Small Groups Can Be Safe Havens for Sexual Assault Victims

Three ways to encourage healthy sharing and listening in these settings.
Small Groups Can Be Safe Havens for Sexual Assault Victims
Image: Sean Gladwell / Getty

According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), by the time you finish reading this article, two people will have been sexually assaulted in America. We live in a broken world, full of pain and sorrow. As the #MeToo movement has unveiled, there are likely people in our own congregations looking for healing from sexual abuse and a place to be heard. As pastors, we are called to provide safe havens for those who need restoration. Faithfully preaching God’s Word is a major part of that ministry, but it also requires us to create environments where people can be known on a more personal level.

Small groups are a great venue for these life-transforming relationships. It doesn’t matter what you call them—community groups, missional communities, tribes—they are often where people feel they can be most vulnerable and honest. That means we must ensure these spaces are safe environments in which God’s people can come alongside survivors of sexual misconduct. Here are three ways pastors can encourage healthy sharing and listening in small groups.

1. Raise up compassionate, not just competent, leaders.

When I look for new small group leaders, I am tempted to elevate competence over all other qualifications. But Romans 12:15–16 says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.” If our groups are going to be safe environments for people to share and listen to each other, I must also prioritize leaders with compassionate hearts.

One time we asked a brother who was young in the faith to lead one of our groups. Initially we were concerned because he lacked the biblical understanding of some of our other leaders, but he had an amazing heart, and he excelled when it came to serving and loving people. Since then he has become one of our top leaders.

We also train leaders in compassion. I am learning the importance of teaching leaders to look those they serve in the eye, to be prepared to weep with them, and to ask questions and then be silent. As we have taught our leaders to ask the right questions and to listen with compassion, we have witnessed relationships deepening and people learning to hear the Holy Spirit.

2. Model vulnerability so others can be vulnerable.

If social media has taught us anything, it is that people celebrate those who bear their souls and scars. When people see their pastors striving toward sanctification, they realize that we too are sheep who need the Shepherd.

One of the greatest ways we can model this is by faithfully attending a small group in our local church and sharing our personal struggles. By letting sisters and brothers in Christ see that we wrestle with hurts and still choose to trust Jesus, others will be compelled to do the same. One of the most resonant small group experiences I have had was a meeting in which I shared a personal failure. The group prayed for me, ministering to their minister. This encouraged me more than they could have imagined, and it helped soften the hearts of group members so others could share their vulnerabilities without fear of rejection.

3. Establish clear boundaries and hand-off procedures.

We’ve all been there. Week after week, one group member takes up the majority of the scheduled time, the small group becoming a confessional booth. Leaders—especially those who avoid conflict—often struggle to set guardrails so everyone in the group can participate. We want individuals in crisis to feel safe sharing their pain without blocking others from doing the same.

At my church, we provide training for our leaders to keep groups on target by drawing others into the conversation with specific questions. We have also found it valuable for leaders and groups to set boundaries at the front end. Each of our groups establishes expectations early on for what members can expect from one another and their leaders. This makes it easier for leaders to gently “pass the microphone” to other group members if one person dominates every conversation: “Remember what we all agreed to in our first meeting ...”

That doesn’t mean we should simply shush members struggling in the aftermath of trauma. Inevitably leaders will encounter issues beyond their training. When this happens, we provide clear hand-off procedures so the leaders know they are not alone, and hurting people can find the qualified help they need. We have monthly huddles in which leaders get coaching and direction around challenges their groups are facing. These sessions remind our leaders that they don’t need to have all the answers. God has graced us with several members of our congregation who are experienced and licensed counselors. Even if you do not have licensed professionals in your congregation, take time to search for some in your area, and let group leaders know about them. The #MeToo movement has reminded me that it is better to call and ask authorities about the appropriate next steps than to try to manage difficult situations alone.

Addressing sin is messy. At times it is miserable. The #MeToo stories break my heart, but they provide pastors with an opportunity to create environments in which a loving church family can come alongside and give a voice to those who have been abused.

Imagine your small groups becoming places of refuge where wounded people can be restored. In 1 Samuel 22:1–2, David was hiding in the Cave of Adullam. God had chosen him to be the next king of Israel, but at this point, he was fleeing for his life. You’d think God would have given him an all-star team for support, but verse 2 tells us something questionable about the people God sent to David. “All those who were in distress or in debt or discontented gathered around him, and he became their commander.” These would become David’s mighty men—legends of the Bible. Perhaps through our small groups we will be graced with the opportunity to help those who are in distress gather around our King.

Milton Campbell is lead pastor of The Midtown Bridge Church in Atlanta, Georgia.

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