By Brad Hambrick
This is the first of a three-part series in which we will be providing guidance on how to respond if a church leader is abusive in their role as pastor or ministry leader. We are providing unique guidance for situations like:
– A pastor or staff member is in some way abusive towards their direct reports or volunteers
– A staff member or volunteer molests a child or teenager under their ministry care.
– A pastor engaged in sexual activity with a staff member or congregant.
Note: The power differential between a church leader and church member makes the consent language of “having an affair with” inaccurate in most cases. This would be like saying a therapist had an affair with a client or college professor with a student. The more accurate language is “sexualized abuse of power.”
What is the main difference when an offense is by a church leader? It is intensely personal. This is our friend and colleague. What happens when things are personal? We ask personal rather than procedural questions.
We want to start by grounding our response in the same decision making system we have been outlining for the last ten lessons. Our first questions are not, “How could you do this? Why didn’t I see it? Why didn’t you tell me? What are we going to do with the fallout?” These are personal questions.
We start by asking two basic questions and with one underlying assumption:
Question One: Did the offenses in this situation have any criminal element? If anything in the offense was potentially criminal, these actions need to be handled according the guidance in question two. The standard is “potentially criminal” because the church is not an investigative body, it is a redemptive community.
Question Two: Were the victims in this situation adults or minors? If minors were harmed, then reporting to CPS is the next step. If adults were harmed, the victim has the legal right to choose when and if legal action is in their best interest. The next step for the church would be to connect the victim with a counselor experienced helping victims in the area of offense to help them discern how they would like to proceed.
Both the victim and counselor should be informed that the church will support whatever decision a victim makes regarding pressing relevant legal charges. The counselor should not be on the church staff or a member of the church in order to prevent a bias from influencing advisements about what is best for the victim.
Assumption: We do not know everything we need to know. Rarely does all the relevant information come to light when a crisis initially breaks. Too often in crises churches take the intense emotions of remorse from the person they know well as validation of the words, “I’ve told you everything. I promise.”
The assistance provided in the early stages of any crisis is merely triage care with the expectation that additional information will come to light, which will in turn change what the care plan should be.
This article is adapted from Becoming a Church that Cares Well for the Abused. Access this free training at ChurchCares.com.
*Please note the curriculum is not intended to be legal counsel or to provide holistic training for counseling or pastoral care on the issue of abuse but is an accessible tutorial on how to respond with pastoral and ethical excellence. The curriculum gives a theological foundation for the topic, brings understanding on the issues connected to abuse disclosure and reporting, and gives practical wisdom by which leaders can navigate complex situations.
Brad Hambrick serves as the Pastor of Counseling at The Summit Church in Durham, North Carolina.