PANDEMIC EDITION: Pastors, Is Your Church Safe for Survivors of Abuse?

Guest Editor Rev. Dr. Barbara Welch talks about “Existential Shame”, substance abuse, and the world of local churches

Research Associate’s Note: As part of our new PANDEMIC section, we are continuing to reflect on how helping institutions, particularly the Church, can be present to meet people’s needs in a time of fear, stress, and isolation. Here Pastor Barb raises some critical issues for your consideration.

Some people don’t go to church; other people can’t go to church.

We know that in our modern times, churches can no longer be considered the sanctuaries from violence we once held them to be. It could be a mass murder inside the church by a spurned white male, or leaders who suggest their congregants lick the church floor during a Pandemic to demonstrate their confidence in Jesus. Or, the problem for some might be the ongoing revelations that churches, with their auras of sanctity and moral leaders, have proved to be just as dangerous to children and young women as any street gang.

Yup: church is a dicey proposition these days, and especially so when it goes so ‘cult’ like that it forgets its own beginnings, hallowed teachings or daily expectations. But what about churches where the messages sent consciously and unconsciously continue to wound those who are already gashed by life experience, have sought to escape and found themselves in an even worse place.

Such is the abused child who uses substances to quell the screams and silences in their own life. How can we help churches become sanctuaries for them? How do we help? Will reading the Psalms make such a teenager feel even more alone, or open the can of worms that is justifiable anger?

Read on to find out what Guest Editor Rev. Dr. Barb Welch has to say about how the effects of childhood trauma affect the body, mind and soul, and how Churches can pave a road to recovery and belonging.


This article offers suggested ways to help create safer worship environments for those who have been wounded in mind, body and spirit from child abuse.  Most often Existential Shame distorts his/her faith; and his/her basic trust has been distorted or even aborted through child abuse. Pastors may offer safer worship opportunities through safer liturgies and rituals.  Sensory liturgies may contribute to the healing process of the Limbic System/the emotional brain through the process of neuroplasticity because positive worship experiences help to create new neural pathways and connections in the Limbic System.

Key Words:  Safety, Safer Liturgy, Neuroplasticity, Faith Practices, Child Abuse and Substance Abuse

Do Your Worship Services Feel Safe?

If not, it may be due to the emotion of Existential Shame.

Interim Ministers’ Opportunity for Intervention, Self-Care and Soul Care

By Rev. Dr. Barbara Kathleen Welch

Interfaith Church Consultant for Safe Worship & Substance Abuse/Child Abuse Ministry

Copyright Protected, 2019 by Stratton Press Publishers

The Healing Power of Interim Ministries

Can you imagine attending church yet feeling disconnected? Can you imagine how it might feel to sit in church, year after year, in quiet desperation? Can you imagine how it might feel to endure a sense of distance from God and other worshippers? Interim ministers can be the first responders. One of our callings is to help create a new vision for our churches.

Psychiatrist and author, Carl Jung wrote, “Shame is an emotion that eats the soul.”[1]  We are in a cultural crisis of substance abuse often due to child abuse. The impact of substance abuse and child abuse affects the church, and in particular, our worship and liturgy.  As an experienced Interim Minister Specialist, I have witnessed firsthand the impact of substance abuse on the church and in some wounded congregants.

About six months ago, I was asked to serve a local church for several months as they continued the process of interviewing for a settled pastor. Due to my burden for safer worship environments, I felt that I needed to speak from the pulpit what I name as the Difficult Words such as drug abuse, child abuse, incest, spousal abuse, rape and the like. Also, I offered a liturgy of guided prayer of release for anyone dealing with the social sins that I mentioned in my sermon. I said, “There may be someone here, or many here today who have been impacted by, (I named the Difficult Words) or who knows of anyone who has been impacted by these concerns.” Safe invitations create safer worship environments.[2]

Sad but True

A True Story: The following week I received a call asking if I would be willing to meet with a congregant before the service and that is was very important. The following Sunday, a woman, a church leader showed up at my office before the service. This is what she said, “Pastor, when you mentioned substance abuse last week, I felt such a deep relief. I was so ashamed to tell anyone, but because you mentioned it in your sermon, I knew that it was safe for me to share. It was twelve years ago when my twenty-three year old granddaughter called and asked if she could live in my basement apartment. She was homeless and using substances. Of course I welcomed her. One day I called down to her but there was no answer. She had overdosed and was dead in my basement apartment. I was terrified and afraid to tell anyone because of the shame that I felt; that my granddaughter was a drug addict. I did not think anyone would understand because of the shame of substance abuse. I was too ashamed to ask for help from my pastor and church family. I told them that she had a heart condition that caused her death. I felt guilty for lying, but I could not endure the shame of it all. For the first time, since your sermon, I have found the courage to talk about it; and when you offered a prayer of release for burdens, I gave it to the Lord, and for the first time in all of these years, the burden and shame has lifted and I feel free” The power of naming is healing.

Shame: Eater of Souls

This article will focus upon the power of shame as a significant deterrent to faith in God and hope and healing.  We are familiar with the biblical passage found in the New Testament, “…fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”  (Hebrews 12:2). NIV

As Jung said, “Shame eats at our soul.Robert H. Albers, in his book, Shame, offers two insightful definitions for the word shame.  The first is what he names as discretionary shame. This type of shame functions as modesty, protecting ourselves and giving us a sense of privacy. “Discretionary shame is an integral and necessary part of a healthy person’s existence.” The second type of shame is disgrace shame which is self-evident. Albers suggests that “disgrace shame breaks the relationship one has with self and others.”[4]

In my book, I named another type of shame which I called existential shame. There is a lethality in existential shame because it may lead a wounded person to suicide. This type of shame in nearly intolerable.  Existential shame is experienced in this way.  A wounded person who has been violated in physical, emotional or sexual abuse is mired in the emotion of shame. Existential shame is sheer humiliation and affects the mind, body and spirit as well as relationships, and in particular, one’s relationship to God, others and the church. The wounded person experiences mental visual images and feelings associated with sexual abuse. In interpersonal relationships, the wounded person tells himself/herself that the other person can see the violent sexual scene, therefore, making the wounded one feel nearly panicky to get out of the relationship with that other person and/or church.[5]

            In a recent conversation with a colleague, fellow pastor, I mentioned that the shame of the Cross may not go far enough for the abused. Her response was one of adamant disagreement until I explained it further. Those who have been sexually abused and touched in his/her private parts may not be able to relate to Jesus’ shame for his nakedness on the Cross. The wounded one may feel that sexual abuse feels far worse.  My colleague quickly agreed that this may be a real possibility when we recall that existential shame is sheer humiliation, a soul devouring feeling, shame.

The specialized call to interim ministry is filled with wonderfully creative options for service to our churches. Interim minsters may be the first to take hold of this process, of naming the social sins of our culture, and then offering creative healing modalities and options, thereby, creating safer worship environments.

How may we, the interim minister be responders to these crises and targeted soul care?  Due to the limited scope of this article, this is not an exhaustive list.

 First, we may purposefully and prayerfully speak the Difficult Words from the pulpit.      

Second, interim ministers need to feel comfortable when talking about the emotions of shame.  If he/she is not comfortable speaking them, then he/she should process why with a qualified therapist. Otherwise, to not address the Difficult Words may, by default, further silence those who need to hear the words from his/her trusted minister. When interim ministers are faithful in speaking aloud the Difficult Words, it shows the congregants that this church both understands and cares.[6]

Third, always create options in liturgy for congregational involvement. For example, when a minister officiates at the Word and Table, the Holy Eucharist, it is important to offer private communion for those who do not feel comfortable in coming up to the Table. Due to the physicality of the Holy Eucharist and the words of body and blood, these words may serve as severe emotional triggers for those who were abused. Because the wounded were often silenced in traumatic ways, it is vital to make certain that the liturgy feels safe; and that it also provides options for participation due to the underlying existential shame that the wounded may feel.

Fourth, it is critically important to rightly divide the Word. What the wounded hear may not be what the minister reads. For example, when we read that “Jesus took upon himself our sins and sorrows,” this text may be heard differently by the wounded. The word, and, in this text functions as a conjunction, but the wounded one may hear it as a list of words. The wounded may hear it as “I sinned so that is why I am suffering.” Careful exegesis of the text is essential.[7]

Fifth, using creative liturgy such as rituals may engage more congregants in a sensory worship experience. The wounded have, by default, pretty much shut down some emotions, so offering more sensory worship rituals may aid him/her to more fully engage in the service.[8]

Sixth, it is vitally important that clergy understand that the emotional brain, the Limbic System, has been encoded with trauma. In hope and healing, the Limbic System is able to restore itself, in time, through the process of neuroplasticity.[9] [10]Neurotheologian, Newberg in his book, Principles of Neurotheology, “Studies have demonstrated religiosity to be positively associated with feelings of well-being in a variety of populations. Hope and optimism seemed to run higher among religious individuals than non-religious individuals.”

Seventh, offering intentional healing services may extend hope to those who are silently suffering. Framing the invitation is critical for creating a safer worship environment. For example, “There may be those here today who are suffering from, (name the Difficult Words) or maybe someone carries a concern for another who is suffering. Regardless, all are invited to participate.” This type of invitation does no single out anyone, therefore creates safer worship environment.

Finally, interim ministers, for self-care and care of others, should always have well qualified therapist as referrals.  It is critical for interim ministers to remember that the wounded often have suicide as a “backdoor” for potential release from the pain and suffering from child abuse. Also, the wounded may be very fragile, so thoughtful soul care through safer worship environments may help lessen or remove this potential danger.

Interim ministers may be the first to address these critical social concerns. As our Homiletic Professor told us, “When you preach a sermon, you must remember that you are addressing spiritual life and death.” Clergy self-care is faithful soul care!

Further Reading

Albers, Robert H. Shame: A Faith Perspective. New York: The Haworth Pastoral Press, 1995.

Jung, Carl “Jung Depth Psychology,” accessed January 20, 2020,http//

Newberg, Andrew, Principles of Neurotheology. Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2010.

Welch, Barbara. K. Substance Abuse-Child Abuse: Bind up the Broken Hearted. Wilmington, DE: Stratton Press Publishing. 2019.


[1] Jung, Carl “ Jung Depth Psychology,” accessed January 20, 2020,http//

[2] Welch, Barbara, K. Substance Abuse – Child Abuse: Bind up the Broken Hearted. (Wilmington, DE: Stratton Press Publishing. 2019), 26-32, 40. The Difficult Words are substance abuse, sexual abuse, spousal abuse, etc. When a wounded person hears a pastor speak these words it may help the wounded to feel that his/her traumatic wounds are understood by the pastor.  There is power in naming, so offering these Difficult Words may help the wounded not to feel so isolated and alone.

[3] Welch, 133-154.

[4] Albers, Robert H. Shame: A Faith Perspective. (New York: The Haworth Pastoral Press, 1995), 8-15.

[5] Welch, 74-81.

[6] Welch, 42-46.  Pastors who do not feel comfortable with the Difficult Words should formally process his/her family-of-origin feelings with a certified pastoral counselor, otherwise,  he/she may, by default, use his/her congregation as a way to cope with his/her unresolved issues. The wounded need to hear that his/her pastor understands her/his woundedness and feel safe to speak with his/her pastor. To not speak the Difficult Words may remove a vital opportunity for the wounded to hear that his/her pastor both understands and cares’


[7] Welch, 106. Pastors need to rightly divide the word which calls for a clear exegesis. For example, need to be specific about words, otherwise the phrase, “our griefs and iniquities” (Isaiah 53:4-5) may be heard by the wounded as being synonymous. Due to the wounded’s low self-esteem or limited level of self-differentiation, they may hear that sin caused their mind, body and spiritual pain.  Sin did, but by one who committed a violent act against the wounded.  In the text, “our griefs and iniquities,” it must be remembered that the word and in this text functions as a conjunction, it joins words and phrases. The wounded may hear it differently and then place another layer of guilt upon themselves.

[8] Welch, 150.  Because the wounded may have, by default, shut down important emotional and spiritual responses, it is vital that we, as pastors, offer liturgical services that invite a more sensory response.  For example, the Liturgy of a Guided Prayer of Lament invites the entire congregation to participate. In doing so, there is an unspoken sense of safety for the wounded because no one person, group and lament is singled out. Also the service offers several sensory expressions such as writing, time for personal and private prayer, and then at the end, a ritual for leaving all laments at the Cross through a ritual of casting each personal and private lament into a pre-prepared fire outside in the church yard. This ending allows for all to toss his/her private lament into a fire as a sweet incense of prayer to God. It is critical to create a safety in all worship services. Also, offering options for participation in liturgical practices may help the wounded to feel a level of control because abuse removed options and safety. Shame is an emotional that most, if not all, abused people feel.

[9]Welch, 9-21. There is hope for healing of the emotional brain/ Limbic System.  Through the process of neuroplasticity, the Limbic System, in time, is able to create new neural connections. Traumatic events such as abuse and substance abuse injure the neural connections and create biological-chemical changes in the Limbic System.

[10] Andrew B. Newberg, Principles of Neurotheology (Burlington, Ashgate

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