In a search of articles on the Internet dealing with how churches minister to children who have been abused, I found none. What I did find were very important articles on how to keep children safe while in the care of a church’s programming. And rightly so! Especially information about MinistrySafe, the Fort Worth-based ministry dedicated to protecting children while on a church campus or at a church-sponsored event off-campus. There were also articles about ministering to adults in the church who were abused as children.
I believe it is just as important to minister to children who have been abused long before they become adults. If the church waits until the child grows up to reach out and care for the abuse victim, too much time may pass, allowing the abused to become an abuser and to continue to be a victim in additional relationships. In the intervening years between childhood and adulthood, the abused child’s life may fall apart as the seeds of mistrust, low self-esteem and a distorted view of God takes hold and misguides the child’s development.
So, what should a children’s ministry look like with children who are known to have had one or more childhood traumas?
First of all, the children’s ministry should be a safe place for children, not only preventing them from being abused again, but also protecting them from past abusers in their lives. This involves mandatory reporting of child abuse as the children’s ministry workers become aware of any continuing abuse in the child’s life. Also, a safe place is more than preventive. A safe place is proactive in providing a healthy atmosphere for the child to be a child, in all of their curiosity, creativity, and emotional growth as a child of God.
It is in this safe place within the family of God that the child is seen, heard, known and understood—the total opposites of an abusive, traumatic atmosphere of life. The wounded child needs to be greeted by name in a cheerful, loving voice. They need to be heard in their play and other forms of expression with compassion and awe. They need to be known simply as a vulnerable, dependent creation of God where the atmosphere in the children’s ministry is one that promotes growth in all dimensions of a child’s life. Sometimes abused children who act out need to be understood as asking for attention in the only way they have ever learned to be noticed. Sometimes abused children withdraw, and those need to be understood as trying to create a smaller footprint for fear of being too visible a target for previous abuse.
A congregation can effectively minister and care for a childhood survivor of abuse by providing an age-appropriate, healthy, spiritual growth curriculum. Many children who have been abused fail to develop a healthy understanding of God because their perpetrator was a father. Fathers are often a child’s first introduction of who God is and what God is like. That damaged image of God can begin to be healed by a Sunday School teacher who becomes the healthy Face of God to a child who has only seen anger and horror on the face of authority figures in his or her life.
Children tend to blame themselves when things go wrong during their childhood. They blame themselves for causing their parents’ divorce. They blame themselves when a grandparent or other family member dies. A children’s ministry teacher can use Bible stories to build self-esteem and an understanding of the child’s place in God’s world. The story of Joseph, who was abused at the hands of his brother and an adult figure in Egypt, was used by God to save his people during a famine. An exploration of Joseph’s fears and other emotions brings reality to the child survivor’s self-understanding.
Teaching an acting-out or withdrawn child to be still and know God can provide a calming effect to their being that has been physically anchored to the feelings concomitant to the abuse they endured. Prayer, a quiet time, and soft, comforting words will speak peace into their all too young troubled hearts.
The relationships developed between a children’s ministry volunteer and a once abused child will strengthen broken relationships that the abuse may have ruptured in the child’s family of origin. I can personally attest to that, having grown up in an emotionally abusive, neglected family life. A half-block away from the home I grew up in was my home church. There I found sanctuary from the constant pain and anger. My Sunday School teachers and church leaders provided a model for life that was lacking a few yards away where I lived. For that I remain grateful.
Finally, a children’s ministry can provide support for the parent(s) of a child survivor of abuse. A parent who is single because the spouse was the perpetrator needs support with their own guilt and shame stemming from the unspeakable happening to their child right under the same roof where they lived. That single parent can benefit from expertise on raising a child that has been abused. And when neither parent is the perpetrator and the marriage is intact, the parents need support and encouragement for dealing with the behavior that follows in the footsteps of abuse. The stress on the marriage and raising a wounded heart in their child needs kind words, understanding, hope, and most of all love.
While there may not be any easily accessible resources for a children’s ministry to a child who has already been abused, the Body of Christ has been given the resources through the Holy Spirit to bring love to the brokenness in the precious children placed in our care in church each week. Let’s not wait until they grow up to provide genuine, healing care. By doing so, we will provide a better future for their once-wounded hearts.
Dr. Ernest Izard is a pastor, chaplain, educator, trainer, strategist and the leader of Trauma Ministry.