What do I say to a sexual assault survivor?
Sexual assault terrifies those who have been victimized, leaving them frightened, depressed, ashamed, confused, and angry. Survivors are impacted sexually, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I have ministered to women and men, young and old, who have experienced this type of life-changing trauma.
Here are some suggestions for pastors (and others) who want to say and do the right things for someone whose safety and dignity have been violated in this way.
- Pray with—and for—the survivor. Ask what they would like you to pray for. After you have spoken to God on their behalf, tell them you have done so.
- Use Scripture to proclaim God’s comfort and encouragement, such as Psalm 34:18-19: “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. The righteous person may have many troubles, but the Lord delivers him from them all.”
- If the event is very recent, addressing safety and other immediate needs are top priorities. If the victim is a minor, comply with laws pertaining to mandatory reporting of child abuse. If the victim is an adult, provide information about facilities that specialize in treating such trauma. (Contact a Christian counseling agency, domestic violence shelter, or law enforcement to learn what resources are available in your community.) Offer support as the adult survivor decides whether they want to contact law enforcement. Help them to develop safety plans. Respect their decisions. They are likely feeling quite powerless, so it is important to empower them to make their own choices whenever possible.
- The ministry of simply being present is powerful. For many survivors, trust has been shattered. A pastor can be a source of comfort and offer hope that trust can be rebuilt with others. However, be sensitive. If a male committed the assault, the survivor may not feel at ease with another male, not even a pastor. Be very thoughtful about any physical contact: a hand on a shoulder, a hug, or even a handshake may not be well received at such a time.
- Empathetic listening is key. You don’t need to have all the answers. Responses don’t need to be eloquent. Gentle, loving affirmation and validation is often what is desired most.
- Not every sexual assault survivor will develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but some will. Encourage the survivor to seek, or help them find, Christian counseling with a mental health professional who has specialized training and experience in providing trauma-informed care.
Many survivors report that they have never heard their pastor address sexual assault in a sermon or Bible study. Imagine that you had been violated in this way. What a balm for your aching heart and mind and spirit to hear your pastor talk about how God hates abuse, how he is a God of justice, and how he is close to the brokenhearted!
May God bless your efforts to bring hope and help to sexual assault survivors.
Sheryl Cowling is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Board-Certified Expert in Traumatic Stress, and Board-Certified Professional Christian Counselor. She provides counseling services at WLCFS – Christian Family Solutions in Germantown, Wis. Her church home is Crown of Life, Hubertus.
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