People want to think of the church as a safe place, the safest place. And it ought to be. But we know that statistically, abuse is every bit as prevalent in the church as it is out of it. We also know that speaking up often puts victims of abuse in a position where they find guilt and shame heaped on them after disclosing abuse to their community.
So what is the most important thing leaders in the church can do to make churches a safer and easier place for victims to make courageous disclosure?
Usually when someone asks that question, they are thinking in terms of policy. And while churches need good policies and need to get them from a trustworthy organization, the most critical thing a church can do is evaluate how their community is messaging publicly about the topic of abuse.
As a victim watches the community around them, they are acutely aware of how survivors are typically treated. Specifically, they know how seriously abuse is usually taken in that community. They hear the way members of their community talk about the topic of abuse and it communicates how well their community understands the dynamics of abuse and how their community will respond to them. Is it safe to speak up? Do they understand trauma? Do they understand what evidence does and does not look like? Will I be taken seriously?
But victims are not the only ones watching. Abusers are also acutely conscious of the community’s culture when it comes to abuse.
If an abuser knows a victim will not be heard or believed if they speak up, that community is fostering a culture where abuse can thrive.
For both parties, both the abuser and the victim, how you message publicly is the most critical thing you can do in changing the culture of your ministry to be one that reflects the holiness and the goodness of God.
It follows that pastors play a large role in building the church’s messaging, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Is the pastor preaching on the concept of God's justice, and on issues of abuse, compassion, and understanding? Is the leadership of the church helping their congregation understand the depth of evil that occurs when injustice is done?
A congregation should know their church’s policies and know that those policies will be taken seriously. It is what signals to an abuser that the community will listen to a victim if they speak up. The simple question of whether your church has resources available for victims communicates to a victim that it is a safe space. It communicates that you understand trauma and are ready to take them seriously.
The most important thing the church can do to create a safe space for victims of abuse is message how much it matters, because how you talk about the issues is what changes the culture of an institution.