Abuse. The word is so ugly that we want to believe it could never happen in our church. But it does—in every denomination, including ours.
Adults are the victims of some abuse. More often, however, children are the targets. Child abuse refers to any act committed by a parent, caregiver, or person in a position of trust that is not accidental and that harms or threatens to harm a child's physical health, mental health, or welfare.
What can pastors do to reduce the potential for abuse in their congregations? While the following list is not exhaustive, it lays down some concrete objectives and identifies some potential danger signals. Your input is invited and will be shared in the future.
• Recognize that abuse has many forms. Sexual abuse by clergy is the most obvious, as its horror has captured recent media attention. Other types of abuse also infect the church. Verbal abuse harms its victims at the time of occurrence and later leads them to cope by withdrawing from reality or seeking various escapes. Physical abuse scars more than the body; it places at risk the healthy development of self-esteem. Long after physical bruises disappear, the ability to form nonviolent healthy relationships remains damaged.
Manipulative and controlling behavior reduces an individual's capacity to choose for himself/herself or to function adequately without dictatorial directives. Neglect, whether physical, emotional, or educational, deprives a child of the basic components for development. Remember, any type of emotional abuse traumatizes just as surely as if the body were beaten rather than the psyche.
• Believe victims who report abuse to the church. Children's reports of abuse are rarely fictional. Child victims are incapable of describing what they have not experienced. Treat any reports of abuse as valid and seek instant and competent treatment.
• Avoid abuse-friendly environments. Abusers depend upon secrecy. They must be held responsible for their criminal actions. Do not bargain to conceal their violence because they promise to reform. Do not confuse forgiveness with tolerance. Do not participate in a cover-up. Demand instant protection for the abused and accountability for perpetrators.
• Use community resources. Network with those who manage community agencies. Keep a list of counselors to whom you can refer. Meet law-enforcement officials before tragedy strikes. Consider asking a judge or supervisor from the family services judiciary to present a preventive workshop for your church and school boards. Affirm and support those who legally protect victims.
• Know your volunteers. Provide the best leaders for youth and children. Establish references for volunteers. Long-term members will have developed a reputation in your community. New comers should readily provide references from other churches. Check their references. Use only in pairs supervisors for campouts, day care, VBS, and field trips.
• Preach justice. Always uphold God's ideal for believers to hate evil, love good, establish justice (see Amos 5:15). Lift up Jesus in your preaching as the model for how to treat others. Preach the gospel to the poor. Heal the brokenhearted. Preach deliverance to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and set at liberty those who are oppressed (see Luke 4:18).
• Teach children simple survival tactics. Three safety rules for every child are: Say no! Get away fast! Tell someone! Instruct children never to keep secrets from their parents or teachers and that being asked to do so is wrong. Children are not responsible for helping strangers look for a lost pet or an address, etc.
• Provide educational resources. Be proactive by sharing educational mate rial such as the insert in this magazine. Other types of educational brochures, films, discussion papers, and study guides can increase awareness of the problem and reduce tolerance for abusers.
• Lead by example. Does your walk match your talk? Do your actions carry the same message as your sermons? If you verbally or emotionally abuse your spouse or children, seek professional help and the power of the Holy Spirit to gain victory. If you use your power to manipulate people, rethink your leadership style and seek to change. If you, tragically, are involved in sexual misconduct of any kind, remove yourself from ministry and seek rehabilitation.
In summary, always reflect the pastoral care Jesus would provide to His people.