Abuse is an abstract concept for many people, and it’s a word heavy with cultural misconceptions. When talking about abuse, I’ve learned to bridge the communication gap by defining and describing it: abuse is a pattern of coercive control based in an abuser's feeling of entitlement to power over another person. An abuser gains and maintains control through various tactics that can be physical, emotional, verbal, financial, sexual, or spiritual. Abusers actually target churches to find victims and to move into positions of power, so church leaders must be prepared to prevent abuse, to deal with it in their congregations, and to provide healing for abuse survivors.
The first step in addressing abuse is to grasp how prevalent it is. Half of your church members have likely experienced abuse: child abuse, sexual assault, intimate partner violence, spiritual abuse in a religious organization. It’s not an issue “out there”—it’s an issue “in here."
Prevent Abuse Before It Happens
1. Repeat your church’s clear stance on abuse.
When a church leadership team commits to fighting abuse, they should communicate this vision to the congregation. Mention it on the website and in volunteer handbooks. Hang signs in the women’s bathroom that give a confidential email address to contact a staff person if a woman feels unsafe in a relationship. Post signs outside the nursery that explain your policies for preventing child sexual abuse, such as screening volunteers and having two unrelated volunteers together at all times.
Preach about abuse in full sermons that focus on it, and also mention abuse as a related topic in other sermons. When teaching on marriage and relationships, always tell people that the advice does not apply to abusive relationships. Speaking openly about abuse warns abusers that they won’t find a secret place to take power over others in your church.
2. Screen staff and volunteers.
Do criminal background checks on all staff or, at a minimum, all volunteers who work with children and youth. These checks won’t always catch someone with a criminal past, but they may cause a potential predator to bypass your church. Also Google them extensively, and call all their references.
Ask nursery volunteers to go through child abuse prevention training. Send leaders of adult ministries through training about domestic violence and sexual abuse. This will help them see red flags in other volunteers, notice if abuse does occur, and may convince predators to walk away. G.R.A.C.E. is one organization that offers abuse prevention training (http://www.netgrace.org/how-we-help).
Require volunteers to sign a commitment to Christian living that details your expectations for them. Include specific statements about avoiding abusive behaviors.
3. Teach your congregation about equality and mutual submission.
Teach what Jesus taught: that we are not to lord authority over each other. Model mutual submission in the way you interact with other leaders and with church attenders. Don’t use the Bible or spiritual language to control them or gain power over them—that is spiritual abuse. Respect the relationship each person has with the Holy Spirit and don’t usurp that place in their lives. When you treat your congregation with love and honor, showing them how well they deserve to be treated, they will be less likely to accept abuse behavior from others.
Deal with Abuse in Your Church
4. Believe victims when they tell you what is happening.
When a victim confides in you about abuse they have experienced in the past or present, believe them. Victims are much more likely to downplay or hide abuse than they are to embellish accounts. False testimony is incredibly rare in abuse cases. Your first response to a victim disclosing abuse must be, “I believe you."
5. Immediately involve the proper authorities.
Do not keep abuse in-house and try to investigate it yourself. Abuse is a criminal matter, and it must be handled by the police. Many church leaders are mandatory reporters—make sure all staff members and volunteers know their responsibilities as mandatory reporters and the procedure they need to follow when they hear about abuse.
As soon as you get the victim to a safe place, child abuse and sexual assault information should always go directly to the police. Know the phone numbers of child protective services and any special victims units in your local police force.
Respect the autonomy of adult victims of intimate partner violence and allow them to make the decision about reporting abuse. Tell them that what their abuser is doing is criminal and offer to go with them to the police, but understand if they are not ready to do that yet. They may be afraid of losing their children, jeopardizing their financial support, being deported, or other major life challenges their abuser has threatened them with. Offer to work with them to create a safety plan that will get them ready to leave if that becomes necessary.
6. Remove abusers publicly from your church.
When a victim brings a charge against an abuser, immediately remove the accused from their position of ministry responsibility pending a criminal investigation. When an abuser refuses to repent and pursue serious long-term change, such as active participation in an abuser intervention program, remove them from your church. Make your church a safe place for victims to recover away from their abusers.
Provide Healing for Abuse Survivors
7. Train your leaders to understand abuse.
Begin by learning about abuse yourself. Read blogs and books by experts in various forms of abuse such as Diane Langberg, Lundy Bancroft, Julie Owens, and Mary DeMuth. Create training materials for your staff and ministry leaders to help them understand, spot, and respond to abuse, or use resources from experts. CBE is working on developing resources to help churches prevent abuse.
8. Prepare resources for survivors.
Research and list the local and national organizations that can help people who are escaping abuse as well as organizations that work with abusers to help them change. A few good places to start are with domestic violence shelters and hotlines, sexual abuse advocacy organizations, and counselors who offer abuse recovery therapy.
Earmark some of your church’s benevolence funds to help victims get away from their abusers and to pay for professional therapy as they recover.
Form a pastoral care team specially trained to lead survivors toward recovery from abuse. This shouldn’t take the place of licensed counselors, but it can be a helpful addition to meet survivors’ spiritual, emotional, and practical needs.
9. Ask survivors to share their testimonies.
Invite abuse survivors to publicly share their testimonies with your church. This helps the survivor see God’s hand in bringing them through, it gives others in the church who have not experienced abuse more empathy and understanding, it lets other victims know the church is safe and will help them, and it warns abusers that your church will not tolerate their sin. Protect the comfort and confidentiality of the survivors who share—for example, they may not want their story recorded and posted on your website.
As your church addresses abuse and becomes known as a safe place for abuse victims to heal, more and more survivors will come forward with their brokenness. God will make your church into a community that overflows with God's comfort and freedom.
This article is primarily focused on addressing abuse of women and children in the church. However, men are also abused (and may even feel pressured not to report due to narrow gender roles and cultural ideas about what it means to be masculine). This is a critically important issue that also deserves attention.