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Do No Harm | Part 3

by Anna Mondal

In Part 2, we looked at ways pastors can wisely care for abuse victims. The value of self-education was emphasized, along with the practice of thoughtful listening. In this post, we’ll look at ways to be Christlike in words and actions, and the appropriateness of building a care team for victims.

Tread carefully 

We all make relational faux pas. We tease too hard, make hurtful assumptions, behave carelessly. But the damage is graver when you’re a spiritual authority, and the potential harm amplifies when you’re relating to someone with a traumatic past: a combat veteran, a rape victim, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse.

Abuse victims need “care and compassion…love, safety, patience, and counseling,” write Justin and Lindsay Holcomb.[1] But, “unfortunately, many victims who reach out to churches in times of need receive blame, disbelief, suspicious questions, bad advice, platitudes, and shallow theology.” [2] Victim care requires care—reflection, wonderment, deep thinking, and some humble self-doubt. It is no place for pastors to shoot from the hip.  

When counseling non-traumatized people, it may be totally appropriate to challenge them directly, or tell them they must do something: read a passage, pray aloud, look you in the eye, or attend a small group. But for an abuse victim, a posture of unbending, inflexible authority could feel like another violation. The pastor is another person in their life who says, “I know what’s best for you, and you don’t have a say.” The victim will probably shut down inside, and the counsel will fall on ears legitimately unable to hear anymore. 

Instead of issuing commands, pastors can issue invitations: “Are you comfortable praying out loud?” “Can you help me understand why eye contact is hard for you?” “What are your thoughts?” Be respectful of the victim’s agency and voice. Never force disclosure, decisions, or physical contact. [3] Coercion is a trademark of abusive relationships, and you don’t want to mimic that in any way. Rather, seek to glorify God by gently caring for sufferers (1 Thess. 2:6-12).

Be a lockbox, not a loose cannon

Traumatic experiences are sensitive, painful, and personal. They are not public domain for recreational storytelling. They are not topics for a pastor’s dinner table, or his colleagues (even “in confidence” or “for prayer”). If a pastor’s wife is characterized by spreading pastorally privileged information, she should absolutely not be told. [4]

Trustworthy people conceal matters that don’t belong to them (Prov. 11:13; 20:19). If a pastor leaks any information a victim hasn’t already made public or authorized him to make public, he is functionally untrustworthy and unsafe. If there’s reason to consult the elders, a trauma counselor, or a female advisor, a pastor should get permission first. He can communicate why he believes it’s valuable to get an outside perspective and give a preview of what he plans to say. But if the victim isn’t comfortable, the pastor must honor that. Unless the victim is a danger to him- or herself, or to someone else, and unless a police report needs to be filed, a pastor has no right to unveil any part of their story. [5]

Ask for help

There is no shame in lovingly admitting, “I don’t know how to help you.” The wisest pastors are humble (James 3:13-18): willing to be corrected, aware of their limits, and proactive in connecting the victim to the best help. In the context of victim care, the best thing a pastor can do is to continue walking alongside the sufferer while building a care team with others more qualified to offer post-trauma care (a veteran’s support program, a female advocate, an experienced trauma counselor, etc.). This doesn’t mean the pastor is abdicating—it means he is wise enough to admit that individual support isn’t always enough (Prov. 15:22; 24:6).  

Referrals and care teams notwithstanding, a pastor can still offer prayer and support. Praying isn’t a visible act of helping—it’s largely unseen, hidden, silent. It is a beautiful (but unglamorous) way to minister in the hidden places. A pastor may not understand the intricacies of what his congregant needs to heal, but he can talk to Someone who always knows what His children need (Matt 6:8; 7:11). 

Parts 1-3 have examined a few small ways for pastors to avoid inflicting more harm on the vulnerable. In the final installment, we’ll briefly discuss abuse prevention, resources for church safeguarding, and final thoughts on victim care. 

 


[1] Justin S. Holcomb, Lindsey A. Holcomb, Is it My Fault? Hope and Healing for Those Suffering Domestic Violence (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2014), 201

[2] Holcomb, Is It My Fault? 201

[3] Trauma victims have understandably complex and tenuous relationships with physical contact. A rape victim may not want a side hug from you—ever. But she might, sometimes. A combat vet might fly into a rage if you come up behind him and slap him on the back. Always ask before you make contact, even if it’s awkward. Better that a pastor endure a few seconds of discomfort than an abuse victim relive hours or days of a nightmare.

[4] Opinions may differ, but I strongly believe when a spouse has an indiscriminately porous connection to privileged pastoral information, there is great potential for harm. If a pastor’s wife is a trained and trustworthy counselor, and has the explicit consent of the trauma victim, that might be a useful scenario. In the case of pastors counseling women, it is best practice to either bring in a female co-counselor or counsel with the woman’s husband present. 

[5] Some ecclesiastical structures and policies allow for “inner dialogue” between elders and ministry staff for pastoral counseling. When the congregant is fully aware and in agreement, it usually works well. But trauma—especially sexual trauma—is another animal. Is it always respectful or right to arbitrarily share these intimate facts? See “The Conundrum of Confidentiality Part 1,” Tim Allchin, The Biblical Counseling Coalition, https://www.biblicalcounselingcoalition.org/2019/06/05/the-conundrum-of-confidentiality-part-1/ (June 5, 2019).