One Thing Every Pastor Can Do to Prevent Abortions in Their Congregation

Image: Pastor preaching to congregation

There is a long list of steps pro-life advocates would like to see their pastor take to stop abortion, and, unfortunately, pastors find that list intimidating. They can’t do everything, and they often don’t feel like anything that they can do would actually make a difference. I’d like to suggest one minimal (and not even controversial) leadership decision that pastors can make that is likely to save lives within their congregations.

My view of what church leaders should do about abortion has evolved over 13 years of full-time pro-life work. I used to get very angry when I thought about pastors who are silent on this subject, because I earnestly believed that most of them were either cowards or shamefully apathetic to a serious evil in our country. I had a bad experience nine years ago with a pro-abortion-choice usher at one of the largest Protestant churches in Fresno, California who debated me about abortion in the foyer while her pastor preached. When I later told the story on the pro-life podcast I hosted, I needed to physically stand up because I was so frustrated by the experience.

I’ve since calmed down a bit, thanks partially to Scott Klusendorf. I remember that, when Scott was writing his book The Case for Life, he told me that he wanted to take a different approach with silent pastors. Instead of lecturing them, he wanted to come beside them, realizing that many of them aren’t doing anything because they don’t know what they should do.

I’ve since tried to emulate Scott’s attitude toward pastors. That’s become easier as I’ve talked to more pastors and parish priests who struggle with what to say about abortion. For many of them, their silence is not due to cowardice or apathy, but due to a very understandable concern of emotionally damaging their congregants whom they know are post-abortive. I’m not saying that the best response to that fear is silence on abortion. I’m merely acknowledging that when a pastor is shepherding hundreds of people, and he knows that some of them are post-abortive, it’s at least understandable for him to be very concerned for their well-being if someone says something in church that equates abortion to killing babies.

I wish all of those pastors could hear from a post-abortive woman my friend David Bereit met. She described what it was like to have an abortion and then attend a church where the pastor was willing to confront every social taboo except abortion. Here’s how David told the story:

I was in North Dakota a few years ago at a pastors summit, and they brought in some poster boards of testimonies through “Silent No More,” to share their heart and to share the story of these pastors that had never been involved with pro-life before. And this one woman had never given her testimony before and she was the last speaker. She said to all these pastors assembled, “Twenty years ago I had my abortion, the week before I had my abortion, I was sitting in my seat in my pew at my church. The week after my abortion I was sitting in my pew at my church. For the last twenty years, I’ve sat in that same seat, in the same pew. Never once has there been a message in our church offering hope and healing, and as a result, I assumed [abortion] must not only be the unspeakable sin, but therefore it must be the unforgivable sin.”

These pastors began to weep and she challenged them and said, “If you think you are doing something compassionate by not bringing this issue up, if you think by being the priest or the Levite by avoiding it and just hoping it will go away, and you’re helping people, you’re not.” Do everything you can. Help those in need. Help those in unexpected pregnancies. Help our culture that is sick. We have the answer. The gospel of Jesus Christ was not only a gospel of salvation, but it was a gospel of building His Kingdom here on earth. The way we do that is to love our neighbors as ourselves.

As you can see, her pastor had very good motives, but he unintentionally caused more damage by choosing to not talk about abortion instead of choosing to talk about abortion in a thoughtful, caring way. There are thousands of women sitting in church who need to hear that God’s gift of forgiveness is offered to all, not just those who have never had abortions.

I would love for all pastors to include that message once in a while, but I also understand that that’s a harder sell. Fortunately, there is something even easier that pastors can do, one thing that I believe every pastor and youth pastor ought to do: make a public commitment on behalf of the whole church that they will treat women who become pregnant with grace and compassion instead of shame and rejection.

The Problem

Abortion is not just a secular problem; it happens frighteningly often in our churches. The best research I’ve seen on this is from a demographically balanced survey that CareNet did of 1,038 post-abortive women in 2015. According to that survey, 36% of women were attending a Christian church once a month or more at the time of their first abortion.

The church has a serious abortion problem. There are people who love Jesus who are killing their babies. Plus, they know that they are playing a role in killing someone made in the image of God and that will intensify their guilt after the fact. That guilt can severely damage their relationship with God because people often feel unworthy to pray when they are dealing with major sin issues.

These statistics force us to ask, “Why are so many Christian women having abortions?” I think it is often because a Christian woman who becomes pregnant out of wedlock faces far greater social consequences than an atheist woman does.

Consider my friend Monique D., who gave me permission to share her story. She grew up with an absent father and thus a mother who worked multiple jobs to support her children. One of her mother’s jobs was as an administrator for the black Pentecostal church that Monique grew up attending. At the age of 17, Monique became pregnant because of a guy who took advantage of her.

Nobody at the church asked how she became pregnant. Instead, the church leadership told her mother that Monique was to sit in the back pew until the pregnancy was over. She was no longer allowed to talk to her friends, as the parents assumed that Monique would be a bad influence on them. Monique’s mother didn’t intervene on her behalf because she was so embarrassed about the situation, and she didn’t understand what had really happened to Monique.

Monique recalled a particular Sunday morning when she was singing loudly from the back pew during the worship time. Monique is one of the most gifted vocalists I’ve ever served with on a worship team, and that love of singing began in Monique’s childhood. It was one of the primary ways that Monique connected with God. But on this day, as she was singing, a woman in the pew in front of her turned around and said, “Don’t you wish you could be singing to the glory of God?” Monique went silent. She said that she had never felt as lonely or shamed as she did during that pregnancy. She distinctly remembers thinking, “If this is church, then I don’t want to have any part of it.” If she hadn’t gotten involved in a group from another church, eventually leaving her old church for that one, Monique suspects that she would have left Christianity altogether.

When a Christian woman gets pregnant, she’s not only terrified of how this will affect her life and what will happen if her parents find out, but she’s also probably worried about what will happen if her pastor or youth pastor finds out. According to CareNet’s survey, while these post-abortive women were considering their abortion decision, the most typical reactions they were expecting from the local church were “judgmental” or “condemning.” Only 43% agreed with the statement, “It is safe to talk with a pastor about abortion.” Only 42% agreed that pastors teach that God is willing to forgive past abortion decisions. As a result, only 38% agreed that churches are a safe place to talk about pregnancy options.

And this is key: Many churches would handle this situation better than a woman would assume! Many churches don’t shame or kick women out if they get pregnant out of wedlock. I think many churches would rise to the challenge and do a great job of supporting this woman, but she doesn’t know that if she hasn’t seen the church deal with this issue publicly before.

Even though some churches would respond to an unplanned pregnancy well, the women don’t know that, so out of fear they abort.

A Solution

Last year I presented a new speech called Why Every Teenager Should Be Equipped In Pro-Life Apologetics at a homeschool conference in Atlanta. Before my talk began, I spoke with a few of the first people to sit down, and one of them was a youth pastor from Alabama. Even though there were nine other workshops going on at the same time, he came to this one because he said that he had a responsibility to equip teenagers to defend their views and was interested in what I had to say. I told him that I was so glad he came, and then began my speech.

During the Q&A session I answered a question about when parents ought to tell their kids about abortion, and then I shared what I think youth pastors should do about this issue. You can hear this in the embedded audio, or just read the transcript below. I’ve slightly edited it for clarity.

There are high schoolers who think about abortion. The number one age demographic that has the most abortions are college students, but high school students are number three[1], because obviously it’s a pretty big, scary thing when you’re a teenager with an unplanned pregnancy. And that happens with Christians. In fact, there’s a reason why a lot of Christians have abortions even though they know that abortion is wrong: it’s a much bigger deal in a lot of churches.

At this point I looked directly at the youth pastor in the audience, and said:

So if you take anything from this speech, please have a youth group and a church that everyone knows that if someone gets pregnant, we’re going to love that kid. We’re going to love that student, we’re going to be there for them, there’s not going to be a scarlet letter, we’re not going to kick them out of the youth group because we’re terrified of what they’re going to do, but instead we’re going to get around this person and help her choose life. Because there are thousands of Christian teenagers that are having abortions, who know they’re killing a baby, and are wrecked after it but they do it because they’re afraid of what happens if their parents find out, they’re afraid of what happens if their youth pastor finds out, their youth group finds out, they’re afraid of being judged and teased and all that stuff, and no one better than parents and youth pastors to prevent that, but that is a cultural revolution that has to happen across this country!

Unlike some other pro-life church activities, this change would need to come from the top down. It would need to be the pastor taking initiative to talk to the church body about what will happen in the future if someone in the church gets pregnant out of wedlock, so if a woman gets pregnant later, she will then know that her church is a safe place for her and her baby.

I don’t know how often it should happen, but perhaps five minutes on this during the announcements time once or twice per year would be a good target. Keep in mind that people miss church services all the time due to sickness or being out of town, so it would be important to include what was said (or even video and/or audio of the announcement itself) in an email blast the following week.

Regardless of how often, this is what pastors should make clear to the church:

  • Here’s what we believe: It is not sinful in and of itself to be in the state of pregnancy. The actions that led to becoming pregnant may have been sinful, but there is nothing intrinsically wrong with being a mother, with having a child growing inside your body. We love babies here, and we hate it when babies are killed.
  • Here’s what we won’t do: We will not encourage anybody to have an abortion, because we believe that every unborn child is a bearer of God’s image. We will not kick a woman out of the church for being pregnant. We will not shame her. We will not let people tease her.
  • Here’s what we will do: We will celebrate the life in her womb, and connect her with the local Pregnancy Resource Center. We will do our best to love unwed mothers well, the way Jesus loved the woman at the well and the woman caught in adultery. We will approach her with grace and friendship. We will teach our students and this young woman how to deal with shame through forgiveness. We will throw a baby shower for her (perhaps through her small group) and celebrate the baby’s birth just like we do all births in our church.

“But We Shouldn’t Condone Sin!”

As I began sharing this idea with others, one of the common responses I regularly heard is that pastors often come down hard on the issue of unwed pregnancy so as not to condone premarital sex, or perhaps in some cases, to avoid even the appearance of condoning premarital sex.

Pastors, please hear me on this.

I’m not saying that you should publicly approve of the way she got pregnant. I’m saying you should publicly celebrate the life in her womb, and that her sin issue should be addressed in private, in the context of relationship. That may be with you, that may be with a different pastor or elder, or it may be with the leader of her discipleship or small group.

Again, the attitude should mirror Jesus’ statement to the woman caught in adultery:

But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”

~ John 8: 1-11

I don’t bring this up to try to cheat with proof-texting. Clearly Jesus handles sin in some different ways depending on the circumstances. But he always treats repentant sinners with immense compassion. If we are really serious about sin, the best way to express that is to actually help the person through their struggle. Galatians 6:1 says:

Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.

Do people who have committed sexual sin need to be restored? Yes, of course. Might church discipline be the right move if a given person is unrepentant? Yes. But a repentant person struggling with sin in your congregation should always be restored in a spirit of gentleness.

Regardless of how it looks in your particular church, my point is that, in church history, many bad things have happened in spite of good intentions. I think many pastors have tried to do a good thing, upholding a sexual ethic and not condoning sin, and I think that has often had an unintended bad effect: the forming of a culture in the church where unwed pregnancy appears to be a taboo subject, one that should be dealt with outside of the church, not lovingly responded to inside the church. I want to say that you can do both. You can uphold a sexual ethic and avoid condoning sin, AND you can celebrate unborn life at the same time, which will literally save lives in the process.

After hearing me talk about this idea last year, the pastor of the church I attended in Fresno, Matt Troupe at Free Grace Church, made this a core part of his sanctity of life sermon this past January. He spoke of how Jesus treated the woman caught in adultery, and reminded his congregation that, at Free Grace Church, a similar approach will be taken with pregnancies that happen out of wedlock.

The next day, Matt got this text from someone in the church:

Image: Text to Pastor Matt Troupe

I want to see this message in churches all over the country. But I can’t make this happen in your church. I can only encourage and equip you to make this happen in your church.

So if you’re a pastor, this is a conversation you ought to have with your elders and youth pastor. Otherwise, this is a conversation you should humbly have with your pastor.

Seven Practical Tips for Having This Conversation With Your Pastor

If you’re in a church, you need to understand that your pastor is overwhelmed and already has dozens of congregants coming to him with things they want him to do, and some of those things are more important than others. So I’ve been interviewing pastors, priests, and even a Catholic Bishop about this topic, and have collected a list of practical tips for how to have that conversation with your pastor in a way that will be most likely to persuade him to do this.

1: Have the Conversation in Private.

If you try to make this meeting happen spontaneously after church on Sunday, it could easily look to passersby that you’re confronting him, and that will be distracting to them. Just like people who are debating on public Facebook comment threads are going to be naturally paying attention to how they come across to others, a person being confronted in public will be distracted by that, too. Ask to meet with the pastor sometime over coffee or in his office where that distraction won’t be happening. It’s a sign of respect.

2: Come to the Meeting with Humility.

I interviewed a pastor and a priest on a previous pro-life podcast once to ask them for practical tips for congregants who feel like their church leader could do more about abortion, and Pastor Jim Franklin made a great point: Most pastors are personally pro-life, but they may struggle with knowing how best to minister to the people in their flock who have had abortions. Later in the episode, Franklin added that pastors are very overwhelmed. Many of them are facing all kinds of problems, so sometimes it might not be as much apathy that is causing them to be silent but being overwhelmed and not feeling like they have the energy to fight that battle. They also may feel that they can’t make much of a difference about abortion anyway, and if they try to fight that battle it will divide some of the people in their church.

So don’t come to the meeting with a stack of books and an attitude of telling him what to do. Instead, your attitude ought to be one of humbly expressing the desire for the church to do what it can to prevent women in the church from feeling subtly pressured into having abortions because of what they imagine the negative reaction from the church may be to their pregnancy.

Make it explicit that you’re not coming to lecture them. You’ve merely been thinking about the problem of abortions happening within the church and that you’ve been wondering if maybe some churches could be more proactive in preventing that by taking this approach.

Maybe even express sympathy for the fact that many pastors have had annoying conversations with pro-life activists who come with a list of 15 things that they think the pastor ought to be doing or else he’s not “really pro-life.” Make it clear that that’s not your attitude and that you just want to get their thoughts on an idea you’ve been mulling over. You should also express openness about the best way to execute this idea at your specific church. You’re wanting his ideas.

3: Ask if There Is Already a Church Policy on What Would Happen to a Woman in the Youth Group if She Became Pregnant.

Is there already a policy that she would be kicked out? If not, does the rest of the church know this? If there is a policy that she should be kicked out, you should explain that you understand that that policy was probably created with good intentions, and gently ask the pastor to reconsider this policy, given that it likely makes pregnant women in the church more likely to kill their babies. That is a really big deal.

4: Make It Clear That You Realize That What This Pregnant Teen Is Imagining Would Happen Is Probably a Lot Worse Than What Would Actually Happen.

You’re not saying that a pregnant teen’s fears are based on reality. That’s not the point. The point is that we can proactively communicate about this in a way that makes it a lot harder for a person to expect a harsh reaction from the church leadership that wouldn’t have happened anyway.

If you can even name specific examples where the pastors had a lot of grace in the way that they dealt with outsiders or church members caught up in sin, talk about that. Talk about how you know this church has a lot of grace. You’ve been merely wondering if more churches went above and beyond to communicate about this before a pregnancy happens, if that would have a really positive effect on a woman in the church if she does become pregnant out of wedlock.

5: Tell a Story.

At the end of this article I also share a story about a woman we’re calling “Anna.” A story like hers or Monique’s might help the pastor to emotionally connect with the problem. Make it clear that you don’t think your church’s leadership would treat unwed mothers badly, but that this is a common experience in other churches, and that that uncertainty scares pregnant women into silence and abortion.

6: Present This as an Opportunity for the Pastor to Be Able to Say Something Brief about Abortion in a Way That Shows How Much He Loves His Flock.

Some pastors and parish priests are just more skittish than others about talking about this issue from the pulpit. Many of them fear that it will come across as “getting political” with their sermon. This is understandable, as abortion does come up in every election. It’s not only a political issue, it’s also a moral one, but that doesn’t mean that abortion is not a political issue either. It’s both.

However, many of these same pastors and parish priests care a lot about being a Jesus-like shepherd to their congregation. So while they may not want to preach about abortion every Sanctity of Life Sunday or host a pro-life event, they very well may be open to this idea, because it is a proactively loving and grace-filled thing to do. It will also probably make the pro-life people in the church a lot happier because they will see their pastor doing something about abortion.

7: Offer to Help with Practical Stuff like Throwing the Baby Shower.

Pastor Matt Troupe made a great point to me when we talking about this, which is that a lot of pastors have a reflexive and reasonable reaction to a congregant bringing an idea to the leadership: “Sounds great. How about you lead that?” Obviously a core part of this idea does need to come from the pastor, but are there any practical things you can take off his plate? Taking over the baby shower is an obvious part of this that the pastor doesn’t need to be personally responsible for. Offering to take pregnant women in the church to the local Pregnancy Resource Center so that they have the option of a friend walking them through the whole process is another way to be the hands and feet of Christ in this situation.

Update 7/13/18: One of the women I recently interviewed for a future book made a great point about baby showers: The pregnant woman would likely be a lot more comfortable with a baby shower with only people she knows, as opposed to a church-wide version. A baby shower thrown by her small group or a specific group of her friends at the church would usually be the best way to do this, but that doesn’t mean you couldn’t assist with some of the logistics from behind the scenes.

Anna’s Story

While interviewing people for this article, I ended up talking to Shannon Campbell, a Client Advocate at the Fresno Pregnancy Care Center. She told me a story about a woman she knows who we will call “Anna.” Anna was 21, involved in ministry at the church, and preparing to graduate from college. She spoke to Shannon because she had just taken a positive pregnancy test, and she wasn’t married to her boyfriend. (It turned out to be a false positive, but Anna didn’t know that at the time.) Anna was considering abortion, because she was afraid of what would happen when her parents, her friends, and her church found out. Shannon told me that she personally knew Anna’s pastor, and that he was very pro-life and would have supported Anna well in this difficult time. But Anna didn’t know that.

After Shannon told me this story, I said to her, “Imagine an alternative universe where everything else is exactly the same, except Anna’s pastor had heard this idea, and had been telling his congregation for the last two years how their church would respond to an unwed, pregnant mother. Would that have made a difference for Anna, or would she still have been too scared to choose life?”

Shannon replied, “Yes, I think that would have given Anna what she needed to choose life.”

Imagine if thousands of pastors and parish priests across the world pledged to do that very thing. I believe the Christian abortion rate would drop significantly.

So I am asking pastors and parish priests to do that very thing. I’ve embedded a pledge form below. I will also be embedding a Google Map soon with pins for all of the churches who have taken the pledge. Those pins will be known as safe places for unwed mothers in the church.

If you are excited about this idea, please forward this article to every pastor and parish priest you know, or, better yet, meet with them personally first. If your pastor is already convinced to take the pledge, you can send him to EqualRightsInstitute.com/Pastor, which has a shorter page that skips the article and gets right to the pledge.

My dream is that eventually the map below will have thousands of pins on it. Would you help me make that dream a reality?

Endnotes

[1] While high school students used to be the third largest age demographic having abortions, it has since become number four. Here are the latest stats from the Guttmacher Institute (opens a PDF) on the percentage of women having abortions from each age group:

  • <20 years old: 11.9%
  • 20-24: 33.6%
  • 25-29: 26.5%
  • 30-34: 15.9%

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The post “One Thing Every Pastor Can Do to Prevent Abortions in Their Congregation” originally appeared at the Equal Rights Institute blog. Subscribe to our email list with the form below and get a FREE gift. Click here to learn more about our pro-life apologetics course, “Equipped for Life: A Fresh Approach to Conversations About Abortion.”

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President

Josh Brahm is the President of Equal Rights Institute, an organization that trains pro-life advocates to think clearly, reason honestly and argue persuasively.

Josh uses speaking, writing and campus outreach to emphasize practical dialogue tips, pro-life philosophy, and relational apologetics.

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