Hope for survivors and churches

Steve and Samantha Nelson
Steve and Samantha Nelson

The Hope of Survivors, a ministry of compassion that provides support, hope and encouragement to victims of pastoral sexual abuse, offered a balanced and biblical presentation in the Joan Kuyper Farver Auditorium in Pella, IA, on April 22, 2013. About 40 people from the community and about that same number from Covenant Reformed Church attended the meeting.

Rev. Ryan Faber of Faith CRC, who is president of Pella’s Ministerial Association, opened the meeting with prayer and reading from Ezekiel 34. “Jesus called Himself the Good Shepherd,” he said, “but sadly, there are some shepherds who are not good.”

The presentation portrayed how a grown woman can be victimized and how a minster can fall into this type of sin, as well as how churches typically respond and how they should respond. It also offered hope for healing and restoration.

The first part of the presentation consisted of a documentary depicting the personal struggle with sexual abuse experienced by The Hope of Survivors co-founders, Steve and Samantha Nelson. They noted that their story is similar to those of the more than 1,000 victims they have worked with over the last ten years. The high quality DVD effectively showed how adult women can become entangled and how they as well as their husbands can be so controlled that they see no avenue of escape. Because the pastor represents God and perpetrators often speak of what they do as God’s will, it is easy for believers to fall prey and extremely difficult for them to break away.

Following the video, Steve and Samantha alternated in presenting a comprehensive Power Point that touched on many aspects of the issue. The pastor, the woman, and the church member will all have differing viewpoints. The pastor seeks to have this described as an “affair” because that allows him to distance himself from guilt and personal consequences. But calling it an affair does not allow the woman the same space. He is her pastor; this would not have happened with anyone else. Church members typically have no idea what’s going on. They tend to think of this in terms of “alleged abuse” and cannot understand how their perfect pastor, who preaches God’s word so well from the pulpit, could possibly do such a thing.

In a sexual relationship between a pastor and parishioner, there are imbalances of authority, knowledge, experience, and responsibility. These imbalances are why there cannot be true mutual consent.

“Vulnerable people seeking help are betrayed,” said Steve, explaining how the element of “automatic trust” lowers a victim’s defenses. “That’s why many states consider professional exploitation a criminal act.”

Part of the presentation demonstrated how a minister can experience this downfall by gradually becoming more and more disconnected from God, focusing on himself and his perceived needs. Five stages were detailed. In Stage 1, the pastor neglects his private spiritual life and his family while seeking affirmation from others. He creates physical connections (lingering hugs, etc.), becoming flirtatious or complimentary, saying or asking inappropriate things, counseling women alone, and being controlling and manipulative. In Stage 2, he participates in inappropriate sexual activities or other addicting behaviors. Instead of following the biblical directive to love God and others, he begins to believe the fallacy that he can’t truly love others unless he first loves himself. Stage 3 is a withdrawing process in which he becomes self-centered rather than God-centered. He is self-indulgent and arrogant, rationalizes and justifies his behavior (nothing is ever his fault and you may hear stories of his own abuse). He appears to be a great helper, but he actually is preying on people in need through skillful emotional manipulation. In Stage 4, the minister becomes fascinated with pornography and impurity. Statistics indicate that 43% of pastors have viewed porn at least once. They sometimes have accountability systems, but many don’t implement internet filters. In Stage 5, lust exerts its power and the pastor takes action. Steve said about this stage, “His insatiable appetite will take control if he doesn’t turn back to God.”

He noted how a Baylor study found that in a congregation of 400 people, 32 persons will have experienced clergy sexual misconduct. He quoted James 3:1 to show that ministers must be held to a higher standard and held accountable.

Samantha addressed the frequently expressed question, “Why didn’t she just say no?” She explained, “It’s not that simple.” The woman believes her minister is a kind and godly man. She respects him and believes he can help her, so she opens up to him and shares her vulnerabilities. A woman may lack coping skills to defend herself. She is likely to protest, but gives in under repeated pressure as he shares his feelings and tries to convince her that this is God’s will. Even though the woman does not seek the relationship out of lust or a desire to bring down the pastor, many women initially feel responsible.

Things that make a woman at risk include prior abuse, marital problems, trauma, illness, low self-esteem, longing for a relationship, searching for healing, depression, or seeking a spiritual mentor or father figure.

Speaking about how the church should react, Steve said, “God wants us to deal with it in a public and direct way.” He encouraged churches to acknowledge the pastor’s violation of his sacred authority and trust, take responsibility for the situation, talk to and listen to the victims, and refrain from going into denial about the crisis.

He also encouraged churches to recognize how this has hurt the victim and her family, the pastor and his family, the church members, the community, and the cause of Christ. Most important, it betrays God.

Churches often respond by blaming and shunning the abused, sympathizing with the pastor (“She dressed seductively”), failing to understand the real issues, and refusing to take appropriate disciplinary actions toward the pastor.

The church’s responsibilities include breaking the silence by telling the truth, acknowledging the violation, expressing compassion to the suffering, implementing accountability (which begins with confrontation and repentance), restitution and vindication (which most often means exoneration and justification for the victim). Steve cited the example of the church paying for their counseling as a good way to express vindication. He suggested church leaders and members go to the victim and say, “We’re sorry. We want to help you.”

“Healing will not happen instantly,” he said, “It takes time to heal from this devastating event.”

But there is hope for healing when those involved pray for each other, openly discuss their feelings, reach out to those who are hurting, offer forgiveness and support, and allow time for healing. Above all, those hurt by pastoral sexual misconduct must look to God, not man, for restoration and renewal.

While Steve and Samantha Nelson are members of a church that is not part of a Reformed federation, they presented truth from God’s word that transcends denominational distinctives.

More information is available at http://www.thehopeofsurvivors.com.

The above article by Glenda Mathes appeared on pages 10-11 of the May 22, 2013, issue of Christian Renewal.

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