The Least of These: The Urgent Need for ELCA Seminaries to Prepare Called Workers to Minister to Survivors of Abuse and Develop Trauma-Informed Congregations

Introduction: ELCA assembly resolution on child abuse

[1] At the 2022 ELCA Churchwide Assembly held in Columbus, Ohio, the delegates approved the Memorials Committee’s recommendation that “the Church Council consider authorizing development of a social message on child abuse and protection.”[1]

[2] In recommending this action, the ELCA Memorials Committee acknowledged “there has been no comprehensive address or guidance across the ELCA” on responding to child abuse and that it “seems clear that few rostered ministers or congregations are aware of or require best practices.”[2] The committee noted that “‘safe church’ policies are rare in congregations” and that it is “unlikely that most congregations require background checks for lay staff and volunteers even though many belong to the category of mandated reporters.”[3] Equally concerning, the committee concluded:

Even fewer rostered ministers and congregations are prepared to respond to child abuse taking place in homes. It is an interesting question, for instance, what percentage of seminarians have received education on recognizing and responding to child abuse, including appropriate spiritual care? Likewise, how many rostered ministers have received continuing education on child maltreatment?[4]

“Based on the sporadic address and minimal resources” within the ELCA,” the Memorials Committee concluded, “there seems to be a clear need for addressing as a church the matter of child abuse and childhood protection.”[5]

[3] If the ELCA is going to improve its response to child abuse, reform must begin at the seminary level. Simply put, seminaries must prepare pastors, deacons and other called workers to engage theologically on this subject, to implement best practices for child protection policies, to address the spiritual needs of survivors, and to meet national standards for a trauma-informed community.

The view of Lutheran parishioners on church preparedness to respond to child abuse

[4] In a 2019 national survey of Protestant church goers, only 45% of Lutheran congregants said their church is “willing to correctly address sexual misconduct that may occur in the church even if it costs the church or hurts its image.”[6] When asked how they would respond if someone accused their pastor of sexual misconduct, only 57% of Lutherans said they would “want the victim protected.”[7] Only 10% of Lutherans said they had heard a sermon addressing sexual assault or sexual violence in the past year—which was less than Pentecostals (25%), non-denominational churches (22%), and Baptists (21%).[8] Only 51% of Lutherans consider their church “very prepared” to protect children from sexual abuse and only 35% of Lutherans believe their church is better prepared to protect children than it was 10 years ago.[9] Less than half of Lutheran congregants (47%) strongly agree that their church is a good place for a child sexual abuse victim to find healing.[10]

The urgent need for the ELCA to improve its response to child abuse

[5] As the ELCA contemplates improving its response to child abuse, it is important to firmly grasp the extent of child abuse within our churches and communities and the devasting impact of this sin. It is also critical to understand the number of persons who are leaving our churches as a result of our failure to address child maltreatment.

Prevalence of maltreatment in the United States

[6] The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente conducted massive research on the prevalence of abuse and other adverse childhood experiences (ACE) among the U.S. population.[11] According to this research, 28% of women and 16% of men were sexually abused as children, 28% of adults were beaten as children to the point of receiving injuries, 13% witnessed their mother being violently treated,[12] 11% were emotionally abused and 10% were physically neglected.[13] All totaled, more than 60% of adults have been subjected to at least one ACE.[14]

Physical and emotional impact of child maltreatment

[7] Children or adults who have endured adverse experiences are more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, or alcohol or drug abuse; to have difficulty controlling their anger; to engage in risky sexual behavior and to become pregnant before leaving high school.[15] A high ACE score also increases the risk of myriad diseases, such as cancer, because childhood trauma increases the risk of smoking or other behaviors that may result in disease and because the victim’s immune system is weakened, thus impairing the ability to fight disease.[16]

The spiritual impact of child abuse

[8] In an American Psychological Association review of 34 peer-reviewed studies involving more than 19,000 victims of child abuse, scholars noted that most of these studies found that child abuse impacted the faith of the victims, often by damaging the victims’ view of and relationship with God.[17]

[9] At the same time, there is a significant and growing body of research finding spirituality is one of the most important sources of resilience for victims of child abuse.[18] Two scholars summarize the research:

The research around religious and spiritual coping shows strong and convincing relationships between psychological adjustment and physical health following trauma. Spirituality provides a belief system and sense of divine connectedness that helps give meaning to the traumatic experience and has been shown over and over to aid in the recovery process.[19]

The exodus of survivors of abuse from the Christian community

[10] In the Protestant community, 5% of congregants have left a church because of the failure to respond appropriately to sexual misconduct, and 10% of adults below the age of 35 have left a congregation for the same reason.[20] Commenting on the departure of so many survivors of abuse from the Christian church, Mary DeMuth writes “we are experiencing a shameful exodus of the very people who could offer the world the kind of authentic, raw hope the next generation craves and needs…The abused are our tutors, but we’ve expelled them.”[21]

Implementing seminary reform

[11] Every ELCA seminary should have a required course on child abuse[22] or else include a module on child abuse in each existing course. For instance, a course on Christian history could address the church’s response to maltreatment,[23] a course on preaching could discuss how to give a sermon on child abuse, a course on the Lutheran Confessions could address child abuse in the life of Martin Luther and the influence of this experience on his theology,[24] and a course on pastoral care can include a module on trauma informed spiritual care.[25] A course on ethics can include a module on the obligation to report abuse to the authorities even if obtained in the confessional.[26] Every future church leader should graduate from seminary knowing best practices for child protection policies[27] as well as it what it means to be a trauma informed church.[28]

Scholarly support for theological engagement with the topic of child abuse

[12] The need for theological engagement with the topic of child abuse is increasingly finding its way into the academic literature. In one recent analysis of the child sexual abuse scandal within the Catholic church, two scholars write:

[W]e must resist the understandable temptation to suggest that the primary way of responding to Catholic sexual abuse ought to be the implementation of safeguards for children, at least as that has been understood in the U.S. The only way to adequately address the causes and legacies of clergy sexual abuse is through deep and sustained structural and theological reform.[29]

[13] Similarly, scholars analyzing the child sexual abuse scandal within the Southern Baptist (SBC) Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, have noted the role poor theology played in perpetuating, even expanding the number of children abused.[30] Commenting on the SBC response to child abuse, Russell Moore takes issue with those who responded to this crisis as “an irrational sweep into a secular #MeToo moment” or who “suggested that the church should not concern itself with questions of ‘justice.’”[31] Instead, Moore writes:

What we must learn from all of this is that the issue of predators in the church is not a secondary one. Churches must not simply brush up their policies or pay fleeting attention to the issue because of the cultural moment. This is a primary issue, one that Jesus himself warned us about from the very beginning.[32]

[14] There is an emerging “child theology” movement focusing on the moral obligation to care for the children God has entrusted to us.[33] A trauma-informed pastor can draw out many critical lessons from the sacred texts that can benefit those who have been maltreated and call to repentance those who inflict harm. Describing the church’s failure to preach on the many accounts of abuse in the Bible, and the impact of her own discovery of these texts, one survivor writes:

It is not as if sexual abuse is new to Christianity. Indeed, the Bible includes many texts in which rape and sexual abuse are explicit, and other texts where such behavior is implied. Yet such texts rarely find themselves included in lectionaries, or when they are, the abuse tends to be overlooked by preachers by placing the focus elsewhere. As a result, for people of faith these texts told stories with which they might resonate, but they are texts which are unfamiliar. Discovering these biblical texts for myself was in some ways a #MeToo moment, in that I saw myself not on the periphery of the faithful but as one whose experiences were shared with the women and men of faith recorded in Scripture.[34]

[15] Professor Beth Crisp contends the “church needs theologians to actively engage with the theological questions of those who sit in the pews and may have no formal theological education.”[35] To this end, she quotes former Anglican bishop Alison Taylor who said, “Ordinary non-academic Christians need to hear how they can place the tragedy of institutional child sexual abuse in churches into the story of God and his people and their ways in the world.”[36]

[16] Bishop Taylor’s comments about fitting experiences of child abuse “into the story of God” is an astute observation that has support in research. As a result of abuse, memories of trauma may not be encoded like other memories but are “frozen and wordless.”[37] When survivors of trauma were asked to describe their experiences while receiving an MRI, researchers found the speech areas of the brain were impacted, thus impairing the ability to “put thoughts and feelings into words.”[38] Since it is “difficult for survivors to make meaning of their trauma because of the non-narrative, plot-less form their memories take,”[39] it is possible that sermons about “the story of Jesus, his death and resurrection” can provide a framework for processing experiences of abuse and to aid in healing or otherwise coping with trauma.[40]

[17] Professor Crisp writes:

One of the powerful moments in dealing with my own experiences of sexual abuse came as I listened to the passion narrative on Palm Sunday more than 20 years ago…The abuse suffered by Jesus was not the same as what I had endured, but at the time I could see in him an ally who understood some of the consequences of sexual abuse. In particular, Jesus was someone who had experienced repeated rejection and denial of his humanity, rather than being treated with the respect which one might contend is a human right.[41]

 If, though, the “stories of God” are to be helpful and not triggering to survivors, pastors will need to grow their knowledge of trauma research and incorporate these studies into how they speak of abuse. This may include providing congregants with a warning when a sermon may include graphic content and to be ready to provide support when delivering a sermon that addresses child abuse or other difficult subjects.[42]

Trauma-informed congregations

[18] If seminaries were to take the lead in teaching child theology to future pastors, deacons and other called workers, additional child protection reforms would naturally fall into place. This is because we would no longer implement policies or other reforms merely to avoid a lawsuit or bad press, but because caring for the “least of these” is central to our understanding of what it means to be a Christian.[43] Even so, seminaries must aid these reforms by teaching future called workers nationally recognized standards for becoming a trauma-informed community.[44] Unless and until that happens, we will continue to see survivors of abuse leave our congregations while offenders remain emboldened to prey on the vulnerable.[45]


[19] Jesus told his followers that children are messengers of God and that our treatment of children speaks volumes about our true attitude toward our creator (Mark 9:36-37). At the 2022 assembly, the ELCA recognized it has fallen well short of adhering to Christ’s command to care for hurting children. However, the true benchmark of repentance is not simply recognizing our sin but demonstrating repentance through actions.[46] If the ELCA hopes to become a trauma-informed community for survivors of child abuse, the seminaries must assume a leadership role in reform.



[1] Victor Vieth, “ELCA Churchwide Assembly Addresses Child Abuse,120(1) Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly 75-76 (2023)

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Sexual Misconduct and Churchgoers: National Survey of Protestant Churchgoers (Lifeway Research 2019).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] For additional information, see the CDC website at (last visited September 14, 2021).

[12] We know from research that domestic abuse “victims in religious communities are less likely to leave the abusive relationship, more likely to believe the abuser’s promise to change his violent ways, more reluctant to seek community-based resources or shelters, and more commonly express guilt that they have failed their families and God in not being able to make the marriage work or to stop the abuse.” Michal Gilad, “In God’s Shadow: Unveiling the Hidden World of Victims of Domestic Violence in Observant Religious Communities,11(3) Rutgers Journal of Law & Public Policy 471, 478 (2014).

[13] Vincent J. Filetti & Robert F. Anda, “The Relationship of Adverse Childhood Experiences to Adult Medical Disease, Psychiatric Disorders, and Sexual Behavior: Implications for Healthcare,” Impact of Early Life Trauma on Health and Disease: The Hidden Epidemic 77-87 (Ruth A. Lanius et al., eds., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2010).

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Donald F. Walker et al, “Changes in Personal Religion/Spirituality During and After Childhood Abuse: A Review and Synthesis,” 1 Psychology & Trauma: Theory, Practice & Policy 130 (2009); See also Amy Russell, “The Spiritual Impact of Child Abuse & Exploitation: What the Research Tells Us,45 Currents in Theology & Mission 14 (2018).

[18] See Thema Bryant Davis et al., “Religiosity, Spirituality, and Trauma Recovery in the Lives of Children and Adolescents,” 43 Prof. Psych. Res. & Rev. 306 (2012); Terry Lynn Gall, “Spirituality and Coping with Life Stress Among Adult Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse,30 Child Abuse & Neglect 829 (2006); Jungmeen Kim, 32 Child Abuse & Neglect 711 (2008); Katie G. Reinhert et al., “The Role of Religious Involvement in the Relationship Between Early Trauma and Health Outcomes Among Adult Survivors,9 J. Child & Adolescent Trauma 231 (2016); Ernest N. Jouriles et al., “Divine Spiritual Struggles and Psychological Adjustment Among Adolescents Who Have Been Sexually Abused,10(3) Psychology of Violence 334 (2019); Tricia Gower, “Caregiver and Divine Support: Associations with Resilience Among Adolescents Following Disclosure of Sexual Abuse,109 Child Abuse & Neglect (November 2020).

[19] Casey Gwinn & Chad Hellman, Hope Rising 180 (2019).

[20] Kate Shellnut, 1 in 10 Protestants Have a Left a Church Over Abuse, Christianity Today, May 21, 2019, available online at

[21] Mary DeMuth, We Too: How the Church Can Respond Redemptively to the Sexual Abuse Crisis 22 (2019).

[22] Although Wartburg Theological Seminary and United Lutheran Seminary at Gettysburg have a stand-alone course on child abuse, these courses are electives.

[23] E.g. Michael D. Antonio, Mortal Sins: Sex, Crime, and the Era of Catholic Scandal (2013).

[24] Victor I. Vieth, “Until the Blood Ran: A Call to Re-Appraise the Experience of Child Physical Abuse in the Life and Works of Martin Luther,” 47(4) Currents in Theology & Mission 60 (2020).

[25] Victor I. Vieth, “Wounded Souls: The Need for Child Protection Professionals and Faith Leaders to Recognize and Respond to the Spiritual Impact of Child Abuse,” 45(4) Mitchell Hamline Law Review 1213-1234 (2019).

[26] Victor I. Vieth, “Child Abuse & the Lutheran Confessional: A Call to Elevate Christ’s Teachings on Children Above Church Traditions,”  Currents in Theology & Mission 50 (2019).

[27] Basyle Tchividjian and Shira M. Berkovits, The Child Safeguarding Policy Guide  (2017).

[28] Robert G. Crosby, et al, Trauma-Informed Children’s Ministry: A Qualitative Descriptive Study, 14 Journal of Child & Adolescent Trauma 493-505 (2021).

[29] Wheatley, M. & McCabe, M. (2023). “Our transgressions before you are many, and our sins testify against us (Is 59:12a): Re-Imagining Church in Light of Colonization and Catholic Sexual Abuse.” Taking Responsibility: Jesuit Educational Institutions Confront the Causes and Legacy of Clergy Sexual Abuse: Final Project Report.

[30] Victor I. Vieth, “Lessons from the SBC Sexual Abuse Crisis,15(3) Family & Intimate Partner Violence Quarterly 61 (2023).

[31] Russell Moore, Jesus Will Have the Last Word, 6(2) Light 3 (Winter 2020).

[32] Ibid. (Emphasis added.)

[33] Marcia Bunge, Ed., Child Theology: Diverse Methods and Global Perspectives (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books 2021); Victor I. Vieth, On this Rock: A Call to Center the Christian Response to Child Abuse on the Life & Words of Jesus (Eugene, Or: Wipf & Stock 2018); Marcia Bunge, ED., The Child in the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co 2008); Marcia Bunge, ED., The Child in Christian Thought (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. Eardmans Publishing Co. 2001).

[34] Beth A. Crisp, Jesus: A Critical Companion in the Journey to Moving on from Sexual Abuse, in Jayme R. Reaves, David Tombs, & Rocio Figueroa, When Did We See You Naked? Jesus as a Victim of Sexual Abuse 249, 250 (2021).

[35] Ibid. at 253.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Judith Herman, Trauma & Recovery 37 (2015).

[38] Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma 43 (2014).

[39] Timothy C. Bourman, Trauma Sensitivity as a Heuristic for the Lutheran Preacher, 118(3) Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly 199, 208 (2021).

[40] Ibid.

[41] Beth A. Crisp, Jesus: A Critical Companion in the Journey to Moving on from Sexual Abuse, in Jayme R. Reaves, David Tombs, & Rocio Figueroa, When Did We See You Naked? Jesus as a Victim of Sexual Abuse 249, 251 (2021).

[42] Timothy C. Bourman, Trauma Sensitivity as a Heuristic for the Lutheran Preacher, 118(3) Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly 199, 218 (2021).

[43] Victor I. Vieth, On This Rock: A Call to Center the Christian Response to Child Abuse on the Life and Words of Jesus (2018).

[44] A Trauma-Informed Community adheres to the following standards: Safety, Trustworthiness and Transparency, Peer Support, Collaboration and Mutuality, Empowerment, Voice and Choice, and Cultural, Historical, and Gender Issues. SAMSHA’s National Center for Trauma-Informed Care, available online at:

[45] Victor I. Vieth, What Would Walther Do? Applying Law & Gospel to Victims and Perpetrators of Child Sexual Abuse, 40(4) Journal of Psychology & Theology 257, 270-273 (2012).

[46] Danya Ruttenberg, On Repentance and Repair: Making Amends in an Unapologetic World (2022).

Victor I. Vieth

Victor Vieth is the Director of the Center for Faith & Child Protection at Zero Abuse Project. He is a recipient of the Victims Rights Legend Award from the United States Department of Justice for the national impact of his work to improve the lives of maltreated children. He is the author of On this Rock: A Call to Center the Christian Response to Child Abuse on the Life and Words of Jesus and teaches a class on child abuse at his alma mater, Wartburg Theological Seminary.