I attended the Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission (ERLC) National Conference last weekend, where I experienced both encouragement and frustration. Of course, I should expect this from a conference focusing on caring well for the abused. The SBC has a long history of covering up heinous acts of oppression and violence, so I entered the space with skepticism. In June at the Southern Baptist Convention, we prayed prayers of lament and heard stories of abuse within Southern Baptist churches. An advisory group (made up of some of my heroes in abuse and trauma care) published a handbook for pastors on how to care for victims. The ERLC chose to spend their entire conference training leaders on how to care for victims and survivors. But something stung at a heart-level for me as I sat listening to testimonies and lectures. These well-meaning and long-awaited endeavors are only the very first baby steps. I feel nervous about celebrating too quickly.
At the age of seventeen, I was sexually assaulted. When I worked up the courage to tell my youth minister, she looked at me blankly and asked what I was wearing when it happened. Praise God I had the wherewithal not to listen to her anymore. But it left me alone, with no one to help me process my pain. I had hoped she would give me resources and show me how to find a good counselor. Consequently, I spent the next several years in silence.
Our heavenly Father has allowed my painful story to create a passion in me for His glory to be revealed in the Church through the healing of His vulnerable ones. For twenty years I have looked around wherever I’ve lived and sought to follow the call of Jesus to bind up the brokenhearted. It’s been a beautiful journey, and I’ve learned so much along the way. Sitting at the ERLC Conference, I felt encouraged to hear about others who are doing the same all throughout the world. I realized how isolated I’ve felt all these years. Now I can connect with others, and hopefully we can grow together.
How do we do it? What are the next baby steps for us to take in this process of caring for the abused? Here are some steps I’m taking.
I’m tending my own garden. I cannot give what I do not possess. If I aspire to guide and empathize with others, I must be rooted and grounded in the love of Jesus, abiding in the vine. I must hear His voice clearly (which only comes with regular practice). I must continually pray Psalm 139:23-24, because His searching of my heart must be continual. My own growth and healing must be happening all along the way, and I should never assume I’m complete. To do so would be absolute arrogance. I believe that many ministry leaders are hiding their own wounds of abuse, and this is dangerous. If we cannot get help ourselves, how can we lead others to the help they need? My counselor and a few close friends provide safe spaces for me to process the ways in which the pain of others exacerbates my own pain. I think all those who lead others need to have such people in their lives.
I’m creating safe spaces for survivors. I felt nervous at the Southern Baptist Convention because pastors were given a mandate to commit to the Caring Well Challenge. It’s not that I don’t think the challenge is good – I’m so grateful for clear steps toward growth. But what I wanted them to tell us is that before we charge forward in a grand step-by-step endeavor, we must locate those in our midst who have suffered abuse and ask them to teach us. And locating them does not mean announcing from the stage that survivors have permission to come find a leader to share their stories with. We must create spaces for safe interactions. We must stop asking them to do all the hard work of figuring out who to talk to and when. Something our church did this past spring was to hold a service of lament (including worship and testimonies), followed by a set-aside time in which members could go into the chapel and talk with an elder or deacon. Now that the ERLC Conference has ended, we’re creating a survey that allows people to check a box indicating they want to talk with an elder or deacon privately. I’m hopeful we’ll all get creative in orchestrating spaces in which to sit with victims and survivors.
I’m thinking about abuse care in ALL ministries within the church. Opportunities to care for the abused can’t only happen in our recovery and counseling ministries. People don’t usually self-select to join an abuse recovery group, and they usually don’t indicate on a counseling intake form that they want to heal from the wounds of abuse. They don’t feel safe talking about it, so we have to pay attention and ask good questions in everyday interactions with those in our church families. What questions do our small group leaders ask during accountability and prayer time? What opportunities are we missing when we train our children’s ministry volunteers, when we create our worship sets, when we plan our sermons, when we develop curriculum for membership classes and Bible studies? The possibilities are endless for ways we can demonstrate our love for those who are suffering. We just have to think holistically about it.
I’m building an army. Abuse care is beautiful and fulfilling. It’s also painful and exhausting. I cannot do it alone in my church. And even if I could, I shouldn’t. As I’ve heard the stories of those in our church family who have suffered (or are suffering) abuse, I’ve begun to ask for their involvement. I’ve asked if they’re willing to write down their stories to be shared with our elders. I’ve asked them to pray that more people will feel safe to come forward with their stories. I’ve asked them to help organize events and sit on advisory teams to help our church continue to do this work well. You’d be amazed at the resilience and power lying beneath the surface in a survivor of abuse. We think deeply. We fight hard in prayer. We cling to Scripture. We see injustice clearly. We have great ideas. A pastor is short-sighted (and perhaps even foolish) who engages in the Caring Well Challenge without enlisting the leadership of those who have been quietly fighting the fight for years. This includes both survivors and their close friends and family members. (Note: Some survivors are not yet ready to engage in leading others. It’s important to assess where people are in their healing journeys in order to care for them as they seek to care for others. I’m planning to write about this soon.)
One final thought: I’m praying hard and want to encourage the leaders of the SBC and ERLC that the call to care for the abused cannot be a flash in the pan. Victims and survivors would rather we not discuss this at all than to discuss it for one year and then never speak of it again. I hope the SBC will create a position or committee designed to continue this endeavor and keep it as a priority among Southern Baptists.