Equipping Pastors to be Protectors

By Melissa Hofstetter

I finished my doctoral studies in psychology at the same time that I completed my divinity training in seminary, and doing these two programs concurrently lent itself to interesting observations and wonderful conversations between the two disciplines of wholeness and healing.

My final course toward my divinity degree was a class on youth ministry. One of the class exercises in the youth ministry course included a reflection paper on a book chapter describing a youth pastor’s powerful prayer intervention that prevented a teen’s suicide. End of story.  

“How wonderful,” one might initially think. 

But what I found deeply troubling in the book chapter was the mere sidenote about how the child’s suicidal intent had been precipitated by ongoing sexual abuse that she was enduring. Neither the chapter, nor the instructor of our class, made any mention of a pastor’s responsibility to pragmatically act for the protection of the child, in addition to offering powerful prayers. There was no mention of the fact that, in most jurisdictions—including my seminary’s—clergy are mandatory reporters of suspected child abuse and neglect, legally requiring them to report suspected abuse of children in order to protect them and to possibly prevent other children from being hurt.  

In my reflection paper for the class, I reflected on my dismay that one could finish a divinity program and not be fully informed about a pastor’s ethical, moral, and legal obligation to help prevent child abuse and to protect children.   

My paper received an “F” grade, with the commentary: “I regret that your rant against the seminary prevented you from fulfilling the requirements of the paper, which were A … B …  & C.”  (To be fair to the professor, the paper was graded by his teaching assistant.) So I diagrammed my paper indicating points A, B, and C, with my own note—“We need to talk”—and resubmitted it for my professor’s reconsideration.

He apologized for the “F,” but then he proceeded to disappoint me with the following (paraphrased) conversation: I know you’re right. I’ve made my own reports to protect children from abuse and neglect, but I’m not going to tell these “kids” [seminary students] that pastors are required to make a report. Why not? They’re twenty-five years old. I don’t want them to go out there, hear stories on their internships, and mess up families’ lives.  “… That [i.e., to make reports] is why God gave us psychologists.”

WRONG answer.

This spurred me into conversation with another respected seminary professor involved in revising curriculum for the divinity program, to advocate that pastors’ responsibilities to protect children of suspected abuse and neglect be thoroughly covered in at least one ministry course.

Through my training workshops with pastors in different denominations across the country, I have learned that many of them felt under-informed and/or ill-equipped to handle these very real situations in the lives of our congregations.  

Pastors are our heroes. They are often the most trusted individuals in kids’ lives, and our kids need us, as pastors, to be empowered by education and fully equipped to help them. This is why, whenever I give continuing education workshops on pastoral ethics to clergy, I always include a prominent section that educates pastors on how to recognize signs of abuse and neglect and about the moral obligations and legal requirements that they have as our church leaders to report suspected child abuse.  

Melissa Hofstetter, PhD, MDiv, is a licensed clinical psychologist in California (PSY25696) and has served as a district elder within the Pacific Southwest Mennonite Conference. Hofstetter has a private therapy practice in Pasadena, California. Among her therapy specialties is helping adult survivors of abuse and neglect thrive in their personal lives and relationships.