Sexual Abuse: How Student Ministers Can Bring Light
Some of your students are sitting in deep darkness, suffering deeply for horrendous sins committed against them. Sexual abuse can bring pain and suffering to students for the rest of their lives, entrapping them in a dark prison of isolation and shame. The church must be a body that can bring light and freedom to dark places, walking alongside the sexually abused and helping to remove the guilt and shame students feel through the freeing power of the gospel. What are some initial steps in caring for these sufferers in our midst?
It might seem trite, but these issues are far above even the most experienced minister. We need Divine help, and our students need Divine help. Always be praying for your students who have experienced sexual abuse, even if you don’t know who they might be. Pray that they would be able to voice what has happened to them and find strong Christians who can counsel and disciple them in their suffering. Pray that they would recognize how the gospel speaks to their pain and abuse. And pray that you would be a safe person to talk to and that your community would be a safe place of healing for those who have experienced this trauma.
2) Develop a Ministry Vocabulary
Sexual abuse robs people of their voice. Just mentioning sexual abuse in a large-group talk as a form of suffering that Christians experience can be an initial step of healing for your students and can begin to put words back into the mouths of the abused. Hearing a leader speak about such dark sufferings can be a significant step in helping abused students know that you are aware of them and that they can, indeed, put words to the atrocities committed against them.
If you ever have specific times a year when you are talking about sexual issues, it’s also important that sexual abuse is discussed. The big topics like porn, making out, dating, or premarital sex can easily eclipse the topic of sexual abuse. To bring up this subject can provide a measure of free space for abused students to open up.
In other words, does your student ministry have a vocabulary for sexual abuse? Do your students know that you have sexual abuse victims on your radar? Are you helping to give voice to their silent suffering?
3) Encourage the Voice of Your Students
It takes an immense amount of bravery and courage for a student to speak about the sexual abuse he or she has experienced. For a student to share, you first have to have a community and culture where you encourage and facilitate suffering students to share about their suffering. Think and pray about how you can develop this culture of sharing through what you say and how you respond to what students disclose to you. Creating this kind of culture takes time and intentionality. One excellent ministry to gain knowledge about doing this is G.R.A.C.E. (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment), at www.netgrace.org.
Furthermore, our students must hear from trusted leaders that abuse is not a sin the victim has committed; they must know that Jesus does not require them to answer for the crimes committed against them. They must know that He is a compassionate and loving Savior, who, by His Spirit, can work healing into the guilt and shame they might feel.
Students must hear that they can and should speak out about any abuse they’ve experienced, so more of the isolating prison walls of shame can come down. Perhaps when you talk about sexual abuse, encourage students to talk to a same-gender leader about their experiences, and know a good counselor in town or in the church community to whom you can refer them.
4) Protect Your Students
It remains tragically true that Christians (and even Christian students) are committing sexual violence against one another. But our community should have no room for sexual abuse. How can we go about protecting our students? This can start with having appropriate boundaries for volunteers and staff to meet with students (check out our post on one-to-one discipleship: here). These three boundaries can serve as a beginning point:
- Students should never ride alone with a staff member or volunteer.
- All meetings between staff, volunteers, and students are to happen in highly visible, public places.
- There should never be a male volunteer or staff meeting with a female student, and visa versa.
It’s good to develop both a plan for preemptive protection of students and for when that protection is violated. Your ministries and churches need to have clear guidelines, and your staff and volunteers need to be trained rigorously about your policies.
5) Know the laws
Know your church’s protocol and who you should talk to within your church about a case of abuse. Protecting your students from sexual abuse also means knowing the laws about mandated reporting. This also includes taking every hint seriously. If a student says something that’s a little concerning, don’t brush it aside. Follow up with the student and ask good questions. Too many times victims might give clues around us, and too many times we let them pass by us and think nothing more of them. The short of it is this: your staff must be trained in the laws of mandated reporting.
6) Educate yourself
Lastly, if you want resources to help you begin to care for your students, check out Justin and Lindsay Holcomb’s book Rid of My Disgrace and On the Threshold of Hope by Diane Langberg. Healing from sexual abuse starts with speaking to the darkness and helping others come into the light. May God protect us, our students, and our ministries from this grave darkness, and may students who have been abused find in Christ healing light, hope, and strength.