Questions, Answers & Conclusions

Session 4 of The Church as a Refuge Conference

by Diane Langberg June 23, 2018

The questions and answers from this session of the conference have been transcribed here, edited for clarity in reading.

What about perpetrators and abusers in the chuch?

The first answer, which is not helpful, but true is: it depends. 

If you have a sex offender in your church, he shouldn’t be in your church for several reasons.  First, you can’t trust him.  Second, if you let him come in the church and sit in the back row with people guarding him the whole time, he’s sitting in the back row looking at the children.  So, he’s feeding his brain.  That’s not good for him, obviously, and you don’t want him feeding off your children.

What many churches have started doing is what I call, “bringing the church to the offender.”  I’ve known churches where we have a sex offender, he’s been convicted, maybe he’s out of jail, waiting for court; and there’s a small group of people in the church that meet with him once a week, they listen to the sermon, they sing, they pray, and they work with him.  No kids anywhere.  If he balks at that, it’ll tell you something.

We want to help everybody, but you can’t help everybody, and sex offenders are a very specialized thing.  There are people who are highly trained to work with them, and that’s who they need to see. 

There’s a psycologist by the name of Anna Salter who’s done a lot of writing about sex offenders, because that’s been her life’s work.  She’s well worth reading, and she has videos that are wonderful for churches to look at where she’s interviewing offenders in prison.  They’ll start out sounding like these sweet guys who cut everybody’s grass and helped the old people, and then it flips to the later part of the interview, and it turns out they had 103 victims.  It’s very educational. 

There are things you can do to educate yourselves, but you can’t have sex offenders in your church.  It’s not ok.  It doesn’t mean you don’t love them, or that you don’t want to see the repent.  But they need specialized treatment.

Many years ago, there was a church that did have one, and he was doing everything they said, and they were letting him back in the church finally, and it had been two or three years, and they all thought it was much better.  Then he disappeared one day, and no one knew where he was.  He had flown to Thailand, and you can use your imagination.

How do you help victims who believe lies about God instilled by their abusers?

You don’t help them by telling them.

Remember the woman I told you about who was trafficked, who was my teacher?  I remember years ago trying to tell her.  I knew that if she really knew how much God loves her, it would change her life.  So I tried telling her.  And I referred to it as the “splat” effect.  

I can vividly remember the day I got down on my knees by my bed before I was supposed to see her again, and I said, “Look, God.  She needs to understand how much you love her.  I tried to tell her and she doesn’t get it.”  I know I’m PCA and I’m not supposed to say “God told me,” but God said, “You want her to know how much I love her?  Then get off your knees, go back in that office, and demonstrate it.”  Probably twenty years later, I got a card from her.  She said, “I remember when I first came to see you and you tried to tell me that God loved me, and I had no idea what you were talking about.  You might as well have been trying to describe the color green to a blind person.”  Now, think about that: someone blind from birth—you want to tell them what ‘green’ looks like.  It’s not happening.  She said, “But you did show me what love was, and now I know.”  She was my teacher.

The other thing I want to tell you, which I have told many times, and this victim’s life is bearing fruit she’ll never know about ‘til heaven.  This was a woman who grew up in a rural area and for most of her late elementary school and all of her adolescent years, was taken out to the barn by cousins and everybody else, where they all stood in a circle and took turns gang raping her.  She had no idea that God cared anything about it.  She was full of shame.  How could she ever approach Him?  We worked on the abuse.  We worked on the effects on her.  We’d done skills and she’s told me the story.  I did something which I only do much later in the work.  A few years down the road—maybe three—and I said to her, “Go home and read these three verses.”  It’s in John, right before the crucifixion.  I didn’t tell her anything about it, just “Read these three verses.  I want you to read them, every day, three times, out loud, and I want you to say, every day, ‘what do you want me to see here, God?’”  It was the part where it says, “the soldiers took his clothes.”  She came back to my office the next week, comes through the door, and walks over to the couch.  She hasn’t even sat down and I hadn’t closed the door when she said, “Diane, they took his clothes! They took his clothes!  He knows!”  And that was the beginning of her loving, fruitful, prosperous relationship with Jesus Christ.  She was His child, but she couldn’t get it in.  That was what got it in.

You can’t just say, “God loves you, he’s faithful and he was there.”  People will say, “Well, where was he when I was being abused?”  Well, he was there.  “Why didn’t he stop it?” I don’t know. I can’t answer that question for anybody.  But eventually, they see that he was there, angry and weeping.  Then they see what he went through.  But that comes down the road, sometimes after years.  Quoting scripture won’t get God in.  Living it out slowly over time will.

I’m in a system, trying to help abused people, and the system isn’t listening or doing anything.  What can I do?

Another thing I often say is, “I have no idea.”

I don’t know what to tell you to do.  I’m going to give you some thoughts, but sometimes we need to leave systems.

On my website, you can find all sorts of videos and talks and things like that.  I have a talk on systemic abuse, which will tell you a lot more about it than I did today, but remember that one of the things I said about it is that it’s hard to discern and very difficult to change. 

Suppose you have a pastor who sexually abused some women in the congregation and it comes to light, and everybody circles the wagon: “He didn’t really do it.” “He didn’t mean it.” “It was a mistake.” The force that you’re coming up against is ridiculously strong, and you are the “problem.”  So, they want you to go away.  So, I encourage you to speak the truth and call them to the light, but there comes a point where you walk away because no one is listening.  What you don’t want to do is keep talking when no one is listening, because every time you do that, they’re hardening their hearts more.  So go away, and intercede. 

You, individually, can’t change a system.  But you can speak truth to the powers that be, which is an invitation to the light.  If it is perpetually refused, no.

Full disclosure, I’m a board member for GRACE, which stands for Godly Response to Abuse in a Christian Environment.  It was started by Boz Tchividjian, a prosecuting attorney in Florida many years ago, who prosecuted sex offender cases.  He had the experience for many years of going to court and seeing little girls and little boys and other people coming to testify against those who had abused them, and the church came to the court and sat on the side of the offender.  He decided maybe something needed to be done, so he started GRACE.  It now has a seminary course that can be used in seminaries.  It has a whole training and certificate program for churches.  They will come in and teach policies and procedures and thinking about this and how to respond, and on and on and on, and then you get a certificate that says you took the course.  You end up with educated church leaders and church members.  There’s all kind of resources up on the website.  Justin Holcomb wrote a book for children that’s up there. There’s a good little book on how to teach children about abuse that’s up there.  So, I think you would find the resources very helpful, both personally, and for your churches and institutions. 

How do churches almost exclusively run by men create authentic and effective resources for women?

I don’t think a system can really, truly help women, unless you learn from the women.  I had a daddy, I had a brother, I have a husband of 45 years and I have two sons, and I still don’t know what it’s like to be a man.  Sometimes I think that’s a good thing.  But men don’t have any idea what it’s like to be a woman.  That’s okay, but it means you need to be informed by women. 

I’ve encouraged sessions: If you have a woman coming before a session for any reason—I don’t care if it’s to join the church—there should be another woman in the room. You don’t know if this woman has an abuse history, and she’s coming before ten men?

If you have a woman coming before leaders in the church, whether it’s one or twelve, about domestic abuse, about a history of abuse, about a rape, about clergy abuse—there should be women in the room.  There should be women who advocate for them.  There should be women who are educated about these things, and there should be men who are willing to be educated by the women. 

I don’t know where we got this idea that if you don’t have any women around, you’ll still know what to do.  God made us this way: male and female, working together to bless His world.  We really screwed the whole thing up, but that’s still the design.  And, I think that’s what we’re going to do in heaven: we’re actually going to work together, so we might as well start practicing now. 

To hear a woman tell you something, learn from her, and change how you are is called “humility.” The Man that you follow is humble. He sat with Samaritan women and prostitutes, and we’re taught by Him with these women.  

How do you remain hopeful and avoid becoming cynical with these many stories, and the statistical certainty that there are abusers in our circles?

There isn’t a magic formula that I figured out.  This is a constant thing in my life, and as soon as I think I get it figured out for a while, I’m in the killing fields of Cambodia or talking to Rwandan genocide survivors or having someone tell a story about a Christian system that makes my brain hurt, and I have to start over again.  It’s not a thing you learn to do.

Probably 25 years ago, I told God I was quitting.  I didn’t want to do it anymore.  I don’t like this.  I’m living in a sewer; I don’t like sewers.  My sense was, “Ok Diane, sit down and make a list of the characteristics of what you do.”  That was not too hard: ugly and evil and chaotic and hateful and abusive… the list was long. And I held the list up and said, “See!  This is why I don’t want to do this anymore.”  And here’s what He said: “write the opposite on the other side.”  The opposite?  That’s where I want to live.  Beauty and order and… I soon realized that’s Him.  He’s beauty.  He’s order.  He’s lovely.  

I realized it’s not just a spiritual thing; it’s not just that he is these things and gives these things to me in himself—though that is all true and the central thing in my life—but he made a lot of things out there that I can see and smell and touch and hear that remind me who he is.  And those things are the antidote to what I do.  So I deliberately seek out beauty and order and loveliness.  I walk in the woods, I sit by the water, I learn about flowers and trees and birds, and look at the stars.  You think the world’s chaotic and listen to Bach and go, “Huh.  Somebody wasn’t chaotic.”  I have things like that that I pursue. 

I have an office that has 15 other therapists in it who know and love Christ.  We sometimes practically crawl into each other’s offices and say, “You’re not going to believe what I heard.” But we’re there together, we pray for each other, and we work together, so there’s community.  You can’t really go have community at church and talk about the things you heard confidentially in your office.  Not to mention, no one would know what to do with the things I’ve heard in my office. You’re limited. 

You have to learn to watch for the signs in yourself.  When you start to feel like your clients, you’re in trouble.  I remember years ago standing in church.  We were standing—singing, I don’t remember what—and I thought, “I wonder what they would do if they knew what was in my head.”  That’s what a victim thinks.  Or, I was with two of my colleagues in the Atlanta airport and there was a father who was there with his little girl, probably four or five, with long blonde hair swinging, and he was holding her hand.  One of them said, “isn’t that a beautiful little girl?” and my first thought was, “I wonder if he’s abusing her.”  Ok, Diane.  You’re in trouble. 

You have to watch for those signs, but you have to deliberately seek out the antidote to the poison that you’re sitting with and consuming.

Does same-sex clergy abuse happen in our churches?

Yes.  We tend to think of that as a Catholic Priest problem, which it is, but it is not just a Catholic Priest problem.  We have pastors, elders, leaders, teachers, professors, coaches—male, who abuse males.  We have female leaders, teachers, whatever, who abuse females.  Little ones and big ones, male and female.  Nobody’s exempt. 

The idea that only men abuse women is a lie.  Men also abuse men and boys, and women abuse women and girls. The stats are different for those groups, but if you hear something that doesn’t fit in the category you think is the only one, you’re going to be in trouble.  There’s potential abusers in every category, and it’s not just outside the protestant world at all.  So, you need to make a file in your head for that.

How can I, as a woman, be most helpful to my friend who has been a victim of abuse?

Well, if you’re an abuse survivor, you need to make sure you’ve done your work.  Otherwise, you’ll process it through your own abuse, and everybody’s different. 

You need to study.  There are sometimes small groups of people in different churches, who want to work with domestic abuse, so they read six or eight books together and they listen to things.  You need to read.  You need to keep reading.  You need to listen to videos online. If you do not understand the things we talked about today and way more, you will inadvertently hurt wounded people—exactly what you don’t want to do.

The other thing I tell therapists and that I tell myself is that it doesn’t matter how many abuse victims you’ve seen.  I have no idea how many I’ve seen.  Everybody’s different.  Every story is different.  Every personality is different.  The way it was processed is different.  What happened afterward is different.  You never see the same thing twice.  So, no matter how much you do and see and read, if someone walks in and says, “I’m being abused,” you have to start with “I don’t know.”  I don’t know what it’s like to be this person in this place with this abuse.  I would love to see the church raise up more and more educated knowledgeable care-givers in these areas.  I think that’s who we’re supposed to be.  I think that’s the only way to do this work and not be unsafe.

What should we not do as we serve survivors of abuse?

Well, we shouldn’t preach.  That’s not what they need.  They need a companion along the way who listens, walks with, and has empathy.  Again, on the one hand, you have people who want to give them a verse, and have them have enough faith, and forget what’s behind and press on; and we do that because we think it’s the right thing to say.  It’s not.  All those things are true, but not helpful. 

The other reason we do that is because we’re really uncomfortable listening to these things—as we should be—so we want to fix it.  We want it to stop.  We take verses that are full of truth and we cram them into a situation.  The result is supposed to be “just add water” and everything will be fine. It doesn’t work like that with human beings with all kinds of little things, nor big things like abuse.

If you find yourself preaching, you’re not taking care of the victim, you’re taking care of yourself.  It’s a long, slow, repetitive process, and if it isn’t, you’re not doing it.

You will also meet victims—I’ve had this happen in my office—who will come in and they will say, ‘I’m a believer and I know Jesus has healed me and every once in a while it still comes up and I don’t know what to do, but He’s wonderful.” I’m thinking, you haven’t even met your own story yet.  You ought to be wondering where in the heck He was.  That’s normal.  People often use truths that are true, that we all love.  They don’t fit the situation, but they keep saying them over and over again, in hopes it’ll make them fit.  So, then I say, “Ok, I believe you, and you’re right—He is all of those things.  Can you tell me what it was like before you knew that?”

You mentioned the woman leader who began to reference abuse in her talks and had people coming out of the woodwork and how she didn’t know what to do.  What did you tell her to do, and what can we do?

Well, the answer is some of what I’ve just said.  Study.  Learn.  Read.  Listen. 

The other thing you can do is begin to talk to people who have abuse histories that you know of, assuming you know some, who are not flat out on the road, but have been in counseling for a while and are in a different place.  Ask them, “What would have helped you back then?”  Let them teach you.  They’ve been teaching me for decades.  They’ve been teaching me about what churches can do and what they shouldn’t do, and how they’re not doing it right, or when they are doing it right.  They are your teachers.  You don’t want to have a group of helpers to help women who are experiencing domestic abuse, without anyone in the group having a clue personally what that’s like.  You also don’t want it to only be people who have personal experience.  But you do want them to inform. 

That’s true about male leaders, too. If you have to respond to a domestic abuse situation as elders or pastors, you need to talk to people who have lived through it, not just the person in front of you.  

What is your opinion of church leaders requiring documentation from a victim of abuse in order to gain approval to move forward in separation or divorce?

Sometimes, things are better left unsaid.  But, I'll answer the question once I figure how to answer it nicely. 

I don’t exactly know what “documentation” means, but it probably means something other than “her words.”  It probably means somebody was there when it happened and will sign off on it, or it means that there are physical marks somewhere that somebody can see, or something like that.  What that completely ignores, something we talked about today, is the tremendous level of deception that is part of being an abuser.  The woman who was killed, that I told you about?  They never saw any of her wounds.  He bit her.  He beat her.  He bruised her.  And he made sure not of it ever showed.  She would wear long sleeves.

A woman years ago used to come to our church.  Turtlenecks, long sleeves. It’s August and the air conditioning isn’t working.  What’s that about?  Years later she came into my office.  She was covering up terrible bruises.  It’s done on purpose that way. 

Sometimes there aren’t bruises.  There’s no broken bones or bruises when you are emotionally and verbally abusive for ten years.  How are you going to document that?

I’m puzzled by why, if a person comes in and says, “this person is doing these things to me,” we don’t say it’s credible.  Is this somebody who’s come and lied to you the last twelve years?  That would be a problem.  But we assume it’s not credible, so then it has to be “proved”.  I don’t understand that.

If someone came in and said, “there’s a man outside with a gun aimed at my head and he’s going to shoot me if I tell you the truth,” you would probably get down behind your desk. You would give it credibility.  We just think it’s not possible.  It’s way possible.

“Somebody raped me” “Well, did you have a witness?”  Usually rapists don’t bring witnesses.

There’s a mindset there that is completely erroneous and terribly damages victims.  It’s always interesting to me how little the Church understands about deception.  It’s not like it isn’t in the scriptures.  If I can’t even understand my own levels of deception, how the heck am I going to understand yours?  So, we assume goodness.  And that’s the wrong assumption.

So, take the words.  Have empathy and say how sad you are it happened.  Find people to walk along the side.  Get them to professional help.  Call the police, and if it’s a child, do the mandated reporting.  But assume it’s true.  It’s not your job to figure that out.

Is it okay to ask someone if they have been abused?

Yes and no.  I wouldn’t do it that way.

First of all, most people don’t tell.  If you have a relationship where people talk about struggles and you ask them about their history.  “Tell me about growing up.”  “Do you have any experience of abuse in your life?”  It’s a general question.  Many of them will say no, and come back six months later and say, “You know that question you asked me? Yes.” 

I’ve had clients who come to me and see me for a year and a half before they say, “oh by the way, my father had sex with me for five years.”  They’re afraid to tell.  They don’t think they’ll be credible.  They have shame—which is not theirs, it’s the perpetrator’s, but they think it’s theirs.  So, if you ask that straight-out question, they’ll just disappear inside themselves. They won’t tell you the truth.  Find a way to put it in the room, without putting the focus on them.  It’s an invitation.  “If this ever happened, as a category, we can talk about it.”  That’s all you’re doing.

What is a Godly, appropriate response for a victim of clergy abuse toward her abuser, both privately and publicly?

Well, I have about six sessions of questions to ask first, because I don’t know anything about this situation.  In other words, the first thing I would say is, somebody needs to know the truth.  I am hoping that if you are a victim of clergy sexual abuse, you aren’t hanging out at the same church, because you are not safe. 

So, it depends.  You should be angry.  God is angry.  He hates it.  It was evil.  He hates evil.  This anger is not wrong.  It’s obviously destructive in your life, and his life, and if not handled properly, destructive in the entire church’s life.

When people ask that question, they also want to know about forgiving, which is a whole huge area that we can’t figure out today.  But I will say, forgiveness of atrocious things takes a really, really, really long time and we have to do it a thousand times.  You don’t just forgive somebody and go on.  Every time it comes up in your head, you have to do it again.  It can be exhausting, frankly. 

It happens all the time with women in domestic abuse situations.  They come in, tell the pastor, and they say “Okay, you need to go home, be more loving so he won’t beat you, and you need to forgive him.”  He hasn’t even stopped, and she needs to forgive him?  That’s not a good thing to do.  That sets her up for more harm.  We have to be careful because everything that we say has to take into account the reality of what happened, how it affected the perpetrator, the people around the perpetrator, and the victim.

I can’t answer that question one way for everybody.

What is your first step in counseling someone whose life experience is so vastly different from your own, and whose experience of trauma is beyond your scope of understanding?  Where do you begin?

I become the student.

I travel all over the world, and I go to these cultures, and I read books galore before I go, and I talk to people from that culture if I can, and ask them for the history.  When I went to Romania the first time, I had a psychologist send me articles and what I learned about communism and the children who live in the sewers even today…  I wouldn’t have known how to process the things I was hearing if I didn’t know all that. 

I do the same things with people.  They don’t have articles on themselves usually—some of them do—but the point is, I want first to be the student of whoever’s in front of me.  Teach me about you.  Not just the facts of your life, though that’s usually where people start since it’s not usually so threatening, but what it’s like to be you inside. 

When your daddy went to Afghanistan and came home with no legs, what’s that been like?  I never had a daddy with no legs.  I had a daddy whose legs didn’t work, but he had legs.  I want to know inside the experience of who they are.  Then I also want to know how other people responded to them.  When you told somebody you were being sexually abused by your uncle, what happened?  What was it like?  Who said what?  How did it feel?  What did you want to do?

It takes a long time to learn what it’s like to be another person in another culture.  It takes a long time to learn what it’s like to be another person in these situations, which frankly, is a different culture from the one I know.  I didn’t grow up in a culture of abuse.  I work with people who have grown up in the culture of abuse for the last five generations.  I have to be their student. 

Our first task is not to tell them things. Our first task is to be their student, and learn from them, and sit at their feet.  

How can men hold each other accountable for abuses, and what can be done when they don’t?

The first thing the men have to do is give credibility to the woman.  Does that mean she said everything 100% perfectly right?  Probably not; most of us don’t.  Plus, if she’s being abused on a regular basis, she’s probably not thinking very clearly.  She’s probably telling you less than the truth.  She’s afraid.  She’s afraid he’s going to find out; she’s afraid you’re not going to listen. 

When you come up against sexual abuse, rape, sexual harassment, domestic abuse of any kind, I would bring somebody else into the loop.  They didn’t teach you that in seminary.  You don’t know what to do.  It’s okay that you don’t know what to do, but it’s not okay to think you do and hurt people.

If you’re a pastor or elder, you need to have a list of people you know in your area who work with trauma and abuse, who you know love God and are safe for people, and actually know something about those fields, which is not every counselor, for the record.  People have specialties.  That person needs to be brought in, not only the sake of this person—whether the abuser or the victim—but to educate you about “this is what it’s like”, “these are the things you need to know”, “these are the people you need to call”, “these are the services available”; you should not walk through things that are so dangerous and damaging to human souls without assistance.  It’s, frankly, arrogant.

How does a person regain her identity after experiencing a long list of personal traumas and abuse?

She does not ever regain her identity.  It’s not possible.  It’s like saying, “after a semi runs over me and mutilates my legs, how do I get my legs walking again.”  It ain’t gonna happen.

The question is, what is available to her over time as a new identity?  This may have terrible damage in its history and terrible traumas and all kinds of suffering.  But as that work is done and the story is told, and some healing begins to occur, one of the greatest joys of the work I’ve done has been with some of the most broken people I’ve seen.  They didn’t have any idea they were smart.  They didn’t have any idea they could paint, or sing, or write.

I had two sons, and I remember when they were tiny, tiny infants, looking at each of them when they were born thinking, “this is a treasure chest, and I have no idea what’s inside this person.”  The same thing is true with my clients.  They’re treasure chests somebody ran over, but the treasures are in there.  Part of what you want to do is help them find what nobody helped them find before, and those things are usually hugely helpful in their healing journey.  Someone who’s had no voice learns they can write? Somebody who never had anything to sing about finds out they have a beautiful voice?  Those things become ways of expressing not only good, but pain. 

You don’t regain, not in this world.  But you do get pieces of it back that have been crushed.  You also get strengths—and this is not to say that it makes it “all better.” It does not make it all better.  But, you do get strengths out of your suffering that you would not have had.  My family did when my father was sick for 32 years.  I learned things and have strengths that that affected my profession profoundly.  Do I wish he had been healthy? Absolutely. Are there a lot of losses around those 32 years?  Absolutely. But there are also strengths.  And so there’s a new identity where the treasures come and are expressed and grown, and the strengths borne of the hard places are there.  Then, some of the things that were true get regained—maybe someone was a little child and had a great life with a great sense of humor until they were abused at ten and finds their sense of humor again in my office at 40.  Some of it is regained, but you don’t become “who you should have been” without it.  Not in this ruined world.  It doesn’t mean what you become isn’t beautiful, or that you don’t have a lot to give, or that you don’t give glory to God. It doesn’t mean you can’t laugh or enjoy things or find skills.

But regaining?  Never.

It is difficult to find a counselor who is qualified in abuse.  How can you screen for that?  I’ve experienced irreparable damage by marriage counselors. 

This is one of places where I have to monitor myself.

Let’s start with this, and church leaders need to hear this very clearly: if you are in a domestic abuse relationship, you do not need, nor should you have, marriage counseling.  It is not safe.  You can’t do marriage-building unless there’s a marriage.  And you can’t talk to these people and do he-said she-said, because then they go home, and he beats her up for he-said.  It’s not okay.

If you have domestic abuse and someone refers you to a marriage counselor, that’s not where you want to go.  They may think you’re terrible, and that your marriage is sacred, and that you’re doing all the wrong things.  They’re wrong—you're not.

Yes, there are lots and lots of people out there who are counselors and who do all kinds of good things and don’t know anything about trauma, or they’ve only seen one person who was traumatized.  Somebody calls a counselor and says, “I have trauma in my life do you work with trauma?” They say yes, and as it turns out, they’ve seen somebody once with trauma and they thought it was interesting and would like to practice some more.  That’s not what you want. 

Here’s what you do: you ask them questions.  Are you licensed?  How long have you been practicing?  What are your specialties?  And if they don’t list what you want, it’s probably not right.  If they say they work with trauma, ask: what kinds of traumas have you worked with?  How long have you done that?  What kind of training have you had?  (Most graduate programs don’t teach trauma.  That’s changing, but still most don’t.)  Are there people who are known for trauma whose thinking you follow?  If they’re grumpy about your questions, don’t go see them. They shouldn’t be grumpy.  You’re going to trust your life and the parts of you that are most wounded to somebody you don’t know and pay them money, and you don’t get to ask questions?  Take care of yourselves that way.

How should I approach church leaders who fail to consider how their words are heard by trauma victims?

Full question: This is a question about how we, as church leaders, can be aware of and sensitive to how our words impact abuse victims.  Several months ago, one of our pastors said he found a lot of freedom by thanking God for some difficult things in his life.  He asked the congregation to think of the worst thing that had ever happened to them and thank God for it as they were coming to receive communion.  I asked our pastors to think about the impact of that statement on someone who had been abused.  There are theological truths that we hold dear, such as the sovereignty of God above all things.  How do we affirm these truths while still being careful about how we impact our congregations?

That’s like telling somebody who lived through the Nazi Holocaust on the way to the Communion Table to thank God for the Holocaust.  God hates the Holocaust.  You don’t thank God for things that are evil.  You thank him instead, perhaps, for who He is, or what he’s teaching you, or how he sustained your life when you ought to be dead.  But, of course, there are many people who aren’t even ready for that yet.  The problem, and the reason we’re doing this today, is that there aren’t yet many church leaders who realize that the word “Father” makes some want to crawl under a pew and cry.  Some people are so afraid of that word that they want to run out the door and never talk to anybody ever.  But we don’t think that.  We think that everyone is like us.  It’s a tad egocentric.

You have something like this.  This person has no processing of the terrible damage of one of the most beautiful things in Christianity.  He used that to hurt somebody without realizing, and he doesn’t get it.

So, what you do is what you did: say. 

Then you have somebody who says, “Oh my gosh, I’ve never thought about that.  I need to think about that.” You can then say, “I’d be happy to teach you a little more.”

But then you have somebody who says, “No, it’s okay, this is a good thing to do.”  This tells you something about the person: they don’t have ears to hear.  You have to figure out what to do with that.  You could go and talk further and say “This troubled me, and here’s a story—not mine but someone else’s.  Can you imagine what it would be like for someone to be told to thank God that their father raped them when they were four?  I don’t think so. 

If you keep going to people in leadership and you get no response, you have deaf leadership.  So, then you have to decide whether you want to follow people who are deaf or not.  I don’t know the answer to that.  Everyone will have a different answer.

But, you need to see the response when you push again and again and again, and eventually you need to say, “Would that you had known on this day the things that make for peace!” and leave the temple weeping.  It’s what Jesus did.

I have noticed that predators, in the grooming process, build up their victims, enjoying being the one to build them up and invest in them before tearing them down.  How can we avoid that power dynamic and still raise people up in the church?

This is a correct observation about grooming.  Groomers don’t start out doing bad things to people.  If you have a particular adult in your church (or adolescent for that matter) who is spending a lot of time with one person who has less power, over and over again, doing good things for them; I would have a problem with that.  And they would point to their works and ask why you have a problem with that.  The question is, why are you doing this with this one person who has way less power than you?  That’s not okay.

Part of what happens is that the person who’s getting all these good things, probably desperate for love and attention, is soaking it up like a sponge and get to a point where they will do anything for you, and ‘anything’ is usually not a good thing.

When somebody makes themselves the person, that’s not affirming.  Complimenting people, affirming skills, knowledge or abilities are all wonderful and good and not grooming.  But a person with power and one other person, that’s a red flag.  It could be two or three, but it’s a focused thing. 

You might see a youth pastor who’s giving special spiritual attention to one or two needy children.  There’s something not okay about that.  Even if they aren’t calculating something—through they often are—it’s lopsided.  He’s not the only person who could help somebody. 

An abuse victim deserves protection.  At the same time, self-protective survival behaviors may develop, which may harm others.  As a therapist, how have you handled these situations? 

Certainly, people can have protective behaviors which harm either the self (e.g. drugs, cutting) or others.  I don’t really do anything at the beginning with that.  You need a close, faithful, safe relationship with somebody before you start poking at things.  But I would approach it less, “you really shouldn’t do that, it’s not good for people,” but rather “what are you trying to accomplish when you do that?” And, “What are you afraid of when you do that?” 

You can have empathy for the fear, and the fear will make perfect sense to you given the history of abuse, and you can even have empathy for the self-protection part of it and agree: you’re wise to protect yourself if you can.  Suppose we come up with a better way to do this, which doesn’t have quite the same results.

Sometimes people will use a lot of anger, for example.  Rage that can go off like a tinder box.  All they’re doing is trying to protect themselves when they’re overwhelmed, but rage doesn’t usually help relationships.  You can find out why it’s there, what its purpose is, what they want to happen, and then you can suggest this or that.  And they will usually have enough flexibility to do that. 

But, if you go in and say, “don’t do that,” in their mind, you’re saying, “don’t protect yourself” and you’ll be the next person they’re mad at.

As a survivor of clergy sexual abuse as an adult, I am feeling drawn to start using my voice to make a difference.  How do I best prepare to speak up knowing many people will view what happened to me as an affair, and shame and blame me?

Almost every victim or survivor of abuse I’ve every seen wants people to know something of what they’ve learned and what it did to them.  They want to give back, it’s a wonderful redemptive piece.  It’s not usually done by telling your story.  It’s usually done by drawing from your story the elements and principles and things you’ve learned to educate other people. It’s not that nobody is ever called to tell their story, that’s not true.  But, if you just say, “this is my story,” First, people don’t want it to be true, because they like to think that clergy won’t ever hurt anybody.  They don’t know what to do.  Second, people will think you made it up.  Thirdly people will think what you’re afraid they’ll think: you had an affair and you were seductive in some way and “the poor guy.”  You then become the enemy because of your story, which is not what you want to happen.

Rather than saying, “this is what happened to me,” I’ll say to victims who are ready to start speaking into systems, “Let’s look at it together and figure out some of the things you’ve learned that are applicable to other places.”  Sometimes, bad things happen to people and we want to blame them, and it makes us feel better because then we think that if we never do those things, it’ll never happen to us.  It’s a selfish interpretation. But sometimes bad things happen to really grown-up people, and it isn’t their fault.  So, educate in a broader sense, rather than “here’s my story.”

Then, somewhere you find trusting people down the road, and you tell them the reason you know these things is because you do have a story.  But then, you tell them because you trust them.  They’ve shown themselves over time as you’ve done the teaching and educating.

© 2019 Tenth Presbyterian Church.

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Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By Diane Langberg. ©2019 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org