Abuse in the Church Causes Deep Wounds

February 15th, 2022
Available from MinistryMatters

Many pastors have never and will never have a church member approach them to talk about an experience of abuse in the church, and consequently, they may assume that this is not a wound that affects their congregation. Unfortunately, this is simply not the case. The truth is that there are likely survivors, current victims, perpetrators, and a host of bystanders listening to our sermons on Sunday morning. When a wound is unaddressed, time does little to help. Even if abuse occurred in a congregation decades ago, wounds may still need God’s healing. Like other wounds the church may experience, sexual abuse can harm the entire community.

While the presence of survivors in church can indicate that they have already experienced significant healing, the church’s discomfort and resistance to engage with abuse can risk deepening their wounds. Marie Fortune names several reasons survivors may hesitate to talk to their pastors, including a fear of being judged or stigmatized; a sense that the pastor is not professionally, spiritually, or emotionally equipped to receive this information; or discomfort with being vulnerable with a male pastor if the abuser was male and vice versa.[1]

An associate pastor survived a crisis in her congregation where the lead pastor covered up abuse involving a former Sunday school teacher. Later it was revealed that the lead pastor had left his own trail of sexually abusive relationships across several church conferences. The associate pastor recounted her anger at his preaching as these events came to light. This pastor used the pulpit to justify his actions, twisted biblical texts, and cast blame upon the congregation rather than accepting responsibility for his own actions. For example, he preached about Jesus’s teaching against judgment and pointing out the speck in a neighbor’s eye in Matthew 7 to mean that the members of the congregation should refrain from critical discernment and official action around the behavior of the pastor in this situation. Congregations trust pastors. This is part of what makes a preaching relationship so powerful. In cases of sexual abuse and misconduct, preaching offers a public venue for a pastor who has broken the law and the trust of the congregation to continue spinning a web of lies. These behaviors are a poison that affect every area of ministry. Like putting drops of dye in water, no part of the water remains clear. It follows that the preaching ministry of a pastor is impacted by abuses carried out in a counseling or care context. Because the consequences of an abusive breach are so severe, a pastor’s need to protect himself or herself and control the narrative takes precedence in the pulpit even over the gospel. It destroys a preacher’s ability to look at the text and the congregation with clear eyes. When a pastor who has harmed a church member takes advantage of the authority and sense of authenticity that comes with the office of pastor and uses it not to bear witness to the gospel but to continue to harm others, he or she must be removed from his or her position immediately.

When abuse occurs in a church, those who uncover the abuse need to seek outside support from a lawyer, the police, or an organization such as Dove’s Nest, Faith Trust Institute, or the Survivors Network of those abused by Priests (SNAP). This is challenging because churches want to forgive. They don’t want structures that impede genuine relationships, but having clear leadership accountability in place can prevent abuse and can give a congregation a clear path for dealing with it. [2]

Congregations struggle in the wake of a pastoral breach of conduct. Many in the church want to put these events behind them and move forward, but when trauma is not addressed, it does not go away. Congregations experience complex emotions that may be helpful to acknowledge in preaching. Some in the church may feel grief at the loss of who they thought their pastor was and betrayal that the church was a place of wounding rather than a locus of God’s healing. Some may experience anger toward victims because their painful experiences brought the crisis to the fore. Victims often feel betrayed, unwelcome, and eventually angry at the church for not intervening earlier.

Pastors preach to the whole congregation and need to find ways to attend to complex and conflicting emotions. Placing responsibility on the former leader who violated the law and the trust of the congregation can stop a culture of finger-pointing within the church. Preachers can also helpfully steer the whole church toward truth-telling and growth. Trauma that has been addressed can strengthen future resilience. God’s healing can make us stronger at the places where we have been broken.

Preaching to Those Who Have Been Wounded by the Church

In a sermon preached at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine less than a year after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Fr. Michael Lapsley offered three categories for reflection in the wake of trauma: “What was done to me (us), What I (we) did to others, what I (we) failed to do.”[3] These questions may be helpful for people in various postures surrounding soul wounds in the church. The answers to these questions may serve as an indictment for the church.

The sad truth is that many recipients and survivors of church-inflicted wounds are no longer part of the church. For these people, being in church would be equivalent to a battered person remaining with an abusive spouse. To remain in the church is to risk complete loss of self. The survivors who continue to wrestle with the church in the wake of wounding are often those for whom the church is extremely important, including those who may be called to ministry. For survivors who remain with the church, theological questions may emerge as deeply important in the wake of trauma, at the same level as medical or psychological care.[4] In spite of past harm perpetrated, by God’s grace survivors do come to church to seek hope and signs of transformation. In preaching to those with wounds caused by the church, the following approaches may contribute to God’s healing for listeners.


Listening is the first step to preaching that facilitates healing, especially when the church has been involved in wounding. People who have been hurt by the church often feel betrayed because the church is called to exemplify God’s love. This is not the time to offer excuses for leaders or institutional structures. “Coming out” as a survivor of trauma can be both difficult and empowering. Survivors may fear that they will be discounted or taken less seriously. However, telling one’s story can bring strength and hope as secrets and shame are brought into the open. Pastors will want to listen to what survivors need to feel safe and to come to a place of healing. Preachers will want to avoid simplistic therapeutic responses such as “God will take care of it in God’s time” or “Forgive and forget.”[5] These filler statements function, at best, as jargon and sail right through listeners without making an impact; at worst they may be seen as not taking survivors’ wounds seriously or as letting perpetrators off the hook.

If a survivor has shared her or his story with the pastor, these can inform an approach to preaching and worship without betraying confidences. For example, if certain stories or language would trigger trauma symptoms for a listener, the pastor can plan worship accordingly. At one of the churches where he served, my husband guarded survivors in the congregation by editing a video that mentioned rape occurring in a country where the congregation was financially supporting relief work. The video’s power and message were clear without the reference, and survivors in the congregation were cared for. Another simple approach is to give a survivor advanced warning if there is something in the biblical text or sermon that may stir up old wounds—perhaps even allowing her or him to see relevant parts of the sermon in advance.

The Holy Spirit serves as guide and comforter for preachers in their work of listening and responding through advocacy and consolation. It is troubling to hear stories of brokenness and pain caused by the church. Pastors feel a deep commitment to the church. When the pain is more than we can bear, the same Spirit that upholds survivors upholds us in our vocation. Wherever the church has sinned and not lived up to God’s intentions, the wounded Spirit of God stands in the rift to provide strength, support, advocacy, and comfort. The Apostle Paul tells us that the Spirit’s language is deeper than words; however, the same Spirit also animates proclamation and empowers listeners to respond.[6]

Preaching as Caring for People

A good sermon is structured and intentional, engages both biblical text or topic and the context of the sermon, and communicates a central theme that places God’s redemptive and hope-filled action at the center. That said, some effective models of preaching can tend to feel more “task-oriented” than “people-oriented.” We design our sermons with our theme sentence, a vision of what we hope the sermon will do, and/or a problem we hope the sermon will address. These methods have a proven track record and are part of how we evaluate good preaching. For most of us, these approaches are meaningful. We encounter Christ and experience grace.

In a similar vein, pastors and other church leaders sometimes tend to approach situations of brokenness and injustice as tasks that need to be handled or fixed so that the church can move forward with other matters. Preaching about justice issues can feel like a checklist a preacher may be internally marking as part of socially responsible ministry. In a broken world, there is no end to these tasks, but in our rush to solve problems, we may be rushing past the humanity of those directly involved. For example, we may seek to address the problem of hunger by donating food without actually engaging with those who are hungry. While directives can help a church move forward in ministry and bring concreteness to preaching, people who have been harmed by the church are not merely a problem to be solved. Preachers need to create space for the full humanity of the wounded. Preachers acknowledge humanity by using stories and examples that avoid stereotypes and easy answers. True stories that have already been widely published, stories told in a way that protects anonymity, or stories told with permission carry more freight than made-up stories, which can sometimes be dismissed by listeners struggling with resistance.

Preachers may want to experiment with collaborative approaches to biblical interpretation and proclamation. Preachers can still preach a structured gospel word of hope, but incorporating more voices in the process may be healing for people whose voices have been excluded or silenced. Besides collaborating in sermon preparation, congregations can provide opportunities for members to offer testimony or respond to the sermon, either in the worship service or through social media.

Being honest about our limitations opens doors where offering absolute answers may close off channels for further communication and relationship. It may be helpful for preachers to say phrases such as “This trouble is deep,” “I don’t have all the answers,” “God’s healing is not yet complete,” and “We wait and pray in hope.” Being honest about our limitations can be a helpful step early in our sermon preparation process. As we move forward with questions of the text and contextual concerns, and set out a central theme and hopeful action for the sermon, it may be beneficial to hold these goals or tasks lightly. God may have other purposes. Envision the arms of God holding you, your congregation, and any newcomers or visitors to worship in a deep embrace. God holds what we cannot hold, and we can release our deepest intentions into God’s care.

Confess and Apologize

Acknowledging the failures of the church is healing not only for survivors but also for the latent communal wounds that were caused by coverups, denial, and brokenness in the system.[7] Anger is a natural and common response for those who have experienced trauma, as is the need to experience some sense of justice. Abusive and wounding behavior is wrong. When the perpetrator is connected to the church, following discernment and support from the congregation and broader denominational structures, representatives of the church may be able to step in with words of confession and actions of reparation.

For example, about a decade ago, Lutherans issued an official apology to Anabaptist denominations, of which my own Mennonite tradition is a part, for persecution during the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation. The lead-up to the formal apology by the Lutheran World Federation acknowledged that Anabaptists harbored a deep sense of pain around Lutheran persecution, killings, and torture during the reformation.[8] This formal apology from Lutherans to Anabaptists is only one such apology that Christian denominations or groups have issued to those who have been hurt or wronged by the church in the past. Southern Baptists, United Methodists, Roman Catholics, and the Episcopal Church have all apologized for racism and racist behaviors. Numerous denominations have also formally apologized to indigenous peoples. In 2007, the Canadian government oversaw a massive financial settlement to be paid by Catholics, Anglicans, the United Church of Canada, and Presbyterians to descendants and survivors of religious settlement schools. Preachers can cite these official acts of apology in sermons as signs of God’s healing in our midst.

While the context of a church institution is different from a congregation and may not be immediately transferable, preachers can learn from processes and practices undertaken by church institutions. Decades after John Howard Yoder abused women students at the Mennonite seminary in Elkhart, Indiana, in March 2015 the faculty, administration, and board of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) gathered for a reunion weekend of worship and listening to each other. Victims had a chance to speak and to meet with administrators. The current president, Sara Wenger Shenk, offered a formal confession and apology for the mistakes in the system that allowed Yoder to continue harming women.[9]

In addition to the confession and apology, preaching and worship were important for the witness of the church, for showing support, and for offering validation to the women Yoder abused. The seminary planned two worship services. The first was invitation-only, primarily oriented toward those who had been harmed by Yoder. The second service was open to the public. In her public sermon, “The Year of the Lord’s Favor,” Wenger Shenk built on themes of her confession and apology statement. She used Isaiah 61:1-4 to name the deep violence and brokenness of sexual violence alongside the power of God in Jesus Christ to rebuild and restore following destruction and loss. She said of sexual violence, “It’s an insidious, stealthy, often invisible devastation that creeps in to dismantle lives, destroy reputations, shatter families, and poison entire communities with its ruination.”[10] She also sought to empower and inspire survivors by naming those who have been broken and oppressed as the very ones who will do the rebuilding Isaiah declares in the wake of devastation.[11] Next she moved to the New Testament where Jesus quotes this text in the synagogue in Nazareth. Jesus was endangered for suggesting that the religious leaders and powers of the time may not have everything figured out according to the realm of God. The inability of the leaders to see what Jesus was trying to show led to more devastation.[12] She quoted Jesus’s lament over the city of Jerusalem and offered lament as a way forward for leaders today who have also failed to see.[13] She ended by focusing on Jesus’s loving desire to gather all under his wings. In their brokenness, AMBS leaders want to be gathered up along with survivors to receive Jesus’s healing and restoration so that together they might give glory to God.[13] Wenger Shenk’s boldness in calling out presentday leaders, empowering the witness of survivors, and seeking reconciliation and healing as a means of glorifying God serves as a testimony that can contribute to the very reconciliation, restoration, and healing that she seeks and serves as an example for other preachers.

Wenger Shenk and others from AMBS acknowledged mistakes made by earlier administrators in confronting Yoder’s abusive behavior in an empathetic manner that didn’t cast blame. If a former pastor or leader is scapegoated, that restricts future pastors and leaders—potentially causing them to close themselves off. Elders, pastor-congregation relations committees, organizational boards, and denominational structures can help discourage and protect leaders from being scapegoated.[14] We don’t want a power vacuum where administrators or pastors can’t be leaders out of fear of being blamed for institutional sin.[15]

Preachers are representatives of the church, even when we don’t agree with all the actions of broader institutional bodies in the church and even if we were not involved in wounding actions. With broad congregational support, the use of confession and apology in worship and preaching may help facilitate healing for wounded listeners.

[1] STAR: Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience: Level 1 Participant Manual, The Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA, February 2018, p. 21.

[2] Ibid.

[3]. Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 22–23.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 23. Paragraph from Sancken, “When Our Words Fail Us,” 121–22.

[7] STAR, 24–25.

[8] Ibid., 27. See also Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery (New York: Basic, 1992), 158. Paragraph from Sancken, “When Our Words Fail Us,” 122.

[9] Ibid., 30.

[10] Ibid., 31.

[11]Ibid.; David J. Morris, The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015), 111.

[12] Morris, The Evil Hours, 109.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Yoder, The Little Book, 31. Paragraph from Sancken, “When Our Words Fail Us,” 122–23.

[15] Deborah Van Deusen Hunsinger, Bearing the Unbearable: Trauma, Gospel, and Pastoral Care (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 7.

Excerpted from Joni Sancken, Words That Heal: Preaching Hope to Wounded Souls, Abingdon Press, 2019.

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