Usually Tuesdays are my Springboard for Your Family. Today, I want to take a little different approach and provide a springboard for your church family. The reverberations of last week’s discussions about Jody Lusk are continuing to impact me. On Sunday, I told my congregation that we need to view ourselves as a battalion of God’s army that is drawing together so we can go out and conquer sin and Satan by God’s grace. With that in mind, I’ve been continuing to study and research issues about sexual misconduct and abuse in churches and especially by preachers/clergy. It is truly a frightening prospect.
I want to share with you a particularly helpful site that was passed along to me by one of the members of the Franklin congregation. Baylor University has been conducting studies about Clergy Sexual Misconduct and their findings are amazing. Understand that the scope of this study is not about child sexual abuse, but about preachers, pastors, priests, and rabbis using their role as spiritual leader to prey on adult members. They found that 3% of women who have attended a “church service” in the past month admit to being victims of Clergy Sexual Misconduct since turning 18 years old. This should cause us to stand up and take notice.
Churches, we have got to start talking about this pink elephant in the room. I encourage you to begin by checking out the resources and stories found at Baylor’s site:
I want to share five things I have taken away from this research, though I’m sure there is much, much more we need to learn.
1. Establish healthy boundaries.
My family and I like to visit waterfalls. The danger of waterfalls is you have to have huge drop for the water to fall. Many of the waterfalls we have visited have fences and barriers along the trail. Even at the viewing area they have barriers with signs saying don’t cross. Why? Because people who go on the other side of those barriers fall to their deaths. We need to establish healthy boundaries. I don’t think this means we have to be so extreme as to have women on one side of the building and men on the other never to touch, shake hands, or even hug. But, at the same time, let’s not laugh at the extremes so much that we never build barriers allowing everyone to plunge into the ravine. I think James 2:2, 14 demonstrates a need to establish boundaries.
Especially establish healthy boundaries for those in leadership positions: pastors, preachers, deacons, teachers. Make it a boundary that they are simply not allowed to meet alone with a member of the opposite gender-not for counseling, not for teaching, not for working on a project. Make it a boundary that nobody teaches a children’s class alone where they cannot at least be monitored. Have a healthy boundary about taking children to the bathroom from class. I know in my next meeting with the elders here at Franklin, I’m going to ask for a window to be placed in my office door.
Please don’t whine to me about how you will never do these things and it upsets you that the congregation wants to put some boundaries in place as if you are a deviant. Healthy people don’t chaff at healthy boundaries. They recognize that boundaries provide two protections: 1) they protect against false accusations and 2) they protect against temptation you aren’t expecting so there will never be any true accusations. If you are going to buck against healthy boundaries, you probably need to take a closer, more honest look at your spiritual life. You may have a chink in this armor you want everyone to believe is sin proof.
***Edit: Make sure you check out Dan Allen’s suggested congregational sexual harassment policy in the comments section below and let us know what you think about it.
2. Refuse to hide behind a culture of niceness.
“Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (I Corinthians 13:7). Yes, but love does not turn a blind eye to the inappropriate. Sadly, many experience things that make them feel sexually uncomfortable, but instead of expressing it, they internalize it. They even blame themselves thinking they must be overly sensitive. “That brother is just showing his care for me. Besides, this is church, no one would do anything inappropriate here. I need to give him the benefit of the doubt.” Baylor called this having a culture of niceness. Yes, we should be nice, but it is not nice to make others feel uncomfortable sexually, and it is not nice to act like their feelings on the matter don’t matter.
Here is the key in my mind. If someone makes you feel uncomfortable, you are allowed to express that. Expressing that something made you uncomfortable is not an accusation of wrongdoing. It is not believing the worst about someone. It is not refusing to give someone the benefit of the doubt. It means you have a boundary and you are allowed to express it whether the boundary is an issue of personal space during a conversation or the fact that he rubs your back while talking to you or the fact that he is calling you at home. Some people are touchy-feely and that’s okay. But if their touchy-feely makes you uncomfortable, that is okay as well. You can tell them.
There is another side of this. When someone expresses that our action has made them feel uncomfortable, we don’t need to view it as an accusation. We don’t need to get defensive and angry. We definitely don’t need to make accusations back, “You’re just too sensitive. You must have a problem if you’re going to interpret what I did that way.” We need to apologize and stop the action…period.
3. Let the older women teach the younger women.
I guess this could go under the healthy boundaries section, but it stands out so strongly to me that I think we need to state it. Have you ever noticed that Paul told Titus to teach the older men some things, teach the older women some things, and teach the young men some things. But he didn’t tell him to teach the younger women anything. Rather, one of the things he was to teach the older women was to teach the younger women (Titus 2:1-6). I think there was a reason for this. Paul was a believer in healthy boundaries as well.
Perhaps the most important boundary of all is that preachers do not need to take it on themselves to counsel, teach, help, direct women, especially women their age and younger. If they think they’ve got great insight into how to help younger women, they need to train older women in how to do that.
Sadly, whenever we think about someone needing spiritual counsel we think, “Call the preacher.” Do we not have any godly women who can counsel wives to love their husbands and their children? Do we not have any godly women who can encourage younger women in the faith and teach them God’s will from the scripture? Is the preacher the only person in the congregation who can do these things? If so, then the church has more problems than Clergy Sexual Misconduct. If so, that church probably needs to close its doors and let its members join with a congregation that has a healthier more mature membership (yes, yes, I know there are exceptions).
4. Do not blame the victims.
When leaders in the church sexually pursue members, no matter the age of the members, it is not an affair as if both are equally guilty. When a person in authority starts pursuing a subordinate sexually, it is an abuse of power. The vulnerable subordinate is not to blame. I don’t care how you cut it, we just cannot take responsibility away from the person in leadership. That person is the one who is responsible for what happened.
If something like this has happened in your church, the one abused by the preacher/clergy needs support and help now more than ever. Do not turn your back on them and their families. Do not get upset as if they brought the trouble on the church. They did not. They were victims. Yes, the offender has fallen prey to Satan and sin. Yes, the offender needs our help as well. But don’t do anything that acts like the victim is at fault. Lift that victim up and support her. Help her face all her confusion, fear, doubt and walk through it into God’s arms.
If you want to turn someone away from God forever, start blaming them for what the clergy did to them. Watch them wilt. Watch them blame God. Watch them learn that nowhere is safe for them, not even the church. Yes, you might see them leave and think you were right all along, it just proved they weren’t as spiritual as you. But all you actually did was kill a soul.
If you don’t know how to provide the support the victim needs, get them in touch with professionals and be supportive of it. You probably need to get them in touch with professionals even if you think you know how to provide support.
5. Above all, keep church safe.
The local congregation needs to be a sanctuary, a safe-haven for the hurting and broken. It is not to be a place that causes more hurt and brokenness. In fact, that principle itself is what causes a great deal of confusion when Clergy Sexual Misconduct happens. The victims, thinking they are in a safe place, start to doubt their own feelings of what is inappropriate because trusted spiritual leaders are leading the way in to sin.
We need to work to keep churches safe. That is what the other four principles are about. I know that is going to be hard because if a church is doing its job, it is going to be attracting sinners. Sinners do bad things even in the church. But we need to go out of our way to provide safety for members. That means providing a safe place to confess their sins. That means providing a safe place to be broken and find helpful counsel. That means providing a safe place to express hurt that has happened between one another.
Keep it safe.
Satan is attacking us. He is attacking churches. There are all manner of sides to this and we must lean on God that Satan doesn’t destroy us at any side of these attacks. We must not stand in arrogance as if we cannot sin. We must not neglect forgiveness when even the vilest of sinners repents. We must not sweep an epidemic under the rug as if it is not really a problem. Let’s stand up and fight. Through God, we will win.