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.

5 Reasons church leaders don’t treat the wounds of abuse survivors

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.

Some Good News About Abuse!!

It’s so easy to get discouraged. All you have to do is turn on the local news or read a local paper. Even in our little town, stories of abuse abound. . . . and abound, and abound even more. Every few weeks, a name appears who I know personally. Here’s the bad news–these stories that appear on the news every day only include the abusers who got caught. For every abuser who appears in the paper, there are 10 more out there abusing scores of children unhindered.

OK, enough of the depressing news. The great news is that more and more survivors of abuse are being empowered to speak out and find healing, thanks to some wonderful people with huge hearts. And I predict this pattern is going to continue to emerge. There is strength in numbers, and more and more survivors are fed up with living in the shadows of their abusers. There are ministries being born out of conviction. I’m happy to see the work that my friend Angela Williams is doing over at Voice Today. As a survivor of child sex abuse herself, Angela has courageously placed herself in a vulnerable position to help others heal from their abuse while training others to prevent abuse.

James 1:12 (ESV) says, “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.” I don’t say this lightly–anyone who is in the fight against Satan’s attack on the human soul will come under trial. Satan does not like healing and will do everything to discourage and deceive. I am proud that Angela and many other friends are fighting this fight along side us, in spite of the trials.

My good friend Les Ferguson, Jr. is another one of those faithfully fighting this battle. Les will be keynoting Angela’s Standing In the Gap Prayer Breakfast on November 1st in Marietta, GA. If you have not heard his story, you need to. Les is such an encouragement to so many. Please consider being a part of this event, whether you are able to attend or not. Angela will have survivors telling their stories of healing. There will be prayer, tears, and a lot of love at this event.

Dr. Bruce Wilkinson (Prayer of Jabez) will be speaking in the evening at Emory University. Please consider supporting this wonderful effort and be encouraged that more and more people are joining forces to combat and prevent abuse!

Rewind to Fast-Forward

Sasha I had the chance to speak on abuse in Tulsa, OK a couple weeks ago. Everywhere I speak, 1/4 to 1/2 of my audiences have been sexually abused as children. I recently received a message from a preacher friend who said, “40% of the women in my congregation have been sexually abused as children.” The numbers are probably higher, knowing that many survivors of abuse never disclose their abuse to anyone. These are more than just numbers, though. I listen to the stories and hear see the pain in their eyes when they speak. There are ripple effects that effect just about every aspect of life–from intimacy problems, to depression and sexual promiscuity, to lack of trust and PTSD. You name it, and most survivors have experienced it. This is national sexual assault awareness month, yet this taboo subject will find little attention in the media.

I always like hearing stories of survivors who are empowered to help raise awareness and help other survivors of abuse. A friend sent me a link to a video produced by Sasha Neulinger. You may know him as the young actor who played Shallow Hal as a kid. He also played the obese kid in the movie When Zachary Beaver Came to Town. At any rate, Sasha has gone through 200 hours of home videos shot by his dad and is retelling his childhood story through the home videos. You see, underneath the happy moments captured on home video was a dark family secret–Sasha was being sexually molested by his two uncles. Both uncles sexually molested Sasha’s dad as a boy, too. Sasha and his dad are using this film as a way of healing for them and for other survivors.

Give this three minute video a view and let Sasha know you support this endeavor. He is trying to raise enough support to put the video to production. Let’s help empower survivors of abuse by listening to their voices.

Why I’m Not Celebrating Ariel Castro’s Suicide

Ariel-Castro-sits-in-the-courtroom-during-the-sentencI sifted through a couple hundred comments on news articles of Ariel Castro’s suicide in his prison cell. “Good!” “Scumbag.” “Rot in Hell maggot.” “A cheap funeral for tax payers.” “Coward, he can dish it out for 10 years but can’t take it for 30 days.” Rest assured, the easy thing for the public to do is to celebrate the death of someone who did such evil to innocent children. But it’s apparently very hard to imagine what his family is going through right now. Not one comment mentioned his family nor considered what they are experiencing today.

I’ve heard the comments myself–“Your dad will probably be someone’s girlfriend in prison.” “He’ll get his for what he did,” as if those thoughts bring comfort. Don’t get me wrong, the horror that is waged on innocent kids is devastating. But for Ariel Castro’s family, his suicide is just one more layer to the complex sour onion of grief. And rest assured, the publicity and the negative comments about their father/ex-husband don’t put a smile on their face. Nor do they bring peace and comfort. To the family of a perpetrator, death is just another humiliating reminder that the family is plagued with a cloud of shame and embarrassment, and that the public shamelessly will hurl insults and say things that make us want to find a bigger rock to hide under.

Ariel’s death will likely bring more questions to his family than it does answers. Was his suicide a cop-out? Was he too selfish to endure prison? Did he feel remorse for what he did and snap from the guilt? Did he really love his own children? Who gets to plan the funeral? Will there be a funeral? Who, if any, of the family should go? Who do they get to do the funeral? Where do they lay his body to rest? Should he get a tomb stone? What will it say and who gets the burden of writing the message? Who pays for the funeral? Will the media smear us if we attend his funeral? Should I be glad that he is dead? If I go to the funeral will that drive a wedge between me and my siblings? Should I be sad that he is dead. . . or glad?

These are just a few of the myriad questions that are going through the family’s mind. I am the preacher of my family, so when my dad dies I will likely be the one to take the lead in suggesting whether or not there will be a memorial service. Most of my family has not spoken to dad since his arrest 2 years ago, and I fully respect that. It’s where they are right now in the grief process. The betrayal was deep, manipulative, and disgusting. But one day he will die. Some family members may never have a chance to speak to him before he dies. They will have to process that. If there is a memorial, I will have to find the right words to address the pain that is in our family. There may be a majority of family who do not come.

Today, rather than join the drum beat of the public, I choose to pray for Ariel Castro’s family and feel their grief. They have a lot to process in the days, weeks, and years ahead.

No More Mr. Nice Guy: Jesus and Children

It’s a scripture that many avoid. We don’t want to believe that Jesus would utter violent words, so when he does we pretend like he didn’t really say them. But what if we took seriously Jesus defense of children? What if churches were willing to go to war for the protection of the kids who were in their care? Jesus is often painted as a fuzzy, cuddly kind of guy who was always soft spoken–a pacifist who turned to the other cheek at all costs, even the cross.

But the reality is that Jesus sheds his nice-guy persona when children are willfully led into darkness. Listen to his words: “He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said, ‘I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes a little child in my name welcomes me. But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea‘” (Matthew 18:2-6 NIV). I’m not arguing that Jesus was talking about vigilante justice here. Rather, he is talking about the justice of God. Over and over again Jesus talks about judgment, exclusion from the Kingdom, and torment with weeping and gnashing of teeth. God does not smile at abusers, pat them on the head, and say, “There, there, my unfaithful servant. Just try harder next time.” And neither does Jesus.

In fact, it is not often that we find Jesus visibly upset. But when children are involved, the gloves come off. The word for “to become angry at” is only used once of Jesus, and it appears in Mark 10:14: “People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant” (Mark 10:13-14 NIV). Jesus then rebuked his disciples and took the kids in his arms to bless them. But only after he tells them that anyone who doesn’t receive the kingdom of God like a kid will never make it there. An angry Jesus. A Jesus who says a person would be better off to have death by drowning than to cause a kid to sin. In other words, “You think that downing was bad? You haven’t seen anything yet!” Let that sink in for a minute.

After conducting a workshop on child abuse, a young woman came up to me in tears. “I tried telling my mom that dad sexually abused me. She told me that I probably just imagined it. A few years later I got the strength to talk to someone at church about it. I was told that the Bible says to forgive and I need to move on. How can I trust anyone anymore? Doesn’t God care that he did this to me? I don’t even know if I believe in God anymore.”

When our response to abuse is a pacifist view, and when children are told to “just get over it” or to “learn to forgive like the Bible says,” I wonder if some of the wrath of God will not be reserved for them as well. I know–but their intentions were good. They didn’t mean to harm a kid by telling them those things. But guess what? They did. The last time I read my Bible cover to cover, I failed to find where people are rocket launched to heaven for having good intentions. We Christians are just as likely to “cause one of these little ones to sin” as the abuser if we give them a picture of God as someone who couldn’t care less about their abuse. And pulling scriptures out of context in order to not have to face an uncomfortable conversation is no excuse for damaging children’s eternal souls.

I’m just thinking out loud, but perhaps we should tell our sons and daughters, our children in the pews, our students in the schoolroom that we’d be damned (literally) if we would ever intentionally allow someone to harm them. I go out of my way to tell my 3 year old daughter that I will always try to protect her and that if anyone ever does something to hurt her she can always tell her mom or me. Kids should feel protected. They were designed by a Creator to feel safe and secure in a stable home. They shouldn’t have to fear that if they tell mom and dad about something bad that happened, they will get in trouble or be ignored. One night as I was putting my daughter to bed she said, “Dad, you make me feel safe.”

We exchanged “I love you”-s and as I walked out of her room I fell apart. I cried as I thought about the countless children who feel abandoned rather than safe. It’s time to take a closer look at the anger of Jesus and live in His shadow.