Shepherding Survivors of Sexual Abuse

Pastors are shepherds, and shepherds are “first responders.” This is a core truth, a biblical charge that defines both the shepherds and the sheep of God’s church (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:2). This means that church leaders are on the front lines of ministry to those in their church who have been sexually abused, often the first to hear from a victim.

However, many abuse victims view the church with distrust. And the shepherds often don’t know how to guide the sexually broken. To help build greater understanding between these groups, I want to help dismantle some significant myths, based on my background as a licensed minister, professor of the Bible and abuse survivor myself.

Myth No. 1: “Sin is sin is sin. . . .”

This is a dangerous simplicity. All sin is covered at the cross, but not all sin is equally devastating. The sufficiency of the cross is not the issue here. Shepherding the sexually abused means we must speak just as passionately about actual sin as original sin.

Sexual abuse has a complex life cycle that lives on in families, often going back generations. Moral evil has been unleashed that, in turn, corrupts the cultural environment and pollutes surrounding relationships. For example, a father who sexually abuses his daughter not only distorts her psyche but also pollutes the marriage bed with his wife. Shepherds can use quality teaching to address this complex sin-portfolio of sexual abuse.

Myth No. 2: “Everybody goes through suffering, so what’s your point?”

This myth misunderstands the relational ecosystem surrounding sexual abuse. There is always an attack-factor, a stealing; and for the victim, a diminishment and dismembering of the soul. Lifelong effects are common. Add to this the fact that God did not intervene, and you have a devastating form of suffering that causes many victims to “leave the faith.” But shepherds who minister with deep compassion can help victims rebuild their trust in community.

Myth No. 3: “Sexual abuse comes from strangers and perverted people.”

In reality, many wolves actually live among the sheep, in the church. Studies reveal a chilling reality: The majority of sexually abused children were abused by someone they knew—with 25 percent of the time that abuser being a birth parent1. One in six boys and one in four girls are sexually abused2. The data also suggests that rates of sexual abuse are not appreciably different among evangelicals when compared to the general population3. When shepherds name such sins openly, as problems that occur within their flock, then victims don’t have the added burden of needing to break the “sacred silence” that always hurts them more than the abuser.

Myth No. 4: “Preaching about such horrendous evil will scare people away.”

It takes a prophetic spirit to break that sacred silence and call out the sexual violators, but victims will then have their pain validated. And, actually, many abusers want help. Maybe most counter-intuitive is that seekers will realize, “This church calls it like it is.” When shepherds protect the sheep through honest preaching on abuse using stories already found in the Bible (e.g., Genesis 34; 2 Samuel 13), one sensitive sermon can dispel two damaging myths.

Myth No. 5: “If you’ve forgiven your abuser, you must also reconcile.”

This is a claim that may preach well but is naïve at best and re-victimizing at worst4. Forgiveness itself is typically a process for victims. Abusers need to show the fruit of brokenness to qualify for any kind of reconciliation. We’re not talking about a business deal gone bad but about victims who have experienced trauma and typically need professional help and safe space in order to heal. Shepherds must allow the victim’s needs to set the agenda, not the abuser, the family or the doting elders.

Myth No. 6: “Worship and address of sexual abuse don’t go together.”

This myth reflects our church culture—particularly the loss of lament—more than it reflects biblical worship. Broken worshipers (and who isn’t), and victims in particular, need to be creatively drawn toward God through things like testimonies, written prayers, drama, healing rituals and the use of lament5. To draw victims, we must help them worship in pain, not in spite of their pain. Sanitizing pain out of worship reveals a loss of realism, candor and corporate grief6. Shepherds might begin this process with a variation of this moving liturgy, used for a corporate healing service for victims:

Minister: People of God, why are you gathered? People of God, are you wounded? People of God, what is your hope?

Congregation: To worship the Lord who comforts us in our pain, hears our cry for justice, and breaks the walls of silence that keeps the truth from being heard. Yes! We are wounded when children are abused. We are wounded when the weak are assaulted. . . . Our hope is in God who has promised to be with us in our suffering7.

There is nothing new about sexual abuse, but openly facing such dangerous myths is new. Shepherding God’s flock requires us to be leaders who are approachable and equipped, ready to lend a hand to any man or woman touched by abuse. We must begin by dismantling toxic myths. Because shepherds speak for God, we must purge all obstacles so we can maximize our healing ministry.

1A.J. Sedlak and D.D. Broadhurst, Executive Summary of the Third National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1996).

2 R.M. Bolen and M. Scannapieco, “Prevalence of Child Sexual Abuse: A Corrective Meta-analysis,” Social Service Review 73 (1999): 281–313.

3 S. Tracy, “Definitions and Prevalence Rates of Sexual Abuse: Quantifying, Explaining, and Facing a Dark Reality,” in The Long Journey Home: Understanding and Ministering to the Sexual Abused (ed. A.J. Schmutzer; Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, forthcoming), citing the study of A.W. Annis and R.R. Rice, “A Survey of Abuse Prevalence in the Christian Reformed Church,” Journal of Religion and Abuse 3 (2001): 7–40.

4For an up-to-date discussion on how to pursue forgiveness in cases of sexual abuse, see E. Hervey and J. Sells, “Forgiveness in Sexual Abuse: Defining Our Identity in the Journey toward Wholeness,” in The Long Journey Home (forthcoming).

5See the 13 prayers in Appendix B of The Long Journey Home. I wrote these specifically to help give survivors words to speak to God.

6W. Brueggemann, “The Lament,” in Reverberations of Faith: A Theological Handbook of Old Testament Themes (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2001), 120.

7J.B. Gould, “Healing the Wounded Heart through Ritual and Liturgy: Accompanying the Abused in their Healing,” in The Long Journey Home (forthcoming), citing a Mennonite Healing Service. Gould found several denominations that have written resources for use in services. Unfortunately, I doubt any reader has witnessed such a service in recent memory.

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