For many, the church is synonymous with the concept of “sanctuary”—a place of hope, safety, and healing. These guidelines can help your church to become a sanctuary for survivors of sexual abuse, violence, and harassment to heal and a partner in preventing sexual abuse and assault. Your willingness to voice your support for survivors and listen to their stories with compassion sends a clear message of hope to people who are on a journey of recovery.
These guidelines were compiled to resource churches and individuals who signed the We Are Speaking statement committing to speak up and work together to end sexual violence, abuse, and harassment. Here, they have been adapted and updated for broader use.
Engaging in Conversations about Trauma and Abuse
Your willingness to voice your support for survivors and listen to their stories with compassion sends a clear message of hope to people who are on a journey of recovery.
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. Sharing a traumatic experience can be re-traumatizing for survivors and even lead to secondary trauma for those who are listening. But in an environment of trust and safety, processing traumatic experiences with others can be a restorative and healing step.
Create a safe and hospitable environment for the conversation.
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.
Ensure you have clear protocols in place for abuse reporting and prevention.
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. Here’s a list of resources we recommend for developing your safe church policy, including sample policies.
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.
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.
Addressing Sexual Abuse and Violence in a Worship Service
Many churches are reluctant to address these painful topics in worship. But when the church addresses harassment, abuse, and sexual violence with care in the context of worship, we enter into the work of healing in Christ.
It’s important to make your worship feel like a safe place for people who have experienced sexual assault or abuse to share their stories and heal. These guidelines will help you acknowledge and speak against sexual assault and abuse in your worship in a way that supports the healing of those who have experienced it.
Provide advance warning about the focus of your service.
For survivors, a service that addresses sexual violence may bring to the surface painful memories and/or the reliving of traumatic experiences. Provide advance notice of the service so that survivors are prepared and able to decide if attending such a service will be helpful or harmful to them.
Consider whether children will be present during the service.
Services of worship are unique from many other settings because a wide variety of ages may be present. If you are planning something for your regular morning worship service, be mindful of young children when describing details. It may be best to use generalizations rather than specific instances of violence, which could be troubling to young children. Whether your service will be during regular morning worship or at a separate time, provide advance notice of the topics that will be addressed so that parents may decide whether it will be appropriate for their children to attend.
Be careful about how you advertise your service.
Survivors may be concerned that their abusers will learn of the service and will attempt to interfere or find them. So be mindful of how you publicize an event like this if you decide to encourage people who don’t normally worship with you to come.
Consider having a counselor or counselors available.
Memories of past and traumatic experiences can be unpredictable. One or more people may find themselves in need of a trained listening professional during or after the service.
Know your policies.
All staff and volunteers should be aware of and know how to implement the church’s or ministry setting’s policies for reporting abuse and for prevention. Who are the mandatory reporters? If your church or ministry setting does not yet have policies for abuse prevention and reporting, make sure you begin the process of creating and adopting them.
Prepare your worship space to be as hospitable for survivors as you can.
Think about what your space needs to help survivors to feel safe sharing their stories.
- If your worship space has chairs, how are they oriented? Where are the doors to the worship space?
- Have tissues available and trained listeners ready. Consider having a place prepared for a participant who needs to step away into a safe space for a moment, if need be.
- Are boundaries in place? Survivors of abuse may have repressed memories or have specific experiences they do not wish to talk about. Do not press for details. Allow each person to choose how much of their story to share.
Preventing and responding to sexual abuse and harassment
Preventing sexual abuse and taking steps to help your community become safer and heal are important parts of supporting survivors and pivotal for all of your ministry to thrive.
In your church
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.
In your community
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Eliza Cortés Bast
Eliza Cortés Bast previously worked as coordinator for Local Missional Engagement and special projects for the Reformed Church in America.
April Fiet is copastor of First Presbyterian Church of Scottsbluff, Nebraska. April is an integral part of the Reformed Church in America's Women's Transformation and Leadership ministry. She serves on the ministry's guiding coalition, as a theological and social media consultant, and as the main editor of the Building God's Church Together resources. She blogs at At the Table with April Fiet.