10 requests for church leaders from a sexual abuse survivor

October 17, 2019

At the 2019 ERLC Caring Well Conference, I shared 10 requests from my perspective of an SBC sexual abuse survivor. I’ve included my requests, expanded with commentary in order to help guide your thinking as you care well for trauma survivors.

1. Acknowledge that many adults in your churches have experienced trauma.

The Centers for Disease Control estimate that one in three women and one in four men have experienced sexual violence. In your congregation, this equates to 33% of your female members and 25% of your male members. Sexual abuse is a dominant form of trauma, but many adults have experienced physical, emotional, domestic, and spiritual abuse. My conservative estimate is that at least half of your membership has a significant trauma background. Understand that trauma is widespread in your congregation, and commit to care well for them. 

2. Understand that what may look like spiritual apathy is really spiritual disconnection because of trauma, and respond accordingly.

Research helps here. A 2017 study in the journal Mental Health, Religion, and Culture[1] reports that between 52% and 67.3% of American adults report at least one adverse childhood event — a traumatic event occurring in childhood. That would be over half of your congregation. A 2018 study in the Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment[2] states that complex childhood trauma causes long-term neurobiological changes that alter our brain function. The Mental Health, Religion, and Culture study reports that across our lifespan, those of us with trauma backgrounds experience a decline in the strength of our beliefs or our overall commitment. 

What’s the takeaway here? Trauma interrupts both our spiritual development and brain function. Are you discouraged by those in your church who don’t connect? This research says they may be managing trauma. Instead of disinterest, it is a disorder. Rather than apathy, it is adversity. These are medical effects that deserve your investment into their lives, not your frustration.

3. Treat mental health with the same priority as we do traditional physical health problems. 

When I dealt with the worst of my trauma recovery in my 20s and 30s, I realized in Sunday School that my most urgent prayer requests were not socially acceptable. The best I could muster was an “unspoken”. I’ve since wondered where unspoken prayer requests are in the Bible. The answer? They’re not there. “Unspoken” requests often arise from shame. 

Many churches are not yet free of stigma for mental illness. Over half of your congregation may suffer, but they check their need at the front door as shameful baggage. To change this dynamic, discuss mental health boldly. Preach it from the pulpit. Teach it from the podium. Strip the shame and stigma. Flip the narrative, and make your church a safe space to discuss what is still hard to describe. We should feel as free to ask for help for depression or bipolar disorder as we do for cancer. Changing this narrative will save lives.

4. Enact safeguards. 

Just as you have adults watching the children, someone should watch the adults. More predators exist inside your church than lurk outside. Look for grooming patterns and indicators of preferential abuse, like giving gifts to children or consistently volunteering with the same age group. If your staff is all male, ensure that a woman is trained and in place as a person an abused child or adult can go to for help. A child who has been abused by a man needs a caring woman to intervene. The best way to keep a child from a lifetime of pain after abuse is the intervention of a safe, caring adult. The Caring Well Curriculum will help you understand how to safeguard your church and use the right caretakers well.

5. Use the right words. It’s not someone’s bad judgment or “a health problem.” It’s a felony.

We must name abuse correctly. Common labels include “reaction to stress,” “poor judgment,” and even “sex with a girl”. No. Sexual abuse is a felony; domestic violence is a felony; and nonconsensual sex is rape and a felony. Rather than shading it with labels, call it what it is—a crime. 

6. Take care of those who have been abused by taking responsibility for their spiritual healing.

We are responsible for the Great Commission — to share the good news of Jesus Christ with the world. This good news includes the healing power of Christ. For too long we have stopped short of sharing all of the good news. We have focused on getting others saved from their sins, but not saved from the ravages of the sins of others. We’ve helped assure their salvation but left them to fester in their pain. Evangelism demands that we present Christ as Savior and also as Counselor and Healer. Our responsibility goes beyond checking off the Romans Road. True evangelism leads to discipleship that brings the healing power of Christ to others.

We are responsible for the Great Commission — to share the good news of Jesus Christ with the world. This good news includes the healing power of Christ.

7. Report abusers to the police, no matter who they are or how much influence they wield, and get them out of ministry. Remove their enablers as well. Theirs is a secondary evil.

When abuse occurs, it is not your job as a church to investigate. It is your mandate to report the crime to civil authorities. The Caring Well Curriculum will explain how, but the first step is to call 911. If a children’s minister who molested a child had shot that child instead, you would not decide to investigate if a crime had occurred. You are not an investigator or a rehabilitator of the offender. Report the crime. Remove the abuser from ministry. And if someone tries to protect the abuser, remove that person as well.

8. Change the culture regarding mental health in our evangelical world. 

How do we change a culture? Act on your conviction that a large segment of the Church is being overlooked. Raise your voice to advocate for mental health. Encourage leaders to use their power to openly discuss mental health. Imagine the power of a pastor who preaches on depression and bipolar disorder and how it enables small groups to be able to discuss these disorders and pray for others with openness and boldness. Flipping a culture begins with the convictions of a few, is then seized upon by leadership as essential, and spreads until it is normalized. Rick and Kay Warren of Saddleback Church are great examples of culture-changers regarding mental health. Let’s follow their model in all of our Southern Baptist churches and normalize mental health.

9. Listen and then be willing to talk. The silence from the churches in my life has been deafening.

When a survivor comes forward to discuss abuse at any age, listen. Let him or her speak. When the survivor has exhausted himself or herself of the story, then talk. Our tendency is to talk first and to reassure. My friend Chris Davis, senior pastor of Groveton Baptist Church in Alexandria, Virginia, wrote recently in his article Empathy: 5 Tips for Taking the Plunge, “Instead of assuaging our own discomfort or theirs with solutions or silver linings, we should remain present with the person in their emotions. This may require long, potentially uneasy stretches of silence as they put words to their experience. We ask questions to work toward what is really happening in their heart, even if the answer reveals more mess or deeper pain.”

Remain present with the survivor in the uneasy silence. Let the survivor set the boundaries on what to share and when. We deserve your time and willingness to let us be the owners of our stories. Once you’ve listened, talk with the survivor. Later, preach the effects of abuse from the pulpit. Over half of your congregation is waiting for you to listen and then speak.

10. Do not be afraid of those of us who’ve experienced trauma. Our stories are messy, but embrace us and you will embrace our Savior who suffered.

As a survivor, even I feel reluctant sometimes to get involved in the recovery process of someone else. Recovery is messy, awkward, and lifelong. Reluctance is normal, but fear is a mismatched response. Don’t be afraid of us. When God accelerates our healing through connected believers, we become some of the most powerful servants of God in the Church. We have suffered and come through it to help others. We’ve seen both evil and God’s power up close. Run to our pain, not away. Serving us will become one of the greatest gifts God has given you and may be an amazing way God, in turn, serves your church.

As a survivor, I believe I have earned the right to ask you to consider my 10 requests, all in the goal of making our churches a healing refuge, safe and restorative for all. When we can reach unbelievers, then provide a safe environment for worship and discipleship, and also actively restore those who have suffered trauma to a vibrant relationship with God, we will know that we are following the leadership of Jehovah-Rapha, the God who heals.


  1. ^ McCormick, W. H., Carroll, T. D., Sims, B. M., & Currier, J. (2017). Adverse childhood experiences, religious/spiritual struggles, and mental health symptoms: examination of mediation models. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 20(10), 1042–1054.
  2. ^ Dye, H. (2018). The impact and long-term effects of childhood trauma. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment28(3), 381–392. 

Susan Codone

Susan Codone (Ph.D.) is a professor of Technical Communication at Mercer University School of Engineering. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24