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Pastoring a victim of abuse in the glare of the media

May 2018

Pastoring a church member who has suffered childhood sexual abuse is hard enough. Doing so when the person in question has entered the national and international media spotlight is even harder. That is precisely what Jim Savastio has faced in recent months.

Jim is the pastor of the Reformed Baptist Church of Louisville, Kentucky. It is the church were Rachael Denhollander and her husband Jacob are members. Rachael’s televised ‘victim impact statement’ in the case of sex abuser Larry Nassar was reported globally. Her words were full of courage and grace, justice and forgiveness.

Speaking in court to her abuser, Rachael said, ‘Should you ever reach the point of truly facing what you have done, the guilt will be crushing. And that is what makes the gospel of Christ so sweet. Because it extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found. And it will be there for you.’.

Her remarkable statement, of which the above is just a mere fragment, is available to read in full on the internet, and a video of Rachael reading her statement is available online too. But away from the cameras and the headlines, Rachael and her husband are striving to be ordinary members of their church at which Jim is the Pastor. In an interview with Evangelical Times, Jim answers two vital issues.

ET: What has it been like for you to give pastoral support to someone who has experienced such appalling abuse? What has been the impact on you? What have been the challenges? The struggles? What have been the blessings? What have you learnt? What advice can you offer other pastors?

Jim Savisto

Jim: The sad reality of pastoral ministry is that we will encounter victims of abuse repeatedly.  It is estimated that over 25 per cent of the women under our care have undergone some kind of physical sexual abuse.  Many do not and have not spoken of these events due to unwarranted feelings of shame.

Too often the church is not viewed as a safe place to speak about what has happened.  Our care for the Denhollander family has only brought great light to a reality that was already before us.  The question which can haunt a pastor is, how can I faithfully minister to victims and families that have been devastated by such abuse?

I have learned that two primary pastoral lessons.  The first is the extraordinary power of the ordinary means of grace.  The church can offer to people what no human institution can accomplish.  By means of prayer, the preaching of the gospel, the worship of God, intentional and practical love and care, by learning and listening the church can be a means of healing.  Survivors need to know that they are loved, secure, and trusted.

The second lesson is that healing may well take a lifetime and will only issue its fullness in the life to come.  We must not be frustrated that our initial counsel does not seem to ‘work’.  The wounds of some of the Lord’s people will only be healed in heaven.  We need patience to continue to love, to listen, and to pray.

ET: What has it been like for you to give pastoral support to someone who has been in the international media spotlight? It’s one thing to offer counsel to someone in private, but the public dimension brings other challenges. Again, what advice can you give to pastors? Are there any dangers to avoid? Are there any encouragements you can give?

Jim: Having a member of your congregation become the focus of international media attention, both in the Christian and secular media, has certainly been interesting and challenging.  At the end of the day, you remember that these are simply people whom you know and love.  Families in the spotlight need a place where they can be ordinary.  The spotlight will eventually fade and ‘real life’ will return.

I would encourage pastors to not seek their own time in the limelight in association with their member’s fame.  This is not about you nor is it a platform to grow your church.  The ‘fame’ that has come upon my sister Rachael has come through trauma and pain.  It is not something that she has sought.  But, having been given a platform, she has been determined to use her voice for good for as long as people will listen.

Our job, as pastors, is to help keep the main things before those who have been given much attention.  The platform must not, in the long term, detract from the basic duties to which the Lord has clearly called his people.  The care of one’s own soul, the duties of family, labour, and the fellowship of God’s people will be there long after the cameras are turned off.

Having a greater platform does require greater responsibility.  To whom much is given, much is required.  Words spoken before millions carry a great weight than words whispered to a few.  Rachael and her husband have both sought accountability in this regard and for that, I applaud them.

Jim Savastio is pastor of The Reformed Baptist Church of Louisville, Kentucky. rbclouisville.com