Calvin College Chimes

Students Against Sexual Violence hold discussion with Safe Church Ministry

Photo courtesy of Safe Ministry

Photo courtesy of Safe Ministry

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Churches have not been the kindest places to victims of abuse. Safe Church Ministry Director Bonnie Nicholas recounted the experience of a rape victim in a church: “people at work were so supportive of her, and people at church shunned her.”

“Culture trumps strategy,” claimed Nicholas, citing Linda Crockett of the Samaritan Counseling Center. “You can have the best procedures in place, policies, but if the culture is not open to those, if the culture doesn’t take advantage of those, it won’t go anywhere. […] Our culture in the CRC doesn’t talk about these things.”

Students Against Sexual Violence (SASV) hosted a discussion about sexual abuse in church contexts, featuring the director of the CRC’s Safe Church Ministry. According to their website (www.crcna.org/SafeChurch), the Ministry is devoted to “Equipping Congregations in Abuse Awareness, Prevention, and Response.”

“Safe Church got a lot of attention at Synod last year,” Nicholas observed. The last CRCNA Yearbook questionnaire even included questions concerning abuse policy. Over 80 percent of CRC churches have some kind of policy, according to the questionnaire results, but only about a quarter of churches have a safe church team or coordinator, and less than 10 percent regularly train church leaders on issues of abuse. “So we have a long way to go,” said Nicholas.

As a part of introductions, participants shared their experiences of talking about sexual assault in their churches. “I don’t think they’ve really talked about sexual assault very much,” said Jamie Atkinson, a co-leader of SASV, about her congregation in Kentwood Community Church. David O’Brien, another member of SASV, said that the topic was “not something they shy away from” at his home church.

“People often think of Safe Church as protecting children, and that’s really important, because children are vulnerable,” said Nicholas in her presentation on the Ministry’s work.

“But abuse isn’t just about children,” she pointed out. “Church leaders often don’t understand how powerful they really are. […] We need to pray for our church leaders, that they maintain healthy boundaries, and that churches have policies about that, too.”

One of Safe Church Ministry’s short-term goals is that at least half of CRC classes across the U.S. and Canada create a Safe Church coordinator position with an annual stipend.

“We want the classes to take more ownership,” Nicholas said. Her hope is that people like the passionate volunteers that currently work to promote safety in their churches can be given structured support for a more widespread and sustained effort against abuse in the church.

For the past 25 years, Safe Church has built up a large collection of resources, from youth programs such as “Circle of Grace” to informational brochures and videos to support for abuse victims and protocol for handling abuse situations, as found on their website www.crcna.org/SafeChurch/resource-directory.

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