Guidelines for Addressing Sexual Assault in Worship

Church sanctuaries should be places of hope and healing, safety and security. After all, that is what “sanctuary” means. It is not just the room or place where we gather for worship, it is also a place of refuge and protection. The safety of the sanctuary is paramount always, but especially when the topics of harassment, abuse, and sexual violence will be discussed. For many who are survivors of—or those who are still trapped within—situations of abuse and violence, churches have not always been safe places to share their stories. Far too often, churches have been silent, and that silence has been deafening.

In a series of guidelines for initiating conversations, Pastor Eliza Cortés Bast writes this: “Your willingness to engage in this critical conversation sends a clear message of hope to people who are on a journey of recovery. Remember, stories are gifts. Every time someone chooses to share their story, they are giving you a very personal piece of who they are. Safeguarding that trust is critical in creating healthy spaces for sharing.”

We Are Speaking is a commitment to speak out against harassment, abuse, and sexual violence, and to stand with and for all those who have suffered or continue to suffer. As your congregation or ministry setting seeks to speak out, it is imperative that the sanctuary continue to be a safe place as these stories are shared.

Guidelines for Addressing Harassment, Abuse, and Sexual Violence in Worship

Plan ahead

  • Provide warning. For victims of violence, a service such as this may bring to the surface painful memories and/or the reliving of traumatic experiences. Provide advance notice of the service so that survivors are prepared and able to decide if attending such a service will be helpful or harmful to them.
  • Will children be present? Services of worship are unique from many other settings because a wide variety of ages may be present. If you are planning a We Are Speaking service that will take place during your regular morning worship service, be mindful of young children when describing details. It may be best to use generalizations rather than specific instances of violence, which could be troubling to young children. Whether your service will be during regular morning worship or at a separate time, provide advance notice of the topics that will be addressed so that parents may decide whether it will be appropriate for their children to attend.
  • Will you be advertising this service? Before widely publicizing the event, be mindful of how (and if) you will do so. Survivors may be concerned that their abusers will learn of the service and will attempt to interfere or find them.
  • Consider having a counselor or counselors available. Memories of past and traumatic experiences can be unpredictable. One or more people may find themselves in need of a trained listening professional during or after the service.

Know your policies. All staff and volunteers should be aware of and know how to implement the church’s or ministry setting’s policies for reporting abuse and for prevention. Who are the mandatory reporters?

  • Do you have policies? If your church or ministry setting does not yet have policies for abuse prevention and reporting, make sure you begin the process of creating and adopting them.

Be mindful of the worship space.

  • Is the space safe? If your worship space has chairs, how are they oriented? Where are the doors to the worship space?
  • Is the space welcoming? Will people feel safe to share their stories here?
  • Is the space ready? Have tissues available and trained listeners ready. Consider having a place prepared for a participant who needs to step away into a safe space for a moment, if need be.
  • Are boundaries in place? Survivors of abuse may have repressed memories or have specific experiences they do not wish to talk about. Do not press for details. Allow each person to choose how much of their story to share.