For many, the church is synonymous with the concept of “sanctuary”—a place of hope, safety, and healing. The guidelines and resources here can help your church be a sanctuary for those who have experienced abuse, sexual violence, or harassment. 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.
Guidelines for Initiating Conversations
1. Safety is the first priority. Victims of violence will not share their stories if they do not feel safe. Consider the following:
- Is the space safe? Consider the position of the chairs and the location of the doors in the space where you will be meeting.
- Is the space inviting? Does the environment make people feel like they can share openly?
- Is the space secure? Carefully consider how you advertise or invite conversations. Some survivors may worry that their abusers could interfere or find them.
- Is the space emotionally safe? Ensure that you are a nonjudgmental presence. Many survivors of abuse or trauma may have blocked memories. Their stories may have gaps or feel disconnected. Pressing for details to figure out what happened may be distressing for someone sharing their story. Let the individual decide how much to share and when.
2. Know your protocols. Your staff and volunteers should be able to clearly articulate the church’s protocols for abuse reporting and prevention. This includes identifying mandatory reporters on the staff and volunteer teams.
3. Listen well. Being able to listen well to stories is critical. Resist the urge to fix, respond with Scripture passages or clichés, or problem-solve. Those responses can be seen as cues for people to stop sharing. Be sensitive to what is happening in the space. If the space calls for a little silence, do not rush to fill it. It is also okay to admit that you are not sure what to do or what to say. Consider a training workshop for your staff.
4. Know your limits. Survivors of trauma and abuse may require ongoing treatment from a licensed therapist. Identify the best role for your church to take in situations like these. For counseling and other long-term treatment plans, consider creating strong community partnerships and referral systems that can help connect survivors to the assistance they need. A network of joined resources can create an environment of healing and support.
Guidelines for Creating Community Partnerships
The best communities that provide ongoing support involve a network of joined partnerships working together. Healing is cooperative work. Consider the following guidelines to help strengthen your network:
1. Invite. Invite community partners and agencies to come to your space. Open your doors to host community seminars or forums. Provide training spaces for educators and agencies. Let the community know you want to be a safe and active partner in eradicating abuse.
2. Learn. Abuse can’t hide as easily if people are well informed.
- Invite someone from a community agency to talk with your staff about what is happening in your neighborhood, city, or county. If your church or ministry does not have an articulated protocol for addressing sexual abuse and harassment, ask the community agency to help your team craft a protocol that you can share with your leaders.
- Ask someone from an agency partner to talk to your consistory. The issues surrounding abuse and violence are complex, so having a more comprehensive understanding will help your church leaders know how to respond and, most importantly, how to pray.
3. Ask. Ask local agencies how the church can be involved. Know your legal limits on what you can and cannot do, and what risks the church can take on. An agency will be able to tell you some practical ways in which you can assist the healing process.
4. Pray. All healing—physical, spiritual, or emotional—takes time and requires the intervention of the Spirit. We can stand together to pray for this healing.
5. Love well. Just like churches, many community agencies have staff and volunteers that put in long hours with little reward. This work can be emotionally taxing. You can be a good community partner by serving not only survivors but also agency workers. Consider how your church can bless your city, county, or nonprofit staff. Simple gifts like cards and snacks go a long way in letting someone know that their work is seen and that they are important. Ask ahead of time to avoid interrupting their work day or accidentally giving them something they cannot eat or accept.
For more information or to have a deeper discussion about engaging these resources in your context, contact pastor Eliza Cortés Bast, coordinator for Local Missional Engagement.
Safe Church Ministry
Our friends at the Christian Reformed Church in North America have curated an exceptional list of online resources to help your church or ministry address issues of abuse. This list is available online through their Safe Church Ministry. The resource directory provides links to ministries, articles, and tools that can help your church further identify how it can be involved in the prevention of, awareness of, and response to abuse.
Processes to Empower Women
Looking for ways to encourage, equip, and empower the women and girls in your faith community? Seeking to create a healthy, flourishing ministry environment where men and women can serve together?
Since 2014, Women’s Transformation and Leadership has helped the RCA pursue a vision to fully include the gifts and influence of all women. By doing so, we usher in a vision of God’s reign as brothers and sisters freely share their gifts and serve together, strengthening the body of Christ for mission in the world.
We invite you to join us in doing this through a number of opportunities:
- Honoring Our Stories: a process for unlocking the transformative power of our stories. This process offers a framework for working through our joys and laments, including those painful experiences of harassment, abuse, and sexual violence. Read this blog post about an Honoring Our Stories event to learn more. The Honoring Our Stories process can be customized as a one- or two-day, in-person event or as a virtual small group (called a mini leadership collaborative). It is co-led by Rev. Liz Testa, coordinator for Women’s Transformation and Leadership, and spiritual director Lesley Mazzotta.
- Women’s Leadership Collaboratives: 18-month leadership development processes designed for both lay and clergy women to build their personal, organizational, and multiplying leadership competencies. We are developing a “train the trainer” module so that regional women leaders can facilitate groups in their church or organization in the future.
- Building God’s Church Together: a process that will help leaders and communities build flourishing, healthy ministry partnerships between women and men and also welcome and nurture women’s gifts and leadership. This resource will offer customizable in-person events, congregational learning communities, and short-term virtual small groups (mini leadership collaboratives) that will allow participants to learn, grow, and transform together.
- She Is Called: a campaign that celebrates the many ways RCA women and our ecumenical sisters are called by God. Share your story on social media using the hashtag #sheiscalled. (Men are also invited to lift up the women and girls in their lives!) Get involved by following the She Is Called Facebook page; by reading RCA Women: A Legacy of Leadership, a booklet celebrating past and current women leaders; or watching for our #sheiscalled video project, which is capturing the full diversity of women and girls and the many ways God calls them to share their gifts for ministry. Everyone is invited to participate on social media, using the hashtag, #sheiscalled. This campaign is not just for women; men are also invited to lift up the women and girls in their lives. Visit www.rca.org/women for more information on these and other topics related to women in ministry. To discuss next steps for you or your community, contact Rev. Liz Testa, coordinator for Women’s Transformation and Leadership, at firstname.lastname@example.org.