The church is the last place survivors of abuse want to come for help. As a minister, it pains me to write that. But it’s true. Imagine a hospital where ambulances whizzed past because the patients were better off not arriving at that particular hospital. I’ve spoken with hundreds of survivors and have read even more of their stories. Nearly all of their voices echo through the empty chambers of the church’s callous heart. I believe as Jesus did, that “those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Matt. 9:12). And there are a lot of sick people, desperate for someone to believe them–to listen to their pain and to expect nothing in return. Alas, we’ve become terrible at sitting on the ash heap with people whose lives have burned down around them. To be honest, I get impatient and even angry with church leaders who do nothing to validate survivors of abuse. Worse yet, many of them are unknowingly abusing survivors all over again. Your faith isn’t “strong enough,” you keep “holding on to bitterness,” aren’t “willing to forgive.” You get the point. But why is it this way?
The more I travel, the more I realize that this isn’t a fringe group of churches. On the contrary, mistreatment of abuse survivors is the norm. As someone who, prior to turning in my own father for sex crimes against children, was completely oblivious to survivors, I offer five reasons why this is the case.
#1 Abuse and trauma are not even on the radar in our seminaries
Everyone I talk to says that they were never trained in seminary to handle cases of abuse. But the problem is much worse. Many seminaries are not even discussing abuse and trauma at all. Even worse, unless this has recently changed, there is zero screening to even get into seminary. Believe me when I say that many pedophiles are graduating from seminaries every year. I went to seminary for 4 years and I don’t recall ever talking about physical or sexual abuse in any of our classes. Rather, we were taught how to think–a skill that I am eternally grateful for but one that does nothing to awaken us to trauma. Church leaders are generally clueless when it comes to abuse. I was. It’s not that I didn’t have a heart for the abused. It’s just that I had no idea that so many people in our pews would be suffering in silence. Nor would I imagine that so many predators lead churches and sit in our pews. It wasn’t taught.
#2 We live behind the pulpit, not in the trenches of life
Let’s face it, Jesus tells us to lay our lives down for one another. The biggest threat most of us face is that the office air conditioner will quit. In all seriousness, most of the pain we ministers experience is the pain of disappointment and strained relationships. That becomes our focus. We don’t have a clue what it’s like to live in constant fear. Fear of being molested or raped. Fear of being beaten or shot. Nearly all of the survivors I’ve met are incredibly good at compartmentalizing their grief. What we see (and, frankly, what we want to see) are the smiles, good grades, and successful jobs. People who haven’t experienced trauma have a difficult time imagining that we are surrounded by a sea of friends and family who are struggling to make it through another day. As preachers, our weekly task is to dig deep into the Word and put a series of lessons and sermons together. Somewhere in the shuffle, we’ve forgotten that Jesus always preached in crowds out in the real world. His preaching was often interrupted with desperate cries for help. And he stopped everything to tend to the wounded.
#3 Our theology views wolves as the ones who need a hand and the oppressed as the ones who should “move on”
The number one question I get asked by churches after an abuser is outed is, “How do we surround this brother and help restore him back to the church?” Savannah Guthrie, after announcing Matt Lauer’s firing said, “I’m heartbroken for Matt. He is my dear, dear, dear, dear friend and he is beloved by many many people here.1 For the first year after my father’s arrest for molesting 23 prepubescent children, I lost count how many times I was asked, “How’s your dad doing?” I only recall one time where someone asked, “How are your father’s victims doing?” Our bad theology makes no distinction between the sinner who is tempted from the oppressor who takes pleasure in harming innocent people. Therefore, church leaders feel a need to “rescue the sinner,” as if they were just wrestling with some desire. Our bad theology doesn’t allow us to see that the Matt Lauers of the world are warped reprobates who are fully aware that they are harming their victims. They just don’t care. Yet leaders continue to dote over the abusers and either ignore or intimidate the abused.
#4 Because trauma is not personal to leaders, they don’t develop a desperation to intercede
To be honest, sometimes help can’t wait until the next elder’s meeting. I’ve personally met with some who needed their pain to be triaged and treated immediately. I’ve sat in offices as trembling women file protection from abuse orders against husbands who vow to murder them. I’ve patiently loved others as they enter drug rehab for the 3rd and 4th time. Trauma is horrible and people need someone who will listen in their darkest hours. And they need someone who knows how to respond. Saying that “I’m praying for you” is not enough. We need to weep with survivors. We need to believe them, to really hear them. And we need to intercede. It’s our job as leaders, whether we like it or not, to shield the abused from the abuser. What message does it send to victims when we surround the abuser with hugs and praise and talk about how “beloved” they were by so many?
#5 We church leaders are addicted to instant transformation
We’ve all seen the cardboard testimonies. On one side of the card there is a word or phrase for who the person was before Jesus transformed their life. On the other side is a word for phrase for who they’ve become after Jesus transformed them. Emotional music is played while a group of people are paraded across the church stage. It is a preacher’s fantasy lesson because transformations are powerful. This is not to knock cardboard testimonies. We should celebrate transformation and I’m happy that people do it in front of the church. But these instant testimonies are indicative of our poor theology. I often wonder how many people are agonizing over what in the world they would write on the back of their piece of cardboard. So many survivors are in process. And this frustrates church leaders. We
want crave quick and powerful stories of radical transformation. Ironically, you know who offers just what the itching ears want to hear? That’s right, the abusers! Church leaders migrate to them because, how powerful a story is it for a man who once sexually abused children and has now found Jesus? The abusers know this about church leaders and they are playing them like the fiddles they often are. John says, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).
In my next post I will offer solutions to my friends who are leading churches. This behavior is counter to the Gospel of Jesus and is doing nothing to help survivors find healing.