In my last post, I set the groundwork for today’s piece, framing the problem. Today, I want to consider our response. How can our churches be safe places for survivors like me, even those who will never disclose their stories?
1. Talk about it.
I know this can be tricky, especially if children attend your worship services. But there are ways to bring this up – discussing topics like consent, victim blaming, respect for each other’s bodies, and so on – without saying the word rape. And if you’re a church leader, you can talk about it in survivor-supportive ways on social media where younger kids shouldn’t be lurking.
(And? You can set up different friend lists on Facebook so that you have an adult-only audience if you’d like. I did that back when I was a youth leader, knowing I share about issues that the parents of my middle school girls would rather I not put in their daughters’ feeds.)
2. Believe us.
Three words carry great power for survivors. “I believe you.” Say them. Mean them. And don’t follow them up with “but…”
3. Give us permission to feel whatever we feel.
God isn’t uncomfortable with lament, so we shouldn’t be either. Some things deserve outrage. Some things need to be grieved. Join us in that outrage, and mourn with those who mourn.
Sometimes we’ll feel other things too. Sometimes those feelings will confuse us. Sometimes they’ll bring shame. Let us feel deeply whatever we’re feeling, without telling us we should feel something different.
4. Connect us to therapeutic resources.
If you’re not trained in counseling sexual abuse survivors – and most pastors and other church leaders aren’t – be humble enough to admit that. Don’t try to do what you’re not trained to do. Several years ago, I was being counseled by my pastor weekly for some personal issues when I first disclosed the rapes from my past. He immediately recognized the limitations of his training. With gentleness and love, he identified a more trained mental health professional who could better serve my needs, and I began meeting with that therapist instead. The transition was hard, but it was exactly what I needed.
5. Trust that our lives aren’t ruined.
If you stop to think about it, declaring our future to be hopeless isn’t consistent with biblical theology. Last week I saw post after post talking about how the Stanford rapist only got six months while his victim got “a life sentence.” No. Her life isn’t ruined, and neither was mine.
6. Don’t sing songs to a heavy heart (Proverbs 25:20).
We need to hear hope, yes. But please don’t try to wrap pretty bows on our messy packages. Dwell in discomfort with us instead of making yourself feel more comfortable with platitudes. Feel with us. Hurt with us. Weep with us. There are times when “I’m so sorry” is far more compassionate than “God works all things to the good of those who love him,” even though the latter is true. And there are times when presence and proximity are better gifts than any words you might offer.
7. Be aware that pain shows up in hard ways sometimes.
Self injury. Addiction. People pleasing. Promiscuity. Please care first and more about the hurt in our hearts than the actions it’s fueling. That behavior can’t change – not effectively – until we’re healing. Until then, the pain is going to go somewhere. We need you not to turn away from us when it shows up in hard ways.
8, Remind us that it was never our fault.
If you haven’t lived through this darkness, you might be surprised to hear that we might blame ourselves. Many of us do. This shame is so pervasive that part of the diagnostic criteria for PTSD is persistent distorted cognitions about the cause or consequences of the traumatic event that lead the individual to blame oneself. Even those who aren’t formally diagnosed with PTSD may feel this way. Tell us we didn’t deserve it. Tell us it was never our fault. Tell us the blame isn’t ours to bear.
9. Understand that some theological wording can wound us.
I know I’m entering treacherous territory here. Please understand that I’m not encouraging you to change your theology. Instead, I’m challenging you to consider how you present it, knowing that the statistics on sexual assault indicate that survivors are in your congregation. Specifically,
- When you talk about sexual purity, consider how your words might land on our ears. I heard a pastor talk about how you can only offer the gift of your virginity once and felt like I’d have nothing to offer my future spouse. I listened to teachers use metaphors of chewed up sticks of gum and used pieces of tape to represent those who had sex before marriage, and I’m sure they didn’t consider how that felt for girls like me (or anyone who had chosen to have sex, for that matter). I sat through a few Bible study lessons in which girls were told that boys couldn’t control themselves if we didn’t help them by dressing modestly, and each time I tried to figure out how I could have been more modest to avoid what happened.
- If you preach about how we all deserve hell, understand that we might already believe that for all the wrong reasons. Another part of the diagnostic criteria for PTSD is persistent and exaggerated negative beliefs or expectations about one’s self. A gospel message that starts with telling us how sinful we are might feel like more like a confirmation of our own self-loathing than the beginning of any good news.
- When you talk about God’s sovereignty, do so in a way that acknowledges the hard questions that raises for many survivors. Why did God allow this? Why didn’t he intervene? Can I trust a God who could have rescued me from my rape but didn’t? You don’t have to directly address all those questions – and I’d argue that none of us can fully answer them – but be aware of how we wrestle with the idea of an omnipotent God governing our most powerless moments.
And one more: “God never gives you more than you can handle.” Just don’t go there. That’s not sound theology for anyone.
10. Consider how we’re listening when you talk about sexual sin.
No, our assaults weren’t sinful on our end. But our shame (see #8) lies to us sometimes. When you talk about sexual sin as despicable, we’re listening. And for those of us who showed our pain through promiscuity (refer back to #7), we might not be completely innocent. But? We need grace, not condemnation. When Christ met sinners, he extended mercy instead of shoveling shame.
I know this post was a heavy one. My last one was too. But ministry is messy. If we aren’t willing to engage with heavy topics like these, then we’re leaving survivors to carry them all on their own. And I don’t think that’s what God designed for us to do as the church, do you?
Key Ministry encourages our readers to check out the resources we've developed to help pastors, church leaders, volunteers and families to better understand the nature of trauma in children and teens, Jolene Philo's series on PTSD in children, and series on other mental health-related topics, including series on the impact of ADHD, anxiety and Asperger's Disorder on spiritual development in kids, depression in children and teens, pediatric bipolar disorder, and ten strategies for promoting mental health inclusion at church.