By Sharon Mager and Shelley Mahoney
COLUMBIA, Md.—Pastors and church leaders find themselves dealing with many unexpected and difficult subjects on a daily basis. It seems that every local church will face tumultuous times and difficult issues including divorce, addictions, finances, family troubles and many other problems throughout its existence. Without question, however, there are two challenges so painful that most churches specifically pray they never need to deal with them: domestic violence and sexual abuse, both in the home and in the church.
With the rise of the #MeToo movement and the moral fall of several prominent pastors nationwide, churches are becoming more and more aware of the secret sins that lurk within their members – and sometimes within their leadership teams. Many churches have good intentions and desire to handle these sensitive situations in a godly manner, but they are unsure of the processes and preventative measures that can be taken to protect the church and its members.
The Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware (BCM/D) has recognized the importance of this topic and is committed to educating pastors and church leadership about discovering and reporting abuse, as well as counseling and supporting victims in the church body to move towards restoration and healing.
Upon request from pastors in the convention, the BCM/D organized two “With All Purity” panel discussions to tackle the thorny issues of sexual misconduct and abuse of minors and domestic abuse in the church.
First Baptist Church, LaPlata, Md., hosted the first discussion on Aug. 28, with special guest speakers including Police Chief Carl Schinner; Bucas Sterling III, pastor of Kettering Baptist Church, Md., and Zach Schlegel, pastor of First Baptist Church of Upper Marlboro, Md.
The second session was held at the Baptist Center on Oct. 11, with guests Jennifer Ridder, Howard County senior assistant state’s attorney; Kim Cook, executive director of CentrePointe Counseling; and Bucas Sterling III. Kevin Smith, BCM/D executive director, acted as moderator of both events.
Smith shared 1 Tim. 5:1, an often-read verse in the Bible, but encouraged attendees to view these instructions from the Apostle Paul in the context of treating others with respect to avoiding anything resembling abuse. “We do want to think about those things in the light of the environment we are in,” he said.
“The godliness and the purity and the righteousness of male-female interaction is nothing new to followers of Jesus,” Smith said. “We seek to be obedient to our Lord and bring glory to His name.
Smith went on to reference the sons of Issachar, who, in 1 Chronicles 12:32, “understood the times and knew what Israel should do.” Smith emphasized that Christian leaders, too, must know what to do — both from a legal and a pastoral standpoint.
He showed two videos of local pastors to prompt discussion. One of the pastors interviewed in these videos discussed the moment he got an unexpected phone call that led to major consequences. A mother of a young lady in the youth group made allegations of improper behavior against a male chaperone on a missions trip. The pastor admitted that he was naive and did not take the accusations as seriously as he should have at the beginning. It was not until he received similar information from other parents that he realized that true sexual misconduct had occurred and was perpetrated by a young man in his congregation— a member of an established family in the church.
He sadly reported the incident to the authorities, as was mandated. Shortly thereafter, church leaders tried to pressure him. “When my deacons came and told me not to report it, I told them, ‘Well, I’ve already reported it.’ Would I have reported it anyway? Well, I hope so” he said, adding that by going ahead and making that one of the first decisions, it freed him from the pressure that was later applied to do otherwise.
The incident was investigated, and the young man was charged. It impacted the entire church, and a few months later, the pastor was asked to resign just after Christmas. He was given three months to move out of the parsonage. The pastor admitted it was hard on their whole family, but even after enduring these trying events, he does not back down from taking a hard stance on abuse in the church.
What advice would he give others presented with a similar situation? “Take the phone call very, very seriously,” the pastor advised.
The second pastor interviewed on video echoed his sentiment, adding that, “Even if you do struggle, you have no choice. You have to report it. If you don’t, if you try to handle it pastorally on your own, you’re under some legal jeopardy yourself.”
The panel opened up with honest and clear discussion after these videos, outlining many of the state and governmental policies dealing with abuse, including who is mandated to report abuse and how this should occur, establishing boundaries in churches to create safe environments, and how churches can change their language and culture to be more supportive of survivors of abuse.
WHO SHOULD REPORT PHYSICAL/ SEXUAL ABUSE OF A CHILD?
According to Ridder, mandated reporters of abuse in Maryland are health practitioners, police officers, and human service workers. In Delaware, mandated reporters are physicians, persons in the “healing arts,” school employees, medical examiners, hospitals or other health care institutions, the medical society of Delaware, and law enforcement agencies.
When it comes to children under 18 years old, everyone is obligated to report abuse.
Abuse should always be reported, whether it is occurring now or if it happened in the past. If someone states they were abused as a child, that must be reported.
How can a church make the “pass-off” to the authorities when it comes to child abuse? Smith said sometimes churches struggle with making “the call,” feeling the issues should be handled internally, relying on “church discipline,” rather than making the call to authorities regarding abuse. Panelists discussed the correct steps a church should take.
Look for signs of abuse (or rather, a “cluster” of signs). “For example, a clingy child could signify abuse, or it could mean they’re just anxious because they haven’t been away from their parents very often,” said Cook. “However, a child who is clingy, who also has bruises and clams up when asked about their family could point to deeper issues.” Ridder pointed out that children who are abused may touch others inappropriately because they’re told the way they have been abused is “normal.”
If you suspect abuse, make the call right away. “You don’t need proof,” Ridder emphatically explains. “That’s not your job. That’s my job. As soon as you have a reason to believe something took place you don’t have to judge people’s credentials. Don’t make that decision. We do that.”
Abuse should be reported first to Social Services, not the police (as long as no one is in immediate danger). “That’s your first step,” Ridder said bypassing the police and calling social services directly ensures the report gets to the right jurisdiction and personnel. “A report comes into social services and gets assigned to a detective and a social worker, and they do the investigation together. This minimizes repeated interviews of the children,” she said.
Do not open an internal church investigation. “Pease, please, please do not engage in your own investigation. It is doing the victim a disservice, and it’s doing the suspect a disservice,” said Ridder.
WHAT PROCESS OCCURS AFTER A REPORT IS FILED?
Schinner, who — in addition to being a police chief — is a member of a BCM/D church, says that the investigation for reporting abuse follows the same path as all other types of inquiry — it all comes down to “fact-finding.”
Investigators take steps to find the truth, including:
- Verifying that witnesses are credible
- Questioning the suspect
- Finding out if this suspect has abused anyone else
- After the facts are compiled, the information is given to the state’s attorney for guidance on how to proceed.
“Preparing, pre-planning and educating people may prevent a lot of the difficult issues from occurring,” said Schinner. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
HOW SHOULD DOMESTIC VIOLENCE OF AN ADULT (OVER 18) BE HANDLED IN THE CHURCH?
Pastors and church leaders should not report the abuse of an adult to the authorities. Ridder cautioned that reporting domestic violence may put the victim in a dangerous position. “Let’s say this person is in a domestic violence relationship and the police are knocking on the door. This could be putting them in jeopardy.”
Pastors and church leaders should strongly advise victims to report abuse to the proper authorities.
Pastors should always bring someone with them — rather than speaking to a victim alone — when offering advice. This provides a verification that the pastor did advise the adult that the authorities should be notified.
Inform abused individuals that, once the crimes have been reported and there is an attorney involved, there are many options available to that person, including help with protective orders, housing assistance, and counseling. According to Ridder, it is often fear of financial problems that keep people from reporting abuse, but there are systems in place to help with this.
WHAT KIND OF BOUNDARIES SHOULD CHURCHES HAVE IN PLACE TO PREVENT ABUSE?
Sterling said preparation is key to preventing and responding to issues of abuse or domestic violence.
- Set the tone and have the difficult conversations about abuse, according to Sterling. “Every situation — child abuse, domestic abuse, violence — they happen in your churches. You may not know about it, but it’s happening,” Sterling warned.
- Fingerprint and background check all children’s ministry workers and use a service that has ongoing reporting.
- Work in pairs when interacting with children to avoid being alone with a child.
- In lay-counseling situations, women counsel women, and men counsel men.
- Have a lawyer who specializes in church law come to the church, lay out church law and explain how the church has to interact as a corporate entity.
- Have written guidelines in place to address what steps need to happen if abuse occurs.
Schinner also recommends contacting the police for safety training with volunteers and staff.
Make sure that church leadership always has accountability. According to Schlegel, it is imperative that pastors and leaders have men who are willing to ask them the “tough questions” and force them to be accountable to other men and to God.
WHAT IF BOTH THE ABUSED AND THE ABUSER ATTEND YOUR CHURCH?
Have preemptive discussions with your deacons and church leaders ahead of time to carefully craft a plan, according to Schlegel.
Take a unified stand with your church leadership. Schlegel emphasized that church must have a unified attitude on “how we’re going to stand, where we’re going to stand, and how we’re going to deal with it.”
Sterling said that knowing your position in the church is also important. If anything occurs, he has his trustees report to the authorities so that he can continue to minister to both parties. “That removes me from that position. I’m not the face of the reporter. I can love and encourage the offender and the offendee. I’m there to bring comfort and wisdom to the parties involved and to guide them in Biblical ways to which we can navigate through the whole process and hopefully, at some way or shape or form, reconciliation can take place, even if that reconciliation involves incarceration.” Ridder emphasized that if the reporting is delegated, the obligated reporter is still responsible, so he or she must follow-up.
HOW CAN THE CHURCH FOSTER A SUPPORTIVE AND HEALING ENVIRONMENT FOR SURVIVORS OF ABUSE?
Smith said he regularly engages with people in churches as these matters arise. There’s a big difference when someone is going through the crisis with a supportive congregation rather than one that is non-supportive. “We want the type of environments in our congregations where honesty, truthfulness, and authenticity characterize the environment,” Smith emphasizes.
Avoid the mindset of keeping things “neat” and “tidy” by keeping secrets in the church. According to Smith, “We sometimes collectively want to paint this “Disneyland” narrative and not deal with the reality of who we are.”
Encourage church members to sensitively and lovingly broach difficult topics with others in the church. “Sometimes it’s as simple as other ladies coming around and saying, ‘how can I help you? How can be a friend to you? I heard you say something that made me feel worried for you’,” says Cook.
Engage in honest conversations with lots of open-ended questions, Cook advised. Ask questions that can give insight into secret, potentially abusive situations in the home, but be careful not to put words in another person’s mouth (particularly children).
Talk about the Bible stories that show family dysfunction, abuse, and rape, and then how God views those behaviors, Cook advises. A new paradigm is needed, Cook said.
Have a clear understanding of Scripture and preach the truth. “Have a Biblical anthropology instead of an ‘Oprah anthropology,’ or a ‘Donahue anthropology’,” according to Smith. “The Bible reveals us. We must proclaim the Word of God, and the Bible shows us who we are.”
Have connections to professionals who can give advice.
Smith recommends having connections with the police chief in your area.
Cook recommends having Christian counselors on standby who are available to meet with abuse survivors. “Having referral relationships with Christian counseling professionals makes it easier for that kind of ‘pass-off.’ Christian counselors integrate their professional training and skills with the Word of God and their understanding of the world.”
Ridder said the state attorney’s office is available to give presentations.
Schlegel summarized much of the panelists’ thoughts by stating that older men must model to younger men how to treat women. Men must be discipled, instructing them how to treat a woman with respect and honor. “Hopefully over time that becomes the culture of the church.”
Both panels ended with prayer.
Shelley Mahoney is a freelance writer and an adjunct professor of communications at Anne Arundel Community College, Md.