The Role of a Pastor, Minister or Priest

Many pastors say they are unaware of rape survivors in their congregation. If so, the most probable cause for this is that survivors are uncomfortable and afraid to report to a pastor. If rape survivors are hiding in fear and shame, something in our church culture needs to change.  A pastor has a pivotal role, but can’t provide most of what is needed to a survivor’s healing.  This takes a community. But as a pastor, it is your responsibility to teach your church to do this job.

The failure to address rape/SV on the part of church leadership is adopted by the congregation. That is how the myth of rape is perpetuated.  If churchgoers don’t hear about the issue of rape from the pulpit, they’ll continue to believe that rape happens rarely. This belief is sometimes called denial.  Unfortunately the survivor and her family will pay heavily for that silence.  Surely, if an accurate understanding of rape is upheld, and the myths surrounding it abolished, then God’s people will become responsive and compassionate in an active way.

Every church has survivors in their midst.  Author Fred Littauer, author of Promise of Restoration, estimates that up to 75 percent of the men and women in any congregation are survivors of sexual violence.  If that is anywhere near close, we can only imagine the impact on the relationships within marriages, families, and individuals.  When one pastor announced that he was going to attend a conference on sexual abuse, he was amazed upon his return to find his appointment book full. The respondents were women who turned out to be survivors of rape and molestation.  His announcement alone gave his congregation permission to come to him with their experience.

“No way!” you may be saying. “ My calendar is too full as it is.”  I’m sure it is. But your role is simple. Just as mention of the word “divorce” has become more acceptable in church, a pastor can mention rape from the pulpit occasionally or bring the subject into sermons.  An announcement about church resources for rape survivors or guest speaker on the topic can be made.  What is important is not that the pastor has the expertise to help (though that would be great), but that he or she serve as a resource of support.  Female survivors usually won’t feel comfortable talking to a man about rape, so a male pastor may make a female leader available.

Be aware, as a pastor, of your own feelings, attitudes and experiences with sexual assault. If you are a survivor who has never allowed yourself to grieve what happened and to be healed, address this before addressing the church. Often, unless this is explored, a pastor won’t believe a rape occurred, or will minimize the survivor’s experience.  Don’t allow feelings of disbelief, disgust, anger or discomfort to control your response.  Respond calmly to a survivor, but don’t minimize the survivor’s experience, even if you are in doubt. A pastor needs to assure a survivor that she is a worthy and acceptable person, and is in no way to blame for the assault even if he isn’t sure about the truth. The best thing he can do is assure her that the church body will surround her with support if she wishes it.

Though a pastor doesn’t need to be qualified to meet all the needs of the survivor, he does need to know his limits and not attempt to go beyond those limits.  His role would usually be to deal with spiritual and religious concerns like how could a good God allow this?  If God is in control of everything why didn’t he protect me?  Anger at God and questioning God is normal and must be seen as a vital stage of recovery.  Recognize that even if you can give her right answers to the hard questions, she’ll most likely believe them only with mental ascent. The best thing you can give a survivor is to simply allow her question, speak the truth gently, and understand that she will need to walk her own healing journey.

Communicate clearly that often the survivor blames herself and God for what happened.  You can help her by placing the responsibility squarely on the perpetrator. Though she may not accept that truth, she’ll feel the support of your position. A survivor may ask, “Is it because I failed in my Christian walk that I am now being punished?”  Or she may say, “I’ve followed all the rules and yet this happened.  Maybe there is no God.”  Her journey through this can help her find God in new ways. Through your guidance, she may experience what He can do.

A pastor can offer information on community resources, inform the survivor what the church is prepared to offer, and make clear what the limitations on that might be.  Ideally, there could be a mutually-developed cooperative approach between pastors/churches and their community resources.  Check in with her periodically for up to a year, so she feels supported by you as a spiritual guide. A survivor’s family has been traumatized also. Husband and family, even extended family, will need help.  You don’t need to do it all, but you will play a pivotal role in preventing further trauma.

One source of caution to pastors: even supportive touch such as placing your hands on the shoulders of a survivor may be threatening to her.  Reassurance and support may best be communicated in nonphysical ways. Any use of touch must occur only with direct permission from the survivor, whether the pastor is male or female.

Confidentiality is of utmost importance; never speak of a survivor to anyone else. Violation will cause a further trauma for the survivor.  Inform her of requirement to report to authorities if she is under 18 and tells you that someone in her environment is abusing her, even if the perpetrator is well-respected in the church.  The under-age-18 person must be protected at whatever cost.  Most states require a report if the perpetrator has access to children—even if the abuse was long ago.  It is better to risk offending/hurting the feelings of an adult in protecting a child than to refuse to rock the boat.

Comments

  1. Congratulations, Sherrill, on getting your website online. This will be a great boost in your quest to publish and share your message. I wish you and your readers the very best because I know how sexual violence affects women, even those who are the primary victims. There are many ways to be “molested.” Your compassion and your passion for helping hurting people has endeared you to me. May you know the blessings of Grace as you carry this to the world. And please keep in touch; I hope to follow your ministry as you go broader and deeper with it. Love in Jesus, Marlee LeDai

  2. As a survivor of years of incest I looked to my family for support and affirmation. They, understandably, went to their Pastor’s for advice and were told to give me a “few weeks” and then everything would be fine. It was shocking to them that when they saw me in two weeks this was not the case. Then they were told by their Pastors I had not forgiven because I requested the perpetrator be confronted for what had been done. I sought for ten years to work on this issue with my family, to no avail. It feels horrible to blamed for something I did not do, the abuse, and to be judged by Pastors, and eventually rejected by my family, for being wounded, wanting to make sure no one else is hurt, and not being able to reconcile with family because of the blame and denial which occurred. Added to that was knowing these “Pastors” counseled my parents to act this way is heartbreaking.

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