the shape of leadership

Five Steps to Take if You Suspect Abuse

Knowing what to do can make all the difference

Influence Magazine on April 18, 2019

Abuse comes in different forms. It can be physical, leaving bruises and scars. It can be sexual, crossing lines of appropriate behavior, sometimes violently. It can be verbal or mental, subtle in its presence but lasting in its impact.

As a pastor, what should you do when you suspect someone in your church is suffering abuse? Perhaps you’ve noticed a few signs, dug a bit deeper and learned some difficult truths. Below are actions you can take. Some are simple, while others require more attention, but all of them are important.

1. Ask Open-Ended Questions

If it’s someone you already have a relationship with, like a friend or a volunteer you supervise in ministry, talk with that person one-on-one. You don’t have to be direct about the suspected abuse. But try to get the individual to open up about some of your concerns. Ask open-ended questions such as these:

  • “How are you doing?”
  • “What’s it like at home right now?”
  • “How can I help you?”

It’s possible the person you’re asking will deflect, opting to hide the abuse out of fear of retaliation. But just asking the questions lets him or her know you care and that you are available to talk.

No one enjoys thinking about this issue, but it’s a responsibility no pastor can take lightly.

2. Keep a Record

If the person is not in immediate danger, start keeping a record of what you observe. One week you might notice a bruise on an arm, followed by a chipped tooth or a black eye the next week. You might also  notice changes in behavior or attitude. Look for signs of depression or mood swings, and write down these observations. Having a record not only helps later on with reporting, but it also gives you a chance to look at the situation objectively.

3. Get Another Perspective

Share your observations with someone you trust. This takes a lot of wisdom. Getting someone else’s point of view can help you decide on the seriousness of your concerns. A spouse is often a good source for another perspective, but realize he or she may agree with you no matter what. So it is helpful to seek input from multiple people.

4. Address the Threat

If the abuse is severe and immediate, get the victim out of danger. For instance, an estranged husband threatening his wife on church property is grounds for action. If someone confides in you that he or she is experiencing abuse and feels unsafe, get help immediately. Have a plan in place beforehand. Get acquainted with the local hotlines and shelters. Make sure everyone on staff knows the procedures.

5. Report It

The most important procedure is correct reporting. Know your local jurisdiction’s reporting regulations and follow them. If you are told of a serious crime, especially involving a minor, you have a responsibility to report.

If there is a reasonable cause for suspicion, you should refer the case to the proper authorities without delay. Don’t try to settle the issue yourself. And don’t rationalize it. Hand it over to those who can take care of it.

Abuse is a major issue. No one enjoys thinking about it, but it’s a responsibility no pastor can take lightly.

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