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A Charge for Church Leadership: Speaking Out Against Sexual Abuse and Ministering to Survivors, Part 1

The Language of the Spirit and the Language of Contemporary Culture

The truth expounded in the sacred Scriptures is clear—we are to expose the deeds of dark­ness (cf. 1 Cor 4:5; 2 Cor 6:14). Reading in Psalm 9, beginning at verse 8, we see that “He rules the world in righteousness and judges the peoples with equity.” For “The LORD is a refuge for the oppressed,” the psalmist continues, “a stronghold in times of trouble” (TNIV). The prophetic voice, grounded in the twin pillars of justice and mercy, calls out for evil to be overcome and compassion to be offered as the healing balm of Gilead to wounds sustained at the hands of the powerful (Isah 58:6–7; Jer 22:3). And yet, even as the voices of religious leaders speak out to condemn sexual abuse, their hands must be ready to attend to the needs of those who suffer. In contexts where those impacted by sexual abuse look for help, the language of the Spirit must be accompanied by the language of contemporary culture. While the language of the Spirit includes religious words, *rituals, and practices that invoke the spiritual traditions endowed with sacred significance, the language of contemporary culture encapsulates issues of safety, legal processing, thera­peutic respite, and material provisions.2

The Care and Assistance of Spiritual Leadership

Pastoral care—as we understand it—involves both. Proclamation and practical assistance are two of the core components of pastoral care. The language of the Spirit brings peace and healing—a vital supplement to the needs of daily life—breathing hope into dark, fearful places. Proclamation, or speaking out against the *prevalence and severity of abuse, is a necessary first step in offering a *sacred space safe for a victim to disclose the horror of what has occurred to them. When religious leaders stand behind the pulpit they are in a position of authority—moral authority—and here their words, however inadequate, be­come anointed, powerful, rendering problems on earth of heavenly concern. God’s voice to the people.

The pairing of practical assistance with spiritual resources empowers the survivor, makes the offender accountable, and paves the pathway for safety, security, and a life where the pain and vulnerability of the past no longer controls the present.

Practical assistance, which involves such activities as sustained listening, counsel­ing, referral information, and attention to the necessities of life—like food, shelter, and fiscal resources, is infused with a therapeutic *empathy offering hope. Who better to give hope and the language of a new start than religious leaders? Translated in this way—and through practical means—God’s message becomes one of peace, accountability, provi­sion, justice, and even *forgiveness. The story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37) reminds us that when we are bleeding and left for dead, temporary bandages to thwart the loss of blood and transportation to a place that has the potential to sustain us trumps fancy words, advanced degrees or clerical robes. In other words, practical care is so much more impactful than great intentions and superficial sympathy. The story teaches as well that: practical care has boundaries, can exact a cost, disregards *stereotypes, may require many caregivers, and that those prepared to help in one way may not be equipped to help in other ways. To be sure, the parable of the Good Samaritan reinforces contemporary professional best practices including referrals (*referring agencies), client boundaries, cross disciplinary cooperation, and interdisciplinary triage, to name but a few.

The pairing of practical assistance with spiritual resources empowers the *survivor, makes the offender accountable, and paves the pathway for safety, security, and a life where the pain and vulnerability of the past no longer controls the present. As a result, spiritual leaders have a very important and unique role to play in ministering to those whose lives have been impacted by various forms of violence and sexual assault. But this is neither straightforward nor easy. The message is difficult to translate whether one is a religious leader serving the flock or a professional in a community-based agency serving a diverse population. The charge for church leadership has implications for those who work in both sacred and secular contexts. Working together involves bridge building. It involves trust, respect, negotiation and sometimes compromise. Through collaborative efforts, churches, their leaders, and the people who support them have the power and potential to reach those who are vulnerable, those impacted by evil deeds, and communities everywhere. This we can say with confidence because it is based on more than twenty years of research attempting to understand the story of what happens when women, men, teens, and chil­dren who have been impacted by forms of abuse look to their faith communities for help in its aftermath.

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Category: Ministry, Pneuma Review, Winter 2014

About the Author: Nancy Nason–Clark is Professor (and Chair) of Sociology and Director of the RAVE Project University of New Brunswick (Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada).

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