The Abuse Crisis in the SBC: Where do we go from here?

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Questions to ask an abuse survivor

I’m encouraged by the number of people who want to be helpful. Even more, I’m grateful for those who are willing to take the risk of leaning into hard conversations, hoping to support someone who’s suffering. I’ve often received questions from people about what types of questions they should ask someone who has survived abuse. I’m learning that many people want to help but hesitate to step into the conversation out of fear that they’ll do or say something wrong.

If you’re someone who wants to support a survivor of abuse, thank you. Being fearful of saying the wrong thing is only natural. Feeling unprepared is common. The worst thing you could do would be to back away and hope someone else steps in. I’m happy to give you some jumping-off points in order to help you ask good questions. But first, allow me to give some words of caution.

When I first started sharing my story with others, I got a variety of responses. I was seventeen when I was sexually assaulted. I told two adults about it. The first one asked me what I was wearing when it happened. The second asked me if I was going to press charges. I have no doubt that both those adults thought they were being helpful. One thought she would shield me from further abuse by instructing me on my clothing choices, and the other thought she would help me get justice. My response? I walked away and never spoke to either of them again about my suffering.

Many people think they’re being helpful by offering advice or trying to “make right” what went wrong. Allow me to let you off the hook. You won’t fix anything. Ever. You can’t make the hurt end by any word you will say. You can’t create peace by bringing the perpetrator to justice. No human word or action fixes the brokenness caused by abuse.

I’ve counseled dozens of abuse survivors. Not one of them “got better” because someone asked the right questions or offered the best advice. We all journey toward healing for our whole lives. You may have the honor of walking alongside one of these beautiful people, and you’ll be better for it. But you won’t ever fix anything.

So my word of caution is this: first, check your “fixer” at the door. Ask yourself why you want to step into the conversation before you step in. The ultimate motive should be love, fueled by compassion and hope. Second, you shouldn’t ask these questions of someone with whom you haven’t already established a strong relationship. Healing happens in the context of safety. If you aren’t sure whether you’re a safe person for her, ask someone else to step in and support her. Third, you’re not an investigator. The point is not that you get all the information. The point is that you empathize with her. This means you may not have all the facts, but hopefully you’ll gain insight into her experience. And finally, you’re (most likely) not a professional counselor. Please don’t try to counsel her – it takes years of study and experience to know how to guide someone toward healing. You are there to listen and support. Leave the counseling to someone who’s trained and ethically bound to do no harm.

(Keep in mind that these questions are intended to be asked of someone who has shared that she was abused in the past. In a future post, I’ll share questions to ask someone who might be experiencing current abuse.)

  1. I can’t imagine what you’ve experienced, but I want to. Will you tell me more about what happened to you? (This is a purposefully open-ended question. She will share with you what she feels comfortable sharing. Don’t push for more.)
  2. What was it like in the days and months following the abuse?
  3. Did you tell anyone directly after it happened? How did they respond?
  4. What are some ways the abuse has affected your life?
  5. When you think about the future, is anything scary to you?
  6. Who has helped you in your healing journey. What has been helpful about their involvement?
  7. What are some unhelpful or hurtful things people have said or done as you’ve sought to heal?
  8. Who is walking alongside you now? Do you need additional support?
  9. Have you been involved in groups or counseling to help you heal? Is that something you want?
  10. How can I continue to support you as you heal?

 

Please share your comments and questions with me! 

How should men care for female survivors of sexual abuse?

“I was bit by a big dog when I was a kid, and now I’m afraid of all big dogs.”

I wasn’t surprised to hear this from my friend. It’s a natural instinct for her to recoil from something that reminds her of a dangerous situation. In fact, it’s a God-given instinct for survival. I don’t fault my friend for the way she feels – it’s just the way she feels. And I’m not defensive that she doesn’t want to be around my black lab, no matter how friendly or lovable. Her experience has changed her perceptions and interactions.

Since the recent news about perpetrators of sexual abuse within Southern Baptist churches, I’ve had several conversations with men about the experience of a female abuse survivor. These men are asking me questions because they know my story. They know I can relate.

I am a survivor of sexual assault. I was seventeen, and I was forced into a sexual encounter by a peer. The pain of that moment still grieves me, but equal to that grief were the horrifying days and months following the abuse, in which well-meaning Christians affirmed the dreaded voice that was haunting my every thought: “It was your fault.”

The damage is great. Vast and far-reaching. Since that season of my life, I have read and studied and met individually and in groups with countless women like me. Our stories are all different, but all with common threads. We all felt overwhelming shame, betrayal and fear. And we all heard the dreaded voice. We couldn’t make it stop. It told us we were to blame.

We were trying to make sense of something senseless, so we believed we caused the trauma. That allowed us to feel a sense of control, to build a system in which we could prevent further trauma if only we could do everything perfectly next time. But let’s be honest – we didn’t know any of that. We were just drowned in shame and fear, and we fought our way to the surface the best way we knew how.

In building this system, the creation of categories became a survival tactic. The location of the abuse was now off-limits. The clothing I wore, the size and shape of my body, the way I interact with the opposite sex…on and on. My list became very long, and it grew each time I had a flashback to the abuse. But at the top of my list was one word. MEN.

In the same way my friend recoils from big dogs because of her interaction with one bad one, I became afraid of men. I began to assume that they all thought of me as a piece of meat, not even good enough to be swallowed but only to be chewed up and spit out. This was not a true statement, of course, but my brain had created a category to keep me safe. Until healing occurred, this category was the only way for me to function.

So what should you do if you’re a man who wants to care for a female sexual abuse survivor? How do you interact with her? What does she need?

Use your ears.

If you are someone she trusts enough to receive her story, that’s a gift. The moment you know what she faced, you have become someone unlike her abuser. You have been trusted with something very vulnerable and tender. So there’s no need to defend your gender. There’s no reason to try to educate her or admonish her. These are moments of ministry – the ministry of listening. Whatever she shares is precious. Take it to heart, and let her know that you are honored to receive her story.

Believe the best of her.

The voice in her head takes a long time to go away. For some, it never goes away. She expects others to perpetuate that voice and tell her she was to blame for the abuse. She’s wondering what you think the moment you hear her story. She doesn’t have a personal vendetta against you because you’re a man. She has very good reason to believe that a man will betray and belittle and dehumanize her, because she’s experienced it firsthand. While you’re not to blame for the abuse, someone in your gender was. That means you can help by being someone who looks her in the face, who smiles kindly, who affirms that what she experienced was a vile and abominable evil.

Push below the anger.

Many men I’ve encountered are able to express their anger and disgust that someone could perpetrate sexual abuse. But I have found few men who are willing to dig below the anger into how they feel. Anger is a secondary emotion – it stems from something else. What do you feel beneath the anger? Is anger a shield that allows you to stand in righteous indignation without actually experiencing empathy?

Empathy comes when you admit that you don’t understand and humbly ask for help. Some think they are empathizing, but they’re actually just sympathizing (i.e., “I understand because I experienced something similar”). You cannot understand what someone has faced, no matter how similar your experiences have been. Empathy means you ask for understanding, desiring to sit in the ashes with someone. It means you want to experience it yourself alongside them. This is so painful to do, and many men refuse.

If you’re interested in experiencing empathy regarding a woman’s experience with sexual abuse, start with this question: What if she were my wife? my daughter? my sister? my best friend? my mother? my girlfriend?

Let that question sink in. All the way down to the core. What if? How angry would you feel? How sad? How terrified? How hopeless?

Now look into that woman’s face. She IS your wife, your daughter, your sister, your best friend, your mother, your girlfriend. She is.

Link arms with her

She may have been walking on the road to healing for a long time, or she may have just begun. Ask her how you can serve her. You are most likely not the person she’ll continue to talk with about her abuse, but she needs someone (or several someones). Find resources in your church and community that specialize in caring for abuse survivors. Help her access those resources, and then commit to walk alongside her as she heals. She needs faithful men in her life, men who combat the lie that all males dehumanize females. And remember that she may share her story with you, but that doesn’t mean you’re automatically and completely safe. She needs other women, primarily, to be her support system. Operate as her advocate and resource-provider, and keep asking her how you can serve her.

I hope this post generates many other posts! Please send me your comments, stories, and questions.