It would be nice if we could go to church and believe that “no one in here” could abuse their spouse or children. It might be nice, but it would be naive. And the consequences of such a belief are tragic.
It is ironic that in churches, where the requirement of membership is an acknowledgment of a sin nature that only Christ’s death on the cross can remedy, we believe that certain sins are only committed “out there.” But the assumptions we embrace produce the questions we never ask and the warning signs we never see. Worse, they can keep us from hearing the cries for help because the implications make us uncomfortable.
We can start to reverse this trend by being willing to be uncomfortable. We can start by being willing to consider what we would prefer to think doesn’t exist.
The leaders in your church—the pastoral team and key leaders—should talk to a social worker from your community who has experience with domestic violence and child abuse. Here are some questions to ask:
What happens when we report a case of child abuse?
How should we respond if a child says, “If I tell you something, will you promise not to tell anyone?”
What is the difference between mandated reporting for suspected abuse of a child and when the abuse is against an adult?
What are the resources for abuse cases in our community?
What are the most common mistakes churches make in abuse cases? What are common mistakes churches make with the abuser? With the abused spouse? With an abused child?
How can churches be effectively supportive when a family is facing the aftermath of abuse?
Send the questions to the social worker in advance so you get better prepared, less off-the-cuff answers. Pay the social worker for his time. It will be money well spent.
Too often, churches have been the easiest place for child predators to gain unsupervised access to children.
policies and procedures
With respect to child abuse, your children’s ministry needs to have a safety policy that is published and enforced. Your church needs to have a policy in place for what will happen if an allegation of abuse against a minor in your children’s ministry comes to light. (Sample policies can be found here.)
Drafting and adopting policies regarding children’s safety and abuse reporting helps remove the naïvete in which we would all prefer to live.
Enforcing the policy—performing background checks, having check-in/check-out procedures, honoring adult-to-child ratios, and so on—ensures that approving the policy was more than a good intention.
Making the policy known at every new volunteer orientation is an important part of warding off would-be child predators. We have to acknowledge that all too often, churches have been the easiest place for child predators to gain unsupervised or minimally supervised access to children because of poorly enforced child protection policies.
Mention child abuse and domestic violence in sermons and promote resources through the church’s social media channels. What we’re willing to mention in a sermon is what is acceptable to talk about in church. By never talking about such things, we communicate that “no one here struggles with abuse.” This kind of messaging can be easily incorporated into a sermon. Here are some examples:
On fear: “Many of us know what it is like to not feel safe in our own home.”
On anger: “Scripture wouldn’t speak about anger as often or in the manner it does if believers never crossed lines and harmed others.”
On authority structures: “Scripture grants civil authorities the power it does (Rom. 13:1–7) because moral violations are sometimes also legal violations and merit both repentance and legal consequence.”
On children: “God recognizes the preciousness and vulnerability of children; in fact some of Jesus’ strongest words were against those who do not honor these qualities in children (Matt. 18:5–6).”
These kinds of statements in a church’s preaching-teaching ministry communicate, “I could talk about my experience here. My church believes my pain exists.”
Periodically send out resources on the church’s social media accounts that provide guidance on how to respond to past or present abuse. (Sample resources can be found here.) This allows those who are not yet ready to speak take a less vulnerable step of reading in private.
Sadly, abuse can and does happen in homes and churches, places where we intuitively believe we should be able to trust people. Only by embracing the message that “nowhere is safe” can we hope to protect people from abuse. The steps we’ve outlined are about churches’ increasingly becoming places where abuse is confronted and the abused find shelter.
Rev. Brad Hambrick is pastor of counseling at The Summit Church in Durham, N.C., and instructor of biblical counseling at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C. He is author of several books, including Do Ask, Do Tell, Let’s Talk.