Dearest Brother or Sister,
We are all too familiar with the pain and violence we are surrounded by every day in this deeply broken world. Amidst the pain, one of God’s greatest blessings seems to be the people He places in our lives to walk with us in moments permeated with hurt and confusion, when it may be challenging to see His light. When thinking about the thousands of people I have had the privilege of walking alongside throughout the years and the people I have been blessed with in my own journey, it is always such a gift to be able to witness the healing that occurs when people realize they never have to navigate their pain alone; that not only does God offer them refuge, but He has intentionally placed people in their lives to share the weight of what they are carrying. In addition to navigating life with us, these people serve as advocates to remind us of His truths of how we are loved, seen, and valued.
My prayer is that this 12-step guide assists you in learning how to effectively walk beside the survivors of sexual violence you love and serve, unconditionally supporting them and reminding them of how their Heavenly Father values them as they navigate feelings of shame, anger, fear, sadness, and confusion. And I pray that as you do this heart-breaking and inspiring work, God is present with you each step of the way to lead you, to guide you, and to fill you.
But first I wanted to thank you from the depths of my soul. Thank you for taking the time to learn more. Thank you for caring and loving others well. Thank you for your willingness to show up and provide support while allowing God to lead the way. As Christians, we have the opportunity to walk with people through darkness and help them experience God’s love and light. It is not always easy, but I have found it to be one of the greatest privileges, gifts, and responsibilities He offers us. So thank you for joining this effort to love people towards healing.
With much gratitude and prayers for blessings upon each of you,
Kristin Canan, LMSW
12-Step Guide for Churches Responding to Sexual Violence
- Understand what sexual violence is
- Sexual violence is any unwanted sexual contact; in other words, sexual violence is any sexual contact that is not explicitly mutually consensual.
- Important specificities to note:
- Marriage does not provide an exception to needing mutual consent; if both parties do not agree and something happens anyway, this is sexual violence
- Sexual violence happens to boys and men as well
- Sexual contact that is agreed to following coercion, threats, or power imbalances is not mutually consensual
- People are not able to consent if their ability to make decisions is altered or compromised through a mind-altering disability, alcohol consumption, or drug use
- Just because someone didn’t say no or fight back does not mean they consented; there are many reasons someone may not say no or fight back
- Remember your job is to support the survivor, not to investigate whether or not what they are reporting is true
- Validate that their emotions are normal, apologize that this happened to them, and walk with them unconditionally.
- Limit the questions you ask to questions about their emotional well-being, safety, and immediate needs.
- As a guide, refer to Ephesians 4:29- Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful to build others up according to their needs, that it may be benefit to those who listen
- Listen more than you speak.
- When a survivor discloses to you, this isn’t the time for you to provide advice
- Allow the survivor a safe space to share as much as they would like without pushing them for more than they feel safe sharing
- Remember that some silence is okay
- Reinforce that no matter the circumstances, it is not their fault
- There is nothing they could have done that could have made them deserving of being violated. They were not asking for it.
- By asking questions about the circumstances surrounding the assault, we reinforce a false sense of a responsibility on the survivor as if they did something to bring it on themselves instead of holding the offender responsible for his/her actions.
- Ensure the survivor is safe
- Is the offender in close proximity to where they live or in their own home? Do they have continued contact with this person? Has this person made any threats against them? Do they have a safe place to go?
- Listen for what the survivor is asking underneath some of the questions and focus on what s/he needs for emotional support
- As an example, if the survivor asks you whether or not they are still a virgin, they aren’t actually asking you to define the physical act. What they are really asking is “Am I less worthy? Am I damaged? Am I less valuable? Am I dirty? Will people look at me differently if they know? Does God look at me differently?”
- Focus on what the Bible says about how God views and loves people who have been abused, violated, and oppressed.
- Be familiar with community resources and what support options are available
- Most counties have free support services for survivors of sexual violence that are available 24/7—know what those resources are and who to contact
- These support services can include emotional support, legal advocacy, crisis response, sexual assault nurse examinations, group therapy, trauma-specific therapy, shelters, law enforcement response, etc. For a list of resources by state, please visit: https://www.rainn.org/state-resources
- Empower the survivor to choose the options that s/he believes will be best for them, and support their choice even if you don’t agree. This includes respecting whether or not and to whom they would like to disclose to. By supporting their choice and empowering them to take ownership over what happens next, you help them move one step closer towards re-establishing their feelings of power, control, and safety over their own body and the decisions they make.
- Maintain confidentiality
- Your church leadership, church members, or people outside of the congregation do not need to know what happened to this person unless s/he gives you specific permission to share. This is her/his story to share with whom they feel safe with. To share their story without their permission violates trust. The fact that the survivor opened up to you about their experience suggests they trust you. It is a privilege to be invited into someone’s life in this way. Please treat it as such.
- Understand the limits of confidentiality:
- If the survivor is a child or if abuse towards children is reported within the disclosure, you are not able to keep that confidential by law and must involve law enforcement to ensure that child is safe
- If the survivor is suicidal or homicidal and has intent to carry out suicide or homicide in the near future, additional outside support may needed to ensure safety
- If someone who is unable to protect themselves or is particularly vulnerable is involved (ie: elderly or disabled individuals), a report to Adult Protective Services may be required
- ***Please note, domestic violence and sexual assault from adult to adult does not require a mandated report and is strongly discouraged unless the survivor chooses to pursue a report herself/himself
- Know that it is okay to feel
- One of the most powerful moments in the Bible include the phrase “Jesus wept.” There can be something deeply healing when another person validates your pain through feeling it with you. Just make sure you are not crying harder than the survivor or making them feel a need to take care of you after sharing their experience with you. Ensure they know you can hold what they have to share.
- Understand that they may struggle with self-worth and deep shame
- Challenge the existence of the lies the enemy is whispering in their ears about their worth, blame, and shamefulness by having them do a Bible study about how God sees them as His children.
- Continue to reinforce Truth and challenge misplaced responsibility.
- Show the survivor through your behavior that you don’t view them as less capable, less worthy, or too much by continuing to show up, provide support, and treat them as a human being who has experienced struggle, like everyone else in God’s Kingdom. Survivors don’t need nor want your pity.
- Encourage survivors to talk to themselves as they would talk to someone they love. They would never say a majority of things they tell themselves to other people. If it’s not true for other people; it’s not true for them either.
- Remember you don’t have to fix this (and there is nothing you can do to fix this)
- Know that healing the person in front of you is up to God. He may utilize you to walk with the survivor and support them through the process, but healing is God’s work.
- This also means you don’t have to (and likely won’t) have all the answers. There are some powerful examples in the Bible of moments people didn’t have answers for why something happened. Many of them include feelings of turmoil and anger in the aftermath of the experience that caused the struggle. Ultimately people’s faith grew, but it didn’t negate the confusion and pain they experienced because of the situation. Meet the survivor where they are at and validate that it’s okay for them to be there.
- Reinforce that it is okay if they are upset with God. God is not surprised by what they are feeling.
- Your role is to continue to show up and walk with the survivor as they navigate the unknown without minimizing the pain they are experiencing. There aren’t easy answers. That’s okay. Not having answers continues to encourage us to rely and lean on God.
- Challenge the culture that reinforces the existence of sexual violence
- Engage in conversations and offer lessons on what the Bible says about ways men should treat women, what a healthy relationship looks like, how men are to carry themselves, and where women’s value comes from outside of their sexuality and appearance. Teach our children what they deserve as well, so they are better equipped to identify when something isn’t right and understand their value.
- Don’t be afraid to talk about the existence of sexual violence. Simply by acknowledging it, you challenge some of the shame that reinforces continued silence by survivors, and you create a space that feels safer for survivors to disclose what they have experienced.
- Set an expectation of respect, honor, and love in your church for all people.
- Lead by example
- Take all reports of sexual violence seriously (even if they include members of your church staff)—if a member of your staff is involved, consult with an external party who has expertise in sexual violence to ensure objectivity.
- Commit to saying something if you witness an interaction that is anything less than respectful (within and outside of your church).
Kristin Canan, LMSW, has empowered individuals’ healing journeys in a multitude of leadership, therapeutic, program development, and community-based roles through her work in residential treatment, addiction services, outpatient psychiatry, victim crisis response, outreach, and bereavement services. In addition to a Master of Social Work and Interpersonal Trauma Certification from University of Denver, Kristin is trained in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. She specializes in navigating the intersections between trauma responses, mental health disorders, and presenting maladaptive coping skills such as substance abuse, self-harm, suicidality, and eating disordered behaviors. Kristin has been invited to speak at national and international conferences, and has served as a trauma and grief expert for an international crisis intervention training organization. Kristin has also authored and published multiple articles on effectively responding to sexual violence, created training materials for victim advocates, and developed curricula for the Graduate School of Social Work at University of Denver. As a frequent speaker and educator, she is passionate about ensuring that every community has the ability to respond to trauma survivors in a way that honors their processes, leads them towards healing, and allows them to experience how loved and worthy they are. For further information on supporting trauma survivors or organizational response needs, and/or consultation, please reach out to Kristin by emailing her at firstname.lastname@example.org or calling her at (920) 850-6496.