How to Pastor in the Age of Sexual Abuse Accusations

sexual abuse accusations

America awoke this morning to the latest disturbing chapter of an unfolding sexual assault saga. When Harvey Weinstein was accused several weeks ago, it was like a dam breaking.

As church leaders, sometimes we can be tempted to hide in our sanctuaries and avoid following all the twists and turns of the news, but one thing is certain: This is not something the church can afford to ignore. Nor should we, given the calling we have to reach the lost, to assist the downtrodden, and to help sinners come to repentance and forgiveness.

Every Corner of Society

Over the successive weeks following the Weinstein allegations, more and more women found the courage to speak out about violence they suffered—whether that violence came at the hand of a politician, Hollywood high-roller or church leader.  

On November 29, 2017, viewers of NBC’s Today learned that the co-host of the show, Matt Lauer, had been fired in response to “a detailed complaint from a colleague about inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace.” The visibly shocked co-host of the Today show, Savannah Guthrie, read a statement from NBC News Chairman Andrew Lack announcing Lauer’s termination.

Guthrie called the ongoing sexual assault disclosures a “reckoning” that is “long overdue, and it must result in workplaces where all women—all people—feel safe and respected.”

Sobering Responsibility for Pastors

We would be foolish to think this reckoning will not (and has not) come to the church. In fact, if we trust in the truth of Scripture, we would be wise to remember that judgment should begin at the house of God (1 Peter 4:17). All of us, regardless of our position, will be held accountable for our actions—and lack of action. Indeed, those of us in positions of leadership should be particularly sober in these moments, knowing that “we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1).

It is an incredible blow when sexual assault occurs in the church, but it is even more devastating when the church creates an atmosphere that covers up that abuse. As leaders, we are responsible for the culture that flourishes under our leadership. Like Guthrie admonished, may we create cultures where all people, including women, “feel safe and respected.”

Act Now

Pastor, there are a lot of things you can do to make your church culture a safe place for all people. This is a perfect time to think about the procedures you have in place (or don’t yet have in place) to prevent and/or respond to sexual abuse.

  1. Pray – the conversations you are about to have are most likely not going to be easy. Sexual assault is a topic many people have experience with. People are wounded in this area, whether they realize it or not. If you’re not wounded yourself, you may be the exception. You are going to need the help of the Holy Spirit to get you through this. You are also going to need God’s wisdom.
  2. Ask the women on your staff if they feel safe and respected – This is a great place to start. Your staff are more likely than your congregants to come to you with issues. Listen to them. Work with them to implement changes they may request. Don’t direct the conversation. Listen.
  3. Have a sexual harassment policy in place – Does your staff know how to respond to sexual harassment and abuse accusations? For instance, if a parent comes to a volunteer on your children’s ministry team with an accusation, does that person know how to respond? Another thing to consider is what to do if a member of your staff is accused of sexual harassment or assault. Is that person put on leave immediately while you investigate? How do you treat the accuser? The accused? How do you investigate? These are all questions your staff and volunteers should know the answers to.
  4. Address the issue from the pulpit – The unfortunate reality is that given the fallen nature of your staff and members of your congregation, someone has either been the victim of sexual assault or has committed sexual assault. It doesn’t matter if you feel like you know everyone in your congregation really well. Scripture tells us we are all capable of committing horrific sins and also falling prey to horrific sins. We cannot be naive about this. You need to condemn sexual assault without question or caveat in your sermons. Additionally, people need to know they can look to the church for help.
  5. If you don’t have the capacity to help people, outsource – When you address sexual assault from the pulpit, people are probably going to respond. If your prayer or counseling team cannot handle the need, you need to find a reputable counseling practice to recommend. And then your team members need to know when and how to hand off.

The Reckoning Applies to Inaction

Although it’s uncomfortable and hard, we have to remember that we will be judged by what we didn’t do as well as what we did. Edmund Burke said it best: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” The temptation to ignore warning signs, to avoid difficult conversations and to sidestep the work of finding qualified counselors to help victims is our biggest threat right now. Please pastor, do the work. Ask your staff to help you.

You probably don’t need to be reminded, but we’ll do it anyway: You have a difficult job. It’s not easy leading people, and it’s certainly not easy leading people during hard and controversial times. Fortunately, you have the wisdom of God to lean into. Please don’t neglect to consult your strongest ally as you wade into these conversations with your people.

What other ideas do you have? We’d love to hear what your church is doing to address the issue of sexual abuse in the comments.


For additional help from ChurchLeaders, check out the following:

9 Anti-Abuse Practices Your Church Needs to Adopt

How to Protect Kids From Sexual Abuse in Your Church

Overcoming the Scars of Sexual Abuse

Dan Allender: Ministry That Heals Wounded Hearts

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