Jesus Christ was the greatest child advocate in the history of humanity. Because of this, protecting children and ministering to the wounded is at the absolute core of Christianity and, until recent years, has been a unique characteristic of the Church.
As you consider ways your church can be the hands and feet of the Gospel to serve abuse survivors, it is important to grasp how widespread abuse is — and the potential of an awakened Church joining this battlefield. Boz Tchividjian of GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) explains here:
Protecting children must not be a niche ministry, or an add-on, or a box we have to check for legal purposes. Child protection is an urgent, sacred calling with eternal stakes. What we do for the least of these, we do for Christ.
With that in mind, here is a non-comprehensive list of important ways churches can show and share Christ’s love for abuse survivors.
1) Understand That Abuse Is Already Happening Inside the Church
Roughly 20% of a typical congregation has experienced sexual abuse. A study of 3,952 sex offenders found that 93% described themselves as religious. Sex offenders involved with religious institutions “had more sexual offense convictions, more victims, and younger victims” than offenders from other settings.
SHIELD strongly encourages reading Predators by Dr. Anna Salter to learn how offenders target churches. It’s important for Christians to understand how predators exploit the doctrines of forgiveness and repentance, churches’ weak child protection policies, and our general ignorance of abuse dynamics and offender grooming techniques to gain access to children and prepare them for abuse.
Often when issues of abuse are raised, Christians will understandably voice frustration with broader cultural issues, but we must not lose sight of the documented tragic reality that abuse is not just out there in the secular world — it is here in the Church, hiding in plain sight.
2) Develop a Robust Child Protection Policy
One of the most important ways a church can support abuse survivors is by demonstrating its commitment to preventing future abuse and responding to past abuse with excellence.
Unfortunately, most churches have child protection policies that were written by insurance companies, and the purpose of these policies is to minimize a church’s liability, not protect children.
To develop a policy that truly seeks to prevent abuse, SHIELD recommends The Child Safeguarding Policy Guide for Churches and Ministries by Basyle Tchividjian and Shira Berkovits, which was developed by GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment). This gold-standard resource provides a simple, step-by-step process for creating and implementing a policy tailored to your church, and some of the content of this post is inspired by it.
GRACE also has a talented team of former prosecutors, theologians, and therapists who serve as Certification Specialists to guide churches through a comprehensive, customized process that includes:
In person, expert training for every level of the church: leadership, adults, youth, and children.
Establishing a Safeguarding Team to help implement all policy “best practices” as customized to your church’s ministry.
Providing an on-site building risk assessment.
Implementing specific, realistic steps to create a healing environment for survivors.
Learn more at https://www.netgrace.org/safeguarding-certification.
3) Dedicate a Service to the Issue(s) of Abuse
This week, we celebrated Blue Sunday, an international Day of Prayer for abused and neglected children and those who rescue them. When churches focus on this issue, it sends a beautiful message to the many survivors in their midst that they are prioritized and loved by the Church and by Christ.
4) Develop a Trauma-Informed Ministry
Do your employees and volunteers understand how trauma affects the brain? Do they understand the very real concept of trauma triggers, or is it just a punchline? Can they comprehend and implement appropriate levels of response to escalating behavior?
Simply designating a single expert in the church is not going to cut it — given the prevalence of abuse, all volunteers and staff members who work with children need to understand trauma. Otherwise, they won’t be able to effectively minister to little ones who have experienced abuse and neglect. When children are in survival mode, they cannot and will not comprehend standard Sunday School lessons. Churches must learn to meet them where they’re at and do what it takes to assure them they are in a safe place.
Taking this a step farther, does your ministry unintentionally mirror dynamics that survivors have seen in their abusers? Survivors have seen their shame, guilt, and fear manipulated to accomplish an abuser’s objectives. Does your church welcome others into the arms of Jesus, or are they coerced, guilted, bullied, shamed, or terrified into saying a prayer or signing a statement? How do strong-arm tactics look to those whose lives have been seared by an abuser who deployed those same tactics?
SHIELD has a variety of resources and trainings available on the effects of trauma and what effective ministry looks like in this context.
5) Host Annual Child Protection Trainings
Churches can also host annual child protection trainings for church leadership, volunteers, staff members, and parents. These trainings could cover topics such as the following:
How to interact with a child who has disclosed abuse. As a prosecutor, I have seen serious cases of sexual abuse destroyed by a flawed initial response to a child’s disclosure. Do all your church employees and volunteers know what to do (and importantly, what not to do) when a child discloses? Do they know what to say (and not to say)?
Indicators of abuse and the effects of trauma. Church members should know to to recognize abuse and be aware of its short-term and long-term effects.
The contents of the church’s child protection policy. Make sure you explain what happens when someone violates the policy.
Technology and internet safety. Parents, in particular, need to be aware the dangers of the internet, popular apps, and new technology so that they can better guide and protect their children from online predators.
SHIELD offers a variety of trainings designed to educate church congregations, leadership, and volunteers. If you’d like to schedule a SHIELD training or event at your church, just fill out our event/training request form.
6) Understand and Follow Mandatory Reporting Laws
Under WV Code §49-2-803, church employees and volunteers are mandated to report all reasonable suspicions of abuse to DHHR within 24 hours. Reporting to leadership DOES NOT fulfill your legal duty as a mandatory reporter. You MUST file a direct report by calling the WV Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline: 800-352-6513. In some cases, you must also call law enforcement. Does your church have a clear process in place, communicated to all employees and volunteers, that adequately (and timely!) protects the child and complies with the law?
7) Develop a Support System for Abuse Survivors.
For instance, the church could:
Host support groups for survivors.
Assist families in finding and/or paying for licensed therapy.
Designate a support person from church leadership to minister to children and families affected by abuse. This person could (1) accompany the victims to interviews and court hearings, (2) be present and affirming, and (3) ask how the church can support them further.
8) Learn What to (and Not to) Say to Survivors
We should all educate ourselves about helpful (and harmful) ways to communicate with survivors during and after a disclosure of abuse. A few examples are below.
Do . . .
Say “Thank you.” The courage it takes to disclose should be met with nothing less than total and sincere gratitude.
Say “I believe you.” The primary reason survivors do not disclose abuse is a fear that they will be disbelieved, ignored, or marginalized.
Listen, and don’t offer simplistic cliches. This is not the time for a sermon (and naive application of Scripture can be incredibly damaging to a survivor’s faith).
Don’t . . .
Ask a survivor what they may have done to encourage or entice the person who abused them.
Ask for details about the abuse. The survivor will share if and when they choose — and with whom they choose. Do not pressure them for more information, as it’s common for survivors to be re-traumatized by others’ fascination with the acts of abuse themselves.
Assume you know what happened. No matter how popular the alleged offender is, you weren’t there, so you don’t know. It’s common to hear how certain popular figures (typically within one’s own political/religious spectrum) have been “falsely accused” or even convicted. You don’t know that — and regardless, by taking this stance (on social media or in-person), you are keeping other victims in silence.
9) Provide Resources and Assistance to Local Child Protection Organizations
10) Foster a Culture of Support for Victims of Abuse
This can be done by:
Creating and distributing a referral list of local organizations and therapists who specialize in sexual abuse prevention and treatment.
Posting signs throughout the church building about child abuse prevention and reporting procedures.
Publicizing the church’s child protection policy to communicate that the church takes child protection seriously and does not tolerate abuse.
Posting contact information for church leaders who are available to answer any questions about child safety.
Speaking about abuse publicly and often.
If we want survivors to turn to the Church, we have to show we are ready, willing, and able to offer them the support they so desperately need. These are just a few of the ways we can do that.