How to Deal with Abuse in the Church
A Kindred Story by Kaleigh Hamilton-Bishop
I was walking towards the back of the service area when a man stepped into my path, wrapped an arm around my waist, and leaned in close to my ear. “I knew you had a great body,” he said, “but man, that dress…” I don’t know if he intended to say more or not; my brain just seemed to freeze. I remember mumbling something, quickly extricating myself from his embrace, and walking away. My hands began to shake, and tears started flowing down my cheeks. Upset is an understatement; I was angry, hurt, ashamed. I walked right out of that service and didn’t go back.
For days I was an agony of thoughts. Should I tell someone? Did I somehow bring this on myself? Why did that man ever think that it was ok to speak to one of the leaders like that, especially me? I debated with myself for days on end, wondering whether it was more important for this man to have a chance to meet Jesus than it was for me to receive justice. Like somehow those two things aren’t synonymous. After speaking to my husband (who was livid) and a lot of fervent prayer, I decided to speak to another one of the leaders.
He laughed. “oh, that’s just (insert person’s name)!” and then proceeded to change the subject. I was shocked. Again, all those initial feelings came rushing back. Pain, anger, shame, and then fear. Fear that this had happened before, had been happening to other women in the ministry, and those who were in authority had brushed it aside, just like they brushed me aside. I felt completely helpless.
Eventually I spoke with another female colleague who gave me some great advice on how to handle similar situations in the future and reassured me that she would be watching to help deflect anything like that happening again. While I was incredibly grateful for her reassurance and advice, there was a part of me that still felt ashamed that it had even happened. I just wanted to forget the whole experience. I avoided that man from then on, going out of my way to not speak to him and make sure there were other people around me always. But that moment marked me.
Time passed and there came a day that I was in a conversation discussing the current political clime with the #metoo and #churchtoo movements. I asked a male colleague of mine if he had ever been given training on how to handle potential sexual harassment or abusive situations. He briefly described his church’s policy and protocol. I nonchalantly shared my experience, going so far as to laugh a little at myself for leaving the service in tears. What happened next stands out in my mind like a single polaroid in a photo album.
He looked right at me and said, “that is completely messed up, and I’m sorry you were not taken care of. Those leaders were in the wrong, and you don’t have to laugh it off like it’s ok. It’s not.” I felt like someone had just shook me till my teeth rattled in my head, and then gave me a great big (appropriate) hug. It was like a weight fell off my shoulders. Here was another leader who not only believed me but was angry for me. I hadn’t even realized just how much I was hurting until that moment. How many months I had been pushing down my anger and shame and pain, subconsciously telling myself that I was wrong to feel that way. I wasn’t wrong. I had every right to be angry. I had not made up the story in my mind, I hadn’t brought it on myself, and I didn’t need to disregard it simply because I was a leader.
For too long the church has failed to educate and failed to protect. There are men and women in our ministries with stories of harassment and abuse, some much more horrific than my own. We cannot continue this way.
If you are a female leader who has dealt with a similar situation, I want you to know this:
Under no circumstances are you required to endure harassment or abuse, of any kind, simply because you are a Christian leader. You have every right to stand up for yourself and demand respect and retribution. If anyone tries to tell you that they can’t punish someone because they don’t want that person to leave the church, YOU LEAVE. Immediately. That is not an environment that you need to be a part of.
You did not ask for this. You didn’t bring it on yourself, you are not to blame. I don’t care if you showed up in your bra and underwear, that does not give anyone the right to objectify you in any way. Please hear me loud and clear, sweet precious soul: you were not in the wrong.
If someone makes a remark towards you or touches you in an uncomfortable way, simply tell that person (male or female), “that is not appropriate, and you are making me uncomfortable. Please stop.” Immediately find another team member or leader and tell them the situation. Establish a protocol with your teammates so situations like this can be handled quickly and efficiently. Develop a culture of trust and safety within your team so people feel comfortable speaking up and can be confident that they will be protected.
Churches must accept the fact that this is happening. This is not a worldly issue, it’s an everywhere issue. It’s happening in services, at events, on leadership teams, in children’s church, somewhere. We must train our teams in equality and the proper way to treat each other. We must stop this soul damaging habit of sweeping things under the rug. We must be the leaders that we have been called to be.
Educate yourself. Step up.