When #MeToo Happens in Your Church: a guide for clergy and lay leaders

#MeToo has taken over social media the past few days. I and an incredible number of women and men I am connected to have posted the tag to share that we have been sexually harassed or assaulted. Of course, our churches are not exempt from the ways in which society enables and perpetuates this abuse. ELCA pastor Jennifer Chrien collected the stories of a number of clergy who have experienced harassment either in their ministry settings or in the churches they’ve been a part of as a worshiper.

I am grateful for my colleagues who have shared their stories, and for my colleagues who have publicly acknowledged their complicity in harassment and abuse. While no one owes the world their story, telling it can sometimes make space for healing. However, when victims* of harassment tell their stories, frequently the response is at best lackluster, and at worst is itself abusive. These poor responses allow abuse to continue in our society, and in our churches.

This is not always intentional. We are conditioned to dismiss these incidents, and often we as clergy want to believe the best of people, which can affect how we respond when someone brings us a report of sexual harassment or other abuse. I asked some other clergy women what advice they would give to their colleagues in responding to these reports. Based on their comments, and my own experiences, here are some things for clergy and lay leaders to keep in mind:

Believe the victim’s story.

When a victim shares their story with you, believe it. Believe it the first time they tell you. Start with the assumption that what they have conveyed to you is what happened. Do not follow up with “Are you sure?” or “Maybe you misunderstood.” Do not assure the victim that the perpetrator “didn’t mean anything by it” or “would never hurt you.”

The church is not a court of law, and guilt does not have to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt for you to respond and take action. Though false accusations get a lot of headlines, the reality is that very few allegations of sexual assault are false. If nothing else, the number of “Me too” statements appearing in our social media feeds should help us understand that an overwhelming number of women (and men and genderqueer persons) have experienced sexual harassment and/or assault. When someone brings you their story, believe them.

On a related note, don’t rely on your own experience of the perpetrator to assess whether the incident(s) really happened. Someone can be a friend to you, a leader of ministries, a well-liked member of the congregation, or indeed a fellow clergy person—and an abuser. If you find yourself thinking, “They’d never do something like that!,” remember that your experience of a person is not necessarily others’ experience of them, and that abusers of all kinds can be adept at presenting different faces to different people.

Assume they are not the only one.

Perpetrators of sexual harassment and assault tend to be repeat offenders. Just because this is the first time you’ve heard a report doesn’t mean it’s the only time the perpetrator has offended. Many people who experience harassment or assault do not report it, for a variety of reasons. It may well be that there are others in your ministry setting who have experienced harassment and abuse from this perpetrator, even though reports haven’t reached you.

Remember that it takes courage to report.

Most victims of harassment and abuse weigh carefully the risks and benefits of reporting, even in spaces that should be safe, like churches. Speaking from my own experience, I have variously reported or not, depending on factors like whether I expected to be believed, how prominent the perpetrator was in the community, and what I knew of other women’s experiences with the perpetrator. When a person comes forward to report, trust that they have weighed these and other factors and chosen to be courageous in bringing their story to you.

Take action.

When you hear of sexual harassment in your community, do something about it. “Wait and see” is not an appropriate response, nor is sympathizing with the victim but then failing to address the situation beyond that conversation. Again, it takes courage to report—and the victim is trusting you to do something to make the church a safe place for them and other potential victims.

As one clergy person put it, “[Be] willing to utter this simple directive to the perpetrator: ‘Change your behavior or leave.’ We have to get over the fear based reactions over the possibility of losing a member.” The concern over losing a member—even one who provides a substantial chunk of the church’s budget—cannot outweigh the safety of others in your congregation. Tolerating an offender in your congregation will cost you more than it gains you. (Again, remember that most perpetrators are repeat offenders.)

Consider what ministries the offender is involved in. Do not allow them to continue in ministries that provide opportunities to be alone with or have authority over potential victims. And remember that harassment does not have to be private—it often occurs in a crowd, and even sometimes during worship. If the incident happened as part of a ministry the offender is involved in, remove them from that ministry. Do not let concern over offending the offender keep you from addressing the incident and protecting others.**

Don’t rely on mandated trainings alone to prevent or stop harassment in your church.

Sexual abuse prevention trainings are helpful in creating a community of awareness, encouraging reporting, and decreasing opportunities for abuse, but they will not convince an abuser to change their patterns. Don’t think that just because a person has the appropriate certificate that they cannot be an offender. Don’t think that sending them to a training will somehow help them understand that they should not be doing this or that their behavior is inappropriate. They know that already.

Protect confidentiality.

The story is the victim’s to share or not, and we must convey that to anyone who may need to be informed of the situation. As another colleague commented, “If a person is on council/vestry/session/etc., and a person in the congregation comes to the council with a complaint, don’t take that complaint and use it as fodder for gossip in the community.” As clergy, we are often very aware of what we can share or not, but not everyone in our congregations will be. It is part of our role to help protect the confidentiality of the victim and their story. Be explicit with anyone who has necessary contact with the report about what they may and may not share.

Ask for help.

You don’t need to figure out how to handle this situation alone. Pray about it, absolutely, and also use your resources. Talk it through with your mentor, your therapist, your peer group, your friend who is an advocate for abuse victims, your local sexual assault survivors organization—whoever might be able to offer you some wisdom.

If you’re wondering what an appropriate response to a report of sexual harassment in the Church looks like, here’s a story from a colleague: “The good response I’ve experienced: Dean of my seminary taking time to sit down with me and listen to what I had to say (even though it was a couple of months after the fact), then adding anti-harassment training to seminary orientation for all of the students, and having the community life coordinator speak with the individual in question.”

Obviously, dealing with sexual abuse does not have a one-size-fits-all solution. Equally obviously, we will not be able to completely eradicate sexual harassment and assault within our communities. And it can be very difficult and can feel very risky to address sexual abuse in our churches. But my friends and colleagues, we must not let our own fears and misgivings prevent us from helping to establish communities of safety and justice for all God’s people. Take it from all of us who have affirmed, “Me too.”

*A note about language: I’ve chosen to use the word “victim” here for the sake of clarity, and to avoid perpetuating the idea that only women experience sexual harassment and assault. There are debates about what terminology to use in referring to those who have experienced sexual abuse, and I respect individuals’ right to determine what language they use around their own experiences.

**I do not mean to dismiss the reality that we, as clergy, are often pastorally responsible to all parties in the reported incident, but rather to highlight that the needs of victims and the community’s safety must always take precedent. We must find ways to provide resources and support for offenders when needed without allowing them to continue offending in our congregations.

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