Theresa Harvard Johnson

677Copyright 2018 Theresa Harvard Johnson

Accountability is a trending phrase across the congregation today.

In simple, non-religious terms, it implies that people and organizations should be held responsible for their actions (or lack thereof) and the outcomes of those actions in their lives, the lives of those they impact directly and in some situations as it relates to society.

This definition, when used in the context of our conversation on “Sexual Assault within the Congregation,” conveys that the congregation as a whole needs to be held accountable. I agree. However the accounts from news outlets in my previous article, “Sexual Assault within the Congregation: For Traditional and Non-traditional Congregations,” continues to reveal that they have a long way to go in understanding how to properly address the epidemic within its own four walls.

 As a pastor, I often get this question from those I lead – especially in light of the unrelenting scandals and accusations breaking forth inside and outside of the local church: “What can the church do?” In this specific question, they are asking how to respond to this from clergy level of congregations.

My immediate response is always this: YOU, as clergy, must do everything possible to make sure YOU are not contributing to the problem. You must take this same posture to your leadership teams.” Advocacy, at least as I see it, begins within our own hearts long before it becomes and organizational issue. How we perceive sexual assault will often determine our response the issue.

Elil Yuvarajan and Matthew Stanford wrote this in an extensive research paper on sexual violence among congregations in 2015:

“Although congregants often turn to clergy for help in dealing with personal difficulties, including marital problems, substance abuse issues, and mental illness, survivors of sexual assault do not commonly turn to clergy for support or guidance. This study utilized a mixed-methods approach, online survey, and semi-structured interviews to determine how clergy perceive sexual assault victimization. The results of this study showed that more blame was assigned to the victim as the relationship with the perpetrator became closer, with the exception of marital rape. This study also found that hostile sexism was a predictor of negative attitudes toward rape victims.”[1]

What disturbing findings! They simply prove what survivors of sexual violence already know: Prejudices against sexual assault survivors are just as prevalent in clergy community as they are in main stream society.

Interestingly, the majority of ordained pastors in Protestant communities in the United States are male.  It is noted that women make up only 10 percent of that population according to a Barna survey.[2] It doesn’t, however, capture stats that would affect the apostolic-prophetic community outside of recognized Protestant groups. Either way, this truth on ratio of men to women could shed light on generational patriarchal systems that continue to influence views on sexual assault. Bottom line: We need reporting methods, research and greater insight into this issue to develop effective strategies that will break “hostile sexism,”[3] the predator of negative attitudes toward sexual assault.[4]

Sadly, these statistical findings can easily be transferred – in some sense at least – to the prevailing rape culture that exists in our society as a whole. While I am using the term rape culture here, I am broadly associating it with the prevailing attitudes concerning sexual assault across culture. This is where I believe “the church” plays its greatest role in finding a solution to sexual assault in the congregation. Take a look at the signs of rape culture:

  • Blaming the victim (“She/he asked for it!”)
  • Trivializing sexual assault (“Boys will be boys!”)
  • Sexually explicit jokes
  • Tolerance of sexual harassment
  • Inflating false rape report statistics
  • Publicly scrutinizing a victim’s dress, mental state, motives, and history
  • Gratuitous gendered violence in movies and television
  • Defining “manhood” as dominant and sexually aggressive
  • Defining “womanhood” as submissive and sexually passive
  • Pressure on men to “score”
  • Pressure on women to not appear “cold”
  • Assuming only promiscuous women get raped
  • Assuming that men don’t get raped or that only “weak” men get raped
  • Refusing to take rape (or any sexual assault) accusations seriously
  • Teaching women to avoid getting raped
    (This list is from the article, Rape Culture, Victim Blaming & Facts, published by Southern Connecticut State University)

Each and every one of these topics surrounding rape culture must be addressed by clergy to define the true REALITY. Without it, at least as I see it, victimization will continue behind the pulipit, within the administration and remain the established norm - creating a hostile environment for anyone who has been victimized whether children or adults.  Check out these MUST READ ARTICLES that shed more light on the issue:


  1. Confront what it really believes about sexual assault and sexual victimization. Why? Because what an individual or group believes about an issue – right or wrong – will determine how they respond in a crisis situation as well as how they develop and/or enforce policy. That belief, as I see it, is critical to ministry leadership. These views set the tone for the organization and the congregation response to sexual victimization. It creates an environment that will either protect the perp or defend the victim. History, without dispute, has proved this through countless scandals. If the church's beliefs support rape culture, then make a decision to change that wrong thinking.
  1. Eradicate ignorance concerning sexual assault/sexual violence among clergy and leaders. It should be mandatory for clergy to receive training on sexual assault – this includes learning what it is, how it affects victims, GROOMING, identifying predators, prevention strategies, reporting requirements, church policy development and enforcement, the psychology of it, etc. In this day and time, there are extensive resources available to help congregations put the right kind of policies and processes in place while training clergy and its staff to respond appropriately. This should be a priority of any organized ministry.
  1. Help clergy and the congregation empathize with those who have sexually assaulted. If a person was gunned down on the street in a drive-by most people (including clergy) would readily relate to that violent act. Well, sexual assault/violence should initiate the same concern and response. Victim blaming must end! Clergy must learn to see life from the perspective of those hurting most and create an atmosphere of safety, trust and healing for those people. They should learn about the physical, psychological and emotional effects, explore the healing journey not only from a spiritual perspective, but a practical perspective as well. A level of knowledge must be achieved that places the victim first and that acknowledges CRIMINAL ACTIVITY. Learn how to properly view those who commit these heinous crimes. Without this effort, it is almost impossible to change culture.
  1. Develop a response policy and ACT on it. There should be an emergency response policy in place for the congregation that meets legal standards. Period. Any accused leader should be IMMEDIATELY relieved of church responsibility. No exception. This aspect of the policy should never be questioned. REMEMBER, protecting the victim and his/her family.... and the congregation overall is paramount.
  1. Educate the church community, and make the congregations position known. Every congregation should ensure that their community has opportunities to learn what sexual assault and sexual victimization is through experts or community leaders. Congregations have the potential here to become the bridge that confronts “rape culture.”
  1. Ensure that when sexual assault allegations occur that there is established privacy for the person assaulted and their loved ones. Make sure privacy expectations are well known. This aspect is often complicated in close knit congregations, however, just like a university or a childcare service appropriate action must be taken.

And finally, the congregation could become THE VOICE of healing that it was destined to be in the midst of the faith – always coming to the defense of those who are unable to defend themselves. So what can the church do? Well, it can do EVERYTHING in its power to PREVENT sexual predators from hiding and protect those entrusted to its care.

Please receive this article as insight on possible solutions, not legal advice. The idea here is to present a perspective concerning how our congregational communities can partner with those affected by sexual violence and sexual assault to change culture within the Christian community. For further help, reach out to businesses and organizatins that specifically help churches become safe places for their members or contant an attorney for legal advice.

In my next article, I will address how to respond when the pastors or elders of the church lack accountability, and fail to protect those who have been sexually assaulted.

Check out my book, “Apostolic Mentorship: Critical Tools to Help Artisans Identify Their God Ordained Mentor” at The Scribal Arsenal, This book addresses what “real spiritual mentorship” should look like – offering a line in the sand that will clearly expose signs of spiritual abuse. Theresa Harvard Johnson, M.Div., Biblical Studies is the originator of the teachings on The Scribal Anointing, which unveil the ministry of the present-day scribe; and a powerful apostolic voice concerning ministry integrity, especially as it relates to the worship arts community.


[1] Elil Yuvarajan, Matthew S. Stanford, “Clergy Perceptions of Sexual Assault Victimization,” Violence Against Women: Vol 22, Issue 5, pp. 588 – 608, September 28, 2015,

[2] Ashley Emmert, “The State of Female Pastors,” October 15, 2015, Christianity Today,

[3] Clergy Perceptions on Sexual Assault Victimization,

[4] Ibid.

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