The truth is…I don’t know the answer to this question. In fact, the longer I’m a pastor, the more comfortable I’m becoming with admitting, “I don’t know.” What I do know is that I keep coming back to that one morning, on the first day of the week, the morning that gives us strength and reason to sing, “Alleluia.”
Early that one morning, on the first day of the week, who were the first to find the empty tomb? Who were the first to find the stone had already been rolled away? Who were the first to preach this good news? None other than a handful of vulnerable women. They rushed to report to the disciples what happened, what they had experienced at the tomb! But the disciples did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense…an idle tale. I can hear the grumbling denial of the disciples, “There must be some kind of misunderstanding…”
I wonder how many victim/survivors of sexual assault have had a similar experience. When rushing to report what had happened to someone in their church—a pastor, a member of the church board, Sunday school teacher, even a close friend—the trusted confidant did not believe the victim, because her/his words seemed to them like nonsense. “He wouldn’t do that to you! He’s such a great guy! There must be some kind of misunderstanding…”
The resurrection story confronts those of us who, like the disciples, find ourselves in positions of leadership. To those who are victims/survivors, we are sorry. We apologize for the times we looked you in the eyes with disbelief, or worse, considered your story to be an idle tale. We ask your forgiveness for the questions we should’ve asked, but didn’t. We are sorry for how we pretended that the suffering you experienced would never happen in our church, so we never talked about it.
How can you—the pastor—be prepared to respond to a congregant who discloses a situation or experience of abuse? What are you supposed to say? What are you supposed to do? You do not want to be wondering these things in the moment. It is our responsibility to be prepared.
Here are a few initial steps:
1. Program the number of your local sexual assault/domestic violence crisis center(s) into your phone NOW. Make sure EVERY member of your church staff has this number saved and readily accessible. You do not have to know exactly what to say, but you do have to know who to call.
2. Find and attend training for pastors or community members on responding to sexual assault. Send email(s) to your District Superintendent requesting he/she makes training available for pastors on your district, if you can’t find one near you. Encourage your district to make this a priority!
3. Your default response to a person who discloses should be some version of the following: “Thank you for telling me this. It took a lot of courage. I want you to know, I believe you.”
4. Make sure you know the clergy requirements on reporting in your state. For example, what are you legally allowed to keep confidential and what are you required by law to report?
Although the disciples failed to believe the women’s report, it didn’t make their story any less true. It was nothing less than this true story about the grave that could not contain our Lord that changed everything. Perhaps it is here, standing in front of the empty tomb, where we begin to find hope. We see the stone that was rolled away, the seal of death broken, the tombstone pushed back to make room for life. “Do not be afraid,” the angel pleads. “He is not here. He has risen! Come and see the place where he lay.” God defeats death and all of death’s allies—power, control, and abuse—with life. Suffering and death do not have the final word. Following the angel’s invitation, we take a long, hard look at the empty tomb; because He lives, there is hope. Christ is risen! Christ is risen, indeed!
Megan Pardue is pastor of Refuge Church, a home church based out of Durham, NC. She is also a teaching assistant in the Department of Homiletics at Duke Divinity School.