Gerry Breshears, Ph.D.

Before You Begin

1. Learn about the impact of abuse.

  1. Read some of the following:
    1. Dan Allendar, The Wounded Heart
    2. Eliana Gil, Outgrowing the Pain and Outgrowing the Pain Together
    3. F. Rush, The Best Kept Secret
    4. Paula Sanford, Garlands for Ashes
    5. P. Vreedeveldt & K. Rodriguez, Surviving the Secret
  2. Talk to:
    1. a person who is an abuse survivor, Christian and stable.
    2. a therapist (preferably Christian) experienced in working in a team approach to the treatment of abuse.
    3. another Christian pastor or lay person who works with abuse survivors.
    4. “Adults Molested as Children” (408)280-5055 A national resource group
  3. Ask about:
    1. how abuse develops
    2. actions and attitudes to adopt and avoid
    3. what to do when crisis occurs
    4. local resources

Define Your Role

2. Work in team. Never allow yourself to be or become their only support person. Maintain good communication and coordination between team members. The ideal team will include

  1. a qualified therapist, who is experienced in dealing with abuse survivors.
  2. a caring pastor who understands enough to help with the unique spiritual issues abuse survivors face.
  3. support people with the gift of helps or mercy who can be a genuine helper not a enabler. Keep co-dependent people who need to be needed under close accountability and in roles where boundaries are well defined.
  4. prayer partners for the abuse survivor and the team who are not directly involved with personal support.
  5. access to medical and legal professionals knowledgeable in abuse issues
  6. your spiritual care team. Accountability, prayer and personal support are critically important.

3. Define your role carefully

  1. Support people are not therapists nor are therapists support people.
  2. Keep your commitment balanced in light of the other aspects of your life and duties. When you are “nice” and say yes to more than you are willing and able to do, you set yourself up for failure and the survivor for the devastation of abandonment.
  3. Watch transference (I meet their needs, they see me as good Daddy) and counter-transference (they meet my needs, I see them as family) issues. Such lack of clarity and inappropriate bonding can ruin relationships all around.
  4. You are NOT Messiah! Get used to the idea of not being able to meet all needs.
  5. Mistakes do not invalidate your ministry. 

4. Discuss and define your boundaries in conversation with the survivor and in consultation with other team members. Boundaries protect the nature of the relationship as well as the balance of your family and ministry commitments. When you fail to maintain boundaries the helping aspects of your relationship are severely damaged. Boundaries may change as relationship develops, but it needs to occur with mutual clarification and accountability. Take caution when there are longer, more frequent meetings or telephone calls. Raise red flags when contacts encroach on other commitments especially to family or other ministry. Take care when you begin talking about more types of issues as well as the more obvious touching or emotional bonding. You would do well to read Henry Cloud & John Townsend, Boundaries (Zondervan, 1992). 

5. Typically pastors will focus on spiritual issues and equipping team members rather than psychological or case management issues. Do not take on the role of therapist. 

6. Where it is natural and appropriate, support people (as opposed to therapists or pastors) can serve best as wise friends. Do ordinary things friends do together: go shopping, learn a hobby, take a hike, organize a garage sale, bake a cake, etc. Help them gain an identity as a “person” rather than as a “abuse survivor.” 

7. Count the cost carefully: Working with abuse survivors can demand a great deal of emotional, physical and spiritual energy. The monetary cost may include consultation or counseling for you and your team as well as counseling, medication, transportation, books and the basics of life for the abuse survivor. Decide in advance and with your team what you and your church can do. Remember: You neither can nor should provide it all. 

8. Clarify time limits prior to or at the beginning of every meeting. This helps everyone learn to set and live with boundaries as well as protecting from the feeling of abandonment from misunderstood expectations. 

9. Be concrete when discussing what you will do. What you intend as noncommittal responses will often sound like binding promises to them with resulting feeling of betrayal of trust. It’s OK to be tentative but only if you clarify your intentions. 

10. The best support is consistent caring. Start your involvement slowly and increase it wisely and with careful consideration of what commitment you can make and keep. The urgency and intensity of their needs draw many people into overwhelming levels of involvement. It is much better to commit a consistent 30 minutes a week for a year than be involved in a couple of all nighters. Crisis mode leads to burnout and abandonment that traumatizes them. 

Work with Them First as Persons

11. Each one is a unique person, loved by God, having individual qualities. Do not fall prey to the temptation to depersonalize, generalize, categorize, or use formulas for treatment even if they come from the best books or speakers (even me!) 

12. Help them develop other friendships. Encourage diverse interests and activities. 

13. Help them organize a solid support network consisting of people from diverse backgrounds having differing talents and involvement. 

14. Respect their boundaries and privacy. They have had their boundaries violated constantly. Show yourself open to discuss their issues and information, but don’t press for information they are reluctant to give. Don’t be another abuser. 

15. Keep confidences. Don’t use their story anywhere without their genuine permission. 

16. Move them toward responsibility and competency. They have more internal strength and more ability to make good choices than helpers expect. Avoid dependency. When you do anything for them that they could and should do themselves, you hinder their healing and hurt them no matter how good it feels and how much they want you to do it. 

Working with Them as Survivors of Severe Abuse

17. Help them deal with their pain rather than focus on the psychological issues of abuse. That’s the therapist’s role. 

18. Help them make connection with Jesus, with appropriate external people and things in the here and now especially when traumatic memories of past abuse are impacting them. Be a source for reassurance when they feel like they are crazy. 

19. They need someone to validate their feelings, especially the ones they find so hard to accept. For example, you need to be able to deal with rage as an acceptable feeling, especially when it is directed at you. Help them understand that feelings are valid, but feelings are not facts. 

20. Help them differentiate disappointment from abandonment, “no” from “you’re bad,” anger from hate, “I can’t” from “I don’t like you.” Help them learn to trust but only trustworthy people, to give and receive without strings, to choose for themselves, to say no without anger, to say thank you. 

21. They can be very sensitive and are often suspicious. They may be manipulative and exploitative. You would be too if your safety had depended on it as theirs did. 

22. Be honest. Half truths hurt rather than protect. They have an uncanny ability to detect anything you try to conceal. 

23. Clarify your intentions constantly. They are so good at reading non-verbals, you may as well assume they are reading your mind. However, their background will often lead them to draw false conclusions about what you are thinking and feeling. 

24. Once they discover that you genuinely care and are trustworthy they will do almost anything for you. Taking advantage of their vulnerability and trust is SIN. 

25. Trust is a critical issue. Abuse survivors have been lied to a lot. Broken promises are devastating. Make your promises and commitments carefully and then keep them! When you have to change things, communicate the reasons clearly and quickly. 

26. The greater the hurt, the longer the time required for true healing. Quick fixes usually cover serious problems which will destroy the good work done. 

Deal with Spiritual Issues

27. Answer issues directly and clearly. Discuss “Where was God when I was hurt,” “They did this to me because I am dirty,” “I can’t be forgiven for what I did,” etc. Remember that pat answers are what Eliphaz gave Job. They hurt and God hates them! 

28. Talk about why the abuse happened. It was not their fault. 

29. Watch for key lies. (1) I am filthy — no one can love me. (2) I can never be forgiven. (3) It’s all my fault. They come in many forms. Refute them gently. 

30. Use Scripture but use it wisely. Instead of preaching to them, telling them what a passage means to you, help them interact with and interpret Scripture for themselves. Most abuse survivors know the Bible as a source of guilt and condemnation, especially if their abuse was in a Christian environment. You do them a great service if you help them discover the Bible as a living, personal book about grace, telling of a God of justice and holiness as well as mercy and love. Discuss all of Scripture including the passages speaking of God’s judgment and wrath. They need to know that God forgives freely and completely those who come to Him seeking mercy but also that He judges severely those who serve Satan, hurt children and continue to refuse His grace. 

31. Remind them that God is not their enemy, nor did He plan their abuse, though they have been told this in the most persuasive ways imaginable and often by well meaning Christians. He is the Creator who is Redeemer and Paraclete. Help them understand and feel that Jesus suffered with them (Acts 9:5). 

32. Help them understand and personalize forgiveness and cleansing. 

33. Deal with their sin, both imagined and real. They have been told that they have committed the unforgivable sin. They have had all manner of false guilt heaped on them by perpetrators as well as by well-intended but terribly mislead Christians. Help them give that guilt back. They may have also been involved in personal sin. Many therapists tell them it was not their fault that is partially true but disempowering. It is better to let them take appropriate responsibility and help them experience God’s full forgiveness and healing.

Building Spiritual Strength

34. Build stones of testimony. Help them remember success and growth. Use lots of repetition — “You remember when we . . .” 

35. Celebrate every victory. Throw big parties for small steps, especially early ones. 

36. As one abuse survivor friend puts it, PRAYER WORKS! Pray a lot! They need to count on your prayers, not on your good intentions or kind words. Prayer literally can make the difference between life and death. 

37. Help them pray. Teach how to pray as personal conversation as opposed to religious ritual. Help them see that prayer basically is talking to God as one talks to a friend. Bring all your thoughts and feelings to Him, not just the good ones. Psalm 13 is a great example of the combination of “negative” feelings and faith. 

I find that a major point of help I can provide is helping them understand the gospel clearly and personally. I often use Colossians 1:12-17 and 2:8-15 because Paul wrote it to people involved with religions very much like modern new age and satanism. The first step is to establish emotional safety and openness. With gentle and encouraging voice patterns, I ask them read the passage for themselves (to show that they can do it), from their own Bible (no tricks and they can do it later), out loud (so they don’t skip words or concepts and I can tell where they are) and ask simple interpretative questions (to show them they can understand Bible and to help them learn how to personalize Scripture).

In Colossians 2:13, the simple statement that the Father forgave (past fact) ALL our sins will virtually always bring tears of overwhelming relief to those who think they are totally defiled and can never be forgiven. God’s forgiveness never goes against justice. Either the individual or Jesus takes the totality of the divine punishment, depending on whether they are in the dominion of darkness or the kingdom of His beloved Son. The principalities and powers are ALREADY defeated at the Cross. No ritual prayers are needed to destroy an authority already ended. We only need to help them understand at the heart level what is already true.

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Gerry E. Breshears, Ph.D.
Division of Biblical and Theological Studies
Western Seminary
5511 SE Hawthorne Blvd.
Portland, Oregon 97215

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