How Deep Is This Caring Well? Addressing Sexual Abuse in the Church

Striving to Care Well in Our Church (And Not Allow the Emphasis to Be Another Program)

It seems that every day another Christian leader, church leader, former pastor, and Christian entertainer has succumbed to the #MeToo and #ChurchToo focus. While some just wish we could talk about something else, those who have been victimized sexually in the past by spiritual leaders are thankful that we are finally talking about it. Hopefully, we are doing more than talk.

Southern Baptists naively though the sex abuse issues in the church were primarily "Catholic issues" in the past. The sexual deviancy by some Catholic priests that became news fodder a number of years ago was thought to be a result from poor theology (from an evangelical perspective) and the requirement of singleness and celibacy among the priesthood. 

Then, when reporters Sarah Smith (now with the Houston Chronicle) and Nichole Manna produced the poignant articles under the title "Spirit of Fear" at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram focusing on sexual abuse stories primarily in Independent Baptist churches (including one in my county) many Southern Baptists just shook their collective heads declaring it was due to lack of accountability and legalism that permeates in many independent churches.

The Chickens Have Come Home to Roost

The old saying about chickens coming home to roost refers to the fact that unconfessed and unrepentant sins committed in the past will come back to haunt oneself. The truth will be laid bare and will no longer be avoidable. 

That's what has happened in some of the churches of our Southern Baptist Convention. What could not happen here, has happened here. Thanks (and I do mean thanks) to an exposé titled "Abuse of Faith" by reporters Robert Downen, Lise Olsen, and John Tedesco of the Houston Chronicle published in February 2019, the heretofore not talked about, or even acknowledged, has become a leading topic among pastors, church members, and denominational entities.

Caring well
David Tarkington is seated next to Debbie Vasquez (abused & impregnated by her pastor as a teen) at the Caring Well Conference in Dallas. Photo: Jon Shapley, Houston Chronicle

J.D. Greear, President of the Southern Baptist Convention and Pastor of Summit Church in North Carolina, met with denominational leaders and other pastors while declaring that steps must be taken to acknowledge the sin, hold churches and pastors accountable, and primarily offer help and healing to victims and survivors, while seeking justice for perpetrators. 

From the outside looking in, the concept seems simple, but in reality the functionality of such a move has proven very difficult. This is primarily due to the autonomous nature of SBC churches and the lack of power denominational leaders have. Yet, with that being said, the truth is being revealed that their are right steps to be taken that do work, are working, and offer help and hope in this area. As has been stated by many, we hold to our churches having autonomy, but cannot hide behind that when it comes to doctrinal, legal, and moral issues such as clergy abuse and church compliance.

Caring Well

In just a short amount of time, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) and LifeWay produced curriculum, video training, and even held a national conference (the annual ERLC Conference in Dallas shifted its focus to the abuse issue this year) to ensure this issue of response and healing was a front-burner issue for SBC churches. 

Much good has been done, but nonetheless for some, it will not be enough.

While I do not have impact on large-scale denominational policies or practices (other than voting as a messenger at the annual meetings and serving on our state's Board of Missions) I do have impact on the church God has called me to pastor. Like many SBC churches, we have an overabundance of curriculum and program options. We have a closet at the church where we store dozens of video series, workbooks, and other resources. To be honest, I'm just about done with the latest "fix in a box" that's available for purchase. That's why at first, I was a bit skeptical of the Caring Well curriculum and training videos. Yet, I knew we must not ignore this reality and if nothing else, this material may be used to push us forward to be a church that will not ignore abuse issues, nor pretend that our own church's sad history could not happen again (READ MORE HERE).

I shared with our church membership that we would be forming a Caring Well team. This team would include some of the pastors on staff, some age-group leaders, members of the church with counseling backgrounds, some with law enforcement experience, those who have served victims of abuse, and others who may choose to serve. In just a few meetings, we found ourselves with a team much larger than I anticipated. Nevertheless, we have the team God has put together not to protect the brand of our local church, but to ensure we glorify Him and provide hope and healing for those in our church and community who have suffered from abuse by spiritual leaders and those of power. 

Some even felt free to share their own stories of suffering. For at least one, it was the first time her story of survival had been shared publicly. Suddenly, we knew that the statistics do not lie. There are women and men in our church family who have been carrying a burden for years. They don't relish their experience, but being survivors of sexual abuse and discovering they are not alone, or to blame, has moved them to a place where we believe God will bring full healing. This is no formulaic process. It's not cookie-cutter, easy-to-do stuff. As each week goes by, I hear more. I'm heartbroken. I'm grieved. And with each new revelation on social media or the news of another church leader's sin being exposed, I see more who are triggered and brought back to their own moments of trauma.

Our Caring Well team is new. We're still working to figure out what to do. We have some plans in place, but more to be done. We see the primary mission of the church to be proclamation of the gospel. We desire the lost to be saved. We want to see the broken healed. We want to ensure that the Enemy no longer has a foothold in Christ's church, using those with titles, callings, and positions of power to inflict (sometimes eternal) damage on those in the flock. 

Therefore, our Caring Well emphasis must never become another curriculum in the closet. It will not be all we do, but it must be a part of who we are. Our church, every church campus and sister church in our network, must not only declare to care well, but actually care well. That is our our calling.

I asked some of our Caring Well team members to share why they're serving. I am encouraged by these responses (just a sampling, not all responses received):

When you explained what Caring Well Ministry entails, I immediately felt a pull or drawing toward this ministry.  While serving on church staff as the Preschool Director and in another church as Children’s Director, neither church “cared well” for the ones hurting. Situations were quickly swept away and quietly dealt with leaving the innocent feeling betrayed. So my short and brief statement is; I want to care well!  I want hurting individuals to feel safe and know they WILL BE CARED FOR.

 

Victims of abuse deserve to be heard, have their allegations investigated in an objective manner and see the perpetrators brought to justice.  I want to serve to help make sure we minimize the opportunities for abuse to occur, make sure we protect and minister to those who are the victims of abuse and see that they get the justice they deserve. 

 

The best way to care well is to prevent abuse from happening in the first place. A child who is abused anywhere, but especially at church, may be so harmed spiritually that they never come to know Christ. We have to do everything in our power to protect them, so they have that opportunity.

 

I have always had a heart for children whether my own, coaching kids sports, working with 4th through 6th graders at church or my grandchildren. Children are undeniably God's gift to us. As I study our Caring Well Handbook and watch the videos and pray, I think this is beyond me and I won't be able to help much, but I know I can do something.

 

I fought hard for many years for victims and survivors of child abuse and assault, and even though it has been quite some time since I have been active in the system, I have never lost my desire to help or my empathy for the individuals whose lives most certainly have been hugely impacted by their experiences.  When the Caring Well information was mentioned I knew immediately that if possible I wanted to be a part to minister in whatever way God leads to provide understanding, empathy, compassion, friendship and a listening heart and ear. 

 

I am a survivor.  By God's grace, as a child I had the protective factors available to help me cope even though I didn't disclose my abuse to my parents.  I was fortunate in ways that so many others are not, and with that comes a sense of duty to help ensure that anyone suffering from abuse will have access to whatever resources are needed to cope, survive, and thrive.  

More News Stories = More Victims

Sadly, stories of sexual sin revelations continue. Whether it's the potential calling of a pastor who almost twenty years ago victimized young girls in his youth group, a spiritual leader who downplayed a victims accusation to protect an image, or a Christian entertainer whose private sexual escapades and propositions with young single and married women shocked the fans who just wanted some clean entertainment, the truth is clear.

It is not the fault of unbiblical ecclesiology, poor interpretations of theology, suggestive clothing worn by naive (or not so naive) teenagers, or loneliness due to marital stress. 

The fool blames those things for his/her sinful actions. The enemy says "It's their fault. You deserve this. You're a leader. You have needs." and more. 

To the victim, we seek to care well and pray for your healing.

To the victimizer, we seek justice upon you and pray for your healing as well. 

It remains a gospel issue, and therefore something we must do as the local body. The gates of hell will not prevail against God's church. That is so true and we must remember that. However, we must also remember that does not mean local bodies, led poorly, that abandon the fullness of the gospel will continue to exist. Some shouldn't.

 

File this under "Things they didn't teach me at seminary."

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