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

We have heard very troubled responses to talks about ministry to church members who are victims of abuse. Often the response is one of shame or *denial or embarrassment, that there would be such problems among God’s people. Such shame and embarrassment shows a lack of understanding of who we are. We must remember that Jesus invited hurting people to come to him to find rest for their souls. Instead of feeling shame, we can rejoice that hurting people are in the pews of our churches. Maybe the very reason that they are in church is because they are seeking to respond to Jesus’ invitation—they need rest for their souls. Instead of portraying the church as a place for perfect people, we can define the church as a place for those who are hurting and broken. When churches do that, we will no longer be ashamed of the issue in the church, nor will we be ashamed to have survivors in our midst. And victims will be able to worship with us without feeling shame. Realizing and acknowledging that there are victims in the church becomes an opportunity for ministry and healing, and shattering the silence will make the church an inviting place for victims to come to find spiritual strength and to experience God’s grace at deeper levels. The church is a healing house.

The Fear Behind the Anger

Not only can being a victim of sexual abuse lead to shame, it can lead to anger. Anger can be a very appropriate and righteous reaction to the injustice and evil of our world (Mark 3:4–5; Eph 4:26a), so it should not be surprising that those who have been the victims of the injustice and evil of sexual abuse would feel anger. However, anger is intended as a short-term response to an evil circumstance (Eph 4:26b). But the feelings of betrayal and pain experienced by survivors of sexual abuse are not short-term feelings, so for those who have been victimized, anger can become a way of life that affects all of their rela­tionships in unhealthy ways and enables them to surround their bruised emotions with self-protective barriers that hide their feelings of vulnerability. What appears to others as hostility or obstinacy or an “unspiritual” attitude may actually be the outward manifesta­tion of deep fears of being hurt or disappointed or victimized again. It will take time and trained help for victims to learn that although their trust has been terribly betrayed by an abuser, it does not mean they should never trust again. During that sometimes long process, religious leaders will need to show patience, compassion, and understanding in their response to angry survivors.

Our research has also shown that it is not only victims who are affected by fear. Our study among seminary students has shown that those preparing for pastoral ministry are also very fearful of responding to survivors of abuse. Students expressed to us a wide range of fears, from their concerns that they might “say the wrong thing” to a victim, to fears about dealing with their own personal issues (religious leaders may also struggle with abuse in their own past, which needs to be addressed), to fears that their ministry could be negatively and severely impacted by the discovery of abusive situations among church families. Such fears can lead to an unhealthy anger among church leaders toward the victims of sexual abuse. From our studies, it is clear that such fears among seminary students are related to a lack of preparedness to respond to victims. Those leaders who think they must by themselves “fix” the hurts caused by abuse are the most fearful. Those who realize that they can build good working relationships with therapists and advocates and other community resources are better able to respond in healthy and appropriate ways to calls for help from survivors.

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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). www.unb.ca/fredericton/arts/departments/sociology/people/nasoncla.html

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