Article

6 ways pastors can care for victims of sexual abuse

Feb 13, 2019

We are in a significant moment in our society because of the #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements. As we have now seen clearly, sexual abuse and assault has deeply affected the Southern Baptist Convention. People are coming forward about suffering abuse at the hands of ministers, church leaders, and family members—trusted individuals that were supposed to be sources of safety and help. What has been a private, quiet, and likely agonizing reality for thousands of men and women dealing with the trauma associated with sexual assault for many years is coming to light. What we know now cannot be ignored.

As the church, we have a responsibility to care for those who suffer among us. But perhaps this burden is rightly placed most heavily on the men established and called to shepherd Jesus’ flock. There are policies and procedures that must be in place for when a victim comes forward. Without the proper tools for responding swiftly to tragedies such as sexual assault, we simply will not be able to care for victims properly. Yet we also know that there will be a need for spiritual care as well.

I am not a psychologist, but I am a survivor, and I offer six ways pastors can care for those in their midst who may come forward in the coming days as victims.

1. Reduce shame and blame

One of the hardest things a survivor of sexual assault ever does is say these words out loud: I have been a victim of sexual assault. People often do not share this because of shame and unwarranted guilt that plagues them. So when someone tells you this deeply personal part of their story, you must be ready to listen and care without any hint of accusation.

Women,* in particular, are blamed for their assaults. I’ve heard women share with me some of the terribly hurtful and preposterous words said to them:  

Accusations such as these aren’t only inappropriate, they are soul-crushing and damaging. You cannot eliminate shame, but you can reduce it by being conscientious of how you react and respond. Tell her it’s not her fault. She did not make her perpetrator assault, harass, or abuse her. He is responsible for his actions.

2. Resist shock

Although studies show that nearly 1 in 4 women have been sexually assaulted, few speak openly about the experience. Survivors may feel isolated and alienated because of the lack of openness of survivors around them. I don’t say this to put blame on those who remain quiet. It took me many years to speak openly about my experience, and to this day I know many women who have never, and will likely never, share their experience.

It’s incredibly hard to vocalize victimization. When a woman comes forward to share, reduce her fear by limiting your shock. Of course, we will feel sorrow and righteous anger, but when we are shocked, we tend to respond with: “What?! Why haven’t you said anything?” Or, we might be completely and uncomfortably silent. Maybe the best thing to say at that moment is, “I’m so sorry this happened to you.” The first time someone shares with you is not the time to ask questions. Be there for her. Comfort her. Listen to her.

3. Remind them of Jesus

When a congregant shares the deep wound of abuse, she will need to hear that she is clean and covered because of the blood of Jesus (Heb. 10:22). She will need to hear that Jesus was a man of sorrows and is acquainted with the deepest grief (Isa. 53:3). She will need to hear that she can draw near to the throne of grace and receive mercy and help in her time of need (Heb. 4:16). She’ll need to be reminded that Jesus and God, the Father, love her.

4. Be their advocate

When we think of advocacy, we might immediately turn our minds to public work such as being a mouthpiece for sexual assault in the public square. That may very well be where the Lord leads you. We need Christian advocates willing to speak up about abuse. Part of loving our neighbor involves advocating for our neighbor. When one person mourns, we all mourn, and when one person weeps, we all weep (Rom. 12:15; 1 Cor. 12:26). She will need a champion, a person who might have to sacrifice his comfort and perhaps even his reputation to advocate for the abused. It might cost you something to stand up for what is right. At the end of your days, it will be worth it to have kept your integrity.

5. Pray

We don’t usually think of prayer as an action, but prayer is an action. If we have access to a holy God, the Father and Creator of the universe, we should never minimize prayer. Prayer is quite possibly the greatest action. So in all our supporting and advocating, we want to make sure that we are also praying. God is the only one equipped to handle and fully care for our burdens and those of our friends. Let’s take those cares to the throne of grace. God is ready and willing to help us.

6. Know your limitations

You may have a deep desire to serve the person who came to you, but you are limited. Know your limitations and insufficiencies, and seek the proper help. Involve a counselor, pull in the authorities, find someone who can actually help. Learn about resources available to victims and have them prepared and ready to give to your member. Knowing your limitations and inadequacies may very well be the wisest, safest, and most caring thing you do for victims. And as an overseer, telling a victim that you, too, need help is a humble and honest example for what she needs—and what we all need.

*For the purpose of this article and to keep it clear and succinct, I am using the pronoun “she.” I am aware that many men are abused yearly and that this is not a problem isolated to women.

A version of this article originally appeared at Lifewayvoices.com.

Trillia Newbell

Trillia Newbell serves as the Director of Community Outreach for the ERLC. She is the author of numerous books, including Sacred Endurance: Finding Grace and Strength for a Lasting Faith (2019). Her writings on issues of faith, family, and diversity have been published... Read More