No church wants to think that a pastor or church leader would commit sexual sin, but in our sex-obsessed culture, such offenses are becoming more common. The effects upon victims can be devastating and long-lasting (see “Betrayal, Fear and Faith: The Victim’s Battle” in the May/June Baptist Bulletin).
Even if a church has already developed its church discipline policy and approach to restoration, these responses are usually geared toward the offender’s relationship with the church. The victim of these offenses still needs the church’s love and care. In the aftermath of several scandals, churches are adjusting their approach to better protect and compassionately assist a victim when the church responds to an offense.
Form an advocacy committee. Advocates are persons trained to stand with the victims of sexual abuse and assist with their spiritual and material needs related to the abuse. This article specifically targets the victims of a church leader’s sexual misconduct, but the advocacy training could help other victims of sexual abuse as well.
Before an offense takes place, the pastor and deacons should appoint an advocacy committee consisting of three or more godly church leaders who are above reproach, who are capable of teaching and equipping advocates, and who are willing to serve as advocates. The committee should include one or more godly women (see the May/June article). A chairman should be appointed who is able to lead the group during a crisis.
Train your advocates. Thoroughly train godly members in your church to disciple others and to counsel Biblically. Ideally, you should begin training early so you will be well prepared for times of crisis. Suitable training materials for advocates of victims of sexual misconduct include the following:
- Why Me, Lord? a booklet by Debi Pryde (Iron Sharpeneth Iron Publications, 2012). Describes the sexual predator’s pursuit of a child, and how to Biblically help victims.
- The Peacemaker by Ken Sande (Baker Book House, 1991). A classic in Biblical conflict management in the church and business settings. Peacemaker training is available on DVD, www.hispeace.org.
- Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands by Paul David Tripp (P&R Publishing, 2002). Effectively presents the basics of offering Biblical help.
- Biblical Counseling Training Conference at Faith Church, Lafayette, Ind.
- Biblical Counseling Ministries, Inc., “Basic Skills” training in Wisconsin Rapids and Plover, Wis. Most “Basic Skills” classes are offered through live-streaming. May be taken for college credit or toward certification with the National Association of Nouthetic Counselors.
- Biblical Soul Care DVD series (Twelve Stones Ministries and Harvest Bible Chapel). Eighteen lessons designed to introduce Biblical discipleship in the local church. Study guides available.
- Central Baptist Theological Seminary, Plymouth, Minn.
- Faith Baptist Bible College, Ankeny, Iowa.
- National Association of Nouthetic Counselors conferences and certification program.
Identify Biblical counselors. If you are currently facing the fallout of a pastor’s moral failure and do not have trained advocates available, then identify godly church members who are willing to help. Locate qualified Biblical counselors near you as a resource while you train your people to counsel Biblically. Request that advocates be allowed to observe counseling sessions if the victim will allow.
For counseling assistance, contact Biblical Counseling Ministries, Inc. (Midwest); Faith Baptist Bible College; Maranatha Baptist Bible College; Northland International University; or the National Association of Nouthetic Counselors (see the list of certified Biblical counselors and NANC training centers at www.nanc.org). Research any counselor’s qualifications to reach the best choice for your situation.
Train your church. Your church—especially its leaders—should be trained to recognize potential or actual trouble and respond appropriately. Teach your church the Biblical model of church discipline and restoration as presented in Matthew 18:15–17. As Jay Adams points out in Handbook of Church Discipline, it is best to do so before facing a crisis or conflict. Teach your church the principles of Biblical forgiveness and conflict resolution at personal and group levels. (See The Peacemaker by Ken Sande.)
I highly recommend www.MinistrySafe.com to train ministry workers in prevention of child sexual abuse. Many of these principles apply to any kind of sexual abuse. Church Mutual Insurance also offers training materials for church workers. Write a response plan and inform the church at large who to contact in case of alleged sexual misconduct on the church premises and/or by a church leader. (See Brad Hambrick: A Blog from a Counselor for the Church, for examples.)
When an Offense Occurs
Use your advocacy plan, if you have one, to explore whether or not an offense has occurred. No more than 48 hours after learning about a possible offense, gently speak with the person(s) who made the allegations, regardless how minor those allegations may appear to be. Assure the person that you will take him or her seriously and that you want to know more about what happened. Ask about the person’s knowledge and/or involvement in sexual misconduct. Listen in a loving and compassionate manner, without suggesting answers, accusing or naming people, or challenging information.
If a crime is reasonably suspected or known to have occurred, gently stop the interview, thank the person, and assure him or her that you appreciate their honesty and courage. Then excuse yourself and immediately call the police to continue the investigation. If no crime is suspected (such as adultery with an adult), you may continue to ask questions to ascertain specifics and to find out whether others were involved.
Convene your advocacy board or committee to discuss options and start to form a plan of action for gathering information and communicating, based upon church advocacy policies and advice from your attorney.
If a Crime Is Suspected . . .
Contact others. Churches must develop a rigorous plan for reporting incidents to local law enforcement, lawyers, and insurance agents. This area of the law is changing rapidly; if your church has training materials from five years ago, they are likely inadequate to address recent developments.
Earlier this year two Oklahoma church workers were sentenced to 30 days in jail for failing to report child abuse occurring at their church. The criminal complaint described how the church waited 15 days before reporting that a 13-year-old girl had been sexually assaulted by a church employee. In another case, a church was accused of slow response to child sexual assault, resulting in national headlines. The pastor claimed he had reported the incident to police (and he had noted the date of the report on his calendar), but he did not have a formal police report on file.
Involve local law enforcement immediately when a crime is reasonably suspected or known to have occurred. The officers will investigate impartially and thoroughly—something you cannot do. Once word gets around the church, information will be compromised among potential witnesses. Police know how to investigate such situations properly, ensuring that witness information remains reliable. Let law enforcement officers do their job, assist them in any way possible, and give them your assurance that you will cooperate with their investigation.
Contact local law enforcement rather than an anonymous hotline. When the potential crime involves a child victim, a church will have several reporting options: calling a law enforcement agency, the local Department of Human Services, or an anonymous hotline. Churches should train their respondents to call local law enforcement rather than other options. Understand that the investigating officers may later choose to involve other agencies—but your role is to report a potential crime to local law enforcement.
Insist on a written report. When the law enforcement officers respond to your query, insist on a formal police report, written confirmation to show you reported the incident. Do this even if the officers are not convinced that a crime has occurred. This police report should be kept securely in the church’s records—in perpetuity—even if the potential crime is never prosecuted. Careful record keeping reassures victims that their incident was taken seriously. And the records can protect a church’s reputation, serving as evidence that the church exercised diligence.
Contact legal counsel. If a crime is suspected or known, get objective legal counsel to guide you in handling the situation lawfully, to prepare and deliver statements to the church family and to the public. You may also need assistance with reports, legal documents, and court proceedings. Any documents received relating to the incident and/or allegations should be copied and forwarded to your legal counsel.
Contact your insurance company, who will ask you to complete an incident report. Any documents received relating to the incident and/or allegations should be copied and forwarded to the insurance company.
Consider hiring a private investigator for situations where a crime has not occurred. If the situation warrants an extra measure of objectivity and thoroughness (or if you have some indication that the accused perpetrator is responding dishonestly), consider third-party solutions that will help the victim and public understand you are appropriately handling these events.
If No Crime Is Suspected . . .
If no crime is reasonably suspected (e.g., adultery), you may choose to continue your own investigation. Refer to the sidebar for help with gathering information.
Discern truthfulness from deceit through prayer and careful questioning. Watch nonverbal cues, such as excessive nervousness, lack of eye contact, eye movement, uncooperative spirit, evading questions, suspicious information that cannot be verified, lack of respect, or lack of cooperation. Consider facial expressions, character, and the reactions of others in the room. Look into financial records. If any of these factors raises doubt, investigate further. Do not make assumptions, but use nonverbal information as occasions to ask more questions.
From interviews with the alleged offending church leader, obtain names of any victims or additional offenders. Interview anyone whose name comes up in the interviews, and ask them for names of other people they know who have been victimized.
Compile a list of identified victims for the purpose of Biblically ministering to them. Victims may include the unwilling victim, the willing co-offender with the pastor, and the pastor’s wife and children. Address the experiences of these victims through counseling and church ministry (see the May/June article).
Communicating the Church’s Response
With the public. Select one advocate to serve as spokesperson for the church and the committee. That person should work closely with legal counsel. (Note: Often legal counsel speaks on behalf of the church. Follow your attorney’s advice.) Consult legal counsel for help to prepare a statement that acknowledges truth without creating further victims, releasing unnecessary information, or violating the law. Speak according to the advice of legal counsel.
With the victim. Consult your attorney, then select a person on the advocacy committee to serve as the contact person for the victim(s). Have your attorney help create a statement to appropriately invite other offenders or victims to contact that advocate. Provide for those contacts to be made through a safe venue, such as telephone (but not a public venue such as Facebook).
With the church family. Assure your congregation that you are investigating offenses carefully. Cooperate with law enforcement, and continue to investigate as new information is obtained. Communicate carefully, with the help of your attorney. With your attorney’s advice, explain the legal process to victims and their families, and explain to your church the safeguards that are being set up to prevent future offenses, including church discipline. Church discipline of offenders is also covered in Jay Adams’ Handbook of Church Discipline.
Pray and mourn together as a church, using passages such as James 4:8–12 and Psalm 51 and 55, 66:8–20, and 70. Confess sin to God and one another (including the pastor and his family, where appropriate).
Teach the church about Biblical forgiveness—when and how to offer it, even while setting up safeguards and prosecuting offenders. Be attentive with individual victims and their families, giving them special assistance with forgiveness issues. Help victims to receive church action with grace, even if they disagree with the final outcome. For help, see The Peacemaker by Ken Sande.
Help victims together. Seek God’s intervention and protection for victims (Psalm 103:6 and Zechariah 7:9 and 10). Enlist the church’s help with victims’ physical and spiritual needs. Provide Biblical counseling.
Why We Need the Help of Godly Women
Church authorities are wise to include at least one godly woman in their response to sexual misconduct and their ministry to victims.
Another woman is likely to help the victim (or female witness) to feel safe and represented when she faces a room full of men. (This is also a good reason to have both male and female counselors during marital counseling. But I digress.)
The presence of another woman may serve to protect a victim from emotional attachment to a male authority, whom she may come to view as her hero during this upheaval in her life.
In general, women naturally tend to read one another’s nonverbal data pretty accurately. Women can also draw out perspectives that may indicate the presence of related issues that should be explored or to detect inconsistencies.
Men tend to be disconcerted by a woman’s tears. A godly woman is more likely to see through crocodile tears or to deal compassionately with true sorrow and still be objective. A woman can sense when it’s time to take a break or when a line of questions should be postponed or expressed differently.
A bond of trust could be built between the two women that could facilitate additional discipleship, providing ongoing spiritual support for the victim.
How Churches Contribute to the Problem
To correct problems and avoid future offenses, wise church leaders will seriously consider how the church may have contributed to its leader’s moral failure. In doing so, they should acknowledge that the church cannot be blamed entirely. They should also be careful not to set up scapegoats or to cast harsh public accusations. Remembering that the church family is reeling from this crisis, the remaining leaders should be gentle and timely as they realistically address their church’s failures.
1. Failure to act Biblically in prevention.
- Failing to do background checks before hiring staff.
- Failing to set up appropriate safeguards for church staff and children.
- Turning a blind eye to warning signs that all is not well with church leaders. Warning signs may include suspicious behavior, inappropriate emotional expressions, habitual dishonesty, financial irresponsibility, manipulation, passive aggression, intimidation, viewing pornography, narcissism, and resistance to policies or boundaries.
- Failing to monitor the church’s finances. Many cases of ministry sexual abuse also involve a leader’s misuse of funds.
2. Failure to act Biblically regarding offenses or allegations.
- Minimizing or failing to confront known sin or reasonably suspected sin.
- Failure to Biblically address inappropriate flirting and sexually promiscuous living in the church.
- Immodest attire and coarse conversation among church members (Ephesians 5:3–5; 1 Thessalonians 4:3–7).
- Gossip, rather than Biblical confrontation in love.
- Lack of accountability and forgiveness toward offenders.
- Lack of compassion and grace toward victims and their families.
- Failure to exercise Biblical church discipline and restoration (Matthew 18:15–17).
3. Failure to act Biblically regarding law enforcement’s authority to investigate crimes.
- Ignorance and neglect of federal and state laws regarding abuse.
- Failure to consider that some sin is also a violation of criminal law, or failure to understand and respect law enforcement’s role as a God-ordained authority (Romans 13:1–5).
- Covering up potential crimes or obstructing criminal investigations to preserve institutional prosperity (Proverbs 28:13; 12:1).
- Misapplying the Bible’s prohibition against civil suits (1 Corinthians 6) among believers, wrongly applying the principle to include criminal action.
4. Failure to preserve local church authority over parachurch ministry partners.
How to Gather the Victim’s Information
- Interview the person with someone the interviewee trusts (preferably an advocate) present in the room.
- Be gentle and patient. Do not rush.
- Encourage the person to reveal only what he or she knows factually. Do not encourage gossip or speculation (Ephesians 4:25, 29).
- Do not accuse, suggest answers, or become emotional.
- What specifically happened? (Graphic details are unnecessary and should not be encouraged, but you do need to know the extent of the sin.) How do you know? On a scale of 1 to 10, how sure are you of the truth of your recollections?
- Specifically when and how often did the offense(s) occur?
- Where did the offense(s) occur? How did you acquire this knowledge?
- How did the incident(s) come about? Describe the development of your knowledge of the offense(s).
- Who is/was involved? What is/was your involvement? To your knowledge, who else has been involved or impacted?
- Why are you coming forward right now? What do you hope to accomplish?
- What have you done about this offense? Who else have you told, and when? What was their response?
- In what ways have you and your family been affected by these events?
- What direct knowledge do you have about damage done to others?
Explore possible actions
- How would you like us to help you? What other help do you think should be offered? To whom and by whom?
- Discuss options with the advocacy board or committee.
Notes to the Pastor’s Wife
When you, the pastor’s wife, sense that your husband struggles with sexual sins, how can you help him to resolve these in a godly manner?
Be careful to stick with the facts (Philippians 4:8). Refuse to become caught up in fear—“What will become of us?” Consider how to think and act out of love for God, your church, and your husband, rather than acting out of fear. In other words, how might you seek your husband’s well-being in a way that glorifies God, especially when you aren’t sure what is going on?
Pray Scripture for your husband, using passages such as 1 Thessalonians 4:2–6, 1 Corinthians 6:19 and 20, James 4:7, Hebrews 12:1–3, Psalm 128, and Hebrews 13:4.
Approach your husband, describe to him what you have observed (his general outlook, specific incidents, bedroom behavior, etc.), and gently seek his explanation, without accusing him. If he denies wrongdoing but has no reasonable explanation, you can go back to describing what you have seen, and explain that his response is troubling and difficult to reconcile with what you have observed. Keep communication lines open as much as possible, deliberately taking care to express love rather than nagging, fear, or anger. For example, you can ask him to pray with you regularly and to allow you free access to his computer, calendar, office, car, etc. If he refuses, assure him that you want what is best for him, and express your concern for his well-being as a Christian, a husband, a father, a brother, and a pastor. These concerns will serve to remind him what is at stake, should he be dabbling in sin.
Ask godly Christians to pray for your husband and you, especially from Ephesians 1:17–19 and Colossians 1:9–12. In this you must be careful to be discreet and respectful of your husband.
Gather resources to help you decide what to do next. I cannot overemphasize the importance of a Titus 2 ministry in every church. Biblically, every Christian woman (including the pastor’s wife) should be reaching out to those younger in the faith, but should also be in a discipleship relationship with a godly older woman. When these relationships are pursued as a normal way of “doing church,” then resources are already in place when a tragedy such as this is brought to light. Women who know one another’s character will usually extend the benefit of the doubt, keep confidences, offer wise counsel, and step up to help in both practical and spiritual ways.
However, if discipleship is missing from your church, is immature, or if you do not believe it to be wise to involve other church members at this point, then consider consulting a Biblical counselor. You may also consider calling another godly pastor’s wife for advice about a “hypothetical situation.” In addition, here is some good literature that may help. Martha Peace’s book includes steps of appeal and restoration that may be especially helpful.
The Excellent Wife (Focus Publishing, 1995) by Martha Peace is a helpful resource for assessing the wife’s heart and then approaching her husband Biblically. Peace outlines a clear way for a wife to appeal to her sinning husband, and a plan to get further help if he continues in his sin.
Kathy Gallagher’s When His Secret Sin Breaks Your Heart (formerly titled Through Deep Waters, Pure Life Ministries, 2003) helps women identify and Biblically address the tough issues behind their husbands’ sexual sin. Emotions run so high that it is difficult to think clearly. This book recognizes that, and speaks wisdom into the chaos.
Pure Life Ministries offers literature, weekend seminars for families, and residential help for men who struggle with sexual sin, including addiction to pornography.
Help! He’s Struggling with Pornography by Brian Croft (Day One Publications, 2010)
Help! She’s Struggling with Pornography by Rachel Coyle (Day One Publications, 2010)
What to Do When You Are Abused by Your Husband by Debi Pryde and Robert Needham (Iron Sharpeneth Iron Publications) addresses many questions faced by women whose husbands are functioning as enemies of the family.
Help! My Spouse Has Been Unfaithful by Mike Summers (Day One Publications, 2010) helps spouses think through Biblical responses to adultery, even if the offender is unrepentant.
“Betrayal, Fear, and Faith” is a three-part article about the church’s response to victims of a leader’s sexual sin. Read part 1 (May/June 2013), which discusses five categories of victims, helping churches to better consider their needs. Part 3 (September/October 2013) suggests practical steps for churches to minister to victims in their congregations.
Sue Nicewander (MA, Central Baptist Theological Seminary) is executive director of Biblical Counseling Ministries, Inc., based at Calvary Baptist Church, Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., and a member of Berea Baptist Church, Stevens Point, Wis. She is the author of Building a Church Counseling Ministry without Killing the Pastor; Help! I Feel Ashamed; and online resources at the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation.