Pastors have a lot of power, says abuse survivor Rachael Denhollander, to either damage sexual abuse survivors in their congregations or to facilitate their healing. In a recent podcast with ChurchLeaders, Denhollander shared many insights on how pastors and ministry leaders can tackle the challenge of sexual abuse well.
“You are likely to be hemorrhaging wounds in your church that you are completely unaware of and that you will remain unaware of because a survivor has to keep you at arm’s length to be safe,” says Denhollander. “So the intentionality with which you approach ministry is incredibly important.”
How Pastors Can Help Sexual Abuse Survivors
Denhollander came to the public eye as a result of being the first woman to speak out publicly about the abuse she suffered at the hands of Larry Nassar. Nassar is a former USA Gymnastics team doctor now effectively serving a life sentence for abusing hundreds of women and girls over several decades. Denhollander was also raised in church and first suffered sexual abuse in a church context at age seven. But despite the trauma she has gone through, she retains a strong faith in God and is now an educator and advocator for victims of sexual assault. Her personal experience with abuse in the church has given her a unique understanding on how pastors can best minister to sexual abuse survivors.
Be Aware of the Extent of the Problem
Denhollander says it is rare for churches to fully comprehend the scope of sexual abuse in their congregations or to do anything about it, something she calls a “massive oversight.” She says, “By best estimates, at least 25 percent of the women and close to that many of the men have experienced sexual abuse [during their lifetimes] in any given congregation.” This means that as pastors are preaching on Sunday morning, about a quarter of the people they are speaking to have experienced sexual abuse at some point.
It’s also important, says Denhollander, to understand the level of trauma that sexual abuse survivors have gone through: “One of the things that we do know about sexual abuse is that it has the highest rates of PTSD and mental health issues out of any trauma or crime committed on a person who survives. It has some of the highest rates of creating substance abuse issues, drug dependency. Survivors of sexual abuse are four to six times more likely to contemplate suicide compared to survivors of other forms of trauma. But survivors are also very good about hiding those things.”
Acknowledge How Evil Abuse Really Is—and Treat It That Way
Once they recognize the scope of the problem, it is crucial for pastors to respond in a way that faithfully represents the gospel. Denhollander says, “Because what you preach on is seen as the remedy for abuse and is tied to the gospel and is tied to the identity of Christ, how you respond when someone discloses abuse becomes wound up in their conception of God.”
Before Denhollander encountered Nassar as a teenager, she was groomed for that experience by how her church reacted to the abuse she suffered at age seven. While some people at the church warned her parents about the predator’s behavior, when her parents took steps to protect her from him, other church members ostracized her and her family. Denhollander says that the message she received as a result was, “If you can’t prove it, don’t speak up.” If you do speak up, “You will lose everything.”
This message is devastating. But on the other hand, says Denhollander, “There is so much beauty in a gospel-filled response to abuse.” Part of this response is acknowledging abuse is evil and acting as though it is. She says, “When we dim the darkness of sin, when we don’t treat it like the important thing that it is, what we have ultimately done is we have dimmed the holiness of God.” Church leaders “need to paint that picture of God’s utter holiness and apply it to the evil that’s been done to people, not just to the sin that they have to repent of.”
Faithfully Preach Scripture
Instead of leaders who communicated how evil abuse is, Denhollander says, “I had church leaders who dramatically misinterpreted and misapplied common passages of scripture.” For example, some pastors said that if a sexual victim does not cry out as instructed in the Levitical law, that means the victim is guilty. Misinterpretations like this, says Denhollander are “very, very common.” And while none of the pastors mishandling scripture knew she was a sexual abuse survivor, “They made those comments, and I heard them…and so the message that I internalized was, ‘This is your fault. It’s not that big of a deal. God doesn’t really care,’ and that left me really struggling with what the Bible truly says about abuse.”
But pastors who preach faithfully are doing incredible work to help people live in freedom. Denhollander says, “I think that’s one of the most beautiful things that a pastor can do, is preach accurately.”
Recognize You Can’t Do Everything
Finally, pastors need to know their limitations and not think they have to carry the burden of healing everyone’s pain. “I know pastors carry an incredible amount of weight and responsibility, and they feel that,” says Denhollander. “A good pastor wants to shepherd their flock well.” With that in mind, she says, “Sometimes the best thing you can do is be able to connect survivors with good counseling resources, good psychologists, good practical resources that can help them escape an abusive situation or that can help them rebuild the life that’s been shattered.”
It’s true that sexual abuse causes deep devastation to people, but Denhollander emphasizes that the “ability [of church leaders] to bring incredible restoration is…very high. And that should give pastors hope.”