Preparing for Justice Work Before the House Burns Down

There is a seemingly constant barrage of news about churches and people of faith being caught flat-footed when it comes to justice issues. The world is desperate for a church that is trained theologically and practically for the work of justice. How can we prepare together in practical ways to identify, confront, and prevent injustice within our own faith communities? As we prepare for this work within our own spaces, how can this work prepare us to stand up against injustice in other spheres of our daily lives? 

Maybe you’ve been in church situations where the required preparation for a crisis of injustice or abuse has not been done. I know I have—and it was devastating. Allegations were raised in a church I loved and belonged to for years. Neither our church leadership nor people higher up the denominational hierarchy knew what to do, so they panicked and tried to just shove things under the rug. The fallout of the lack of an effective response was extremely damaging. Spiritual abuse continued unfettered. The church became divided. Marriages were destroyed. People left the faith altogether—even people who didn’t attend the church but saw how the situation was handled. 

It gutted me to see how much of it was preventable.

Without preparation, faith leaders and Christian communities not only delay or avoid responding but can also make situations worse by diving in without truly understanding either the issues or the appropriate interventions. It’s like waiting for the fire alarm to go off to start thinking about what we need to do in an emergency. Fire doesn’t wait—the house is almost sure to burn down. 

So many of our houses have been burning down around us. People are leaving churches in droves as churches are increasingly seen as unsafe, unjust spaces. 

But it doesn’t have to be this way. When we have agreed-on and widely-communicated processes in place ahead of time, we can fight our natural tendencies toward panic, self-protection, and turning a blind eye by simply working the plan that is already in place.

There are three buckets of work we can do to prepare.

1. Talk from the pulpit and in groups about just and unjust community dynamics.

An important part of preparing for and preventing injustice is to make sure everyone in the community has some shared concept about what healthy community looks like and what unhealthy community feels like. Because so many abusive dynamics are subtle, bringing them to light proactively will give your community a huge jump start on stopping bad actors and unhealthy dynamics in their tracks. 

Talk proactively and learn together about things like grooming and abuse dynamics. Let people know how they can expect to be treated and that anything less is important to address. Talk about healthy and unhealthy uses of power. Make sure your community is well versed in and has access to the work of Diane Langberg, Wade Mullen, Jemar Tisby, and other experts on different types of abuse of power in church settings.

These conversations are such a powerful way to love each other, especially those who are most vulnerable.

2. Prepare to respond effectively to issues that come up.

When allegations or rumors come up in a church setting, it can get scary, confusing, and contentious in a hurry. These panicked or defensive reactions make the potential injustice much less likely to be addressed effectively. Nailing down what happened helps to either clear the air or bring the wrongdoing to light. That’s why having an investigation process ready BEFORE issues and accusations arise is the #1 key to effectively confronting injustice in our churches. Don’t be naïve and think there won’t be a fire—put a plan in place so the house doesn’t burn down. 

Develop and communicate a 100% commitment to doing a thorough, transparent, and fair investigation of any and all allegations of wrongdoing —no matter what, no matter how important the person is for the image of the church, no matter how messy it could get. This could be among the church staff or within the broader congregation. Let people know how to raise issues, based on best practices. Commit to continue your investigation until you run out of things to find, because sometimes your first findings might be just scratching the surface of what is going on. Keep going. 

In addition:

  • Prioritize righteousness over reputation, people over programs or institutions. 
  • Talk with your people about how wrong definitions of gossip are used to silence people who raise legitimate issues. Talk about the importance of bringing wrongdoing to light (Ephesians 5:11). Destroy the false dichotomy between forgiveness and accountability. Talk about our tendencies to ignore, minimize, and compare injustices—this will help people more easily move past those thoughts or comments when they come up in the context of wrongdoing or injustice.
  • Vet outside experts/entities to bring in for anything beyond the capacity of the front-line response team of the church or anything with a conflict of interest. This is analogous to a financial audit to prevent and uncover wrongdoing—it must be an uncompromised, trusted third party.
  • Know ahead of time which matters should be reported directly to the police and civil authorities.

3. Prepare to defend, protect, and change.

The last step is to become a community that is prepared to intervene effectively. If you’re like me, when something problematic happens, you either freeze or overreact if you don’t know what to do. There are some fantastic resources available for churches to access related to becoming an “active bystander.” We need to learn and practice these skills together. We also need to hear stories of effective interventions—both from Scripture and modern-day examples—to ignite our imaginations for seeing that justice is possible and doable in our everyday lives. We need to talk about how to look out for the most vulnerable members of our churches. 

Another part of this work is examining our church beliefs, systems, and structures in light of best practice. Are there HR practices in place that cause unfair treatment for anyone or allow bias to influence employment outcomes for church staff? Are there theologies that are problematic and causing harm? Are there Sunday morning practices that prioritize efficiency or performance and lead to people being treated badly or feeling used by the “system”? Are there elements of the church constitution or bylaws that limit transparency and accountability? What other policies, practices, or pieces of your church culture need to be examined in this light and addressed or adjusted?

Preparing ahead of time for the work of justice in practical, concrete ways allows us to lead by example in cultivating just, safe, flourishing communities. While we remove the logs in our own eyes, we become agents of justice in our families, workplaces, and larger communities. As we are equipped for the work of justice in our own churches, we are also equipped for the work of justice God calls us to in other spheres of our lives. And that is very good news.

Sarah Driver has worked for 20+ years at local, state, and international levels on a range of justice issues from education reform and gender equality to human trafficking and spiritual abuse. She has also studied Scripture with this lens for the past two decades. Sarah has lived and worked on four continents and holds a master’s degree in social policy and development from the London School of Economics. You can find her on Instagram and at


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