With the issue of sexual abuse in the headlines, the Center for Women in Ministry at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham recently hosted a workshop on the topic.
Rebecca Henderson was the featured speaker at the “Ministering to Individuals Who’ve Experienced Abuse” event.
A Samford University graduate, licensed clinical social worker and rape response coordinator for the Birmingham Crisis Center, Henderson told the audience, “Whether or not we know it, there are survivors of abuse in your life. You may even be a survivor yourself who’s healing and wanting to offer healing to others.”
Henderson focused on common, though wrong, assumptions about survivors of various kinds of abuse, their responses and how best to minister to them.
Abuse is basically the misuse of power over individuals or groups. It may involve physical, mental, emotional, economic/financial, spiritual or sexual abuse, or any combination of these, she said, explaining the impact of various types of trauma before offering practical advice for helping abuse survivors.
“Start with seeking to understand before any advice comes out of your mouth,” Henderson urged.
“When in doubt, don’t give advice is my advice.”
Be careful when responding to disclosures of abuse, she said, and avoid trite spiritual sayings like, “God won’t give you more than you can handle” or the word “why,” which can be taken as accusatory.
When wondering what to say, Henderson encouraged using phrases like:
- “I believe you.”
- “Thank you for trusting me with this.”
- “This is not your fault.”
- “I will do my best to keep you safe.”
- “I’m sorry this happened.”
She also urged directing the abuse survivor to a crisis center, trained therapist or others with appropriate knowledge.
“Talking about abuse is helpful, but due to the way trauma impacts our brains and bodies, it can be especially helpful to seek out care that integrates the entire person and find trauma-informed and trained therapists,” she noted.
Immediately after a traumatic event a person may experience shock or denial, and it is important to give them choice and control and not assume what they need or what is best.
Follow-up must be a priority, Henderson declared. After the acute phase, abuse survivors often push down their feelings and move on. Over time it can become increasingly difficult to do so.
Coping and healing happen within personal abilities and timelines, Henderson noted. Anniversaries and triggering events can bring back what was thought to be healed, so it’s important to provide support and space.
As the person processes and integrates what has happened, often through therapy, “instead of this being [their] whole story, this becomes part of [their] story,” Henderson said.
One way to make a church a safe space for survivors is to talk about abuse in sermons, Sunday Schools or workshops, she noted. Another is to have a woman in leadership with whom abuse survivors feel comfortable discussing their experiences.
Other important ways to have a safe church are to avoid blaming the survivor and prevent cover-ups, she said.
“Research has shown that clergy have been able to recognize that something was rape yet they still put blame on the victim,” Henderson explained.
Finally, avoid judging those who need time away from church especially if that is where the abuse occurred.
“One article I like about creating a safe church said, ‘When someone gets hurt in a basketball game, they’re going to sit out in the basketball game so that they can come back.’
“When someone has experienced abuse — spiritual, sexual, financial, etc. — in the church, they may take time to come back. But that time away can help them heal,” Henderson explained.
She reminded church leaders they can minister to survivors outside the physical church.