The poor, sick and oppressed flocked to Jesus by the thousands because He was safe. Sometimes He called people to follow Him. Other times people begged to follow Him and He sent them away to live in peace instead. Jesus didn’t elevate the invitation to church above justice and nurturing the wounded. This guest post is by two people whom I love dearly and who really understand what it is to provide a safe community for survivors of abuse. This is incredibly helpful.
“Church is one of the least safe places to acknowledge abuse because the way it is counseled is, more often than not, damaging to the victim… It is with deep regret that I say the church is one of the worst places to go for help.”
—Rachael Denhollander ¹
Never have the words “church is one of the least safe places” been so true as these past few years. From megachurches to non-denominational churches, Independent Fundamental Baptists to Southern Baptists, progressive to conservative, religious communities are full of tragedies we can no longer ignore. Listening to so many survivors tell their stories of the horrible ways they were treated by the church leaves no doubt that churches have become some of the most unsafe places on the planet to be a survivor of abuse. Faith communities too often hide a toxic culture where abusers thrive and victims are shunned and silenced. The dismissiveness of those in authority, the isolation of the vulnerable, the imbalance of power, and the expectation to stay silent and “forgive” are realities we all must acknowledge. Our theology and Christ’s gospel have so often been hijacked by those who use it as a license for impunity rather than accountability, and church culture has become complicit by rewarding the silence of institutional protectionism. No one is safe under the current conditions of the church today.
While walking with survivors we are often asked “What is a safe church? How will I know I’m ready to go back?”
According to the most recent statistics, one in three women and one in six men experience sexual abuse at some point in their lives.² In a congregation of 100 people, that is easily 25 percent of those who attend, and these numbers are most likely low estimates. If we include domestic violence, emotional or spiritual abuse, these numbers climb to as much as 40 percent according to some experts.³ This is important to understand because we all know a survivor of abuse, even if we do not yet realize it. Survivors are watching how we’ve been responding to #MeToo and other stories of abuse in our society, especially the tragedies currently involving the church.
However, some survivors taking a break from attending church becomes a problem for many Christians. For many survivors, taking a break from church meetings is the only alternative they have if they cannot find people they can trust. Abuse survivors can still believe in Jesus while being unable to engage a religious community where they would be reliving their deep and lasting traumas of spiritual, sexual or emotional abuse inflicted by Christians in the church.
While walking with survivors we are often asked “What is a safe church? How will I know I’m ready to go back?” Making the church a safe place begins with us. We hope to provide some insight of what we have both learned about safe churches.
Making Your Church a Safe Church
One of the worst things to say to a survivor is “there is no such thing as a perfect church.” This confusing of definitions belittle survivors. “Safe” is very different than “perfect.” People will always disappoint and hurt us in a fallen world, but enduring abuse is never an option we must settle for. Abuse or predatory behavior is never acceptable under any circumstance.
To boil it down to a simple definition, abuse is anything someone does to isolate, deflect, manipulate or intimidate you. Abuse can be sexual, physical, verbal, emotional and spiritual, and many resources exist that explain what abuse looks like under a variety of contexts.
A safe church is one that does not tolerate any mistreatment of any member, whether it’s from a casual attendee to the highly-respected and gifted celebrity pastor. No one is above accountability in a safe church (cf. Matthew 18; 1 Timothy 5:19). Safe churches take every allegation seriously, report crimes immediately, do not silence or shame victims, and support victims with tangible resources. Most pastors are not equipped to counsel trauma victims and safe churches refer victims to professional therapy for their trauma. Safe churches recognize sadness and lament are appropriate responses to hurt and that anger is a correct response to injustice (cf. Psalm 82). Safe churches give space for victims to fully grieve their loss and betrayal and grieve with victims as a community (cf. Romans 12:15). Safe churches do not force people to conform to a false positivity (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:26). Safe places do not just hear what a victim is saying, but truly listen with empathetic hearts that are willing to learn. Walking with survivors is a long-term process and overcoming trauma is a lifelong journey.
It is especially difficult for those with authoritative or dogmatic backgrounds to be willing to listen. We are tempted to give out advice on trauma, which often comes from a place of discomfort seeking to quickly fix a person or situation. Yet trauma is not a superficial wound and cannot be quickly healed. As Christian therapist Dr. Diane Langberg says, victims need “talking, tears and time.”⁴ Coercing forgiveness actually impedes the healing God is doing and is incredibly detrimental to survivors.
Abusers are master manipulators, using deception and deflection to appear as victims themselves.⁵ However, abusers cannot get the help they need unless people are willing to hold them accountable. This is extremely important when an abuser is someone in power, where it is hard to take a hurting victim seriously when the alleged perpetrator shines in the spotlight. Yet enough cases exist where horrendous abuse is overlooked because the abuser is likable, nice or has a veneer of spirituality. When this pattern repeats itself over and over and a wake of victims demonstrate a long-term and willful ignorance, people always say “I wish I would have listened!” Yet when a leader who flees or resigns in disgrace, often only to reappear again in a different place, there are plenty of people who warn the pattern will continue, only to be dismissed. The truth is that church culture does not listen. We must be wiser than predators, and that begins with believing victims and ensuring every situation is properly handled with the right authorities.
Too often, victims suffer more from their faith community’s ignorance, lack of empathy and the rush to quickly fix things, leaving deep and lasting wounds to someone already hurting.
A safe church is one that values the voices of survivors, knowing that when God heals a victim, they become a powerful agent for justice who always look out for others. Abuse is the last thing a community of Christ should enable, but often our communal desire for acceptance impairs our wisdom and discernment to see what is otherwise apparent. It is for this reason that God is faithful to send people to warn us—often survivors themselves—who can advise our communities on what to look for. They’ve lived through it, and know better than most what manipulation and abuse looks like. Similar to the prophets and prophetesses of old, God always provides His body with an immune system whose priceless wisdom sees through a manipulator’s charm.
Addressing Church Culture
Christian institutions can become a culture of deceit because genuine spirituality is hard to measure. Image-conscious communities tend to reward the flashy, put-together people instead of standing with those who are broken. In contrast, a safe church is one where survivors are not isolated from everyone else and kept at an arm’s length, but are valued and included. We all come to Christ with baggage, and we even acquire hurts after believing in Him. Safe places understand and value the imperfections of human beings and are careful to discern the difference between someone’s involuntary trauma responses and “sin.” Safe churches do not confuse Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, hurt or grief with sin, but have compassion. There are no accusations of “bitterness” or “unforgiveness” in a loving community. Too often, victims suffer more from their faith community’s ignorance, lack of empathy, and the rush to quickly fix things, leaving deep and lasting wounds to someone already hurting.
When institutional change is required, safe churches embrace transparency and accountability and listen to the voices of victims. Repentance—both individual and corporate—takes time. Survivors are looking for places where the willingness to change culture supersedes the desire to maintain a damaging status quo. Predators have taken advantage of the havens Christians unwittingly made for them. The more we learn about abuse and trauma, the more every part of our society needs to adapt—from politics, workplaces, homes and churches.
Churches need to rethink how to approach authority since no one is infallible, including leaders. In some circles, the pastor has arrogantly replaced the Holy Spirit, and our expected obeisance often approaches idolatry. Every one of us is responsible for making our faith communities safe places for the vulnerable, and that requires understanding how social influence, peer pressure and coercive control works in churches. We all experience the effects of socialization without realizing it, much as a fish experiences wetness. We should never ignore the red flags that raise internal alarms. If something seems wrong, it is worth paying attention to. We have all been given the ability to discern between good and evil and are responsible to do so. (Cf. 1 John 4:1; 1Thessalonians 5:20-21)