It was one year ago, at the end of February 2015, that I dropped seven envelopes into one of those old-fashioned mailboxes (the kind that sort of look like R2D2) outside a Brookshire Brothers grocery store in Katy, Texas.
Inside each envelope was a letter addressed to a key leader at a church in another state. Each letter asked questions about a situation I had only learned about a couple months prior — an abuse allegation from 3 years before that had gone un-investigated by the leaders of that congregation. I was direct but measured, warning those men who I cared for deeply about the potential outcome of continuing to not address these issues more directly.
Things got sticky. My wife and I received certified mail from the church insisting we stop asking questions and speaking about this issue, and ultimately we (and three others) were sued by the lead pastor and the church. While the lawsuit was dropped, the effects of the confrontation were felt by many.
- The abuser was sentenced to 25 years in prison for his crimes
- The church has seen a drastic decrease in attendance and offerings as the news went public, losing key volunteer and paid leaders as they took further missteps in handling the situation. They sent the lead pastor on sabbatical, brought him back, and are vowing more transparency from this point forward — but still not discussing these events
- The victims continued to suffer in relative silence, though many got counseling and felt encouraged that people were sticking up for them. Others are still holding onto secrets
One of the effects of the confrontation few realized is that a disturbing amount of individuals contacted my wife and I privately to thank us for confronting a church’s behavior because the same thing had happened to them in other locations. More than once…more than twice…more than three times…individuals told us about child abuse, sexual assault, and molestation that they were aware of (or that had occurred to them directly) that was never confronted by church leadership. In some cases, church leaders or family of church leaders were the perpetrators.
These are not isolated incidents. They are far too common. It is not acceptable.
One of the positives to emerge from our involvement in this event was that the church where I presently serve was able to sit down and draft a comprehensive, implementable, understandable policy on child abuse, including how we will behave when folks share concerns with us about alleged abuse.
If your church does not have such a policy, please contact me and I will share ours. It is essential that churches are prepared for these types of incidents before they occur. It is far too easy to make misjudgments when we don’t have guiding principles. Our policy isn’t perfect, but we have used it effectively since it’s development and it will provide you with a starting point for your leaders to shape a policy that meets your needs.
A few years back, one of our children’s ministers approached me on a Sunday morning. A volunteer in her ministry had identified what appeared to be heavy bruising on an infant in their class. I went with my colleague and viewed the bruising for myself. We concluded that there was a likelihood that abuse was taking place–the bruises were significant. We informed our lead pastor and then prepared to contact the child abuse hotline.
When I got home, I told my wife about the incident. Having a nursing background, she asked if the child was Hispanic. He was, I had observed. She told me that it was very likely that the “bruising” was actually Mongolian spots, a birthmark of sorts nearly 50% of hispanic children possess. She consulted with our children’s minister to confirm the color and location of the markings. We realized we had almost over stepped. A conversation with the parents confirmed he had the common markings. In the end, it was pretty embarrassing that we jumped to a conclusion that was false. However, because we had a way of communicating and behaving (although this was before we had a formal policy) we were able to come to the right conclusion in the end.
Here’s my point: I would rather be embarrassed from overreaching than suffer the damaging consequences of doing too little.
Far too many of our churches are guilty of doing too little, and it’s our job as student pastors to lead a better path forward. Let me know how I can help you. I’ve learned the hard way that this stuff can get messy, but if you asked me if I’d do it all over again I would not hesitate.
With a little advanced planning, you may never have to.
Let’s get busy.