“Sally” was a young newlywed who went to her Baptist pastor for marital counseling. As she got up to leave his church office that evening, he wrapped his big arms around Sally and kissed her on the lips. She was shocked, pushed her pastor away, and quickly left. As Sally drove home, she tried to sort through what had just happened.
What had just happened was clergy sexual abuse. It does happen, and never should. When clergy abuse their power, what happens next is people—women, children, men too—are harmed. The church as an institution is harmed as well. Awareness of this ought to compel us to action, both for prevention and response, especially for the sake of victim-survivors and also for that of the church.
Back in December 2002, I wrote an article about that year of unprecedented disclosures of clergy abuse as “a memorable year of shame and vindication,” a “banner year” for victim-survivors finding their voice. The #MeToo movement of 2017 to the present will go down in history as a magnification within the larger society of what began fifteen years earlier as a focus on clergy and church. Back then I discerned accurately that “the church’s shame is its victims’ vindication.” It is no less true today. Indeed, Tarana Burke’s #MeToo has been particularized yet again to faith communities as #ChurchToo. Baptist journalist Carrie Brown McWhorter and those of us she interviewed for a recent article on #ChurchToo call upon today’s church to be more proactive than reactive, to listen and respond.
Some of us indeed are doing so. Baptist Women in Ministry (BWIM) and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) formed in 2016 a Clergy Sexual Misconduct Task Force. This was shortly before the popularization via social media of #MeToo, so presciently timely. The task force created a packet of useful resources for all churches and Baptists especially. The Safe Church four-part video series—plus numerous policy documents, discussion guides, case studies, and a sample sermon—all are available as free downloads from the BWIM and CBF websites.
Congregations using Safe Church resources are urged to collaborate with like-minded congregations in their community or denomination to choose a weekend for observance of “Safe Church Sunday.” Observant congregations will commit to making their congregation the safest place possible for children, youth and adults. Some Sunday School classes may choose to use the Safe Church videos and discussion guide and/or one of the cases for discussion. Services of worship will incorporate readings, music, and preaching that focus on this important topic that most churches have never addressed. On “Safe Church Sunday,” observant pastors might publicly commit themselves to a Covenant of Clergy Sexual Ethics. That document, and others for developing “Safe Church” policies, will be used and implemented so as to join a growing number of congregations who sign on to the “Safe Church” movement.
Had Sally’s church done so, her pastor might not have crossed the line from pastoral care to pastoral abuse. Sally might not have been harmed when she came for counsel, assuming a safe place when it was not.
Is your church safe?
Rev. Tarris Rosell, Ph.D., D.Min. is professor of pastoral theology—ethics and ministry praxis at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Shawnee, Kansas. He also holds the Flanigan Chair at the Center for Practical Bioethics and serves on the BWIM/CBF Clergy Sexual Misconduct Task Force.