5 Ways the Church Hurts and Helps Victims of Sexual Violence

I was raised going to church. As a child, I felt profoundly at home in a sanctuary. That is, until age 20, when I became the victim of a violent crime. Armed men broke into the house I shared with my college roommates and raped us. Of course I was devastated. Desolate. What’s more, my faith community failed me. My very presence in the sanctuary seemed to make people uncomfortable. I had become a walking reminder of sexual violence. So to give everyone around me a break, I stopped going to church.

But I missed church. I missed the singing and the coffee hour. I missed hearing the gospel read aloud. I missed sharing the Lord’s Supper. So I found my way back to another church, in another denomination. To my great surprise, my new pastor encouraged me to enroll in seminary, and eventually I became an ordained minister. Now I’m committed to helping churches be more effective in their ministries for victims of sexual violence.

Here are five things your church may be doing that hurt victims, without intending the harm. Keep reading for five parallel suggestions for ways your church can help instead.

Five Ways that Churches Can (Unintentionally) Hurt Victims of Sexual Violence

1. Sermons rarely acknowledge the reality of sexual violence.

This fact is not surprising. After all, people generally avoid talking about painful subjects. Some people think that a presentation of the gospel should be entirely light-filled. Why descend into a dark place like sexual violence? Because the gospel can reach into the hidden corners where people live. Statistics confront us with the reality that many people experience sexual violence in some form, whether by child abuse, incest, rape, sexual assault or intimate-partner violence. To ignore these facts shortchanges the gospel and its power to minister to victims.

2. Church counselors often treat victims as problems to be solved.

Unless the church leader has had special training, many common approaches to helping can serve to deepen the harm that a victim has experienced. For instance, a listener may be seized with a response to the victim’s story. After all, many of these stories are very triggering. It’s easier to go into problem-solving mode than it is to truly listen. The victim may experience this as the church being DIM (denying, ignoring and minimizing). Sometimes a listener’s questions can take on a tone of interrogation or fault finding. The faulty reasoning is simple: if the victim is to blame, then the problem is solved.

3. Referrals are often too-“Christianized” versions of resources and counseling.

The Christian subculture likes to create silos that stand apart from the larger culture. While there may be a place for some “Christianized” resources, Christian counseling centers often have lower standards and less-qualified employees than their secular counterparts. For victims, this represents a significant risk. There is much at stake. Words like healing and forgiveness can be employed too soon. Bible verses and prayer can be dispensed like Band-Aids. Victims need skillful handling by people experienced with treating trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder.

4. Corporate worship often ignores the rich resources of the Scriptures of lament.

Most Christians have a favorite Scripture text, and church leaders are no exception. People often choose passages that offer “uplift.” Yet, Scripture has a strong tradition of lament, which is the expression of grief and sorrow. These verses speak to a common, deeply-felt aspect of the human condition. Passages of lament should not be brushed aside in order to get to the happy ending. All of Scripture has value for the body of Christ.

5. Bible study often implies that a victim can find a fix in personal piety.

Victims are often given the message that they can fix their condition by becoming better Christians. Pray harder. Spend more quiet time with God. Memorize certain Scriptures. Focus on helping others. Forgive the molester, rapist or abuser. Once fixed, the victim can go back to being a “good” Christian. Of course, this implies that the victim will be silent about the trauma she or he has endured. Too often, silence is interpreted as the measure of success.

Churches that truly care about victims will attempt to open their eyes to how their “help” for victims is being received. What fruit does it bear? Here are some ways to be more sensitive to the needs of victims.

Five Ways that Churches Can (Intentionally) Help Victims of Sexual Violence

1. Sermons can regularly acknowledge the reality of sexual violence.

Church leaders can be educated about the prevalence of sexual violence, including child abuse, incest, rape, sexual assault and intimate-partner violence. These words and statistics can be spoken from the pulpit, in both announcements and sermons. The preacher can address all types of abuse and condemn it as antithetical to the gospel. The congregation can annually observe a significant date such as Sexual Assault Awareness Month (April) and Domestic Violence Awareness Month (October).

2. Counselors can respond to victims with appropriate listening skills.

Church leaders can undergo training to become better listeners. They can provide the congregation with small-group opportunities where it is safe to tell painful stories without feeling judged. Church leaders can learn to resist DIM (denying, ignoring and minimizing) thinking. They can also look for opportunities to respond pastorally in worship settings, creating rituals of lamentation and restoration.

3. Referrals can be made to excellent professional counseling.

Church leaders can resist the urge to create counseling centers that are silos that do not meet current professional standards. Church leaders can vet counselors and establish working relationships with them, so they can be called upon to respond confidentially to victims of trauma. The field of trauma work is exploding, and there is much to be gained from staying abreast of current research and methods.

4. Corporate worship can embrace the rich resources of the Scriptures of lament.

When the body of Christ gathers, it uses Scripture to frame and understand its experience, both individually and communally. Sexual victimization—and its ensuing devastation—is not a new human experience. The church can draw on lamentation such as that in Psalm 44:23-26:

Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever! Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression? For our soul is bowed down to the dust; our belly clings to the ground. Rise up; come to our help! Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love!

5. Bible study can draw on the resources of both Testaments, with a focus on justice making.

Group Bible studies can be offered that draw on the breadth of Scripture. Scripture passages can help victims acknowledge pain and trauma, yet receive the hope of consolation. The Hebrew Scriptures include multiple accounts of rape, such as Dinah (Genesis 34) and Tamar (2 Samuel 13:1-22). The gospels include Jesus’ tender interactions with women dealing with typically “female” concerns: the women with the hemorrhage (Mark 5:21-34), the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-42) and the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53–8:11).

Our Lord Jesus, who is the head of his body, the church, has gifted us with many resources. Let’s dare to risk discomfort for the sake of ministering to victims of sexual violence.

Order Ruth’s memoir, Ruined, from Amazon.com »

Ruth Everhart is an ordained Presbyterian pastor who has been serving the church for more than 25 years. A frequent speaker and blogger, Ruth and her husband currently live in the Washington, D.C., area. Ruth’s memoir, Ruined, releases from Tyndale House Publishers in August 2016.