When individuals tell you, Pastor, that they were sexually abused or raped, often those victims are terrified, full of shame, and sure that you are going to think less of them. However, they have also given you great honor and privilege because they have decided that you may be a safe person in their most unsafe place.
But ministering to men and women who are victims of sexual abuse can be tricky; there are several common mistakes that pastors make. By being aware of these pitfalls, you can be better prepared the next time an incident arises within your church.
Mistake #1: Failing to understand the weight of what they are telling you
First and foremost, we need to recognize the experience of victims of sexual abuse and recognize their courage in sharing about their experiences. To do so, we should be gathering information. What do they mean by “sexual abuse”? Was it one time or ongoing? For adults who share that they were sexually abused as a child, it may be that over the course of a decade or more, they were victims of that abuse. Or, it may have been a one-time occurrence. In gathering information, we are understanding the weight of what they have been through and can be better prepared to minister to them.
Mistake #2: Assuming they are safe
Many times we make the assumption that because sexual abuse happened when someone was a child, it no longer happens to that person as an adult, or we assume that it will never happen again. But these are wrong assumptions. Just because people are “adults,” that doesn’t mean they are safe where they are.
Pastors should be asking questions about their current safety, such as, “Are you safe where you are now, and if not, can I help you find a safe place?” You should ask these questions regardless of their age.
As an example, a twenty-year-old may share that an uncle used to abuse her, and now he is coming to visit for the weekend. That should be a red flag for us; it may be that this young woman does not have the strength to keep the abuse from happening again. Because of this, we may need to find a place for her to stay, or we may need to call the police to help keep her safe. We cannot assume that abuse has ended or that she is strong enough to keep it from happening again.
Mistake #3: Underreacting
A third mistake that pastors may make is underreacting to hearing about sexual abuse. This presents itself primarily in two ways. First, a pastor or church may fail to report the abuse. By law, in all fifty states, we are required to report the abuse of a minor. It is a felony to fail to report any instance of child abuse that we hear about. Sometimes, this is passed off as wanting to gather more information. However, we are not forensic investigators. Even with forty years of experience in counseling the sexually abused, I am still not the expert in that area. Our duty is to report and to let the forensic investigators take it from there.
The other way that pastors and churches frequently underreact is that they try to cover up the abuse. Perhaps the accused abuser is a church member or a friend. I have seen churches try to cover up for those accused, either to protect their reputation or out of pure disbelief. However, covering up abuse is a felony as well.
Mistake #4: Failing to be the church
A fourth common mistake pastors and churches make when ministering to victims of sexual abuse is simply failing to be the church to them. The role of the church is to care for the brokenhearted, to listen well, bear witness, and walk alongside them. But sometimes I see churches fail in these things. It is also the role of the church to demonstrate healthy relationships, which may mean engaging mentors or people who can demonstrate what it means to love one another properly.
As an example, when I work with a woman who has experienced a severe trauma like sexual abuse, it may be that she’s never known what a safe or healthy relationship looks like. With her permission, I have oftentimes had women close to her come meet with me. I give them resources to read, and I talk about what it might look like to be helpful to the victim on a practical, day-to-day level. This may mean having dinner in their homes and seeing how family members are supposed to treat one another. Or it may be demonstrating how to show respect to one’s spouse. There are all sorts of things that a victim of sexual abuse, especially ongoing abuse, may have never been exposed to that church members close to them can help with.
Mistake #5: Forgetting to lament
Finally, one of the other vital functions of the church, and one that I think we’ve forgotten, is the art of lamenting. People who have suffered severe trauma, such as sexual abuse, need to lament. Often, I will send them to the Psalms or to the Prophets, but I help them find words from Scripture to express their pain, their fear, their doubts, and sometimes even their anger at God. We see often in Scripture where the psalmist or the prophets call out to God, “Where are you?” or “Why don’t you hear me?”
As the church, we need to come alongside those victims and help them find those words. But we also need to be saying those words with them. We need to lament with them, to weep with those who weep. We need to be like the friends of Job in Job 2: “Now when Job’s three friends heard of all this evil that had come upon him, they came each from his own place…. They made an appointment together to come to show him sympathy and comfort him. And when they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him. And they raised their voices and wept, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads toward heaven. And they sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great” (ESV). We need to be like these friends, weeping and crying out to the Lord on their behalf.
As pastors and churches seek to minister to victims of sexual abuse, they should recognize the gravity of what is being shared with them. In doing so, they can walk alongside them and lament with the victims. While that may also mean reporting cases of abuse, as required by law, supporting victims of sexual abuse demonstrates Christlike love toward them and ultimately leads to their healing.