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Healing Abuse:

A Journey to Peace.

The journey to peace after abuse strikes me very personally. In the friendships I have enjoyed, the churches where I have served and in my own personal life the scars left by abuse seem very prevalent. Sometimes they remain as nothing more than jagged white reminders of a pain we no longer feel. Other times they are covered with a numbness or even pain that reduces us from what God really intended us to be.

This journey can be taken successfully. However, several articles of equipment will be necessary to complete the journey.

A Trust-Earning Pastoral Figure. When a leader, especially a pastor, abuses someone it undermines more than their ministry. We placed our trust in one pastor who betrayed us. How can we trust the next one?

We call this person the “After Pastor”. Frequently the After Pastor is a pastor who has been thrust into the situation by a revelation of past abuse by a former pastor or a leader. These pastors have a lot of on-the-job learning to complete. Some Interim Ministers train and prepare for such ministry. A strong After Pastor evidences several traits which lend themselves to trust.

  • Clearly Visible Integrity. The integrity of a pastor or leader will not be assumed by everyone in the aftermath of abuse. Such integrity must be lived-out in clear, unambiguous manners. I know of a pastoral couple who took over after a pastor had an affair inside the congregation. They made it a policy that neither of them would ever be alone with a person of the opposite sex. They trusted each other. They did this to assure the congregation that the betrayal they had endured could never happen under their pastoral leadership. Similar acts of clearly visible integrity can slowly earn an After Pastor the trust of the congregation and the victims.
  • Patient Compassion. The Journey to Peace does not move on a schedule. Nor to victims heal at a predictable pace. The After Pastor work will commonly cover 5 or more years. Even then, the pain will not be fully healed until the congregation makes its first transition from the After Pastor to another pastoral stranger who serves them well.

    In addition, the individual and group sessions discussed below cannot be rushed. Because of this the After Pastor will patiently serve both the congregation and the victims within with a calm unrushed compassion in order to assure all that their stories are heard and the church has become again a safe and loving place for them.

  • Effective Preaching and Leading Compassion and integrity lose some or all of their effectiveness if the basic ability to pastor a church falls short. Obviously the work of an After Pastor will consume considerable time, attention and energy. The organization of the congregation may well have broken down and many parts may suffer or fail in the aftershock of Abuse. An After Pastor will need to stand in the breech and help bring order out of any resulting chaos.
  • Personal Emotional and Spiritual Strength Between the normal pressures of being a pastor and the added dimensions of need in a congregation suffering from abuse, the After Pastor needs to have a personality and practice that protects and regenerates them from the stress involved. A “well differentiated” who can both enter empathetically into relationships and yet remain their own self with their own separate emotions and opinions will be better equipped for After Pastor work. In addition, practicing Sabbath and self-renewal will allow the After Pastor time to recover from the weight of their work.

Protecting the victims. This would seem obvious. Yet in the midst of revelations of abuse people can react in many irrational and sinful ways. No matter how clearly the offenders actions were abuse of another, we valued and even loved them. Emotionally, we must take a long leap from these feelings to the jarring truth that this person did something we find despicable and perhaps even disgusting. Many of us cannot leap that gap immediately. And so we end up rationalizing that the victim must have played a role in their own abuse. Even some victims will join in this rationalizing, often having been taught by the Abuser that they carry the blame for their own abuse.

Publicly and openly condemning the abuser as an abuser and declaring the victims to be victims begins to plant a protective hedge around the victims. Bringing the stories of the victims to light in compassionate and considerate ways, especially helping others to perceive the pain caused by the abuser, can sensitize the congregation to the harm already done. And acquainting the congregation to the ways that abusers manipulated both their victims and the congregation will lay the foundation for the congregation to move forward. (I will talk more on telling the stories below.)

Re-establishing Safety in the Congregation. In a way abusers abuse the entire congregation, including those who were not direct victims. The place where we expected God’s grace, Jesus’ love and the restoring power of the Holy Spirit to reign instead became the arena for human sinful desires to attack us. No congregation can move forward until they reestablish the walls and gates of personal safety and godly expectations. Several actions can assist this.

  • Leadership repentance The leadership for every congregation serves as the gatekeeper. At very least they bear responsibility for assessing the character of a pastor before calling or assigning them and then for overseeing the behavior and work of the pastor during his or her tenure. This responsibility may fall to both regional and local leaders. Whatever the nature of that leadership, the congregation will trust them less (to some extent) because they let an abuser in or go undetected.

    Because of this leadership will need to work through the 5 languages of apology. Some leaders may balk at taking these steps. In regional bodies the person directly responsible may not even serve there any longer. Yet, if the local leadership and regional body do not express the 5 languages of apology the church will lose trust with them and the congregation will be a less-safe place than otherwise. Therefore, the leadership needs to:

    1. Accept responsibility for the abuser being present and undetected.
    2. Express regret that they did not more effectively protect the congregation.
    3. Make whatever restitution can be made including, if necessary, resigning.
    4. Genuinely repent by changing how they choose and supervise pastors.
    5. Ask forgiveness for their failings.

  • Seeking forgiveness and reconciliation As we noted above, in the pain of reveling a leader abused someone people can react in irrational and sinful ways. Victims may not always be the only targets of the sinful irrationality. Sides can often form with those in disbelief on one side, those in utter despair or disgust on the other and people with various degrees of both strung out between. The anger properly reserved for the abuser can get hurled back and forth, leading to other forms of abuse inside the congregation, perhaps, but not always, less in degree than the abuser’s actions.

    As understandable as these reactions may be, they remain sinful, harmful and destructive to the life of the congregation. Seeking and giving forgiveness leading to reconciliation will need to happen before people will feel safe with each other. Again, the 5 languages of apology will need to be taught and practiced.

  • New ways of living Just as the pastoral couple mentioned above provided the congregation with more security by how they created good boundaries for their ministry, the congregation will often need to rethink policies and procedures. Even areas of ministry unaffected by the abuse may need provisions made to reassure the congregation that “we will not let this happen again.”

“…until the stories are just stories.” We cannot erase the memories of past abuse. We can bleed them of their effect and power in our lives. We need to break the power of pain and fear, break their control on us, so that we can be free to live the life the Jesus calls us to. One power device it telling the story over and over and over. In most congregations we misunderstand the vital need of various members to tell their tales over and over. Those of us less affected will find the repetition meaningless or even distressing. Explicitly or by our disinterest we may say, “These people just need to move on.” Others of us may fear that continuing to discuss the abuse may memorialize it, making the wound in the congregation permanent.

All of this misses the power of telling the story. As we do we see that, no matter what we have endured, God has brought us through them. We have survived and have an opportunity to thrive. Those who have been abused need to tell these stories over and over and over again until they quit being a source of sorrow and injury and become… just stories. Whether in individual counseling, with mentors, or in abuse recovery groups, these stories need to be told. Early on this may entail mixed groups from the congregation. Even after, the congregation needs to grow in compassion toward those who need to continue to tell the stories long after others have moved on.

It is possible for bitterness to take hold in those who were abused as well as those most closely connected to the victim and the abuser. They will need to work the process of forgiving the abuser, themselves and each other. They will need this for their own sake. This, like the rest of After Pastor ministry, takes a long time, a journey with no timetable.

One last note. No person can write all that needs to be told about recovering from abuse in a particular situation since each abuse is unique to both the victim and the abuser. And no one can prepare anyone for the aftermath of such abuse. Yet, in the grace, forgiveness and love of Jesus we can walk the path of pain, anger, repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation.