By Brad Hambrick
This is the second article of a three-part series in which we will continue providing guidance on how to respond if a church leader is abusive in their role as pastor or ministry leader: Read Part 1 here.
How do we get the information we need? The answer to this question will vary based on the nature of the offense. But here are five transferable principles to help us get there.
1. If the offenses are illegal, the church will get information from the criminal investigation. Legal processes are slow. But when an offense is criminal in nature, the church must have patience to allow Romans 13 to run its course. Though a person is “innocent until proven guilty” in our culture, when credible reports of abuse are levied against a church leader, that leader should be given a leave of absence until the legal process is complete.
2. Confiscate church technology from the offender immediately. As a church, we cannot confiscate private property. But we can repossess any computer provided to a staff member and reclaim their church email account and calendar. This step prevents altering or deleting any of the information relevant to the situation. If the offense is illegal, law enforcement will also want to review these.
3. When the victims know their care comes first, victims are usually willing to share their experience. The order of operations here is essential. The victim must know that their safety and recovery comes first. Connecting the victim with a counselor, supporting any legal decision, and creating a care team all communicate that the church has the victim’s needs ahead of their own, living out Philippians 2:3-4. When this is done, victims usually trust the church to use their information with integrity to care for the entire congregation.
4. If applicable, the church will want to hear from others in a role comparable to the known victim. Examples include: if the offense was against a subordinate staff member, interview the leader’s other direct reports; or, if the offense occurred on a mission trip, interview others who traveled with the leader. For illegal offenses, law enforcement will do these interviews and the church should cooperate by providing all relevant information.
5. Lastly, and vetted through lenses of credibility, the church can get information from the offender. Offenders have the most information, but should be considered the least reliable source of information. By virtue of being in the role they were in for an extended period of time and hiding the events that transpired, they have proven a willingness to hide information or distort the narrative around events.
Here are several signs that the offender’s answers are worth considering, though these should be vetted through a lens of credibility:
- Their responses are corroborated by victims or another third party.
- They give more information to your questions than required or just a minimalist answer.
- They do not give less relevant, hyper-spiritualized answers – After a major failure, Christians are prone to say things like, “I hadn’t been the spouse or parent I should have been,” or, “My quiet time had been non-existent for months.” While these are areas of concern, they focus on things far less consequential than abusing one’s role as a spiritual authority to harm others. It gives a veneer of being deeply broken but moves the focus away from the primary offense.
This article is adapted from Becoming a Church that Cares Well for the Abused. Access this free training at ChurchCares.com.
*Please note the curriculum is not intended to be legal counsel or to provide holistic training for counseling or pastoral care on the issue of abuse but is an accessible tutorial on how to respond with pastoral and ethical excellence. The curriculum gives a theological foundation for the topic, brings understanding on the issues connected to abuse disclosure and reporting, and gives practical wisdom by which leaders can navigate complex situations.
Brad Hambrick serves as the Pastor of Counseling at The Summit Church in Durham, North Carolina.