You and Your God: Uncovering and Responding to a Student’s Sexual Abuse
By: Chris Maxwell
In the following article, Chris Maxwell describes a counseling session with a student in which she reveals that she was sexually abused by a former pastor. Although you may not meet with students in formal counseling settings, it takes tremendous leadership to handle a student’s trust well (and to lead through their mistrust). Sacrificial leadership is most concerned with the well being of those under our care, and sometimes that means admitting we’re not the best-qualified ones to provide healing. Also, consider the careful balance of pastoral care and legal responsibilities required in this type of demanding leadership situation. Kyle Rohane-former editor at LeaderTreks
She sat in silence. Her eyes flicked back and forth from the floor to the window, and her leg trembled up and down restlessly. My attempts at small talk didn’t put her at ease.
I asked her reason for setting up the appointment. She shifted her body slightly, glancing my way before looking back at the floor. She said, “I’ve been asking myself that all morning.” I could barely hear her words.
She was in my office for a counseling appointment, but didn’t know why. Though the motives that inspire clients to set up a first appointment usually turn out to be very different from the deeper reasons they need counseling, something initiates the call. Something activates a drive to push through fears and questions. Something brought that young lady to my office—but neither of us was sure why.
After a few moments of silence, I responded with another question: “What else have you asked yourself this morning?”
She finally lifted her head to make eye contact and didn’t turn away. Her eyes narrowed, and she said, “I don’t like you. I don’t like who you are or what you do. All of you are alike. You preach to us and you ask for money and you want all our attention. I just don’t like you.”
Instead of responding, I waited.
“I probably shouldn’t say this stuff to you,” she said. “But you always tell us to be honest. I vowed never to go to church again, but since I started coming to your church, I keep hearing you tell us to be honest, to face our hurts, to stop living in denial. Sometimes I just want to tell you to shut up.”
As our conversation progressed, she calmed some. But I could tell she was hiding wounds. She craved concealment and protection, but she needed rescue and healing. I hoped we would find it. Actually, I hoped the healing would find her.
Her eyes filled with tears. “Why should I trust you or your God?”
. . .
We camped on that question for a while, seeking an answer to why she struggled to trust God or anyone who might somehow represent him in her mind.
Her wounds were deep. To her, the title of “pastor” was not just a calling or a vocation or an ordination. It conjured a male image, a guy in authority—something unpleasant. It was all part of what God had done or what God allowed to happen to her.
What had God done? What had God allowed to happen? She told me the story.
She and her family loved church. Their lives centered on church events, Sunday services, people in the congregation, sermons and songs and meals together. She almost smiled a few times as she told me those stories. Almost.
But the conversation narrowed from events and memories to a single person: her pastor. When I asked about him, her body stiffened and her eyes returned to the floor.
She told me about their frequent talks—emails, texts, phone conversations. As he spoke on Sunday mornings, she could tell that he cared for her. When he would ask her if she liked the sermon, she felt important.
He valued her opinion. He wanted to know how school was going. While her father was away on business, he was there for her.
She told me how the relationship became physical. She told me about the pictures, the texts, the smiles from a distance. With tears on her cheeks, she told me how often they had sex.
She told me how his gentle chats slowly turned into hateful condemnation—everything, of course, was her fault. She told me when he left the church and never said goodbye.
These were things she had never told anyone.
. . .
I was the starting point—the first voice and ears and heart. Though she said she didn’t trust me, her honesty revealed that she actually trusted me more than anyone else. That was a responsibility I wouldn’t take lightly. God used me as the first one to hear this lady’s pain, but I wasn’t necessarily the right person to guide her through the healing process—at least not alone.
We continued our appointments with a professional female counselor. (I often referred parishioners to a professional counselor so they would receive the care they needed and so I could maintain a healthy relationship as their pastor.) She eventually guided this young lady and her family toward healing. The process was long. There were no easy answers.
Personally, I wanted to find that pastor and confront him myself. I wanted to defend her, to attack her abuser. But, after following the correct procedure and including the licensed Christian counselor, I balanced my own emotions. My anger and grief gave way to relief that she had finally walked through the valleys and received help.
As you consider this story, I urge you to be a deep listener. Don’t feel the need to have quick answers flavored with religious terminology. You don’t have to be everyone’s problem-solver. Seek the good of those under your pastoral care. Request wisdom from others, and always follow laws and legal requirements of confidentially. Remember that those who come to us for help are God’s children before they are our own.
In this lady’s case, I think back to her question: “Why should I trust your God?” Rather than a cold, academic answer, she needed someone to see her wounds, to hear her story, to tell her that God hurt for her. She needed love—without selfish motives. Respect, listening ears, a caring heart, wise conversations, and deep prayer were the best tools to help her finally begin trusting God. After all, he too was profoundly wounded when she was abused.
For more information on abuse awareness, see our previous post, Youth Abuse Awareness Training Shockingly Low.
About the Author
The LeaderTreks Blog is proud to share the hard-earned wisdom of student ministry leaders from many different backgrounds and professions. From time to time, we will feature guest blog posts from writers other than our regular contributors. We include these posts to provide additional perspectives and insight that we’re sure will help develop you and your ministry… Read More