Survivors of abuse are all around you – whether you realize it or not. Statistics tell us that one in four females or one in six males will experience abuse before the age of 18.
So let’s just use simple math to think through whether or not you know someone who has experienced abuse. If there are 100 females and 100 males in your church, statistics suggest at least 25 of those females and 16 of those males have experienced abuse, likely before the age of 18. That is a total of 41 people in a church of 200.
How many people are in your church?
Once you realize that there are likely people around you, in church every Sunday, that have experienced the traumatic and tragic effects of abuse, it may shock you.
Abuse is not something frequently discussed in conversation at church fellowships, Bible studies, or even small groups. Sexual abuse, in particular, may even be kept more secretive as individuals and families struggle to cope with the unthinkable. Understanding why sexual abuse occurs is beyond most of our comprehensions, yet it does occur. Individuals and families are impacted for years, if not lifetimes, from the mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual scars.
Help is available for abuse survivors. In fact, there are counseling resources specifically available for sexual abuse survivors through grants funded by the State of Texas. Groups like the Children’s Advocacy Centers of Texas and the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault provide support to survivors that live in Texas. In addition, many Christian counselors across the state have specialized training and/or certifications in trauma and sexual abuse to help meet the needs of survivors.
It is important, as a congregant member, minister, or Bible study leader, to be aware of what you can do to support abuse survivors.
Be a safe place
Dealing with and discussing sexual abuse is a sensitive issue. We must create a safe, trusting place for someone to share these deeply traumatic experiences. Creating a safe place means making genuine connections with people. Practice active listening skills such as a calm demeanor, listening without interrupting, a caring and compassionate tone of voice, and verbal cues and eye contact that let the individual know you are following along and truly listening to them. Set the stage before an individual might speak up by paying attention to how you speak of life’s challenges and struggles. Treat sensitive issues with some level of confidence so the person can trust that you will not share their information carelessly. All of these pieces go together to create a safe and trusting environment for someone to speak about their abuse.
Sharing any information about experience with abuse can be uncomfortable. Make sure you handle the information with care. Know the reporting laws in Texas and follow up on your duty to report as appropriate. But also know that you do not have to have all the answers for them or even need to “fix it” for them. Sympathize with the survivor, but do not try to tell them to move past it, forget about it, or that they should be over it by now. Refrain from spiritual “pat answers” that seek to defuse or minimize the emotion or intensity of the conversation. Be willing to walk alongside the individual and provide support as needed - whether that is to cry with them, or listen to their heartache or anger. Be present and comfortable with the tension of not having all the answers.
Be a support and encouragement
This may look different depending on the circumstances, but be supportive by helping the individual connect to counseling resources or locating support groups to help them process their feelings and experiences. Encourage them to seek appropriate treatment even when they are afraid to do so or apprehensive about sharing and reliving their story. Be patient with them when they struggle. Pray with and for them as they engage with resources toward healing. Ask them how you can be of support and encouragement to them instead of assuming you know what is best.
For more information on Texas Baptists Counseling Services, contact Director Katie Swafford at counselingservices[at]texasbaptists.org or call 800.388.2005. To attend a MinistrySafe training sign up at texasbaptists.org/ministrysafe.