Perhaps this has happened to you. After a worship service, someone asks to have a few words with you. When you sit down together, those “few words” turn out to be powerful and troubling. The person describes a traumatic experience she or he has endured in the past, saying that something in the worship service—Scripture or music or some emotion raised by the Spirit—gave them the courage to come forward at this time.
As a pastor, you are grateful for this moment. You recognize the gift of this person’s vulnerability and the opportunity it presents. You want to offer the healing found in the gospel, but as you listen, the content of their story leaves you feeling rattled, uncomfortable, and at a loss for words. If the trauma included sexual violence, you might even have to deal with your own response of horror. In the face of so much emotion, you feel yourself starting to flounder and clench up. This isn’t because you don’t care but because you are caught unprepared. When this happens, you may be tempted to grab for whatever soothing words came to mind, no matter how clichéd and unhelpful they might be in this circumstance.
Pastors, with a little forethought, we can do better.
I’m speaking as both a pastor and a survivor of sexual violence. I’ve been in both positions—receiving counsel and giving counsel—and I know that the words used in these moments matter. Words always matter, but in these moments they matter in a unique way. The word vulnerability comes from the Latin for “wound.” Words uttered in response to vulnerability have the power to bring healing, but they also have the power to cause further wounding. As followers of the one who came into the world to be the Word of God, we recognize that our words must be carefully chosen in these vulnerable moments. Consider, then, how to respond.
What Not to Say
- “Everything happens for a reason.” You may believe this to be true, but for a victim of trauma such as sexual violence, this is going to sound more like “God did this to you” or “You deserved this.” The victim is likely already asking why this awful thing happened, and this blanket response doesn’t help her process a question that may be unanswerable.
- “I understand.” Unless you’ve been her, you don’t Each person’s story is unique. You may sympathize with the victim’s pain and even feel pain on her behalf, but this isn’t the same as understanding what she has been through. A better response might be “Help me understand what you’re going through.”
- “Did you do anything to provoke him?” It doesn’t matter if this person wore a low-cut top or stayed out too late or was in the wrong neighborhood or left her door unlocked. No one deserves to be the victim of sexual violence. When people blame the victim, it’s often a misguided attempt to seek assurance that this will never happen to them.“
- Time heals all wounds.” While it’s true that God can bring healing over time, this will come across as flippant and unfeeling to someone who is in extreme pain. Everyone processes in her own way and on her own timeline, so don’t feel like you have to speed along the recovery. Be willing to embrace the fact that healing is often messy and nonlinear.
- “I’m praying for you.” This can be an okay thing to say, but it can also sound like a hollow promise spoken in order to end the conversation. Ask for her permission to pray with her now, and if she says yes, offer a prayer that is unhurried and uses conversational language. One word of caution: Don’t take her hand or touch her. If you feel that touching her would bring comfort, ask for permission first.
What to Say
- “Can I pray for you right now?” She may decline, and that’s okay. It’s important to recognize that she may be struggling with her faith in the aftermath of what happened. Your job is to create a safe space for her to ask questions and find her way back to God, not to pressure her into a certain behavior, prayer, or faith statement.
- “This is not your fault.” It’s likely that a victim of violence is looking for someone to blame, and sometimes the easiest target is oneself. She has probably analyzed everything that happened, trying to figure what she could have done or said to prevent this trauma. She may be wondering if she’s being punished for something. Your words will be a powerful antidote to the lies swirling in her mind.
- “It’s okay to grieve and feel angry.” It’s often difficult to give ourselves permission to experience emotions that our culture deems unpleasant. We’d rather just get past the hurt and move on with our lives. But if we try to rush past the grief and anger, we struggle to find true healing. You can give her permission to feel whatever she needs to feel to process the trauma. Healing is a long-term strategy, not a quick fix.
- “I don’t know what to say, but I’m here.” It’s okay if you don’t know exactly what to say, especially if you’re inexperienced with the subject of sexual violence. Let the person know you’re available to listen to her story or to just be with her. People tend to move on and forget about the victim shortly after the initial crisis, but her pain won’t end so quickly. She’s going to need your ongoing support.
- “Can I have our care ministry bring you dinner tomorrow?” The trauma this person experienced has likely left her feeling vulnerable and ostracized. By showing concern for her physical well-being, you’re validating her as a person and bringing some semblance of normalcy to her life. Offering to bring a meal or doing a similar act of service is a tangible way to show that the faith community is willing to stick around in the hard times.
Even if you’re not sure exactly what to say to someone who has been the victim of sexual violence, say something. Remaining silent in the face of deep pain communicates a message that may be even more wounding than earnestly but accidentally saying the wrong thing. Consider your words carefully, and trust God to give you the words you need. Those words may be as simple as “You’re loved, by God and by this faith community.”
Ruth Everhart is an ordained Presbyterian Pastor who has been serving the church for more than twenty-five years. A frequent speaker and blogger, Ruth and her husband currently live in the Washington D.C. area.