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A Charge for Church Leadership: Speaking Out Against Sexual Abuse and Ministering to Survivors, Part 2

Pastors are probably right in the belief that if they address the issue of sexual abuse from the pulpit, they will need to be ready to respond to victims who feel that the sermon has given them permission to seek help. Since most pastors feel unprepared to respond, they mistakenly decide it is better not to address the issue at all and hope that it isn’t hap­pening in their congregation. Indeed, victims or concerned families can be desperate to find help when the issue is brought into the open, but these leaders often have the wrong strategy. Instead of deciding to keep the issue hidden, pastors need to prepare themselves to respond.

Many pastors seem to have the mistaken impression that being prepared to respond to victims of sexual abuse means fulfilling the role of a qualified family therapist. That is not the case. In fact, it is those pastors who are least prepared to respond who are most likely to attempt to “fix” the problem by counseling or advising the victim and/or the abuser. Such attempts by unqualified pastors can cause great harm. Pastors who know how to respond when a victim comes seeking help understand two things.

First, as trained shepherds, they are qualified to provide spiritual care, guidance, and support to the victim of the abuse. Victims of sexual abuse who are part of the faith community will have many questions about God, about themselves, and about the abuse that has happened—or is still happening. Throughout that difficult process, pastors can provide the biblical guidance, spiritual care, and prayer that is so essential to the healing process. Pastors are qualified to address the issue of sin in the life of the abuser. They are also able to mobilize the church community to respond in love and in grace to provide practical support for the victim and offer various kinds of accountability structures for the abuser.

Second, well-prepared pastors also understand that they are not qualified to provide more technical counseling or therapy, legal opinions, or law enforcement. For these im­portant aspects of the response to a victim of abuse or assault, pastors need to be familiar with and be ready to refer to other qualified resources in their wider community—re­sources that may include people within their congregation and also resources in the wider community. When a member of the congregation discloses to the pastor or to another church leader that they are being sexually abused, the pastor needs not only to know who to contact but also needs to have built good working relationships with those people so that referrals may be made with confidence.

For example, when a female victim of sexual abuse needs to go to a women’s shelter so that they are safe from the abuse, it is important that the pastor be able to do more than look in the Yellow Pages to see who to call. A wise pastor will have already visited the nearest women’s shelter and built a relationship with some of the staff members so that the pastor and the shelter workers can work together in the interests of the victim—the pastor providing spiritual guidance and support, while the staff members deal with the practi­cal issues of keeping the woman safe from harm. Similar relationships can be built with law enforcement, with counselors and therapists, and with other community resources. It helps a victim a great deal when the pastor can confidently recommend a qualified counselor or therapist who will understand the victim’s faith.

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Category: Ministry, Spring 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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