5 Things church leaders should do to treat the wounds of survivors

In my last post, I gave 5 reasons why church leaders don’t treat the wounds of abuse survivors. It’s one thing to continually point to the deficiencies of the church (which could go on forever!), but I like to instead offer tangible solutions. Really, God offers the solutions. We just have to put them into practice. That’s it. Jesus offered very real solutions to some very real problems. There are two things that will cause harm to people who turn to the church for help–inactivity and the wrong activity. I used a hospital metaphor the last time, so I’ll use it again here. We should be aware that there are some hospitals that are in decline. They will continue to fail until someone takes the lead and begins offering tangible solutions and actually follows through! The church is no different. We need to talk solutions and actually find people willing to lead the charge and make changes. If the church is really going to be a hospital for sinners and if we are serious about healing, then we must have a clear plan. Here are my top 5, in no particular order of significance.

#1 Leaders need to know that triage is essential for people who are hurting
Every emergency room has triage nurses. They are trained to assess and assign, and are the first point of contact when a patient comes in. They assess the degree of urgency the minute a patient comes through the door. Every single patient’s needs are assessed and from there they are assigned to the proper specialist at the proper time. Certain patients are given priority over others due to the severity of their illness or injury. There is good reason for this. I’ve been in full time ministry for nearly a decade and have rarely seen this done in the church. In fact, rather than assess and assign, we most often assume and avoid. We assume everyone either is in their happy place or they should be and we avoid the people with the deepest wounds. Even if desperate people are lucky enough to find someone who will listen to them, it could be days until a scheduled appointment takes place. This is unacceptable for people in crisis.

Jesus and his disciples assessed and assigned constantly. Think about it. When they fed 5,000, they didn’t just happen to find a group of thousands hanging out one day. No, the reason they crossed the Sea of Galilee was because so many people came and went that the disciples couldn’t even find time to eat (Mark 6:31). They crossed the sea to escape people and find a desolate place to rest and recover. According to Matthew, this was right after John the Baptist was murdered and Jesus wanted to get away. But the crowds figured out where they were going and beat them there by foot (Mark 6:33). Exhausted from sleep deprivation and hunger, they saw a crowd of thousands waiting on the shore. Jesus “had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” He taught them and fed them that same day. When Peter and John went to the Temple after Jesus ascended, a beggar who was lame from birth cried out to them. Peter stopped, looked intently at the man, and said three words that changed his life forever: “Look at us” (Acts 3:4). Probably for the first time ever, someone was intentional about making eye contact with this man. Many of you know the significance of what Peter did for this man by uttering these three words in that moment. They didn’t give him money that day. But they gave him something far more significant. Peter and John let him know that they saw him. And they healed him. Not everyone received this level of care, and not everyone was treated immediately. Jesus taught us how to triage–to assess and assign.

#2 Leaders need to use discernment
The seeker friendly movement, in my opinion, has removed discernment from church leaders who once upon a time had common sense. Suppose a woman comes into the hospital with severe bruises. An intoxicated man is beside her yelling and cursing at her. Trained staff know how to read signs and act accordingly and immediately. The woman is immediately shielded from the man, police are called, and she is prioritized for treatment. Every hospital has procedures for how to protect people from abusers. Rethink this scenario. The battered woman comes in and the nurse begins asking her, “What did you do to provoke him?” “You really need to forgive him if you’re going to find healing for these wounds.” The man says he is sorry, that it was all a big misunderstanding. He is now prioritized, brought back to a room, and nurses begin looking at the cuts on his knuckles. They hug him and say how wonderful it is that he apologized to his wife out in the waiting room. He displayed what the model patient should look like. He took the “high road” when his wife was yelling and screaming about how he’s to blame.

This sounds ridiculous but I’ve seen this scenario play out over and over and over again. All the hundreds of biblical references to protecting the oppressed, caring for the needy, and ferreting out the wolves in sheep’s clothing get tossed aside in the name of cheap grace. We proudly proclaim, “All are welcome. . . come as you are.” That’s fine, but where is the discernment in this process? Not all sins are equal. Nor is the treatment of people who commit the sins. Sometimes Jesus flipped tables and made whips of cords. Other times he talks about it being better for people to have massive rock tied around their necks and to be drowned in the depth of the sea compared to what’s in store for them. Still other times, he is defensive and compassionate to prostitutes who scrub his feet with tears and hair, women who are caught in the act of adultery, and Samaritans who have had five failed marriages. Why? Because Jesus showed us how to use discernment and know the difference between oppressors and the oppressed.

#3 Leaders need to sit on the ash heap with people
Spending time with friends in crisis is not something that can be outsourced. I don’t know of a church leader who has not outsourced a church member to a professional therapist. While it’s wise to know our limitations and expertise, this needs to stop being the catch all response for every person in crisis. Not every person needs or is willing to see a therapist. Many people have been badly burned by therapists and are coming to church leaders because they need someone who will just simply listen. Let the words resonate from Job. He literally lost everything. . . everything. Then he gets painful boils all over his body. Listen closely: “And he took a piece of broken pottery with which to scrape himself while he sat in the ashes” (Job 2:8). While he’s sitting on the ashen remains of what once was his successful life, his wife told him to curse God and die. When Job’s friends showed up, they didn’t recognize him. “And they sat with him on the ground for seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw his suffering was very great” (Job 2:13).

His friends were great companions until they opened their mouths. When Job was on his ash heap, he didn’t need advice. He needed to feel the presence of his friends. He needed silence. We cannot sprinkle some encouraging Bible verses on people who are on their ash heap and expect them to feel better. When people are in the middle of their ash heap, they don’t need Bible verses. They need comforters. They need someone who has the wisdom and willingness to drop everything, drive over to their house, and check on them. And leaders need to be sensitive and accountable. They need to know when showing up alone is a bad idea.

#4 Leaders need to know when to prescribe home time
Jesus often sent people away to be with their families. Many people were called to follow him and others were sent home instead. To the woman caught in adultery, he said, “Go in peace.” To the demoniac named Legion who begged to follow Jesus, he said, “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you” (Mk. 5:19). He often prescribed time at home for hurting people. Home is where some people need to be for healing to take place. Jesus spent lots of time in people’s homes. He was teaching in a home when the paralytic was lowered through the roof. He prayed in people’s homes, ate in them, taught in them, worshiped in them, and often just sent people back home even when they wanted to follow him. I feel like we’re so focused on “getting people to church” that we’ve lost sight of the ones who need to be with their family in their own home. Time and time again I hear survivors explain how they are shamed for not going to church. Many were sexually abused in the church buildings. For some, setting foot inside triggers them in all kinds of ways. Others have been spiritually abused. To shame them into “coming to church” or to speak of their lack of faith or lack of commitment when they are not able to come into a church building stands counter to Jesus’ example he gave us.

#5 Leaders should seek to improve the world, not just the church
Church leaders can easily experience mission drift. Mission drift is when we no longer know what our mission (purpose) is as a church. It’s always troubled me when I see churches pump millions of dollars into a building that gets used a few hours a week, but don’t have much time or money for helping the needy. Some church leaders are obsessed with improving the local church to the point that they fail to see that it’s the world that needs improving. The church should lead the way in changing the way the wounded are cared for. I’ve asked local churches what they are doing to help victims of abuse in our community. The typical response is, “Don’t you know that we have different child services? That’s what they’re here for.” I’m working closely with one of those services and was told that I’m the only minister in town who has volunteered to work with them. We have a great relationship and we envision together what it will take to make the world a brighter place. That’s a conversation that I don’t want to have with just my church. We need to network and join hands with others who have a heart for caring and nurturing others who are hurting.

I’m calling other church leaders to move into action. It’s time we start offering success stories for the oppressed. They need to know that church is a safe community where people care for their neighbors.

8 Replies to “5 Things church leaders should do to treat the wounds of survivors”

  1. Excellent post Jimmy 🙂 🙂 🙂

    One more thing about ‘home time’. Sometimes home is safe place for survivor of abuse. Sometimes it is not at all safe because the abuser(s) live there.

    I know you know this.. Just wanting to mention it in case anyone reading this threat misunderstands you. So many victim of spousal abuse have been told by pastors ‘Go home to your husband’… when their husband is an abuser. Ditto children abused by one or both parents.

    1. Excellent point, Barbara. You’re so right about home being a very dangerous place for some whose abuser is in the home. I know of several survivors of domestic violence who were told it’s their “biblical duty” to remain with their husband because he never cheated on her. You know the routine. Yes, sometimes we need to help our neighbors escape their home. Thank you for mentioning this!

  2. Hi, I just wanted to thank you for this; it was really well thought out and well expressed as well. These were all so practical and fairly simplistic as well! Hope it’s all right if I just add some thoughts on each step you wrote out.

    1. The triage thing is spot on. The assume and avoid thing is so true. I’ve seen it happen. I have no idea how the body of Christ is to work properly, if we assume we’re all “doing all right” and avoid the ones who are truly suffering, how can the body of Christ function? It’s stagnant, and not laboring as it should.

    2. That hospital scene example stayed with me. I would just add that the beaten woman can be the one being shamed or shunned, or berated even further by the “hospital staff” while she is still bleeding and baring her wounds, looking for treatment. While the abuser is being coddled and treated like a baby who just had a “temper tantrum” and needs to be soothed and comforted.

    This “come as you are” attitude was so refreshing to me as an unbeliever. It was great to go to a meeting in college and just soak things in. But I wasn’t there to make trouble. If I was, they’d have every right to ask me to behave, or leave. I don’t know where we’ve gotten so fearful of speaking up and speaking out, when the sheep’s protection and safety are in question.

    3. Wow. I felt like crying when I read that one. I’ve felt like begging for a sympathetic ear, if you do need to speak, keep it simple: “I believe you. You can trust me. I don’t have the answers, but we can pray. You’re not alone.”

    Many times I’d hold back on the emotion if a chance came up to talk to a fellow believer, because I was too afraid they’d see me as unstable, or I’d make them uncomfortable with tears or a bit of hysteria. Stereotypes about a woman are everywhere, so I’d try to appear as mature and self-controlled as possible so I’d be taken more seriously.

    I often wondered why Job’s friends did not bring some buckets of water to bring temporary relief to Job’s wounds, while sitting on the ash heap. He had to use a broken piece of pottery, which is not only unsanitary, but beyond painful. That didn’t require a lot of work, just a bit of thought and sensitivity.

    4. Yes. The home time thing really spoke to me, too. I tried to go to church after a traumatic experience with believers. But often I’d sit there and feel anxious and panicky. I just didn’t feel safe or welcomed and certainly wasn’t growing in the Lord. I eventually stopped for a period of time. I despised myself for it. Church was important to me. I became more and more isolated. At that the the Christians around me weren’t much help. Home life at the time wasn’t the greatest, either, but it was better than trying to go through the motions @ church.

    5. There is so much I could say about this last one! Except: brilliantly said. I do not know how any unsaved person will truly “see” the Lord unless we make it clear that He cares for the oppressed. And so do we. At this point I worry that we are pushing the lost away.

    Please continue to write and share what the Lord puts on your heart!

    1. Thank you for your warm words and I agree with you completely! Yes, my thoughts come from a combination of my own regretful failures as a minister as well as seeing the mistakes others make too often. We must do better if we’re going to help people who are desperate to find Jesus. It can happen and I think we are in a great position to be the light of Christ. People are desperate for hope. Blessings to you.

  3. Thank you also for the important point which mentions that many people are fed up with therapists. Most of the articles I am seeing these days encourage hurting people to go and speak to a professional councelor outside of the church setting, and I understand that it is often wise because the churches do not know how to show compassion. But therein lies the problem… The safest place for wounded people should be the church, surrounded by genuine love and care from other Christians: that was we long for.
    Just because it is so hard to find doesn’t mean that’s how things should be.
    We as human beings need true connections, not more patient/therapist-sessions (‘oh you must feel bad, here let me prescribe some more painkillers’..)

    1. I agree. I’ve certainly referred people to therapists and have no problem with professional counseling, but this is not the only answer. I often dream of the church becoming a safe place for survivors to build community with people who love and honor them! We will keep working to look more like Jesus!

      1. yes, that is how the Body of Christ should look like. I can remember how some people I encountered as a young believer were essential in bringing healing and wholeness to my heart, just by being there, accepting me and having meaningful fellowship with me. Deep relationships is what love is about.
        Sadly, less and less of that now, as patience seems to be a limited natural resource, and people tend to brush off those who have had any hardship in life (be it earlier, or now along the way) and send them off to ‘professionals’… It’s so easy to say (and it is often used as a weapon): ‘Go and get help!!’ (aka ‘I do not understand why this is ahppening to you, you must have brought this onto yourself and you deserve to be isolated and rejected!’)
        My prayer is that I would never act like that, but be a vessel of compassion and genuine love for others.

        1. Yes, all of this!! There have been some interesting studies done where they demonstrate the paradox that the more people are “connected” via social media, the lonelier they are. Were were created in God’s image, and we were designed to be creatures of community. Convenience has replaced authentic, face to face relationships. The irony is that people crave those real relationships but everyone is too busy to step outside the virtual world. In my opinion, it’s really created a crisis. My prayer is that we take time to sit with people who need us in that moment and beyond. Jesus always took time to sit with people who desperately needed him.

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