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.

There’s a Pedophile In My Church: What Now?

This is a question that is not uncommon for me to get. Minister friends of mine desperately ask what they should do when a known pedophile is in their congregation. One friend told me, “We have two known pedophiles in our small church and we have a very real threat of several families leaving as a result. What do we do?” To compound the problem, I ask the question: “What should we do about the unknown pedophiles in our churches?” The real threat is not whether those families will leave the church. No, the real threat is that the church, if no policy to protect children is in place, is at great risk of having children sexually assaulted. The statistics are alarming, no matter which study you look at. People who molest only have about a 3% chance of ever getting caught (Dr. Gene Abel). They are hiding (quite well) and offending in our churches. And there are lots of them. But wouldn’t a victim tell if he was being abused by a trusted church member? Most likely not. A 2005 study (London et al.) which surveyed 10 other studies shows that only 12%-18% of sexual abuse is ever reported to authorities. Of those 12%-18% cases that are reported, most will never be investigated.

At any rate, what of the pedophiles, rare as it may be, who repent of their sins and ask for forgiveness? Isn’t that enough? Doesn’t the Bible simply tell us to forgive and move on? Why dwell on the sins of the past? When leaders are faced with this issue, should the pedophile stay or should he go? Too many well-intentioned church leaders have been conned into believing that pedophilia is as benign as dropping the occasional “f-bomb.” Or they have a significant deficit of knowledge and experience in understanding how serious pedophilia is. They simplistically view it as a “wrong vs. right” issue, as if they were dealing with someone who cut another off in traffic. And when the offender asks for (or sometimes demands) forgiveness, it’s suddenly treated as an issue that’s as simple as asking the offender to not commit that sin anymore. This is most notable with known offending priests who are put into sex rehab then transferred to the next diocese and given more unguarded access to children. It’s strange to me when strong sympathies lie with the offender instead of the victim. I once had a therapist tell me how pedophiles get a bad wrap, and to a large degree this is true but they also have worked very hard to get themselves there. He went on to tell me that they are mistreated by having to register as sex offenders, marking them for life. “Pedophiles,” he lamented to me, “are not welcome in churches either.”

But what about the victims, I thought? In my entire conversation with him, ironically he never mentioned how bad of a wrap victims of abuse have it. He never mentioned that they are marked for life, and that many victims of child sex abuse often become victims of teen and adult rape, prostitution, drug abuse, depression, PTSD, guilt, sexual displeasure or dissociation during sex, shame, failed marriages, or worse. He never mentioned that many victims are plagued with affective flashbacks–where a trigger such as a certain smell, noise, or touch on the shoulder can inadvertently cause them to remember their young bodies being violated as if they were actually experiencing it in that moment. Affective flashbacks can happen at any time–at the dentist’s office (a dentist opening the mouth often triggers affective flashbacks for victims who were repeatedly forced to perform oral sex), in the shower, at church–and most often the survivor doesn’t even know why she is having vivid and grotesque images of her childhood abuse. There is no controlling it. There is no “snapping out of it.” There is no “just getting over it.” It just happens. And it haunts the mind. Victims and survivors of abuse are the forgotten souls. To be sure, since my father’s arrest and subsequent sentence of 30-60 years, I’ve had many concerned people ask me, “How’s your dad doing?” Oddly, I’ve been asked once, “How are your dad’s victims doing?”

Worse, still, are the stories I hear of churches quoting Matthew 5:39 to victims of abuse: “But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” The minister goes on: “Young lady, God says that to the measure you forgive you will be forgiven.” One pedophile bragged online of his biological daughter, “She loved it (the stimulation of her genitals) so much that her face turned blood red! She looked like she was about to pop!” His daughter was 2 years old. How, church leaders, do we expect survivors of abuse to sing “God Is So Good” while we tower over them and demand that God will judge them if they don’t “forgive and forget” their abuser?

So what do we do when a known pedophile is in our congregation? It depends. I’m talking here of pedophiles who make it known, or it becomes known by some other source, that they have already been investigated or convicted. Should an accusation come up about a suspected pedophile in the church, always report it to authorities for them to investigate the allegation. It’s the law. Never do an internal investigation. But in dealing with already-convicted pedophiles who find their way to your church, this is a deep theological question that cannot be reduced to a few bullet points. I’m still wrestling with finding proper tension between the abuser and the abused. Each congregation is different, but the one constant that should remain the same is this: Do what is in the best interest of victims and/or adult survivors of sexual abuse in your congregation. If they are able to speak, listen to their voices. Learn from them. Try to understand what they have been through and that many of them may have been severely traumatized. This was not a slap on the cheek. It was abuse. Gross abuse of the worst kind. And it probably didn’t happen just once. Victims in our congregations need to hear from the pulpit that we preachers don’t stand for abuse and that they are safe in our congregations.

Second, have a clear safety policy in place. Should the known pedophile stay, absolute conditions need to be placed upon him unapologetically. Pedophilia does not go away simply because one has publicly repented. There is no cure for it. Pedophilia can be controlled. It can never be cured. There need to be crystal clear boundaries. The pedophile should never have any access to any children whatsoever–this includes outside church activities as well. And this is for the remainder of his life. One friend told me that at their church they have designated men who escort a known pedophile anywhere he goes in the church building. He is not allowed to sit in a pew with children or have any physical contact with children. This is a good policy, and one that first takes the protection of children into consideration. Other people may judge this as overkill, but other people have not had their children brutally violated either. Churches are very high risk places for sexual abuse because most people are trusting and would never dream of someone abusing a child in broad daylight, especially at church.

Third, assemble a group or committee to research abuse. Know the signs to look for in an abuser. Know the signs to look for in a victim. Education is a great beginning because we cannot be vigilant if we don’t know what we are watching for. I’ve read about 30 books and countless articles on the subject so far and have listed some of the most helpful books in my resources page. This would be a great starting place.

Finally, never mistake forgiveness with trust. Forgiveness should never be demanded of victims of abuse. They have been to hell and back and it may take years and years until they are ready to begin forgiving. If others in the church can forgive an offender, they should never equate forgiveness with trust. They are two different things altogether. And the one who can forgive (especially a non-victim) should never expect a victim to forgive just because he was able to. To do so will only lead to revictimization.