By Tess Schoonhoven
As more stories of sexual abuse in evangelicalism come to light, leaders are recognizing the need to be responsive and educated in caring for those within their ministries who disclose abuse experiences.
“This is an area as a church where we cannot remain uninformed. We have to be willing to be uncomfortable and have the conversations that need to be had,” says Brad Hambrick, pastor of counseling at The Summit Church in Durham, North Carolina.
On a recent episode of “5 Leadership Questions” podcast from the Lifeway Leadership Podcast Network, hosted by Todd Atkins and Daniel Im, Hambrick tackles questions on sexual abuse within the church.
Hambrick has also served as the general editor for Churchcares.com, a free comprehensive training curriculum that combines a handbook with 12 video lessons from experts in the areas of social work, law enforcement, trauma counseling, abuse counseling, legal services and pastoral care.
During the discussion with Adkins and Im, Hamrick addressed five questions for church staff members, lay leaders, and volunteers to consider as they seek to care well for the abused.
1. How is the church’s response to abuse ultimately rooted in the gospel?
Every issue is a gospel issue, Hambrick says. But we must be careful not to inadvertently trivialize an important issue.
“Everything that God wants to do in and through us, He does through the gospel,” Hambrick says. “The gospel is both God’s message for forgiveness of sin and how He ultimately brings comfort for suffering in a broken world.”
As Christians and spiritual leaders, Hambrick says it’s imperative to understand how the gospel applies to suffering and how to respond to those who suffer when it comes by no fault of their own.
In order to bring hope, we must understand the implications of the gospel for these situations.
The world is watching and wants to know whether believers are hypocrites or if they actually care about people, so the church must respond with integrity and compassion.
“If we don’t deal with integrity on those matters … the church will have lost that and it will radically undermine the right to be heard in our culture,” Hambrick says.
He adds that the best way to give in to evil is to do nothing.
“If we do nothing then what happens is darkness advances and the most vulnerable pay the price,” Hambrick says.
If the Church hopes to make positive progress in these issues for the advance of the gospel, he says uncomfortable conversations must take place.
While in the past keeping silent about these issues may have seemed like an option, Hambrick says that attitude has to dissemble.
“That should have never been an option and as we look at it, it can no longer be an option.”
2. Why are both preventative training and response planning necessary for churches when it comes to abuse?
“Every church needs to have a clearly defined plan for how they would respond if an instance of abuse were to come up in their church,” Hambrick says.
There are people in some congregations who are professionally trained on how to handle abuse cases. Hambrick says churches should catalyze these people to run point on response.
Churches historically have been easy targets for abuse because of their high need for volunteers. Predators look for easy targets.
Hambrick says a large part of preventative training starts in setting up the church as a difficult target, not as easy one.
This is done by being strong with the plan and with those in charge. It means being clear about all initial reactions to reasonable suspicion.
“For those who have good intentions, which is the vast majority of people who volunteer in a church, they’re going to feel protected,” says Hambrick.
“They’re going to respect their church staff, saying ‘I’m glad we’ve got a plan for that.’ For those who have bad intentions they’re going to think that there’s easier targets somewhere else.”
Many churches will start and stop with background checks on their volunteers. But Hambrick says background checks are a good first step but not completely adequate because it only works after a child has been harmed.
Nothing will show up on a background check until a child has been harmed and the adults in their life have responded appropriately and made reports.
Church leaders can take notice of suspicious practices like “grooming behaviors” that get the child comfortable with the predator. This can look as simple as just being nice.
“Often times what we do for volunteers in our children’s ministry would not be satisfying to us if we were hiring a babysitter for one of our own children to be in our home,” Hambrick says.
Taking precautions that go the extra mile in the screening process such as having time buffers where the congregation and other leaders get to know new volunteers are the types of things that communicate intentionality and vigilance.
3. What are some of the best examples of practical ways you’ve seen churches minister to those who have become victims of abuse?
Hambrick says it’s tempting to as soon as someone comes forward with an abuse situation to try to think of all the things that need to be done.
But he adds that when we push past sitting and listening we begin to treat these issues as a situation to be managed rather than a person who needs to be heard.
Leaders won’t always know the details of everything that practically needs to happen, but that’s where the next step is getting the individual with someone who does know. Doing so, says Hambrick, will free you to just hear their story.
Hambrick cautions leaders to not wait until a crisis comes to connect with professionals in the community such as social workers and child protective services.
“If we wait until a crisis happens until we’re forging relationships with those folks, [we’ll miss the] opportunity to get to know each other,” he says, “and to show yourself to be a church with good will who wants to handle these things correctly, that relationship building opportunity, fades to the background.”
Build that relationship so that when the call has to be made when there is someone in need, they already know you and your heart for care.
4. How do you provide pastoral care to an abuser in your congregation?
Pastors have to care for everybody, both the abused and abuser.
“The most loving thing that can be done for an abuser is to remove any opportunity for future abuse,” Hambrick says.
But like any other addiction, we can’t confuse forgiveness and permissiveness.
Practically, pastors can assign a shepherding individual that is with the abuser wherever they go. This type of accountability is for the good of them and the peace of mind of families in this church.
But extreme caution is necessary, Hambrick adds.
“Err on the side of assuming that they would break that promise to us when they say that’s something that they would never do again,” he says.
Hambrick says it’s important to press both the abuser and their public officials and be the person who says “I know you can’t make a promise, but give me the information that I wouldn’t know because this person has just reached out to us.”
Ask the abuser to sign a release of information. If they won’t sign, it should be a red flag because they should give you the information you need to make safe decisions and provide peace of mind.
5. How can church leaders develop relationships with local law enforcement and biblical counselors to best serve abuse victims?
Start before the crisis.
“Don’t let a crisis be the start of a relationship with law enforcement, trauma counselors and social workers,” Hambrick says.
A great way to get an idea of the people that should be involved in your team is to go to churchcares.com and look at the types of people who contributed to that resource.
Look at their roles and descriptions, make a list and then make phone calls inviting them to lunch and to meetings to learn with your staff.
“Ask questions from a posture of humility,” Hambrick says.
Admitting areas of ignorance doesn’t mean there is a lack of intelligence, it just means we have the humility to acknowledge what we don’t know.
Hambrick reminds that even though the details of an abuse situation may not be clear, having reasonable suspicion is the standard for making the first phone call.
“Our legal obligation is to make that first phone call when there is reasonable suspicion that a child is being abused, being neglected, or being exposed to abuse,” Hambrick says.
“This is an area as a church where we cannot remain uninformed. We have to be willing to be uncomfortable and have the conversations that need to be had,” Hambrick says.
He also cautions church leaders to not feel intimidated by ignorance.
“The ignorance is the entry point to conversations that will allow us to be faithful shepherds for people who have been hurting and alone and scared to death to talk,” he says. “And it is so important that we connect ourselves with people who can give us guidance on those subjects.”
TESS SCHOONHOVEN (@TessSchoonhoven) is an intern with Facts & Trends and a recent graduate of California Baptist University.