By Brad Hambrick
The better we understand the journey of a survivor before an initial conversation of disclosure with us, as ministry leaders, the better we will understand the “why” behind the “what” of the advisements in Becoming a Church that Cares Well for the Abused.
When we don’t understand the “why” behind the “what” our good intentions can be a bit clumsy in a vulnerable moment for the survivor entrusting us with their story.
A 5-Phase Journey of a Survivor
Phase One: Experience of Abuse
Two factors are almost always present when someone is abused by someone they know: the abuser was someone they should have been able to trust, and there were power differentials in the relationship that were exploited.
As ministry leaders, we have to realize two things about ourselves: we are someone this person should be able to trust – which may no longer be a relational asset, and our position as a ministry leader creates power differentials in our relationships.
This should help us understand why talking about their experience of abuse is more than just uncomfortable; it’s scary. Even if we’re a safe person, the experience of talking to us is likely not to feel safe to the survivor.
Phase Two: Time Period of Silence
At least three voices that contribute to this silence.
Silencing from the abuser – Abusers know the implications of their actions and use a variety of “if you tell” threats. Abuse doesn’t stop when the violence ends. When abuse happens in a church context, the Bible and theological language get twisted as a part of this grooming/threatening process.
Silencing from their sense of shame (different from guilt) – Survivors face their own sense of shame that compels them not to speak. Shame makes us feel “separate from” at the very time when recovering from abuse means we need to be “cared for.”
Intimidation from media discussions – Every public discussion of abuse is a social experiment. How would people respond if they knew my story? The intensity of the discussion from almost every direction makes it feel like the survivor couldn’t handle their experience being known in this climate.
Phase Three: Moment of Disclosure
This moment is terrifying. Great hope is placed upon it. The potential to finally be known and cared for is almost too good to be true. The possibility of being known and disbelieved is almost too painful to be risked. All this emotion is swirling and, yet, the survivor must try to speak clearly enough to be taken seriously.
Yet, as soon as the ministry leader realizes what is about to be disclosed, it is common for them to begin to feel fear. The ministry leader realizes weighty decisions will be made in these moments that involve law enforcement, liability, social fall out, etc. Now there are two scared people in the room.
We must make sure that our fear does not reduce a hurting person into a liability to be managed. However, if we are unprepared, that is often what we communicate.
Phase Four: Immediate Action Plan
The first concern is safety. Everything in your immediate action plan is either about connecting with the right resources to ensure safety. This can be the most volatile and dangerous part of the journey since the instances of abuse. The survivor may be unclear and inconsistent in what he or she wants.
You need to understand the legal requirements that exist when an adult is being abused as compared to a minor. The state will intervene on behalf of a minor, while an adult must press charges for legal action to be taken. Some forms of abuse are not illegal, meaning no legal action can be taken. You, as the ministry leader, and your friend will want experienced guidance during this time.
Phase Five: Ongoing Care Plan
This is the phase where it is easy for churches to drop the ball. In the immediate action plan, there is a significant amount of action in a relatively short period of time. Many things are happening, and a high quantity of information is coming in. Because of this, many other ministry responsibilities are being placed on the back burner. Once the dust settles, it is easy for neglect to happen.
Based on these factors, here are several things that are important:
- Affirm the survivor’s courage.
- Communicate that you believe them.
- Keep the survivor informed about any steps you are going to take.
- Don’t make choices for the survivor. Restore a sense of personal agency.
- Don’t interrupt. Restore a sense of voice. Your patience as they search for words, navigate difficult emotions, and sequence fragmented memories is a form of honor that is restorative.
- Know the resources in your community that you need to consult with. This is why the type of leaders involved in Becoming a Church that Cares Well for the Abused were selected, to provide a sample of what each of the community professionals can provide.
- Make sure that the survivor has church members with them at legal proceedings (if applicable). Isolation feels like rejection.
- Don’t allow the aftermath of abuse to become the “no casserole crisis” but be discreet in your communications.
- How long? Plan to be involved through an active care team and elevated pastoral care from the point of disclosure until one year after the conclusion of legal proceedings.
Realize, survivors will come to the leader they trust most and each leader in your church needs to know they have the support of your full church in responding the right way. This is why it is important that leaders at every level of your church study Becoming a Church that Cares Well for the Abused.