Inaugural MCC-led course on abuse in the church provides roadmap to healthier churches

A woman at her desk in an office

When Janessa Nayler-Giesbrecht saw that Canadian Mennonite University (CMU) was offering a one-week intensive course called Power, Ethics, Abuse, and Church Leadership, she knew that she wanted to be in that classroom. 

In part, she was excited because she’d been working on a master’s thesis precisely about abuses of power within the church, so it was valuable to her academically. But on a personal level, she’d seen the damage done by churches that cover up abuse or create environments where abuse can flourish. As a pastor herself, she says she wanted to be part of moving the church to a place where abuse cannot thrive.

“In the last several years, there's been several news stories that hit quite close to home about clergy abuse,” she says. “And watching people dishonor the role of pastor and the people they are meant to care for is very upsetting. People who have experienced trauma through church experiences has been something I've paid very particular attention to.”

Nayler-Giesbrecht says the spring 2023 course — facilitated by Val Hiebert (PhD) and Jaymie Friesen of MCC Manitoba’s abuse response and prevention program — was an incredibly valuable resource for her.

“If we have an opportunity like this class in front of us, it only makes sense to me to take it.”

Janessa Nayler-Giesbrecht

“It really was like drinking from a firehose, it's a whole semester in five days,” she says. “The instruction was great. The balance between Jaymie and Val was excellent. They have different backgrounds, but the combo was so helpful.  To have both a sociological perspective — with the depth of research that Val has done into this topic — and Jaymie's practical clinical experience combined with her abuse prevention work, it was amazing.” 

She came out of the course with a deeper understanding of power dynamics and the privilege she has as a pastor. 

Some learnings seemed counterintuitive at first.

“Advising someone to leave [an abusive situation] isn't always the safest thing for them, even if ultimately that would be the final outcome, safety is a big concern,” she notes.

Nayler-Giesbrecht threw some off-book questions at Hiebert and Friesen too. One of these was when a pastor should recognize the limits of their role and refer someone to a mental health professional. She had been searching for an answer to this question in other settings, where responses had been fuzzy. Friesen followed up with clear guidelines.

Nayler-Giesbrecht says the course offers pastors a way to hold themselves accountable to abuse prevention and steward their privilege in the best way possible.

“If we have an opportunity like this class in front of us, it only makes sense to me to take it.” 

A woman looking at the camera
Jaymie Friesen, coordinator of MCC Manitoba’s abuse response and prevention program, was one of the facilitators of the course at CMU. (MCC photo/Michael Veith)

Friesen says the attendance and engagement in this inaugural course was encouraging and a strong sign of a positive shift in how churches think about these topics. 

“I think there absolutely is a movement within churches to say we need to be better at this,” says Friesen. “I think there's still reticence for churches to seek out external support — I don't think that has just gone away. But I think more and more, we're seeing churches or denominations that… historically didn't prioritize this issue reach out.”

While news outlets have followed several high-profile cases of abuse in the church over the last number of years, Friesen says the content of this course isn’t just for those worst-case scenarios.

“This needs to be a course because pastors are struggling. And we're seeing misuses of power, some of it’s very intentional and pathological, but some of it really is pastors who are not supported, who are burnt out, who do not know how to cope with some of the challenges, and then make mistakes. And that’s something we can prevent, and we need to do better.”

Friesen and Hiebert hope to offer Power, Ethics, Abuse, and Church Leadership again at CMU in spring 2025. For more information about the course or MCC Manitoba’s abuse response and prevention work, stay tuned to MCC and CMU’s websites.

Top photo caption: Janessa Nayler-Giesbrecht is the pastor of Jubilee Mennonite Church in Winnipeg, Man., and attended Power, Ethics, Abuse, and Church Leadership at CMU in 2023.