In my work with churches and abuse survivors, I sometimes encounter pastors devastated by betrayal. When abuse is discovered in a church, the leadership may rightly focus on the victim: ministering to the person, making sure he or she is safe, helping file police reports, or finding a good counselor. However, pastors often neglect to care for themselves.
It’s easy to underestimate the spiritual causticity of abuse. There’s a blast radius affecting not only the victims, but also their friends, family, and church community. As a pastor, if you aren’t aware of how the situation is affecting you, the damage may eventually wear you down.
Misplaced Grief and Guilt
Some pastors bottle up their grief and overlook or ignore signs to slow down or step back. Perhaps they bury themselves in work to take their minds off the growing pressure, frustration, or distrust they feel. They may hold others at arm’s length to both hide their weakness and protect themselves from further betrayal.
Others may be overwhelmed by feelings of guilt and get bogged down in questions like, “Why didn’t I realize my friend was dangerous?” or “Why did I trust him?” or “Why couldn’t I convince her to repent?” Before long, depression and anxiety may reach such a pitch that the pastor can no longer handle the demands of ministry.
My goal is to help you anticipate these challenges, cope with the struggles, and brace for the trials that will come. Recognizing and addressing things that might hinder us helps us to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us” (Heb. 12:1, NIV).
1. Take time to process shocking information.
You may have hypothetically considered what you’d do if an abuse victim confided in you, but in reality, it’s difficult to navigate. After our ears have heard the truth, our brains have to play catch-up. No matter how open-minded or wise you are, it takes time and effort to process shocking information. Particularly if the accused is someone you know and trust, a report of abuse will be jarring and distressing. You may feel defensive and confused. You’ll likely have a lot of questions, but you may need to hold them for a period of time and focus on listening at the moment of disclosure. No matter how shocked you feel, it’s important for you to move ahead to involve law enforcement and other church leaders. Do not assess and respond to the situation alone.
2. Communicate righteous anger.
As a righteous judge, God feels anger against wickedness every day (Ps. 7:11), and that should comfort us. He doesn’t take the betrayals we experience lightly. And our own anger—when rightly expressed—can reflect God’s righteous anger against sin. For many abuse victims, knowing someone else is angry for how they’ve been sinned against is comforting. Rather than hiding your anger as if it’s wrong, consider sharing it in love with the victims. Let them know they’re not alone.
3. Allow yourself to grieve for the abuser.
I’ve wept for many abuse victims, but I’ve wept for abusers too. You’ll likely long for the abuser to repent and be saved. Too often, that doesn’t happen. When the abuser’s true nature is horrifically revealed, you may find yourself grieving as if your friend died. Because there is death here—the death of trust, the death of relationships, the death of who you thought the person was. And sometimes, abuse reveals the dead state of the abuser’s soul.
4. Don’t count on a happy ending in this life.
As Christians, we know there’s healing and restoration in Jesus. Unfortunately, we don’t always see it on this side of heaven. An abuser may never repent. A marriage may end in divorce. A child may suffer long-lasting effects from trauma. Victims may spiral into depression or substance abuse; they may leave the church or commit suicide. The world is fallen, but our hope isn’t in this world. Fix your eyes on the joy set before you (Heb. 12:2).
5. Brace yourself for friendly fire.
When we try to help people who are in agony, they’ll sometimes lash out at us. It’s easy to feel betrayed or hurt when this happens. It’s easy to worry we’ve done something wrong. As you minister to people grieving abuse, understand you may receive the brunt of their pain and distress, even when you do all the “right” things to care for them. Anticipate this, and try not to take it personally. Be the calm person who listens with patience and mercy.
6. Be ready to let people go.
When people in your congregation endure trauma, be prepared to help them find a new church. Understand that, no matter how well you handle a bad situation or how innocent and self-sacrificing you are, they may need to recover elsewhere. Consider how you can shepherd them through this transition—lovingly entrusting them to the care of elders and members in another congregation—if it’s needed.
7. Recognize early signs of depression and anxiety.
Depression doesn’t always feel like sadness. Anxiety rarely feels like worry. Early signs of depression are often described as fatigue, loss of interest in hobbies, and difficulty motivating oneself. Anxiety sometimes feels like tightness in the chest, restlessness, or a foreboding that something bad is about to happen. Physical signs may include a racing heart, holding your breath, lightheadedness, muscle spasms, headaches, difficulty sleeping, or a change in appetite. Know these signs and watch for them in yourself. The sooner you notice them, the sooner you can address them by seeking godly counsel and any necessary medical intervention.
8. Don’t overburden yourself.
Only God can soften an abuser’s hard heart. Only God can heal a victim’s broken heart. Salvation and sanctification are the Holy Spirit’s job, not the pastor’s—and that’s a good thing. Revelations of abuse are both a challenge and an opportunity to rest in the Lord. Don’t take too much responsibility on yourself. Be ready and willing to outsource as much as possible to law enforcement, therapists, lawyers, and most importantly, the Lord. As Proverbs 11:14 puts it, “in an abundance of counselors there is safety.” Abuse is heavy, far-reaching, and complex. Spread out the responsibilities so the victim is served well, and so you can minister with perseverance.
I once took a CPR class and the instructor taught us to always be wary of exhaustion and of trying to rescue someone on our own. There’s a danger that instead of rescuing the person, you’ll grow weak, or overwhelmed, or become injured or trapped yourself. That’s why you’ll often see two or more lifeguards at a pool. This concept translates to our spiritual, emotional, and mental health as well. Don’t manage complex situations alone. Remember your humanity and the pitfalls that may hinder you. As you navigate abuse, run the race with endurance by the grace of God and with the help of those who he’s provided to run with you.