. Speculation, conspiracy theories, “discussion” on what may or may not have been left out. It starts small and then snowballs.

    Something should be said, strongly and with great firmness, that gossip will just victimize the victim (or those standing with the victim) even more, when they publicly announce the situation. Gossip is treated as fairly benign in our society, but Scripture flatly disagrees. There’s no way to stop people from talking, however, but if leadership sets the “tone” from the top, and leads by example—perhaps the victim will be spared.

    Victims often don’t speak up because they’re so afraid of what the church, family or community @ large will think, or say. They don’t want to become the object of gossip, because that is just another layer of abuse. Their reputation might get dragged through the mud. Also, for the family/friends of the accused person, they too might become the object of malicious gossip, which is unfair. They may not (or may not) have known what their loved one was doing, and yet they are treated as if they did.

    I don’t fault leaders for not having solutions for victims, to be honest, because I believe pastors are called to pastor, and they are not necessarily trained counselors in PTSD or other forms of trauma that abuse causes. But if they get out into the community, and (gasp!) actually venture outside the church to find reliable sources of help and have them readily available, that might help victims come forward.

    It does take a fair amount of humility to admit: I don’t know how to help you. But it REALLY helps if you can say: I have an idea of who might be able to. And I’m still here for you, if you need to talk and I will be praying, always. I’m not going to turn you over to this counselor and forget all about you!

    The latter means so much (prayer). And not being forgotten. When I know someone is praying for me (because they told me!), I know God is working. He is making sure that I am being prayed for. And when I’m told that someone is available, I feel like crying. I know I am not being treated as though I don’t exist!

    1. You’re so right! It’s always made me cringe for people–especially survivors of abuse–when they are asked to stand, be acknowledged, give testimony, etc. It’s no wonder so many are afraid to share with anyone. Integrity requires us to respect boundaries. I know I’m preaching to the choir, but I hope that more people will be trained and have the sense to just listen and promise to protect. The gossip thing is huge and you’re spot on. It should be condemned in the strongest way.

      And the admission that we don’t know how to help is so necessary at times. I’m sure we’ve all seen times when church leaders give bad advice because they are afraid to admit that they are not well equipped. This is a good reminder that we need to be well networked so that we have better resources that we can point people to. Letting people know they’re not forgotten is so important. Silence, even if not intentional, can come across as ignoring someone who has been deeply hurt. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. This is all encouraging!

      1. Just wanted to sympathize with how hard it is to speak of violence and abuse from the pulpit. I’ve had to walk out on sermons, and it’s usually embarrassing and difficult, and not necessarily the fault of the pastor. Sometimes it is, other times it is not. It’s a delicate balance.

        I tell myself that pastors cannot be expected to know the life story of everyone in their church! Different things trigger different people, even if they have been through similar traumas. We’re all wired in fairly individual ways, it seems.

        Pastors have to deal with all sorts of horrible things that get thrown at us in this fallen world, not to mention our own personal sin issues AND our fallen bodies don’t treat us too kindly either. I would like to remind everyone that they have a difficult calling, but we have a Perfect and Chief Shepherd that leads the way for them, and for all of us. We should never put pastors on a pedestal and expect them to have all the answers. Only Christ is sufficient for all our needs.

        However, I have no pity or sympathy for any pastor that has no interest in caring for the sheep! And obviously no interest in learning how to care for the sheep, or an real fear of the Lord. I do not believe you are like that, btw.

        Please keep going and keep fighting the good fight (1Timothy 6:12) It is worth it.

  5. Absolutely love this post! How I wish more pastors came from this place of dealing with abuse instead of sweeping it aside.

    I was in a 20-year abusive marriage and 9 years ago my then-husband (now my ex) walked out on me and our two boys. A month after he had left I discovered that him leaving our home was a well thought out scheme to try and discredit me and somehow in his warped thinking, get me to take him back. He wanted people, especially in our former church, to see him as the victim and me as the villain. Unfortunately, it worked.

    Long, long story very short — I did not let him back into our home and although it wasn’t until 2 years later the divorce was final, I did not choose to go back to what had been. Unfortunately, my former church, the one I had attended with my ex, did not like the fact that I would not forgive, forget and reconcile. There was one elderly couple who did take me under their wings and actually encouraged me to file for divorce, but most others either turned a blind eye or very quietly offered support, and others just turned away. The pastor sadly did little to offer help and about 2 months after my ex had walked out approached me after church one day to say how my then-husband seemed to be trying to change. Well, he wasn’t changing and the nasty emails I got from him, the empty bank accounts and the lies he perpetuated around our little town told the truth, yet more believed him than me.

    What would you say to people who claim the abuser is innocent until proven guilty and the victim’s accusations true until proven false? And how it’s important to not be too harsh on the supposed abuser until it’s proven he really was abusive.
    I recently had a heated discussion on another blog where I was basically told I may or may not be lying about the abuse, and that a church cannot just take a victim’s word when too many women lie re: abuse.
    While I was never physically abused, the mental, emotional and verbal abuse was beyond damaging to me and my children. But there were and still are those who see me as having fabricated the intensity of the abuse and the destructiveness of it to the family.

    How does a church go about giving support to a woman who comes forward about abuse in her marriage yet has no outward bruising to show as proof? In the past 9 years I’ve forgiven those from my former church who chose to sit on the fence and not take sides as I was often told because after all there are two sides to every story, but I’ve often tried to figure out in my mind how my situation might have been handled differently.

    I look forward to your thoughts on this.

    I

    1. Thank you for your kind words! In a nutshell, first of all I always say bad theology leads to bad practices. This notion that we “must” forgive the abuser unconditionally has no biblical merit. I will write a detailed blog about this in the very near future because, inevitably, when I speak places I hear horror stories of survivors being told that they are the ones living in sin because they “haven’t forgiven their abuser yet.” Forgiveness is always conditional in the Bible. In the OT, they had to repent and offer sacrifices as an atonement for sin (even “unintentional” sin!). John the Baptist preached that the “brood of vipers” must repent and he preached a baptism “for forgiveness.” To forgive “just as God in Christ has forgiven you” (Eph. 4:32) means just that. Something was required of us to be forgiven. Repentance and a contrite heart are required. When I hear people tell others that they “have to” forgive the other person unconditionally, I simply beg them to point me to the places where the Bible speaks to this.

      To the people who say that the alleged abuser is innocent until proven guilty, I’d point out that we’re not in a court of law. Someone is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, but the Bible speaks to establishing an accusation on the testimony of 2 or 3 witnesses. What should we make of Jesus flipping tables over and making whips of cords if someone is innocent until proven guilty? Jesus constantly defended and protected people who were oppressed from their oppressors without making them “prove” they were being abused. Very few people make up false accusations. It happens, but is incredibly rare (less than 5%). You may want to point out that you have nothing to gain by making false accusations. In fact, it makes the lives of the accuser very difficult when they come forward.

      How does a church go about giving support to a woman who comes forward about abuse in her marriage yet doesn’t have outward bruising? The only way a church is going to be able to give support is to remove themselves emotionally and look at the facts. We really need to listen to the cries of people who come forward to report their abuse. It takes extreme courage and I shudder to think of all the survivors who have been turned away, reprimanded, or accused of making false allegations. It is going to be an uphill battle to shift the current culture that exists in many of our churches. But I remain hopeful.

      1. Thank you for taking the time to reply. I agree with all you said and wish I’d been stronger and more courageous 9 years ago to stand up to those who only knew how to spit pieces of scripture in my face and not take the time to really learn what was going on.
        But God has worked amazingly in my life and what my ex meant for my harm, God has used for His Glory.

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