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Ministering to the Abused

By Melody Palm

I recently watched a home improvement program on public television where a woman was restoring an antique fireplace mantle in a 17th-century colonial home. She meticulously used a dental pick to gently scrape away layers of dried paint. She envisioned what lay beneath the hardened paint, and patiently uncovered what the master carver had originally created to be the centerpiece of his home. Ministering to victims of abuse is a similar process. One must look beyond the layers of pain, humiliation, shame, and disillusionment; then carefully and patiently bring forth the hand-carved masterpiece God created to adorn His house.

THE BIBLICAL BASIS FOR MINISTERING TO THE ABUSED

In Isaiah 61, the prophet proclaimed that the Messiah would bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim freedom for the captives, release prisoners from darkness, and comfort all who mourn. The hearts and spirits of abuse survivors have been crushed. They are prisoners of darkness living in shame and fear. Like the Good Samaritan, we are mandated to tend to those who have been beaten, robbed of their innocence and dignity, and left discarded by the roadside of life.

WHAT DO YOU NEED TO KNOW?

Who Are the Abused?

Physical, emotional, and sexual abuse does not discriminate. It crosses cultures, races, religions, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Male and female, young and old, can be victims of abuse. Children, teens, and adult females are the most likely victims. Abusers prey on the weak and vulnerable and target those most susceptible. Over 90 percent of abuse is committed by someone familiar to the victim. Research indicates that as many as one in three women have been sexually abused by age 18. Prevalence rates for men are estimated to be similar to those of women. Many studies estimate that by the age of 18, at least 50 percent of women have been sexually violated to some degree.1

It is conceivable that in a church with 300 women, 100 of them may have experienced some type of abuse. In a Sunday morning children’s church with 50 children, as many as 15 boys and girls are likely to be listening to stories of God’s love and protection and wondering where God is in their situation. Pastors, staff, women’s ministry workers, and children’s workers need to be educated regarding the signs of abuse, its effects, and the necessary steps to take if abuse is suspected and intervention is required. As a woman in ministry, you may be called on to minister to these hurting individuals.

Ramifications of Abuse

Abuse, particularly sexual abuse, has profound consequences on the physical, emotional, and spiritual development of an individual. One’s ability to trust is severely impaired, especially when the abuser is a trusted family member, friend, or minister. Abuse distorts a person’s image of God and has serious ramifications on one’s ability to trust God and experience Him as a benevolent, caring Father. Sexual-abuse survivors have had their self-esteem and confidence shattered. Confusion surrounding their sexual identity is common. As a result of being sexualized at a young age, many survivors become sexually precocious, believing they are damaged goods and can only find a sense of worth in being a sexual object.

Abuse survivors tend to cross another’s personal space too easily or, in contrast, keep others at extreme distances. Their personal boundaries have been violated without their permission–blurring where they begin and end. The abused are often needy and have poor interpersonal skills. Emotional and physical intimacy are difficult for abuse survivors. Sexual intimacy with a partner can be extremely trying–triggering old memories and physical pain. Sexual abuse victims learn to associate love with pain and often subject themselves to further abusive situations. In their confusion, they tolerate abuse thinking it is love. Common adult manifestations of earlier abuse include: eating disorders, depression, anxiety, intense anger and rage, self-loathing, self-harming behaviors, physical problems, sexual difficulties, homosexuality, intimacy problems, indecisiveness, perfectionism, addictions, and a need to be in control.

Gifts You Have To Offer

In John 10:10, Jesus said, "I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full" (NIV). Abuse survivors may have survived, but they cannot live to the fullest when shrouded by shame. God has called us to share the good news–He offers a way out of shame. Christ not only bore our sin on the cross; He scorned its shame (Hebrews 12:2). This truth can help survivors experience freedom from a shame-based identity and find their true identity in Christ.

Learning by observation is a powerful teaching technique. As a woman of God, you can model clear and appropriate boundaries combined with honest, direct communication. Those who have been abused benefit from healthy male and female role models. A positive, honest, and affirming interpersonal relationship can be a priceless gift for one who has never experienced this kind of relationship.

One of the greatest needs of abuse survivors is unconditional acceptance of them as persons made in the image of God. Healing is a lifelong process and requires patience and personal presence. Freely given time provides an opportunity to model Christlike compassion. Many abused individuals have heard the rhetoric of Christian compassion, but have not seen it in action. You can be an advocate for the weak and oppressed in their time of need.

Available Resources

Ministering in the 21st century is exciting and challenging. The complexity and diversity of problems can be overwhelming. Ministering to the abused can be emotionally and physically taxing. Know your limitations and familiarize yourself with available resources. Network with Spirit-filled Christian psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors, and marriage and family therapists. Those professionally trained to do abuse recovery can effectively deal with intrusive flashbacks that keep past memories of abuse from impinging into the present. A professional, trained in marriage and family therapy, can address the ramifications of abuse on the marriage and sexual relationship. Numerous educational resources–books, videos, workbooks, and recovery programs–can be accessed and implemented in the church. Local support agencies, such as family violence centers, can assist individuals trying to get out of abusive and dangerous situations.

HOW CAN THE CHURCH RESPOND?

Child sexual abuse is a national epidemic, and the prognosis for decline is not good. The advent of the Internet and easy access to explicit violent and sexual materials will only increase rates of occurrence. The church, as a standard bearer, must stand up with righteous indignation and expose the severity of Satan’s onslaught. When good men and women do nothing, evil survives.

The church must exhibit practical and powerful theology in action. Pastors need to utilize the Word of God with people who have been abused. Through biblical counseling and prayer, pastors can help the abused depend on God’s grace and power to enable them to forgive their abusers. This is essential for people to be ultimately freed from the emotional and spiritual pain of abuse. The power of the Holy Spirit can heal the mind, emotions, and spirit of a person who has been abused.

Education is a key factor in the fight to break cycles of abuse. Be willing to bring in trained professionals to teach seminars and workshops. The church community has much to learn about the pervasiveness of abuse and ministering to abuse survivors.

Ministering to the abused requires a financial investment. Support a local Christian counseling service, allowing those trained in and called to counseling to expand their services for those in need. Larger churches sometimes hire a professionally trained Christian counselor. Offer support groups, such as Becomers for those overcoming the effects of sexual abuse, and educational support groups for spouses of abuse survivors. Ministries that reach out to abused children, such as Royal Family Kids Camps, Inc., (see Recommended Ministries and Resources) can have a positive effect on the continuing development of an abused child. These ministries need pastors and churches to catch their vision and support them with finances and cooperation.

Ministering to survivors of abuse is rewarding, but requires substantial investments of time, money, and emotional energy. A church that is alive and meeting the needs of its community cannot ignore this large and growing segment of our population. Survivors of abuse are eager to see Christianity in action and experience a Jesus who feels their pain and binds their wounds. Is your church willing to answer the call?

Melody Palm, Psy.D. candidate, is a licensed Assemblies of God minister and an assistant professor of counseling at the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, Springfield, Missouri.

ENDNOTES

1. Broken Trust, prod. Dr. Dan Allender, Wounded Heart Ministries, video-cassette.

RECOMMENDED MINISTRIES AND RESOURCES

WOUNDED HEART MINISTRIES

Dr. Dan Allender
P. O. Box 11438
Bainbridge Island, WA 98110
Broken Trust. A video for survivors of sexual, verbal, and physical abuse.

BECOMERS MINISTRY

Dr. Jeanette Vought, Co-Founder & Executive Director
Christian Recovery Center
6120 Earl Brown Drive
Suite 200
Brooklyn Park, MN
(763) 566-0088

ROYAL FAMILY KIDS CAMP, INC.

Wayne & Diana Tesch, Founders
1068 Salinas Avenue
Costa Mesa, CA 92626
(949) 548-6828

Allender, Dan B. The Wounded Heart: Hope for Adult Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse. Colorado Springs, Colo.: Navpresss, 1990. (A companion workbook for personal or group use is available.)

Benner, David G. Strategic Pastoral Counseling. A Short-Term Structured Model. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1998. (Excellent short-term counseling model that is brief, time limited, spiritually focused, and specifically geared for pastors.)

Comiskey, Andrew. Pursuing Sexual Wholeness: How Jesus Heals the Homosexual. Lake Mary, Fla.: Creation House, 1989. (Helpful for Christians who struggle with disordered sexuality and for those who help them. Accompanying guidebook useful for teachings to church at large.)

Cloud, Henry, and Townsend, John. Boundaries. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992. (Excellent book on how to take responsibility and ownership of one’s own life—setting appropriate physical, emotional, and spiritual boundaries.)

Heitritter, Lynn, and Vought, Jeanette. Helping Victims of Sexual Abuse: A Sensitive Biblical Guide for Counselors, Victims, and Families. Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1989. (Sexual Abuse Support Group Recovery Program materials are available to help survivors recover from abuse; includes homework and a model for an abuse recovery support group.)

Payne, Leanne. The Broken Image. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996. (Combines essential theological and clinical insights to illustrate the process of restoring personal wholeness through healing prayer—particularly to those struggling with homosexuality.)

Talley, Jim A., and Baker, Jane C. My Father’s Love. San Bernardino: 1992 (Out of print). (An inspiring true story of how God replaces sexual abuse with authentic love.)

Tesch, Wayne, and Tesch, Diana. Unlocking the Secret World. Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishing, 1995. (Practical look at how the church can minister to abused, abandoned, and neglected children.)

Vredevelt, Pamela, and Rodriguez, Kathryn. Surviving the Secret. Grand Rapids: Fleming H. Revell, 1992. (Combines caring insights and hope for survivors and those who help them.)

Wahking, Harold, and Zimmerman, Gene. Sexual Issues: Resources for Strategic Pastoral Counseling. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1994. (Offers a counseling framework for pastors who counsel survivors of sexual abuse.)

—Melody Palm, Springfield, Missouri

 

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