The Role of Pastors: The Vital Link in Stopping Domestic Violence - by Ally Kern
Domestic violence is one of the most prolific forms of injustice within the US – and the Christian church – affecting at least one in three women in their lifetime.1 Relationship violence is a deeply embedded, often hidden, and yet profoundly traumatic communal reality. Considering that the Christian church remains the largest institution in the US – and represents the increasing socioeconomic and ethnic diversity of the nation – it is imperative to address the role of the local church in survivor support, counsel, and healing.2
Christian survivors most often reveal their experience of abuse first – and often only – to their pastor. This puts pastors in the place of a first responder. Yet many have never been trained to understand how to shape their pastoral care to respond effectively. Church leaders and faith communities can – and must – learn to think creatively and implement practices to help make the church a safe place for women who experience domestic abuse.
It is important, first of all, that churches make an unwavering commitment to stand against all forms of abuse, and undertake clear steps to prevent domestic violence within their own faith community.
Adopting a mandate or charter that condemns relational abuse makes a public statement that the church will not tolerate this behavior. Hosting community conferences or inviting a local expert to teach a staff-mandatory class on intimate partner violence is essential.3 Additional skill-building opportunities include Sunday school classes, youth and young adult courses that focus on the signs of relationship abuse and healthy relationship skills, and pre-marital and marital pastoral counseling that incorporate material on intimate partner violence.
Churches can feature relevant books and online resources, make sure preaching and Sunday prayers give prominence to the theme, and create a pastoral/lay care team equipped to support survivors. Training, talks, survivor testimonies, and other events in October – Domestic Violence Awareness Month – can make a strong impact. Such actions could break the silence of domestic violence, as well as prevent assaults themselves.
Trying to Cope
Despite our best efforts, the sad truth is that relationship abuse continues to occur. In the midst of a crisis, it can be overwhelming for a pastor or lay leader to know how to help. The trauma of domestic abuse exceeds a survivor’s ability to cope given the high level of anxiety, stress, and possibly fear. She may feel out of control, be flooded emotionally, and present as confused, helpless, and even incoherent. It is vital to have specific guidelines in place if abuse occurs, since pastoral caregivers can easily be uncertain about how to respond.4
The initial step to take in a crisis is establish relations with the woman who is disclosing abuse, listen to her with respect and empathy, believe her experience as valid and real, and assure her it is not her fault.5 As a pastor or lay leader it is important also to acknowledge if you are a mandated reporter required to tell authorities about disclosed abuse, as well as admit your limitations in how you can help. With the latter in mind, a ready list of referrals to domestic violence shelters, abuse-trained therapists, and other emergency health contacts is indispensable.6 Establish whether there are children involved and if there is immediate danger.7 Safety is absolutely the chief concern in abuse situations, so be cognizant that any intervention can heighten the risk to the survivor and her children. If the survivor feels she is in danger, consult your referral list for options such as police, an emergency room, local shelters, or possibly trained church members who can hide her until longer-term solutions can be found.8
In the Face of Violence
In the course of all these steps – listening with empathy, assessing for safety and plausible interventions – a crucial guiding principle is to honor the expressed needs and wants of the survivor as well as her permission to take any further action.9 Keeping in mind the likelihood of further violence or even death when a woman stands up for herself against an abuser, we must proceed cautiously and with the assurance of confidentiality.
Finally, ask for the woman’s permission to record notes on your meeting, which may be of great assistance to her at a later date with any legal procedures she may need to go through. Though it is up to the survivor to decide when and how to pursue her path to safety, freedom, and healing, ultimately the church that provides compassionate, insightful support in a crisis will establish itself as a safe place for assistance and recovery.
The road to healing and transformation after the experience of domestic violence can be long and complex. Beyond these outlined measures, churches can make a significant difference by devoting and raising funds to assist survivors, provide a trauma-trained counselor or pastoral caregiver to organize a listening support group, furnish housing, food, and childcare, or connect her with legal and public services. Because a lack of finances is the most substantial barrier to leaving an abusive relationship, churches that agree to pool funds for the benefit of survivors can improve their prospects for the future.10
An essential task for pastors and lay leaders is to empower and equip survivors to understand that God abhors the abuse of women and fully supports them taking action to separate from or divorce an abusive partner for their safety and healing.11 Facing significant spiritual suffering, many faithful survivors will undoubtedly wrestle with deep theological questions. In such cases, congregational leaders should proceed with compassionate listening and refrain from providing quick answers and prayers that may silence the survivors’ voice.12
God’s Word for Abused Women
To privilege the viewpoints of survivors is to respect the dangers and complexities of venturing into deep theological waters. Exploring the Bible with survivors to uncover God’s word for abused women – rather than giving blanket answers – can powerfully nurture survivors’ liberty in their spiritual recovery. When an appropriate time to enter into such theological discussions and spiritual practices has been mutually discerned by a pastoral caregiver and survivor together, it is helpful to refer to established Christian contemplative practices of healing that are also widely regarded by research evidence as means of healing.13
It is important to take action to hold abusers in the church accountable, and to align responsibility for the abuse solely with the perpetrator. 14 Any action towards the abuser must prioritize the woman’s safety and be made with her permission. Whatever steps are taken in the pursuit of recovery, remember that empowering a survivor requires time, patience, compassion, and a diversity of means, but such an investment is a tangible illustration of God’s special love that is urgently required from the church today.15
Domestic violence is a multifaceted experience that many women in the church will suffer, and as such, it is crucial that pastoral caregivers understand the effects of abuse. The trauma impact on survivors often persists long after the abusive relationship ends, and the complexities of the resulting and enduring health risks present challenges on many fronts. In the larger sociocultural sphere, pastoral caregiving involves resisting forces that contribute to oppressing women and confronting the patriarchal theology and practices of the church. In urgent and specific ways, pastoral caregiving also involves the local congregation working to prevent abuse, support in crisis situations, and nurture recovery.
Ally Kern is a survivor of domestic abuse who uses her voice to empower the church to stop domestic violence. She is a Ph.D. candidate in practical theology at Claremont School of Theology and adjunct professor of practical theology at Azusa Pacific University. She travels widely as a speaker and trainer at churches, non-profits, universities, and small groups on topics ranging from intimate partner violence to spiritual practices of healing to social justice issues. See www.allykern.com.
1 “Facts and Figures: Ending Violence Against Women,” UN Women, accessed May 22, 2018 http://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/endingviolence- against-women/facts-and-figures.
2 Nancy Nason-Clark, Barbara Fisher-Townsend, Catherine Holtmann, and Stephen McMullin, Religion and Intimate Partner Violence: Understanding the Challenges and Proposing Solutions (Oxford University Press, 2017), p. 14.
3 Al Miles, Domestic Violence: What Every Pastor Needs to Know (Fortress, 2000), pp. 15-20; Judith McFarlane and Ann Malecha, “Sexual Assault Among Intimates: Frequency, Consequences, and Treatments” (National Institute of Justice).
4 Carrie Doehring, The Practice of Pastoral Care: A Postmodern Approach, revised and expanded edition (Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), pp. 119, 129-154.
5 Doehring, pp. 129-154.
6 Miles, pp. 98, 125.
7 Catherine Clark Kroeger and Nancy Nason-Clark, No Place for Abuse: Biblical and Practical Resources to Counteract Domestic Violence (IVP, 2010), p. 101.
8 John Patton, Pastoral Care: An Essential Guide (Abingdon Press, 2005), p. 87.
9 Doehring, pp. 176-178.
10 Miles, p. 83.
11 Kroeger and Nason-Clark, pp. 174-185.
12 Patton, p. 31.
13 For specific Christian practices, including breathing and meditation practices, listening, and inner healing prayer, please see Alane Daugherty, From Mindfulness to Heartfulness: A Journey of Transformation through the Science of Embodiment (Balboa Press, 2014) and Ally Kern, “Reconsolidating Trauma Memories through Contemplative Practice: Inner Healing Prayer for Christian Women Survivors of Domestic Violence,” available at www.allykern.com .
14 Miles, p. 185; Kroeger and Nason-Clark, p. 65.
15 Doehring, pp. 147-148.