Advice for Beginning Pastors (and Church Leaders)

AdviceBy David Orr, Pastor Emeritus, St. John's United Church of Christ, Holgate, Ohio, who has served with Mennonite Church USA and the United Church of Christ for 45 years

During my ministry in the Mennonite Church and United Church of Christ, I became increasingly aware of the need to protect children and vulnerable people in our congregations. As a recently retired pastor, I want to share six things I wish I had known when I started out forty-five years ago.

Be Alert to Abuse – In each congregation, sooner or later, I have learned through an inadvertent comment or tearful revelation of incidents of abuse, neglect, or domestic violence within the church or its extended community. Some were in the distant past; others were ongoing situations. As a young pastor, these disclosures took me by surprise, but I learned of the importance of being alert to hurting people in the congregation and community.

Create Openness – Members of your congregation may have experienced abuse as children years (or decades) ago. Or they may have been abused by spouses, intimate partners, or strangers. They may not feel free to share what they have been through with anyone. When you deal with these subjects in a matter-of-fact and proactive way, you give people permission to talk about what they have been through and to begin the process of finding help and healing.

Plan for Protection – Including child protection training, such as Circle of Grace, in your ongoing education program gives people a vocabulary to talk about things that make them uncomfortable. I remember overhearing a daughter laughingly say, “Mom, you’re getting in my circle of grace.” Although it was a lighthearted comment, it showed that if a concerning situation ever arose she would be more likely to talk with her parents or Sunday School teacher.

Be Prepared – In cases of abuse, our “natural” responses are often unhelpful and may make matters worse. If we haven’t developed a child protection policy, we may not know where to turn or what to do. We may try to look into allegations and interview those involved before, or instead of, reporting to the authorities responsible for investigating, as the law requires us to do. Churches sometimes, in a misguided attempt to apply Christ’s teachings, insist that survivors promptly forgive their abusers, only adding to the trauma they have experienced. Developing a thorough child protection policy and reviewing it regularly will enable your church to avoid the stress and mistakes that arise when we are caught unprepared.

Reach Out for Help – Most of us do not deal with abuse or neglect on such a regular basis that we are experts. Fortunately, you don’t have to go it alone. I am thankful my colleagues and I could rely on Dove’s Nest for resources, training, and advice.

Do No Harm – Those who lead the church bear special responsibility to carefully maintain boundaries. When we fail to do so, we cause incalculable harm. Therefore, we need to conduct ourselves in an exemplary manner so we do not sweep away all the good we seek to accomplish.