Protecting Your Church From Sexual Abuse
Editor’s note: The following does not constitute legal advice, as the writer is not a licensed advisor on sexual abuse prevention. The Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma suggests readers visit MinistrySafe.com for legal consultation to help churches and other ministries reduce the risk of sexual abuse.
Like many of you, I was shocked and deeply saddened by the Houston Chronicle’s three-part exposé on sexual abuse within Southern Baptist churches. My heart breaks for the victims, their families and the echoes of suffering these survivors face daily. I hate anything that gives Christ a black eye and this revelation of sin within His bride—the church—is dreadful.
While the disclosure from the Houston Chronicle is thorough and justified, research has opened a wound for our churches. I have been grateful to God for the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) in their responses. Instead of denial or public relations gymnastics, they have embraced the news with resolve, compassion, repentance and justice.
SBC churches are autonomous in our governance. While leadership can form policies, practices and other proactive measures, the responsibility of protection lands at the local church level.
Admittedly, many of our local churches are unprepared or overwhelmed by the sense of duty and desire to protect the least of these in our midst from the depravity of sexual abuse. For churches at the local level wondering where to start, I offer four ways to help protect your church from sexual abuse.
Meaningful membership has caused debate and discussion amongst local churches. Southern Baptists have historically offered an aisle of invitation and a welcome hand to receive those who desire to come and unite with our local bodies as church members. This is a vital and important part of our local church practice.
However, Scripturally, at the minimum, a church member is someone who is a surrendered follower of the Lord Jesus Christ. They are someone who has publicly made a profession of faith through baptism and shows the fruit of repentance as a sign that the Holy Spirit indeed lives and works within them. Do you know this is true about your church members?
Membership in our churches, in most cases, should be a baseline pre-requisite for serving in the body—particularly with children or youth. Knowing our members come from different backgrounds before conversion and struggle with various aspects of depravity, someone in leadership should know not only that a member is trusting and believing the Gospel, but whether or not they are qualified to lead, teach or protect in a service capacity. At minimum, this requires a background check and training of some sort if someone desires to serve in one of these areas.
Membership in our churches must be more than a name on a roll. Membership must mean certain things for our churches. While unfortunate, church members can certainly be the ones through whom sexual abuse comes. We owe it to our flocks to guard the front gate with diligence, care and proactive measures to keep wolves from entering with the sheep.
Build Bridges With Local Law Enforcement
God may have placed someone in local law enforcement in your church family. If so, use them as a resource to learn not only what to do if abuse is reported, but also what signs to look for, and what procedures to implement in order to protect the church family from abuse.
If you do not have a local law enforcement officer in your church, call your local police department and ask pointed questions. Build relational bridges between the church and local law enforcement to know whom to call, when to call and how to protect your church from sexual abusers.
Evaluate Practices and Procedures
Practices and procedures are only as good as their continual application. If you don’t have written practices and procedures in place, form a team, do the research, involve law enforcement, craft a document, thoroughly communicate it, then communicate it some more.
If you do have a document, regularly assess how it is being followed and implemented in your church. Evaluate your practices and procedures with the idea that someone will try to maneuver through them in order to sexually abuse a young one in your midst. That is a difficult idea to stomach, but assuming no one will target your church will lead to sloppy practices and open doors for abuse.
We want to be open to anyone seeking to turn from their sin and run to new life in Christ. However, to anyone approaching our facilities or activities with a desire to harm, our preparation in advance should sternly warn them that our programs and facilities are not safe places for their strategies.
Create An Open Culture For All
The message of the Gospel is a call for the broken and oppressed to come find new life in Jesus by rejecting their old ways of sin and depravity and embracing new life in Christ empowered by the Spirit. Our churches must create a culture that embraces this Gospel call for everyone.
Every Sunday morning, in our congregations, there are those who have been victims of sexual abuse as well as those who are in danger of becoming victims through a variety of avenues. Do those people know they can and should open up to church leadership about sexual abuse? Does your church have a culture of openness and honesty about our depraved nature and broken world? We must continually sound the call for openness, dialogue and healing through the cross of Christ. Our people must know that our churches are safe spaces for talking about abuse.
Something that may be difficult to consider about God’s call for sinners to new life in Christ is that each week in our congregations, there are also likely those who have either been the abuser or are in danger of becoming an abuser. Do they know the Gospel is for them too? Do they know that the church is a safe place for openness, accountability and growth away from a life of sin? Of course, proper procedures and practices must safeguard our churches, but we must also be willing to walk with those who feel they may have disqualified themselves from the blood of Christ due to depravity in their present or past. Jesus’s blood is enough to cover every sin.
Clearly, we in the SBC—from elected leadership to membership—have failed to take seriously the necessity of proactive and effective measures to prevent child abuse and protect those who suffer in its wake. For that, we must continue to extend compassion, repentance and due diligence in every area.
I wish I could say that employing these strategies will 100 percent safeguard your church from sexual abuse. Yet on this side of heaven, no organization, group, facility or structure is immune from the effects of sin. But may our diligence reflect our desire for Christ to be exalted in our local church bodies. May we receive the weakest among us as we would receive Christ Himself.
Let us prepare with love, care and determination that as far as it depends on us, nothing will get in the way of our declaring the good news of Jesus Christ to those in our midst.