Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment and my seminary, Biblical Seminary, have teamed up to offer a 3 credit course for seminarians on the topic of child sexual abuse prevention and response. This course will run on our Hatfield campus on Monday nights during the month of June. To my knowledge, a course like this has not been offered before. I highly encourage you to send your pastors or church leaders for some continuing education.
Category Archives: Christianity: Leaders and Leadership
There is a serious problem within protestant evangelical Christianity. We love right preaching and teaching more than we love right living. We love power and authority more than sacrifice and submission. We love honor over humility. We love being led by popular leaders who make us feel good more than following the despised and rejected One—who has no “beauty or majesty to attract us to him.” (Isa 53)
We want King Saul over young David.
Of course I do not accuse all protestant Christians nor all leaders with this charge. And yet, we must all own this problem together. It is not merely the Catholic Church that has covered up abuse or used power to protect itself. While the system of the Catholic Church enables a wider and deeper cover-up, we have all of the same issues on a (slightly) smaller scale.
A picture of a true leader of God’s church…and the opposite
Leaders of the church are to be representatives of Jesus, individuals set apart to be under-shepherds. They are to care for the flock. And what do we need? We need teaching, encouragement, comfort, and rebuke in their proper times and measures. But most of all we need our leaders to be images/examples of our true Shepherd.
Quite simply, the good shepherd is one who lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:11) and who feeds, carries, and gently leads (Isa 40:11). Of course this is a picture of a powerful leader. Only one with power who knows right and wrong can choose to sacrifice rights and become smaller for the purpose of care of the most vulnerable.
But we have a pattern of enabling self-promoting leaders of the flock. These want to be listened to, respected and followed for their own sake. Sure, they may speak of the Gospel of grace, but how do they live it? How do they treat the ones who have the least power? How do they handle criticism? Do they even have a Paul (wise older leader with a track record of being willing to encourage and also say hard things) to speak to them as he did to Timothy? Or would they tolerate one who spoke to them as Paul did to Peter when he acted out of accord with the Gospel (Gal 2:11f)?
It seems that when we do see brokenness in our leaders we tend to excuse it, especially when their gifts are attractive and the ones revealing these flaws are expendable.
Consider this warning
What makes Jesus angry? The New Testament records a few instances of expressed anger: Money changers, self-righteous religious leaders, hindering children, and the pain of death (Lazarus). We see it most clearly in his language toward the religious leaders when he calls them “brood of vipers…white washed tombs…hypocrites.”
What are these leaders doing that evoke Jesus’ just anger? Matthew 23 provides some answers.
- Everything they do is for show to receive the praise and honor of followers
- They seek power and control. They (try to) decide who can be in the kingdom; they seek converts who will work for their interests
- They develop special rules that support their apparent position of authority
- They makes a show of sacrifice yet forget the most important values: justice, mercy, and faith/submission to God
- Their public and private selves do not match—the outside looks great but inside is abominable
It does not matter if they deliver well-crafted and biblically sound sermons. It does not matter if many flock to their ministries. If their motive, efforts, and tactics (public and private) do not match God’s character of a good shepherd, their good human gifts of are no value. Even worse, they deserve rebuke (Ezekiel 34; Jeremiah 23) and even removal from speaking for God anymore (Ezekiel 44).
The true problem?
There have always been false shepherds. There always will be false shepherds. But, what enables them to stay in positions of power is that we allow it. G. Campbell Morgan minces no words when he highlights the problem of false shepherds.
Now the false in religion stands revealed in Christ’s contemplation of these men [described in Matthew 23], not only in the case of the men themselves, but in the case of the people who are under the influence of such men. The false in religion in the case of the people is due to failure to discriminate between the human and the divine; and consists of submission to unauthorized authority.
Morgan, Gospel According to Matthew, p. 273†
Why do we fail to discriminate between human and divine? We overlook “foibles” because we know our own hidden sins. We fear being ostracized and losing our position in the inner-ring of power. We ignore the words of victims in order to maintain the appearance of health in the system. We love the image of redemption (the happily ever after restoration) more than the long slog of obedience. In short, false shepherds cannot maintain or increase power unless we protect and enable them.
The beginning of a solution
Let us repent of these our sins. Let us study anew what we and our leaders are to be like. Let us listen to the ones we call expendable when they speak about abuse of power. In the words of my former pastor, let us pray to God for better leaders than we deserve and to be the kinds of undershepherds we are called to be in God’s wide kingdom.
Consider these previous posts on related topics:
† My thanks to Dr. Diane Langberg for pointing me to this quote in Morgan’s commentary.
What is more important to your church when it fails abuse victims? Gospel-driven behavior or reducing liability
Over the years I have had the opportunity to walk with church leaders through the difficult waters of abuse, whether done by leaders or done by congregants. One of the first conversations I try to have with those tasked with responding to the situation is this: What core values do you want to shape your response? Another way of saying this could be, “At the end of the day, who do you want to be, who do you think Christ calls you to be?
These values do not tell you what to do. They do not give you steps. But, they will help evaluate if a particular response is moving towards or away from those values.
If we don’t start at this point, then a couple of other values will control the conversation and control the decision-making: limiting legal liability, damage control, reputation management, and the like. These are understandable but do not comport with Gospel-driven responses to abuse.
Consider this fictional case.
A decade earlier a youth pastor is caught engaging in sexual activity with a teen. The church does not name it at sexual abuse and allows the youth pastor to leave and does not tell the congregation why he left. All this was done for complex reasons: lack of understanding of the gravity of the situation, desires to protect the victim (requested by the parents), and desires to protect their own identity. Years later, it is discovered the youth pastor has gone on to abuse more children in two other settings. Through a variety of reasons, the church is confronted for its failure to handle the situation properly. They are publicly accused of misconduct. The leadership of the church calls their attorney and their insurance company and get the strong advice to not admit any wrongdoing. Instead they are to make a bland statement and initiate an internal investigation (some of the leaders now were not there ten years ago). The report is issued some time later with policy changes made public. While it reveals “mistakes were made” by one of the leaders no longer present, it offers regret but falls short of an apology or indication that the church bore any responsibility for the subsequent abuse experiences.
What core values shaped the church’s response?
What would a church response look like if shaped by deep apology and behavioral repentance? What would it look like if the church considered the plight of the victims and their needs? Would they feel a responsibility to support their recovery? What if they cared more for kingdom values more than worrying whether they would be sued?
Sometimes, times of trouble reveal which god we really serve the most. And sometimes it is not very pretty.
It doesn’t always go badly. I do know a number of churches who opened themselves up to increased liability in order to speak truth about their failures. Take heart. It is possible!
Anyone in a power position recognizes the possibility of abusing that power. Bosses can take advantage of vulnerable employees, parents can abuse children, and church leaders can manipulate parishioners. I start with the assumption that most church leaders do not want to harm their parishioners. I would go even farther that when spiritual abuse does happen, most leaders don’t see what they have done/not done as abusive. Rather, they act with the intent to maintain good order, prevent further sin, and the like.
to get caught up on what spiritual abuse is, take a look at these posts:
The church in her leaders who wish to avoid falling into acts of spiritual abuse may want to consider the following preventative steps:
- Study the Character and Leadership of Christ. You know that tired but true adage, you will better recognize counterfeits if you study the real deal. How does Jesus wield power? How does the true Servant Leader treat the most vulnerable? Sinners? Pray that God will show you where you or your leadership team look more like the world than of your head, Jesus. As a part of this study, invite someone who has experienced spiritual abuse to tell you about their experience. What was the damage done, the impact?
- Identify Risk Factors. Life has risk. We try to minimize unnecessary risk and make wise choices when risk cannot be mitigated. While usually it is better to reduce risk, sometimes risk is essential to save life. There are a few risks that need to be acknowledged that increase potential for spiritual abuse: Having all male staff/elders/deacons may increase risk for women who have little voice in church policy, hierarchical leadership with little oversight by others increases risk of abuse. So, it is helpful to churches to review church discipline policies, pastoral care procedures especially in regards to the most vulnerable members of the church. There is a reason why churches have child abuse policies–to recognize vulnerabilities and to ensure protection. A similar review would help reduce the likelihood of incidence of spiritual abuse.
- Develop Continuous Assessment and Learning. In medical and mental health fields, professionals are required to complete continuing education. In addition, many practitioners participate in agency-wide case consultations. The consultation is designed for mutual learning and input. A counselor presents a case and takes questions and recommendations from peers. What if church leaders held these kinds of “grand rounds” where those tasked to work with an individual or family presented the basic facts, the agreed upon goals and “interventions” tried. The audience of other elders and/or pastors could ask questions and offer alternate hypotheses or responses. If you have ever worked on a problem, you know that getting another set of eyes on the problem can sometime stir a new perspective. Encourage at least one group member to ask questions about the parishioner’s experience of help. Of course, confidentiality is a must and so be sure that the leadership can keep matter private.
- Review Difficult Pastoral Cases. Seek External Feedback. No matter how wise and spiritual your church leaders are, they do not have all the expertise they need to handle any and every case. In the case of difficult and protracted marriage conflict, be willing to seek expert opinion outside of the church. Seek outside consultation when there has been abuse in a relationship and there are power differentials. God has given some people expertise in understanding major mental illness, trauma, and relational dynamics. Invite these individuals into session meetings to help guide the response the church makes. This can be done in ways that maintains complete confidentiality.
These are simple and general measures you can take to reduce the likelihood of abusing spiritual power that leaders have over congregants. While you may think such abuse is extremely rare, our call to be like our head Jesus demands that we hoist no millstones around the necks of vulnerable members.
Yesterday I wrote a bit about trauma-informed organizations that seek to ensure that the ministries they provide neither harm recipients or staff members. That post focused on para-church organizations serving highly-traumatized populations and encouraged them to do some self-evaluation. But, today I’d like to add just a few additional thoughts on how churches might improve care for traumatized people in their pews.
Types of Trauma in the Church
Churches, by definition, are filled with broken people. That is just as God intended. And also as God intended, most find the church a safe place to heal and be restored–to God and to neighbor. But some find it a bit harder to feel safe in a church setting. In particular, those,
- who have been harmed (spiritually, physically, emotionally) by church leaders
- who have deep and hidden shame from interpersonal betrayals (sexual abuse, domestic abuse, forced perpetration, etc.)
- who have experiences difficult to be understood by many (e.g., veterans)
- who have secondary trauma (more invisible than most traumas) and who think they should be over it already
How can churches evaluate current policies and practices to ensure that both congregants and staff are cared well for and not unintentionally compounding trauma experiences? Consider the following list as a starting point for conversations among pastors, elders, staff, and lay leaders.
- Do we have a basic understanding of the nature, causes, and symptoms of trauma?
- Search this site for many resources on this topic
- Watch free videos here about making the church a safe place for victims
- Do we understand key features of systemic abuse that might infect our church
- Use the link just above to explore the symptoms of narcissistic systems and leaders
- Search this site for more resources as well
- Do we have a child abuse prevention plan? Preventing future abuse also provides some level of healing from past victims.
- Does our child abuse prevention plan also include ongoing training, care for staff, and a robust response plan when abuse allegations surface?
- Are we aware of subtle forms of spiritual abuse? How do we protect vulnerable populations?
- Explore the dangers of “sin-leveling” (making victim responses on par with offender actions)
- Victims often develop poor coping mechanisms (e.g., addictions, resistance to authority, reactive moods, withdrawal, etc. Do we respond to all sins the same or is there recognition that traumatized victims need a different form a response?
- Do we have regular spaces for pastors and leaders to address secondary trauma (the result of being deeply involved in the ongoing traumas of congregants)?
- Explore local resources outside the church so leadership does not need to be expert on every form of trauma and trauma response.
These are just a few questions to start with and will likely elicit many more as you go. By asking the questions you are taking serious the call by God to watch after the flock (including the sheep leading other sheep).
[Note: broken link fixed. If anyone is interested in taking this course with me this summer, see here.]
As a psychologist I have had a front row seat to observe the destruction that traumatic experiences have on individuals and families. And as a professor training future counselors I see the necessity of passing on best practices for treating those with symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). New understandings of trauma’s impact on bodies, minds, souls, and relationships appear on the pages of our academic and clinical journals. As a result, I read daily about innovative attempts to hasten trauma recovery for individuals and even whole communities.
With a world filled with trauma, it is clear to me we need an army of psychologists and mental health practitioners. How else could we address problems faced by 60 million displaced peoples in the world at present? How else could we address the scourge of sexual abuse, where worldwide 1:4 women and 1:6 men have experienced sexual violation before they reach the age of 18?
So, given the needs I have just mentioned, why would I spend considerable time and effort to promote a bible-based trauma healing training program? Let me tell you four key reasons I think this program is essential to address the world-wide problem of trauma. [Note, this is NOT a paid advertisement.]
Trauma disrupts faith and identity. The church must be at the center of the response
While many practitioners recognize the physical and psychological symptoms of PTSD, fewer have noticed that trauma disrupts and disables faith and connection to faith practices. Just now the scientific community is beginning to track this problem and acknowledge the role faith plays in the recovery process. Some are brave enough to suggest that failing to utilize faith practices and communities in the recovery process is tantamount to unethical practice! But most mental health practitioners have had zero training and experience engaging faith questions as part of treatment. The field of psychology is waking up from more than 100 years of training practitioners to ignore, even reject, faith as essential to healthy personhood. If faith is essential to most people on the planet then any intervention must engage faith and spiritual practices if it is going to consider the whole person.
Dr. Diane Langberg recently reminded a world gathering of national Bible Society leaders that trauma needs in the world are far too large for any government to handle. The only “organization” in the world situated to respond to at both a micro and a macro level is the Church. But is the church prepared? We need the church willing to understand the nature of trauma and participate in supporting faith and Bible-based healing responses. These responses include practices the church has not always been known for: validating, supporting and comforting victims, speaking up about injustice, inviting individual and corporate lament, re-connecting oppressed people to God. We need the church to be a safe community for victims.
The Healing the Wounds of Trauma (HWT) program fills this void. It offers basic trauma education, illustrates how God responds to traumatized peoples and provides simple yet effective care responses average believers can enact without being professional caregivers.
While I believe we psychologists with specialized skill sets are essential to trauma recovery, much of what we do can be done by every day individuals. I tell my students that most of counseling is not rocket-science. Being present, listening well, building trust, validating, asking good questions, and walking with someone in pain is largely what helps counselees get better. With a little training, the church can be at the forefront of the trauma healing.
But we need an army…of capable trainers who reproduce
There are approximately 2.2 Billion Christians in the world today. If we decided (and I am not suggesting this AT ALL!) to only serve traumatized Christians, we do not have enough capable practitioners to serve those in need. The ONLY way we would be able to serve this population is to train up capable trainers (wise, able to work well with others, understand group dynamics, know when to be quiet, etc.) who are then able to reproduce themselves and make even more trainers who subsequently serve ever increasing populations. This creates a cascade effect—1 trains another who each, in turn, trains others. Conservatively speaking, one training of 35 future trainers could reach up to 15,000 traumatized people in 3 training generations.
To maintain quality, the program must be able to be delivered and passed on in a consistent manner. The HWT program is designed not merely to educate participants regarding trauma symptoms and good care/healing practices but how to pass on such knowledge and skill to others. The facilitator (trainer) handbook provides a wealth of information to ensure that the quality does not erode as the information is passed on.
Experiential learning trumps lectures every time
In the West, we cherish academic lectures as the primary training mode. Lectures enable a speaker to give a large amount of information in a short period of time, with minimal interruption. A good lecture casts vision, identifies problems, and points to effective responses. But a lecture cannot produce skilled practitioners. Any academic mental health program worth attending will require practicums where head knowledge is put into repeated practice.
Consider this scenario. My father is capable of building a house. He sits me down and he spends hours gong over the steps to building an addition to my house. I listen, take notes, and even handle the tools that will be used. Am I prepared now to build the addition? No! If I am to build a proper addition, I will need to do so under his close supervision. In fact, most of the hours of lectures are not necessary at all. What will be more effective is his teaching me as we build together.
The HWT program is all about experiential learning. Participants learn as they experience trauma and trauma healing through story, dialogue, and practice. First applied to self and then in consideration of others. This is in stark contrast to most continuing education programs that amount to little more than monologues and passive audiences. While the monologue may give more information, it is highly unlikely that participants can in turn teach what they heard to others. The HWT program is not designed to deliver large amounts of new academic information. And yet, what participants get via experience and practice will be far more easily passed on when they become the teacher. There will be no army of trainers if we cannot quickly get experience and practice and pass on what we learn in simple everyday language.
Good training hinges on contextualization
If trauma is universal, then it might be thought easy to deliver trauma healing training across cultures. This is not so. If I prepare a lecture or training on trauma in my context (the megalopolis of the Northeastern seaboard of the United States) but deliver it on a different continent, my training may be of minimal value. The reason it is sure to fail is that what I had to offer didn’t fit the context; it didn’t speak to the heart of that audience. Good training must be contextualized so that participants immediately recognize trauma in their settings and that interventions make sense. Imagine if I deliver a talk on good conflict skills to a hierarchical society but emphasize the need to speak in “I” language (I need, I feel, I would like)? Such interventions will rightly be rejected as inappropriate. And if experience holds, whatever else I say will also be rejected.
The HWT program is founded on contextualization. Not only has it been translated into many different heart languages, the central stories and illustrations are also contextualized so that the participants can see themselves in the stories and interventions. At heart of each lesson, participants are asked about their own culture’s take on the particular problem. In dialogue, they compare responses to that of biblical passages highlighting trauma, grief, loss, and pastoral care. Nearly every major training point addresses context and encourages participants to develop creative interventions in keeping with key biblical and psychological foundations.
Is the HWT program all a traumatized person needs? No, it doesn’t assume this. Is the HWT program perfect? Of course not. I continue to make suggestions for improvement and the authors and developers are some of the most flexible I know, always looking for ways to improve the materials and training program. There are many other solid programs out there, but few programs I know have refined the content and delivery systems to be able to scale out across the globe. I’m grateful for the opportunity to serve the Mission: Trauma Healing team at the American Bible Society as co-chair of their advisory council and occasional trainer.
For a more visual exposure to this training, see this downloadable documentary.
The latest issue of Christianity Today has an article on pastors and the struggle with pornography. Here’s a couple of pieces of data from the 770 pastors surveyed
- Current struggle? 21% of youth pastors and 14% of pastors say yes
- How frequent a struggle? 35% of both categories say “a few times per month”
- Past struggle? 43% of both categories say yes
So, it is a problem. But here’s the data that stood out to me most of all.
- 70% of adult Christians say that if a pastor is having this struggle, the pastor should either be fired or put on leave until the problem is resolved? While
- Only 8% of pastors think they should leave their position if having this problem
While not surprising, it is telling. We think we should manage our own problems (or get a counselor or accountability group–that is still managing on our own) and that these problems don’t hinder our work.
What do you think?
How serious is the problem of porn use amongst pastors? Should it be cause to lose the position? Sinlessness is not a reasonable goal for pastors. But what would disqualify one from the position?
And if porn is a significant problem amongst congregants (and this study among many say so), does having a pastor with a current (even if infrequent) use of porn help or hinder care of congregants?
In recent weeks there have been sad and public accounts of pastors removed from their positions after being caught having sex with someone not their spouse. These pastors (mostly men) are gifted speakers, writers, and leaders. They are good at what they do. It
seems is a shame that they no longer use those gifts to lead God’s people. It is also a shame that God’s good name and the spouse/kids are dragged through the mud.
But can there be redemption? Could the pastor who loses integrity regain it and with it regain a pastoral position again? After all, we are all sinners and no pastor ever is without sin. Indeed, it seems God uses those who are moral and ethical disasters to lead his church. There’s David the rapist and murderer, S/Paul the terrorist, Abraham the liar, and Peter the wishy-washy, self-protective and impulsive “rock” of the church. Certainly, if God uses these people to write huge portions of Scripture and to build the church then why can’t a pastor who strays also be used by God?
No reason…any some possible reasons at the same time.
First, let’s call “affairs” with congregants what they are–pastoral sexual abuse. Now, not all sexual activity between a pastor and a congregant are the same. Having sex with a person you are counseling is not the same as developing a relationship with someone who is a bit more your equal. And yet, both would still not be an affair but an abuse of the position of pastor since the pastor has the obligation and moral responsibility to protect the relationship between the shepherd and the sheep.
Reason 1: The greater the misuse of power, the less likely a power holder should get that power back. An accountant who steals money is less able to return to being an accountant than a painter is returning to another painting job who happened upon some money on a desk and took it.
Stories of redemption in the Bible aren’t road maps for what should happen today. They tell us much about the amazing grace God bestows on sinners, but they don’t tell us what we should do when we encounter a fallen pastor. In fact, if we want to stack up the restored leaders in the Bible against the cursed leaders, I think our few positive examples of restoration would be vastly outnumbered by the stories of permanent removal. And on top of stories, we have some very serious warnings about bad shepherds (Jer 23, Ezek 34, 44, Matthew 23). The Ezekiel 44 passage denies false shepherds from ever speaking for God ever again but does show kindness in allowing them to help out with the sacrifices.
Reason 2: Human gifting does not necessarily lead to spiritual authority and leadership. Value to the kingdom continues even if “ministry” is only that of behind the scenes support services.
Finally, desire for the position is not always evidence of readiness. Recall in Acts 8 that there was a magician name Simon who wanted the ability to cast out demons like the apostles. He must already have had some capacity as he was famous. But he wanted more. He wanted the position of power. When confronted he begs for mercy and help.
Reason 3: Tears, passion, vision, and drive are not enough of a reason to place someone back into public ministry.
Now, none of these reasons are enough to always say no to return to pulpits after sexual infidelity. While a return may not be probable, it can be possible. Every situation is unique. That said, unless the disgraced pastor has evidenced many of the signs of repentance (taking full ownership, accepting consequences, giving up control over recovery process/submitting to the work of therapy, seeking accountability, pursuing utter transparency, and not placing demands to return to the position) for a long season, it is doubtful that a return to leadership is right. Frankly, one of the best signs of repentance is not being so worried about reputation and not seeking a return to a previous level of ministry.
There but for the grace of God go I.
Humility requires that we do not think too highly of ourselves; that we do not think ourselves better than anyone else. We all struggle with the same weakness–the desire to love self more than neighbor and to be our own god. We are all easily deceived, born into sin.
And yet, the evidence of humility is not equalizing all sins. Sadly, treating all as human has led some Christians to believe that it is wrong to point out the sins of others, to seek justice after wrongdoing. The error in thinking goes something like this:
- We have all sinned and come short of the glory of God. We all deserve judgment. No one can earn God’s love.
- God’s love is a free gift for all, not based on merit.
- Therefore, we must treat all sinners the same; that grace means the same treatment for all.
But ask victims who have heard this stated something like this and they hear, “since we’re all sinners then the way you were sinned against is no different than the way you sinned against God.” So, if there are no differences, then what happened to you (victimization) is no different than what happens to anyone.
Get over it. That is the message we send to victims when we level all sins.
So, consider this question: Does Jesus differentiate between sins? Do some sins result in more judgment and consequence? What about how he speaks of those who hinder the little children from coming to him? How does he speak to those who understand the depth of their sin vs. those who deflect or deny their sin?
Some years ago I was speaking to a large gathering of church leaders about the care for victims and sex offenders. I suggested that sex offenders did not have an automatic right to attend worship but that we could find meaningful ways to bring worship to sex offenders. One leader stood up and accused me of making multiple classes of sinners and ignoring the sin of victims (in his mind they would forever control the lives of the offenders thereby becoming abusive to the offenders). He claimed that I did not believe that God can restore and redeem the worst of sinners. This leader believed that all sin is forgiven (as do I) and thus all consequences should also be erased.
Leveling sins actually harms both victims and offenders. If consequences are erased, then offenders risk remaining unaware of unique temptations, unaware of how they may follow Zaccheus and pay back above and beyond what the Law requires. Victims continue to have little to no voice because what happened (and continues to happen) to them is just commonplace.