Pastors: Preventing sexual abuse and caring for the abused takes the whole church
October 7th, 2019 / By: Bonnie Pritchett | TEXAN Correspondent / comments
GRAPEVINE Five years ago, Ivy Shelton, pastor of First Baptist Church in Waskom, recommended the church perform background checks on volunteers working with minors, including people already serving in children’s and youth ministries. A few members of the East Texas congregation resisted. And one couple, so offended by the proposition, left the church.
When pastor John Powell of Emanuel Baptist Church in New Caney proposed the same security measures at a former church, deacons openly opposed him. Powell admitted his attempt to impose the policy was “ham-fisted,” but the opposition was startling.
“I thought it was a much bigger deal than anyone else thought it was and it didn’t go over well,” he said.
That was then.
Today, young families visiting Powell’s 2-year-old SBTC church plant demand child safety protocols. And the members of FBC Waskom, steeped in the inescapable news of child sexual abuse, welcome bolstered abuse prevention protocols.
With experience ranging from rural West Texas towns to East Texas suburbs, and from a young church plant to a 120-year-old congregation, three SBTC pastors attending the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission’s National Conference, Oct. 3-5, spoke with the TEXAN about their efforts to shepherd their flocks. Conference speakers representing victims of abuse, child-safety advocates and SBC leadership addressed the theme “Caring Well: Equipping the Church to Confront the Abuse Crisis.”
Powell, Shelton and Matthew Beasley, pastor of Ridgecrest Church in Greenville, spoke with the TEXAN about how they have been and will continue implementing abuse prevention protocols and ministering to victims of abuse.
Personal experience informs Beasley’s vigilance. Having suffered abuse as a child (though not within the church) he prioritized shoring up safety standards when he arrived at Ridgecrest in 2012. New policies required all volunteers working with minors to take abuse prevention training provided by Darkness to Light. An extensive church remodeling project included restructuring the children’s ministry area to accommodate new safety protocols. And two years ago, Ridgecrest Church partnered with MinistrySafe, a program that helps churches establish abuse prevention policies.
Like Powell, Beasley met resistance from married couples who worked together with children. Some balked when the church implemented new standards prohibiting related adults from working together without a third adult present.
“To me it was a non-negotiable when we’re talking about the safety and security of children,” said Beasley.
As a church plant, establishing child-safety policies is part of the church’s DNA, Powell said.
“Everyone seems to know someone who’s been affected by this,” he said of his suburban congregation. “And so it’s been a very easy process. And, for me, the church has been behind it 100 percent of the way,” he said.
At the conference, Shelton realized his church could improve existing policies. While existing protocols try to deter what one conference speaker called the “outside threat” posed by perpetrators seeking access to victims in youth and children’s ministries, Shelton said they ignore the possibility that the abuser is already in the church. With a history of abuse but no criminal record to show for it, the majority of perpetrators will pass a background check.
“That was something I had never thought about,” said Shelton. “So, I’m going to take that home and really think about that and try to implement some practices to address that.”
All three pastors said young families looking for a church expect to find strong safety protocols within the children’s ministries—otherwise they will look elsewhere for a church home.
Suffering with those abused
Preventing abuse within the church is only part of the culture pastors must cultivate.
“If the church is supposed to be a place where people heal, then we need to be so careful with those who have gone through abuse situations so that the atmosphere is such that they can heal and we hear them,” said Shelton.
Beasley’s abuse experience has informed how he pastors. It has also made processing recent victims’ stories difficult.
“To see the flippant attitudes people take toward abuse … is absolutely crushing,” he said.
Biblical care requires that the church take seriously any report of abuse, the pastors said.
“We need to believe survivors of abuse and err on that side,” said Powell.
Giving ear to their stories may require more than a pastor, they admitted. Because female victims of abuse may not want to confide in a male pastor, the pastors said it is important to have prominent female lay leaders or staff willing to hear those stories of abuse. And, like with child safety policies, having protocols in place to help abuse victims allows the church to respond quickly, effectively and compassionately when abuse is reported.
The Caring Well Challenge equips congregations to that end. A handbook produced by the ERLC, “Becoming a Church that Cares Well for the Abused,” and an accompanying video series can train church members in how to help victims of abuse within their congregations.
Emanuel Baptist Church is part of a pilot program using the new material. Shelton said he will introduce the program at his church.
All three churches use or will begin using MinistrySafe. To encourage more SBTC churches to utilize the program, the SBTC will pay for up to five church members in 1,000 churches to take the training.
The pastors said programs, policies and training serve an essential purpose in creating a safe environment for all church members. Yet pastors must also foster an environment within the church that does not dismiss the reality of sin within the congregation but cares for those harmed by it.
“But ultimately, it has to wind up in the hearts of the people,” Powell said. “They have to get their minds around it. It’s a comprehensive work of an entire congregation to push toward an ideal and goal and not just implement a program and be good.”