Last Sunday afternoon and evening, as I read every word of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) Sexual Abuse Task Force report slowly and prayerfully, my heart was swollen with pain, anger, frustration and grief. It cannot be denied that our Southern Baptist family has, in many ways and for many years, let down some of our most vulnerable neighbors.
Sexual abuse is among the most monstrous of demonic evils—an exploitative assault on the dignity of God’s image-bearers. And while we should have been working “to provide for … the needy, the abused … the helpless” (BFM2000, Article XV), we have failed so many of them miserably. Today, 14 million Southern Baptists are trying to process a somber 288-page report concerning our own colossal failure to do what we commonly confessed we would.
Many pastors have asked me, over the past few days, for some guidance in helping their congregation through this season. So, in the spirit of humility and with urgent grace, here are seven suggestions for helping your congregation process and pray:
Encourage your congregation (older students and adults) to read the report in its entirety.
This investigation is their investigation. This document is their document. It is long and emotionally intense, but it is an important read for every single Southern Baptist. Opinions on the report abound, and with the proliferation of social media those opinions are as accessible as they are abundant. But every congregant has access to the primary source. Encourage your people to read the report for themselves before they read and listen to what others say about it.
Create space for questions and discussion.
As your people digest the report, they need a safe place to ask questions. Hold a special processing and prayer meeting Sunday night or another night of the week. Address the key concerns, then allow for questions and discussion and end with an extended season of prayer. Answer the questions you can, the best you can, and when you don’t know or you’re still working it out, just tell them so. You don’t have to have all the answers, but to shepherd your people through this you do need to know the questions. This will probably work better in smaller groups of 10-25 than in a large town-hall style meeting. Find a way. Create the space.
Acknowledge sin and take time to confess and repent.
Anyone who reads the report can see that there have been too many instances of sexual abuse within our network of 47,000-plus churches over the years. Our people have hurt people. Our people have participated in, perpetuated, covered up and lied about sexual abuse for years. Our system of governance has allowed for it. There is a time for heartfelt remorse, confession, repentance and grief over our sin. This is that time. Lead your people to acknowledge sin, confess it and repent.
Pray for survivors, known and unknown.
The retelling of one’s story of abuse is traumatic beyond expression, both for the survivor recounting personal events and other survivors reading them. Several sexual abuse survivors were named in the report. Lead your people to pray for them. Then help your people understand that for every known and named survivor there are a hundred more whose story is still developing and/or is yet unknown. Pray for God to heal their broken hearts and bind up their wounds. And for those nameless unknowns living in the dark valley of sexual abuse today, pray for God to deliver them immediately.
Review and communicate your church’s policies and practices regarding sexual abuse.
Work with a professional and/or with survivors in your own community to review your policies and practices and update them as needed. Then communicate those policies and practices to your people. Show them the measures your church’s leadership are taking for prevention, awareness, intervention and survivor care. Encourage the immediate reporting of instances of sexual abuse in your own congregation and community by reminding your people that reporting is legally mandated, providing an easily located phone number they can call to report and encouraging them to inform church leadership if the abuse is occurring in the church or by a church member or attender.
Lead them in prayer for Baptist organizations and leaders.
If you do not know them already, find out the names of your current associational, state and national Baptist leaders and lead your people to cover them in fervent prayer. In this moment, every Baptist organization is reviewing policies, checking procedures and auditing systems to work to eradicate sexual abuse and its cover-up from their networks in the present and the future. What has happened in our past is horrific. Your Baptist leaders across the country are working to do better today and tomorrow, and they need the wisdom of Heaven. Lead your people to pray for it.
Make the developing story easily accessible.
Add links on your church’s website or app to your associational, state and national networks where your people can go to find trusted releases and news stories as the processing and implementation of the report continues to develop. If you do not show them where they can go for trusted information, they will consume a wide variety of both credible and incredible information from a variety of sources. Show them where to go for good, credible information, and make it easily accessible.
If you are/have been a victim of sexual abuse or suspect sexual abuse by a pastor, staff member or member of a Southern Baptist church or entity, please reach out for help at 202-864-5578 or [email protected]. All calls are confidential.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tony Wolfe is associate executive director of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.)