The following article was written by a friend and colleague, Boz Tchividjian. It has been my honor and privilege to become friends with Boz and to begin working together with his organization, G.R.A.C.E. (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) It’s refreshing to hear someone speak up on behalf of survivors of childhood sexual abuse, whose abuse occurred at the hands of the church. Boz does not try to defend the actions of churches who failed to protect victims; to the contrary, he wants to see real change take place within the church. Thank you Boz.
I did take the liberty of redoing his title for the purpose of emphasizing my personal perspective on how churches should begin acting. The original title is shown below.
7 Ways To Welcome Abuse Survivors In Our Churches
Churches should be some of the safest and most welcoming communities for those who have suffered from sexual abuse. Sadly, today these are some of the places survivors feel most vulnerable as they are often shamed, silenced, and judged.
This is most tragically illustrated by the case of a young girl who was sexually abused by a missionary doctor on the mission field. When she finally stepped forward and reported the abuse, the missionary leaders made this little 13-year-old girl sign a “confession” letter in which she had to acknowledge having “participated in a physical relationship” with the offender and end the letter with “…I know what I did was very wrong, and I am very sorry for it.” Years later this survivor told me that this damning letter is what shamed her into decades of feeling worthless and being silent. It doesn’t take a demand to sign a confession for a church to become an unsafe and unwelcoming place for survivors. Hurtful comments, the embracing of alleged perpetrators, the failure to offer assistance, and the pretending that this offense doesn’t exist in the Christian community are just a handful of ways that further wound survivors and drive them out of the very places that should be their refuge.
I want to share seven ways that I believe will help transform our churches into some of the safest and most welcoming communities for survivors of abuse.
Be a friend and listen: One of the best ways to serve survivors is to simply be their friend and listen. This does NOT mean we pity them and turn them into our special project. It means that we spend time with them, laugh with them, cry with them, and support them. It means that we validate them as human beings made in the image of God. It means that we don’t have all the answers, and it’s ok. Too many survivors have been traumatized by churches that fail to protect them, and then turn around and ignore them or tell them what to do. Perhaps we can help these amazing survivors shed the shame by being a safe person in a safe place.
Know the available resources: Survivors often need professional assistance to help shed the shame fueled by abuse. Becoming familiar with local resources such as qualified therapists, victims’ advocates, attorneys, and support groups will enable us to introduce them to our church communities and to any survivor who may need their services.
Acknowledge & address spiritual struggles: Those who have been sexually abused often struggle with many spiritual doubts, concerns, and questions. Criticizing or judging these struggles will only fuel more shame as survivors are pushed away from yet another unsafe place. On the other hand, offering no response or simply providing oversimplified answers can minimize the importance of these struggles in the lives of these individuals. Sometimes we answer best by simply connecting individuals with sound spiritual resources that may provide them a starting point to address their particular spiritual struggles. This can be anything from recommending a book, blog, or podcast to encouraging them to become part of an abuse-survivor support group at the church. It could also mean connecting them with a clergy member or other professional who has worked through many of these spiritual issues. Before recommending any particular spiritual resource, it is critical that we seek the counsel of Christian child-protection experts and other Christians who have the training for and experience with serving survivors. Organizations such as GRACE and Together-We-Heal are equipped to provide such assistance.
Connect with local law enforcement: Developing a relationship between our faith communities and local law enforcement is invaluable. Believe it or not, most law enforcement officers are thrilled when people in the community seek them out for advice and help. Our churches would greatly benefit from the guidance provided by law enforcement on issues such as child protection, dealing with known sex offenders, status of pending cases, and available community resources for survivors. In most cases, this as easy as calling the local law enforcement office and scheduling an appointment with the officer who supervises the investigation of abuse cases. Simply let him/her know that your church is seeking guidance on issues related to abuse. I highly recommend having a member of the church leadership be a part of this meeting. Connecting with law enforcement will communicate a strong message to the survivors in our churches that we take this issue seriously as we seek to love and protect them with excellence.
Start an abuse-survivor support group: Support groups often create safe places within our churches for survivors to be honest and vulnerable as they continue to walk the long and difficult road of healing. Giving survivors a safe place to speak freely about their abuse and struggles can offer real healing from the isolation they have experienced. When survivors know they are not alone, they can encourage one another by walking through the often difficult journey together. Though one doesn’t have to be a survivor to start such a group, I highly recommended that we seek out the invaluable input and assistance of survivors when putting together such a group. Developing and supporting this group is a powerful way a church can communicate that it values, protects, and cares for those suffering in its midst.
Develop response protocols: Work with the church leadership and outside child-advocate experts to develop a protocol for responding to abuse disclosures. How we respond to abuse disclosures is perhaps the single most important way we demonstrate value to those who have been abused. A protocol that follows the law and places the needs of the survivor first is needed in every church. I will be writing more about this in future posts.
Speak Up: We serve survivors best when we are their biggest advocates. Those who have been abused should find their greatest and most vocal supporters inside the church. Shaming, silencing, and judging have no home in a community that loves and advocates on behalf of abuse victims. Unfortunately, there are still many within the walls of the church that don’t see it that way. That is where we step in and speak up. We speak up for these amazing survivors, constantly encouraging them with our words and actions to hold their heads up high and walk away from shame and silence. We speak up because it is these unsung heroes who so often teach us, inspire us, and reflect Jesus. We speak up because Jesus speaks up for all of us. We speak up because it is our privilege.
Transforming our churches and faith communities into places of refuge for those who have been violated, judged, and marginalized is what the Gospel is all about. If God is our refuge, then our churches must be the places where these precious souls find safety and rest.
Let’s begin this transformation today…
This article was published with permission from Boz Tchividjian.
It’s original publication can be found here – http://boz.religionnews.com/2014/05/16/7-ways-welcome-abuse-survivors-churches/
June 3, 2014 at 2:10 pm
Reblogged this on Raw Songful Perdition and commented:
This is an excellent post from Together We Heal, which contains an article by Boz Tchividjian. How do we make church a safe space for survivors?
June 3, 2014 at 2:13 pm
Reblogged this on Make Me Safe and commented:
This is an excellent post on Together We Heal containing an article by Boz Tchividjian. How do we make church a safe place for survivors?
June 3, 2014 at 3:51 pm
The Christian Woman Magazine with a wide readership has addressed this subject in the last 2 issues as a 2 part series. This is quite significant.
June 3, 2014 at 4:59 pm
I’d add one other: There is probably a local agency that focuses on sexual assault/abuse survivors. (Local may mean within 50 miles or the like.) In my state, there is even a state-wide coalition of agencies that deal with the issue.
Invite that agency to come and train your staff and volunteers. There are bonus benefits for this sort of thing.
One is that you have people who are intimately familiar with the issues facing any survivor.
They come without the blinders we in the Church seem to have.
They have counseling resources (even Christian ones a lot of the time). They can often help a survivor orient her/himself to healing resources.
Another is that the church doesn’t have to develop their response program from the ground up.
And they send a VERY strong message to any potential predators in your midst:
We are watching.
We are aware.
We will take action.
I’ve been a volunteer at the agency in my area for 23 years. I have been on the crisis lines and gone to the hospital to walk alongside new victims. I now train new advocates to do that work. To my great disappointment, the churches are the hardest places for the agency to get into for awareness and response training.
Also, to my disappointment, there aren’t very many Christians who are willing to get involved in this messy work. A few. And the agencies are seen as a threat or as too secular for the Church to connect with. It’s a pity. The agencies respect any organization that’s willing to bring them in to help address the issue. The world’s view of the Church would see some positive growth should we recognize that there are resources readily available if we but ask.
June 5, 2014 at 5:12 pm
June 5, 2014 at 5:44 pm
Thanks. I’d just like to see the Church more open to “we don’t have all the answers.” Yes, we know the One who heals like no other can but there is much to be gained in partnerships.
June 3, 2014 at 5:11 pm
Those who shame and judge are not following Christ and have not the right to call themselves Christian.
June 6, 2014 at 1:50 am
These are very understanding and compassionate suggestions and would be truly helpful if a whole community were able to adopt them. Many survivors would be able to begin healing and feel support much earlier in life.
However, it misses entirely something else and that is trust in the very institution that facilitated abuse in many cases.
Towards Healing, the Catholic Church’s counselling service in Australia has been shown to be seriously flawed and it appears to be designed with the purpose of damage limitation by the church’s own insurance company and lawyers, Witnesses to the Royal Commission have stated they have been re traumatised by the process, silenced and paid minimal compensation which is often negated by legal fees.
June 6, 2014 at 4:30 am
Hi Jay, I couldn’t agree more. It’s almost impossible to trust the organization that, in some cases, not only allowed abuse to happen, but covered it up and further victimized those who were abused. I am one of those people. I do not trust the organization that allows my abuser to continue working with access to children. The only way that will change is when/if said organizations make REAL change. Until that time, it’s up to us to help one another and keep demanding that change be made.
July 15, 2014 at 6:06 pm
Wonderful article! I do see many changes being made in churches around me which gives me great hope. People are trying to make a difference and it is happening.
July 15, 2014 at 6:47 pm
One other thing: For those interested in putting together an abuse survivor group, there is one program that has an almost 30 year track record based on the work of and with the support of Dr. Dan Allender whose Wounded Heart seminars and book are a great resource.
Dr. Allender’s Wounded Heart seminar was the original source for Open Hearts Ministry’s Journey Groups (http://ohmin.org/). They offer great materials and very effective training for group leaders in Muskegon, MI a couple times a year.
There are two 12-week groups. There are more groups conducted at their training/groups in Muskegon.
I’ve been involved with them since 2005 and, having tried other programs along the way, find this one the best I know of.
October 25, 2014 at 2:28 am
Excellent article, thanks. I wholeheartedly agree. It is a horrible thing to find heeding the Spirit by making a mild (& non-detailed) disclosure in church results in you instantly becoming invisible to 100+ people! When you raise the “vanishing” point with the pastor, in the most non-critical and gracious way, you are met with defensiveness.
Those looking for resources for survivor support groups may be interested in this http://www.livinghoperesources.com.au/dvd_fragments.html