When you’re given the title pastor, you’re given the incomprehensible responsibility to walk alongside your congregation in their darkest hours. No amount of training can prepare you for these moments. I remember with great clarity the first time a church member told me, “I was raped.”
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM). Sexual assault is any sexual activity where consent is not obtained or freely given. It’s a horrible reality for countless Americans. 1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men will experience sexual violence in their lifetime.
Given the caring and confidential nature of the pastoral relationship, survivors often feel comfortable disclosing sexual assaults to their pastors. Yet in my experience most pastors feel underprepared to respond appropriately to disclosures of sexual assault in their congregations.
Over the past two years I’ve had seven women disclose recent and past sexual assaults. I’ve walked alongside a woman who wanted to take her own life because of a recent rape. I’ve had congregants who were drugged. I’ve had congregants who have lived the majority of their lives haunted by sexual assaults from their childhood.
After fumbling through the first disclosure I was determined to be prepared next time. With the help of resources like The Cry of Tamar and my local domestic violence agency I’ve learned a few valuable insights into what to say in these difficult moments.
WHAT TO SAY:
Be calm and reassuring: Your presence should make your congregant feel safe.
Ask if they feel safe: It’s important to make sure that your congregant is no longer in danger.
Validate their feelings: It important for your congregant to feel like their feelings are acceptable. Recognize their feelings and show your acceptance of them.
Express appreciation: Disclosing a sexual assault is extremely difficult for anyone to do. Be sure to thank your congregant for their bravery and assure them of confidentiality.
Refer to a local agency: This is so important. Stop reading this and figure out what resources are available in your community for sexual assault survivors. I am blessed to live in a town with a fantastic agency committed to helping survivors. Tell your congregant about the resource and offer to go with them. Do not try to do all the counseling yourself!
WHAT NOT TO SAY:
Doubt the truth of their story: False reports are very rare and you should never assume a congregant is lying about sexual assault.
Ask a lot of questions: If a congregant discloses a sexual assault to you it’s appropriate to ask if they want to talk about it. However, it’s not appropriate to ask lots of specific questions. They will share what they want you to know.
Have an expectation of how a survivor should act: Responses to sexual assault vary greatly and there is not one right way to respond. Sexual assault takes away power from a survivor and it’s important that they regain that power. Therefore, it’s important for you not to insist on a certain way of responding. You should never force a survivor to report or disclose to others.
*This list is by no means exhaustive and each situation is unique. I hope this can be starting point for you as you seek to be better prepared to care for those who God has entrusted to you.
Learn more here.