Safeguarding Against Abuse In the Church

by Jared C. Wilson March 30, 2015

It seems that every week brings more stories of abuse occurring on church premises. We are hearing about this more and more, and there should be no doubt that the problem is actually more prevalent than what we see reported. And quite often in retrospect these cases reveal not simply mistakes made but systemic dysfunctions in a church community and a church's discipleship culture. Below is a list of safeguards: some are obvious bare minimums, others are harder to implement and run deeper than superficial processes and procedures, but all are ways to help establish a church community as a safe place.

1. All employees and all childcare and youth volunteers, or anyone else who has regular contact with children in the church or as a representative of the church, ought to undergo a criminal background check as thoroughly as possible. It will also help if volunteers in these areas are required to be members of the church, assuming membership in a church entails clear communication about covenant responsibilities and church discipline.

2. A church should have a membership structure and a church should exercise church discipline.

3. Churches ought to have a "safe sanctuary" policy in place. Get consultation with an outside firm if necessary, but have a thorough, thoughtful plan in place that "intentionalizes" safety for children and others at risk. This plan should also include processes and procedures if a known sex offender or abuser wants to attend the church.

4. Every officer in the church should have real accountability. To elders, to the congregation, to real people with real authority in the church body, and to a network or denominational board outside the local body if the church is part of one. And this must be real accountability, real authority, not figureheads or "yes men." They should be a part of a community group. Church officers, including pastors, must be able to be dismissed, and it must not be inordinately difficult to do so.

5. It must be taught to pastors and counselors that confidentiality is a matter of discernment. Pastors are not priests or lawyers or doctors. They are not bound to confidentiality, nor should they be if someone is in danger. In matters of abuse, it must be taught that confidentiality should be employed only if it genuinely protects a victim, not simply because it will protect a church's reputation or alternately out of some spiritualized fear of hurting an abuser. Pastors and leaders should be clear on what the mandatory reporting laws are in their areas too. In many cases, confidentiality is simply not an option.

6. On that note, we must educate our church what grace is, what repentance is, what forgiveness is, and what reconciliation is. What do they look like? We must understand that the gospel is often a severe mercy to abusers, even genuinely repentant ones, and so it means consequences—disciplinary in the church, legal outside—and accountability. Too often "grace" for the abuser adds more abuse to his or her victim. But justice can be grace. It is amazing how often churches fail in this regard, pushing for relationships between victims and their abusers, spiritualizing some kind of reconnection as if it honors God when really it is a cheapening of grace and often just a way to sweep events under the church rug. In the kingdom of God, the helpless, the hurting, the trampled on, the abused take precedence. Any truly repentant abuser would agree to that. We must remember that a victim's safety and healing is vastly more important than a church's convenience.

7. A church must be honest about what it can and can't do. Too many churches assume help found outside the church body is by definition "worldly" or that all problems must be handled totally in-house. This is foolishness. A wise church will make use of legal authorities if necessary, qualified and trained biblical counseling services, consultants, etc.

8. The discipleship culture of a church needs transparency and the welcome of grace. It must be a safe place to not be okay. This must be initiated and modeled by those in leadership. If a leader is insular and secretive and un-confessional, if he is not a gracious person or a listening person in the church, he sets a standard for a climate of distrust, secrecy, and fear.

9. A church should make humility a top requirement for leaders. Humility is observable. Look for it. And if it is hard to see in a leader, they should probably not be a leader. Everyone struggles with pride, of course, but leaders with surfacing problems of arrogance or aggression or self-centeredness will always struggle in discerning areas of power and vulnerability, which are very important to sort out in preventing abuse or handling its occurrences. You can't trust an un-humble person to sort through the fallout of abuse occurring under his watch.

10. The preacher should preach against abuse. I'm not saying it ought to be the theme of his ministry, of course, but every Sunday families come into the church service harboring secret sins involving exploitation of the weak and defenseless. Preachers need to bring the fear of God to abusers who may never otherwise be confronted with it. Victims need to know their preacher knows what's happening to them is serious sin, even if he doesn't know it's happening specifically to them. The subject needs to be put out on the table and people need to know where God, and thus the church, stands on abuse.

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