You’d think the church would be the last place where abuse would be ignored, but, regrettably, that’s not the case, as the #ChurchToo movement has shown. Even knowing the statistics on abuse within churches, it’s a shock when you find out one of your own members or leaders has abused someone in your church family.
In this conversation, Rosaria Butterfield, Melissa Kruger, and Trillia Newbell talk about how to be prepared if someone comes to you with a revelation of abuse, and how to overcome the shock of the moment to readily offer comfort and protection. All three women agree that police should be notified of any accusation of sexual abuse. Rosaria Butterfield recounts a recent conversation in which a woman requested prayer for an ongoing abuse situation: “I said, ‘Well, let’s call the police first, and then let’s pray.'”
Too often, the pain of abuse has been intensified when church members or leaders respond to abuse revelations inadequately. We can’t always prevent abuse from happening, but we can prepare ourselves to respond—to do the right thing right away—when we discover there have been wolves amid the flock.
- The FAQs: Investigative Report Uncovers Sexual Abuse in Southern Baptist Churches
- 4 Reasons Survivors of Abuse Stay Silent
- Pastor, Preach Like Hurt Women Are Listening
Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition Podcast.
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Melissa Kruger: One of the more painful things I think we’ve seen in the past year or two coming out in culture is this #MeToo moment that has started this tidal wave of sharing of experiences. And this is of women who have been abused all across America in different settings and we’ve seen it.
And, unfortunately, I think we’ve seen it in such a painful place as well, which is the church. And I don’t think there’s probably any more painful place to experience the hurt of abuse than when you feel it and it comes from the church. And so, how, if you’re sitting down with a woman, do you talk to her if she has experienced abuse in the church?
What do you say to her when you’re sitting around discussing this? Such a tough topic because the church is supposed to be our home and the place that we’re cared for and loved. And so, when it becomes a place of abuse, how do we interact with women on that?
Rosaria Butterfield: Yeah, that’s such a good question. And I think there are a lot of different points of view in that question that needs to be dealt with.
So, if a woman comes to you and the abuse is happening right now, that needs to be dealt with immediately.
Trillia Newbell: Absolutely.
Butterfield: And as, you know, as pastors’ wives, you know, we have a privilege and a responsibility to very quickly get to the right people at the right time.
And I think this is hard for the church to hear sometimes, but fairly recently, I was sitting down with a woman and she wanted to pray with me about a case of abuse in the church. And when I found out that it was going on now, that she had talked to the people within the church that no one was… I said, “Well, let’s call the police first and then let’s pray.”
Which I know might sound, you know, like, “Oh,” you know, but the civil magistrate must be involved in those moments. And so, one of the things we might want to think about is how to get out of that cultural sentiment that says, “People will betray you, Jesus never will. Suck it up,”you know, that sort of thing. So, we need to know when to get the civil magistrate involved. We also need to be… And I think this is really where you all are super strong. We need to be in such regular discipling of the women in our church that emergency counseling doesn’t throw us for this major loop. See, because people will share it with you what’s on their heart.
This is a huge burden. And Melissa, as you said it, the betrayal from the church, it’s one of Satan’s biggest claims. And we stand with people who have been victimized. And then we have to help people not stay there.
But if the civil magistrate needs to get involved, make that phone call while you’re sitting there.
Newbell: Right. Absolutely. And I think we need to, even as we’re discussing this, define the term. So we are talking about sexual abuse.
And if someone comes to me, I agree 100%, immediately, go to the police, make sure that they are involved. Another thing that I think is missing is training in this, that we are discipled in how to deal with these and how to handle abuse cases. So, I think we need to make sure that our churches are places that have policies established and that they’re being communicated so that if someone does come to you, you, me, anyone listening, that they know the steps that they need to take, which, one, is authority.
They probably need to involve other people. Pastors need to make sure that they’re involving a woman. They need to go make sure that counselors are involved. There’s so much that needs to happen, that needs to be laid out so that it isn’t a confusing thing. It isn’t something that you’re trying to react to that, but that you’re already prepared for.
And so, that is one of the things that I just have a burden for for the church that we are in this #MeToo, but we’re in a #ChurchToo season as well. And so, prepare and be ready.
Butterfield: Well, and that’s key. That’s key. Because what we want anyone who’s being victimized to know is that church membership is your best ally.
So, if you are, say, let’s move and get out of the sexual abuse but into physical abuse in a marriage. If you are being physically abused in your marriage and you are a covenant member of our church, the elders are going to be your firewall. So, the most dangerous place to be, actually, is to have, Jesus, my imaginary friend.
Church is, you know, I don’t want to be a member, you know… Church membership is your firewall against abuse because you, and I, and Melissa, we are members of our churches in good standing. This is not a family membership. It’s my protection. And so, not only do we want to communicate that, we want to make sure that that is true in our churches.
Newbell: Yeah, absolutely. And then the last thing I’d say is just that if someone comes to me or with…I want to make sure that I don’t act shocked.
Butterfield: Oh, yes. Thank you for saying that. I guess we’re just like, “Yeah, right.”
Newbell: Yeah. Right. –
Kruger: We’ve heard it before. I mean, you know, and painfully so.
Newbell: Yes. And we don’t want to shame someone who’s been victimized.
Kruger: But if you’re holding it so tightly because they think, “I’m the only one.”
Newbell: Right. Yeah.
So we want to make sure that we have environments that are gracious so that people can come with very broken, hard stories, abuse, whatever it is. So, we don’t want to act shocked or be shocked, but we want to lovingly care for them, listen, and then take action where action’s needed.
Kruger: Yes. And I think it’s important as you were even talking about in defining terms. Even if in the church, you feel like uncomfortable comments were made to you, because it’s probably not just you that these comments were made that are very inappropriate and you’re thinking, “Did I do something wrong? Was it my fault?” We, as women, sometimes think, “It’s my fault he said that to me.”
No. No. You know, and if he’s saying it to you, he may be saying it to someone else and it may be pulling someone in. And so, to even create spaces where that can be talked about… One thing I do with our women, we have a women’s kickoff every year where we explain our women’s ministry. And one thing I said this year, and it was one of the times the room got silent, I said, “If there is abuse going on, we want you to know this is a safe place.We have women you can talk to. In any form, if it’s happening at your work, but especially if it’s ever happening here. We have people who can talk to you.” So, just that communication, that the church should be a safe place…
Newbell: It’s essential.
Kruger: Yes. Yes. And I think if we can offer that to women, just a communication, sometimes that’s missing, it can make them say, “Oh, there is someone I can talk to.I am not alone. This should be the place I feel most protected,” you know.
Butterfield: That’s right. From cradle to the grave.
Kruger: From these things. And so…
Butterfield: I would say when we say that, we need to show it by having relational downtime with people because there is no way that if I’m in a compromised position and we’re having a women’s tea, and I’m a mess, and my surroundings are beautiful, that I’m going to go to you and say, “Melissa, let me interrupt this beautiful moment to tell you something that’s going to make you cry.”
So, we need to have relational time that isn’t so programmatic.
Newbell: I agree…
Butterfield: That people feel as though somehow their lives are an interruption. We want to communicate to our sisters in the church that there is no such thing as an interruption.
That when we share the truth that brings a level of integrity, and meaning, and purpose, it also allows the gospel to shine. It allows Jesus to be our victor and we’re not too busy.
Newbell: No. Amen. –
Kruger: Absolutely. So, creating those spaces, saying, “We are here,” I just think these things are so important. And then just being willing to tell women what happened to you was wrong.
Newbell: That’s right.
Kruger: It was wrong. And it is not your fault that someone else abused you.
I mean, I think that’s just this important message we can share when we’re dealing with abuse in the church.
Butterfield: That’s right.
And sometimes we need to share that message with that woman’s husband, that woman’s children, you know, abuse isn’t an isolated issue. Everyone in the immediate circle is…
Butterfield: Is affected powerfully. And this moment matters.
How we deal with this moment might matter in the most crucial way for that woman’s 15-year-old son.
Kruger: So, our hope is the church will be a place of healing.
Together: Yes. Amen.