To pastors and church leaders…
by Jim Amstutz
Teaching healthy sexuality is an ongoing challenge for Mennonites. I was asked to co-teach a class for youth and realized how easy it would have been to avoid the lessons on this topic. To their credit, our youth were light-years ahead of us pastors and embraced the conversation with appreciation for the honesty and vulnerability.
Abuse is a crime and a sin. When abuse happens in the church community, it is both a legal and spiritual violation. If we over-spiritualize it, we miss the real-world consequences when a law that protects an innocent and often underrepresented person is broken. It also violates our sense of community and God’s desire for sin not to hold sway over us.
We cannot pray away this problem, and we cannot ignore the civil responsibility of mandated reporting. The opportunity to hold both in balance needs to be modeled by those in authority in our churches and institutions. We can and must do this.
There are no safe spaces anymore, just brave spaces. When sexualized violence happens in homes, schools and churches, there is very little safe space left in our world. But there can be brave spaces. In brave spaces, we name the truth, assess who was harmed and identify needs. In brave spaces, we listen deeply, care consistently and hold one another accountable. In brave spaces, we invite light into darkness, Spirit into brokenness and community into isolation. God already dwells in those brave spaces, and we take courage in entering them together.
Pastors want to make it a win-win for everyone. Pastors embrace the gift and burden of caring for everyone in the congregation. When sexualized violence happens within the congregation or within the same family, there is an inherent tension of knowing how to care for all concerned. Setting boundaries and clear expectations on the perpetrator is best done in conversation with victims and in light of their needs. When a judgment call is needed, err on the side of victims.
Other victims/survivors are watching every move you make. How congregations respond to both the perpetrator and victim/survivor is being monitored by those who have also been victimized—many of whom have never told their stories. Unfortunately, the statistical probability of this reality means we must start with this assumption, so proceed with this in mind. Don’t rush a forgiveness process, and be diligent about creating brave spaces for truth telling.
Avoid the “Fatal Flaw of Exceptionalism.” Our natural tendency is to believe we can handle these difficult conversations and situations internally. When a prominent leader in a rural congregation was arrested for sex abuse of a minor, it was later revealed that there had been multiple victims within the same church a decade earlier. The church leadership knew about it but thought they had handled it adequately by themselves.
The fatal flaw of exceptionalism assumes that God will bless our good intentions when we rush forgiveness, and so we don’t think we need to call the authorities or outside experts. The understandable impulse is to return to normal and minimize the internal and external impact. Take time to grieve, identify what you don't know and invite an outside resource to coach the congregation through this liminal space.
Look for patterns of abuse and assume there is a deeper history. Sexualized violence rarely happens in isolation. Colleagues of a prominent church leader just couldn’t believe there was a backstory or history of abuse. Digging deeper meant asking difficult questions and approaching this journey with a hermeneutic of suspicion. This may be the first time the perpetrator was caught, but we are naïve to believe their assertion that this has never happened before. Leaders need to do their homework, consult with trained professionals who understand how perpetrators groom their victims and more often than not come with a history and pattern of abuse.
Continue to implement child policies while maintaining a hermeneutic of suspicion. We know that all the safeguards in the world may not be enough to prevent abuse from happening in the church. However, child abuse prevention policies, ongoing trainings and continuing education events can create a culture of awareness within the worshipping community.
Walking with the grandparents who have volunteered in the baby nursery for 30 years means we are ready to explain why we are requiring clearances and the two-person rule for everyone. Collectively, we can welcome storytelling and embrace best practices from schools, child care centers and youth sports teams that adopted these guidelines long before the church.
A hermeneutic of suspicion means we must start with the assumption that it can happen here, that someone may be among us who has already offended and is grooming one of our beloved. Having the child abuse hotline number posted in high visibility areas means we are ready to report sexualized violence and take the proper steps to hold the perpetrator accountable while caring for the needs of the victim. This is the work.
Jim Amstutz, Akron, Pennsylvania, is a missional church coach and consultant. He was a pastor for 21 years in two Mennonite Church USA congregations and currently serves on several nonprofit boards that address issues of homelessness, poverty and returning citizens. He is married to Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz, restorative justice coordinator for Mennonite Central Committee U.S. They have three adult children. This article is part of a package commission by Meetinghouse, an association of Mennonite periodicals.
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Is your church a safe place? Steps congregations can take today to prevent child abuse in the future.
MCC offers resources on sexual violence: Four free pamphlets are available from Mennonite Central Committee on topics related to human sexuality and abuse.