By Joy Allmond
The #MeToo movement has made Austin Stone Community Church pastor Matt Carter think twice about the way he preaches.
“I’m spending more time in preparation for a sermon than I ever have, thinking about not only what I’m saying but how I’m saying it,” he said.
“One of the last things we want to do is open up new wounds for these women who have been traumatized. And one thing I’ve realized over the years is there are more people—more women—who have dealt with abuse who are in our churches than I ever imagined.”
Carter joined Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission president Russell Moore and author and Bible teacher Beth Moore for a discussion panel, “Responding to Abuse in the Church,” to talk about how church leaders can create a safe environment in their churches for sexual abuse survivors to tell their stories and seek healing.
The conversation was held on the Cooperative Program stage during the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting and was moderated by Jonathan Howe and Amy Whitfield, co-hosts of the “SBC This Week” podcast.
Carter knows firsthand what it’s like to find out someone on his staff has not responded appropriately to abuse allegations.
“It was hands down the hardest thing I’ve ever had to go through in ministry,” he said about an experience earlier this year, when it was found that Larry Cotton—a staff member at Austin Stone—failed to report an alleged instance of sexual abuse when he was at another church in the late 1990s. Cotton resigned his position at Austin Stone over the matter.
Russell Moore said one reason it’s important to know how to care for abused people in the church is that victims tend to blame themselves.
“I’ve encountered a lot of women who have been abused or assaulted and think it’s their fault,” he said. “When they hear sermons on sexual immorality, it’s almost as though they feel it is directed toward them, even though they were not at all to blame.”
Beth Moore, a sexual abuse survivor, said when those who have suffered in this way find healing, it goes beyond the individual; there is a positive ripple effect among families and congregations.
“In every bit of this being exposed, God is doing something wonderful for the church,” she said.
“When we begin to help a woman who has been through some kind of abuse or assault—when she gets the healing she needs—you’re having an impact on her marriage, if she is married. And you’re having an impact on her children, if she is a mother. When … you’re speaking wholeness to that woman, you are impacting that many more people in her sphere of influence. This is what makes the whole church healthier.”
Carter, Russell Moore, and Beth Moore all agreed that churches must be proactive as much as they are reactive when combating abuse. By doing this, they agree it not only helps to prevent abuse within their congregations—it also gives victims confidence they will be heard and cared for.
“One way to do this is by simply talking about it,” said Russell Moore. “In order to do that, we have to understand this is not a public relations issue. This is a spiritual warfare, holiness of the church issue.
“Sometimes there are people who would say, ‘I don’t even want to talk about the possibility that we might have that going on, because people might assume we do.’ If you stand up and say how your church will deal with any allegation of abuse, you’re not creating a lack of confidence; you’re telling people, ‘This is a place you’ll be heard.’”
He likened this measure of proactivity to how he advises couples during premarital counseling—talk about hot-button issues when things are peaceful and thriving.
“I tell them to have their fights with each other … about any particular sensitive issue when things are good—not when they’re in the middle of a crisis,” he said.
“The same thing is true in church life: Have those conversations before you have issues to say, ‘This is how we’ll deal with this together if and when we do, and here’s how we’re going to prevent [abuse].’”
All three panelists agreed there is need for rigorous policies for abuse prevention and practical help for victims in the aftermath of abuse.
Carter said his church staff and volunteers went through mandatory training on this subject—to come up to standard on best practices on how to care for and minister to the victims in their congregation.
“And we did that primarily to convey … this is a safe church,” he said.
“We’re also telling stories from our stage. We have a story team at church. As women are coming up and talking about their stories of abuse and survival, it creates a safe environment for women in the church to raise their hand and say, ‘I need help.’”
Beth Moore suggested practical ways to help those who may suffer from trauma as they walk through the church doors, sit in the pews—and even visit the facility’s classrooms and restrooms.
“Perhaps someone is sitting there reading the bulletin before the service starts,” she said. “There could be some place on that bulletin that tells people if they have suffered abuse, here are some things to do and places to go for help.”
She also recommended churches take cues from public restrooms that have posters or placards with hotline numbers and other information that can provide help for people who are in crisis or need help processing their pain.
When victims come forward, saying they have been abused, Carter said it doesn’t matter how much time has passed since the alleged abuse—it should always be reported.
“It’s really important for church leaders to remember that just because a woman comes out and says this happened 20 years ago, our instinct is to think, That was a long time ago—we need to move past it,” he said.
“But sometimes it takes 20 years for these women to have the courage to talk about it.”
And sometimes, Russell Moore said, the hesitancy for victims to talk about their abuse is due to lies planted by their abusers.
“I had a woman say to me, ‘I always thought I was crazy because I just couldn’t get over this,’” he said. “The abuser told her she needed to move on and forget about it. And it took a long time for her to be able to talk. She still had the fear that the people she talked to would tell her she’s a burden.”
After all, he said, Scripture tells us to bear one another’s burdens.
“The traumas and wounds that any brother or sister has within the church—they’re ours,” he said. “We don’t see this as a problem to be managed. We see this as God’s gift of being able to minister.”
And the way church leaders care for victims goes beyond the walls of the church, said Carter—it sends a far-reaching message to those outside.
“The world is watching,” said Carter. “We need to convey we care for victims and we care for women—more than we care for our own positions of power, even if that costs us something.
“The church has hidden behind those power structures for too long. We need to treat people like Christ would.”
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- Sex Abuse in the Church: Is It Ever Too Late to Call the Police?
- Healthy Ways to Help Sexual Abuse Survivors in Your Church
JOY ALLMOND (@joyallmond) is managing editor of Facts & Trends.