Churches challenged to ‘care well’ in midst of abuse crisis

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Counselor DeAnna Sheets believes sexual abuse and harassment is nothing new, but the #MeToo movement brought to light “how pervasive and perverse the problem is,” she said.

“It’s obvious there is a crisis in our nation, our world and within the walls of the church,” said Sheets, director of counseling ministries at First Baptist Church in Canyon. “We need to confront and engage the problem.”

That realization led her congregation and hundreds of other churches to accept the Caring Well Challenge—a Southern Baptist Convention initiative to help churches prevent abuse and care for abuse survivors.

The challenge—issued by SBC President J.D. Greear—is an extended process of listening, learning, assessing and launching needed initiatives to make sure every congregation is safe from predators and safe for survivors of abuse.

A half-dozen members of First Baptist Church in Canyon will travel from the Panhandle to the Dallas-Fort Worth area to attend the Caring Well Conference at the Gaylord Texan in Grapevine, Oct. 3-5. The event is sponsored by the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, developed in partnership with the SBC Sexual Abuse Advisory Group.

Changed focus to concentrate on caring well

The commission already had planned its annual conference on the theme “Gospel Courage: Truth and Justice in a Divided World.” Then in February, the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News published a major investigative report that revealed about 380 ministers and volunteers in SBC-affiliated churches had sexually abused more than 700 people in 20 years.

Bible teacher and sexual abuse survivor Beth Moore (left) participates in a panel discussion hosted by the Southern Baptist Convention Ethics & Religious Commission called “Sexual Abuse and the Southern Baptist Convention” at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex, the night before the start of the 2019 SBC annual meeting. (BP Photo / Van Payne)

That report—along with efforts by an advisory group on sexual abuse Greear appointed last year—prompted the ERLC to change the focus of its annual conference to “Caring Well: Equipping the Church to Confront the Abuse Crisis.”

Speakers include Beth Moore, popular Bible teacher and survivor of childhood sexual abuse; Rachel Denhollander, an attorney and abuse survivor who was the first gymnast to publicly charge USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar with abuse; and Diane Langberg, a psychologist who has worked with trauma victims and abuse survivors for 45 years.

By mid-August, more than 1,300 people had registered for the conference, making the upcoming event the largest annual conference the commission has offered, said Daniel Darling, vice president for communications at the ERLC.

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“Southern Baptists have been awakened to the crisis,” he said. “We want to help churches be proactive in preventing abuse. We also want to hear from survivors of abuse, to learn how churches can create a culture of concern and become caring places of refuge for survivors.”

‘We stand with you’

DeAnna Sheets

First Baptist Church in Canyon has in place policies to prevent abuse of children and youth, but Sheets hopes her congregation discovers ways to improve its procedures.

“There always is room for enhancement,” she said.

Through its counseling ministry, the Canyon congregation also offers help to survivors of abuse. However, Sheets wants to see those efforts expanded to equip laity to respond compassionately and appropriately to survivors who want to talk about their experiences.

“Not everybody is going to come to a counselor,” she said. “They are more likely to go to somebody they already have a relationship with.”

Too often, survivors of abuse feel isolated and fearful, and they struggle with misplaced guilt, thinking they should have done more to prevent the abuse from occurring, Sheets said.

“We want to be a place of refuge, not harm. We want to let survivors know we welcome them with open hearts. We want them to know, ‘We stand with you,’” she said.

Resources available

Sheets has previewed the 12-part curriculum the ERLC and the SBC Sexual Abuse Advisory Group developed with LifeWay Christian Resources, “Becoming a Church that Cares Well for the Abused.” The material is applicable to churches of any size, she noted.

“Even the smallest rural church can use it,” she said.

That curriculum complements the MinistrySafe resources the Baptist General Convention of Texas makes available to churches to prevent child sexual abuse, she added.

“MinistrySafe is an essential component,” she said. “They go hand in hand. Every church should take advantage of what is available.”

To register for the national Caring Well Conference, click here.

Plenary addresses will be livestreamed, and they also will be archived for viewing later. For more information on streaming the conference, sign up here.

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