Today’s post is from my wonderful friend, Heidi Fischer. Heidi is a recent graduate of Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary with a MA in Marriage, Family, and Child Counseling. This is an important topic for our churches to consider, talk about, and take action on. As you read these words please reflect on how you could change the culture of your own church so that it might be a place of healing for those who need it most.
A quick Google search of “sexual assault statistics” will bring up a lot of information. A common figure is that out of every 4-6 women 1 will be sexually assaulted. Women, minorities, and individuals with disabilities are more commonly victimized, but males most certainly are abused as well. According to RAINN (Rape Abuse Incest National Network), every 2 minutes someone in the US is sexually assaulted.1 What is included in the definition of sexual assault varies, but can include rape, unwanted touching, inappropriate comments, voyeurism, and so on. Whether or not the statistics are perfectly accurate is not my concern, regardless if it’s 1 out of 4 or 30 – the number is high. These figures indicate that someone you know has been assaulted, and that if you yourself have been a victim, you are not alone.
Maybe my experience is an anomaly but I have not once heard this topic broached in church. Certainly some churches do, but none that I’ve ever attended. It’s odd to me that TV is so comfortable with the topic that it has shows like Law and Order: SVU that are dedicated entirely to the subject. Yet the church, an institution which many individuals turn to for support and comfort is strangely silent in regards to this far-reaching problem. Sexual assault is not only devastatingly common, but has serious long lasting effects. How can The Body approach this painful issue that most certainly affects its many members?
Plain and simple, I think it’s important for the church to get educated. Knowing simple statistics and figures can help one to realize the magnitude of the problem. Many organizations have helpful content on their websites. Most cities have a sexual assault crisis center, which may have speakers that give presentations. Ignorance is not an excuse.
Consider how this can be spoken about in the church, because silence is hurting people. Contemplate options such as a sermon(s), support groups, or having an informational seminar. I’m sorry if this is an embarrassing or uncomfortable topic, but I’m not actually really all that sorry. If churches can find ways to be sensitive during days like Mothers Day and Christmas, I think they can figure this one out too. It’s necessary to get over this discomfort.
Be sensitive in regards to church practices. An example is that for some churches it is common practice to “lay hands” while praying for someone. This can be both welcome and healing for some, and terrible for others. Help people to have a voice in the matter and include phrases like “if you are comfortable”. Recognize that you may not be able to fully understand the difficulty certain individuals could have in regards to even attending church, or how they could be triggered. Respectfully and collaboratively work on ways they can be supported and ministered to.
Respect limitations. A pastor is not a professional counselor, and should not attempt to provide such services. Pastors who do provide pastoral counseling should be trained in this topic, and probably should consider taking a human sexuality class, even if it’s not required (nudge nudge seminary students). I have heard of several situations where pastoral staff made comments that were meant to be helpful but instead were damaging, and this probably could have been avoided with basic training. Correspondingly, church staff must be aware of local laws and understand mandated reporting.
Unfortunately, we know the church has been part of the problem. A 2008 article in Christianity Today, outlines how it is that the church has become a hazardous environment and steps that can be taken to improve it.2 They site misconceptions and a false sense of security as high factors in regards to this problem. The article mentions that it is common practice for other organizations to have strict policies and guidelines in regards to sexual abuse, and yet the church is still playing catch-up. It is my opinion that the church should not preach about its care for the people, and then allow abuses to occur that could have easily been prevented.
Obviously this short post cannot address all areas of this topic, but hopefully it can help us be more aware, and help us consider how we might improve. It is my hope that I will soon be in a church where I hear the topic of sexual abuse discussed, even if I have to be the person to do it. I’m glad if you are a part of a church who has addressed this subject; tell us about that in the comments.
If you or someone you know has been sexually abused (or abused in any other way) I am truly sorry. Please be aware that there are many in the church who do care, and that the silence that I have perceived does not mean you aren’t loved. If you have not accessed support or would like more, I encourage you to do so. I give you permission to fight for what you need. There are numerous organizations that can provide you with assistance as well as referrals.
What has your church done that has been helpful or what would you like to see? Why do you think the church shies away from open discussion about abuse? Please share your experience and comments below. Thank-you for taking the time to consider this topic, and please consider how you could help the church break its silence.
Recommended reading and survivor resources:
We Were the Least of These: Reading the Bible with Survivors of Sexual Abuse. Elaine Heath.
The Courage to Heal. (There are various editions that address this topic for women, men, and survivors of childhood abuse). Ellen Bass and Laura Davis.
RAINN – http://www.rainn.org/
After Silence – http://www.aftersilence.org/
CoSA- Circles of Support and Accountability – An organization that works to offer support and accountability to sex offenders who have served their sentences. http://peace.fresno.edu/cosa/