Safe churches no sideshow
In June I attended the National Council of Churches’ Safe as Churches? conference.
A dominant theme was “forgiveness.” Both from a theological and a psychological perspective a case was put for the value of forgiveness not only for the one forgiven but also for the one abused.
Forgiveness is not about excusing or indeed forgetting; it is a gift that an abuser may or may not accept or acknowledge or even know about, but for the one who forgives it can free that person from the sin of the abuser, a sin that has the power to define, control and even destroy the life of the abused person.
Forgiveness denies that power. However, forgiveness is not something one can be made to do or should be pressured to do — it has to come from the heart.
While I am a great believer in the power of forgiveness, which is an amazing sign of grace, it is ultimately a remedy for a sickness of the body that requires treatment.
Although in the church it is our calling to model a life of grace and forgiveness, the onus for creating communities of grace must not be placed primarily upon the victim. There is a prior responsibility for the Christian community to create safe places where our primary goal is to create a community of healthy relationships, a community in which the remedy is little used because it is little needed.
As I participated in the conference I felt ashamed of the abuse that has been inflicted by those in authority within the church upon the vulnerable, children and women in particular.
Our churches should be safe places. Surely it is an essential part of our witness. Surely we have no good news unless the community of Christ’s people is a safe place. Surely it is fundamental to Jesus’ call upon our lives that we create safe communities.
“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.” (Mark 9:42 NRSV)
We betray those who put their trust in Jesus when those who represent him, who are the face of Jesus in our world, abuse them. As a consequence, Jesus is stained by the abuse of the perpetrators.
If we are to be bearers of the good news we must do all we can to ensure our communities exemplify the good news in the life that is lived within them. How do we do this?
Ministers need to take seriously their need for professional supervision and congregations need to encourage their ministers to see this as a priority.
It is important that both ministers and congregations are aware of the Code of Ethics applicable to ministers. Elders in a congregation could spend some time when they gather to reflect on the Code of Ethics, not only as it is applicable to a minister but also for their own behaviour and that of leaders in the church.
I have just been on a three-day retreat and I would strongly encourage all ministers and leaders within the church — for their own spiritual wellbeing and the wellbeing of the church — to be participants in an extended retreat once a year.
I would also encourage congregations, councils and agencies of the church to support their ministers in taking time to go on retreat as part of their responsibility as those who have pastoral and spiritual oversight of others. Congregations would also do well to provide opportunities for their lay leaders to share in spiritual retreats.
As a church we also need to ensure that all those working with children undergo training to make them aware of their responsibilities and the appropriate behaviour and protocols when working with children.
This is not about a sideshow! This is about the heart of the gospel.
It speaks of our commitment to being churches that are safe places for all; ensuring that vulnerable people are not excluded from the gospel by inappropriate exercise of power.
This is the foundation on which we build communities with a message that people can trust, a message of grace lived out in the priorities we make and the actions we take to ensure proper boundaries and healthy relationships.