Domestic Violence in the Church

By Anne B. Doll

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the U.S., an estimated 1300 women die each year as a result of domestic violence, nearly 5.3 million incidents of interpersonal violence occur and approximately 2 million women are injured.

For churches, the statistics are equally sobering. Domestic violence “happens within and beyond communities of faith in approximately the same prevalence rates,” says Nancy Nason-Clark, Ph.D., Professor of Sociology at the University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, Canada.

Dr. Nason-Clark is also creator of The RAVE Project, a web-based series of resources that provides information and training for families of faith impacted by abuse. She has studied contemporary Christianity and violence for 20 years. “The numbers tell us there’s a significant problem that we need to be positioned in the churches to do something about,” she notes. “But if one woman in one church is having this problem, then we need to be a safe refuge for her… “…There continues to be a holy hush that permeates many churches, and it only takes a few people to shatter that silence.”

In October of 2008, Pastor Timothy P. Philabaum, D.Min. (cand. ’12), awakened to the gravity of domestic violence when Nancy addressed his Gordon-Conwell D.Min. residency. Returning to Zoar Lutheran Church in Perrysburg, OH, a congregation of some 650 worshippers that he has served for 31 years, he resolved to shine the light on domestic violence and enlist his members to help address it.

“I know there are abuse problems in my church,” the senior pastor says. “I have met with families experiencing domestic abuse. But what really galvanized me was when Nancy Nason-Clark came to the residency. Her web page (theraveproject.org) has a wonderful collection of resources for clergy and for women who are abused. I thought, ‘Here’s one way to put my faith and care into action.’”

To counter the “holy hush” surrounding domestic abuse, he has addressed this issue in sermons and the Sunday School throughout the year, when appropriate.

“I really try to verbalize the word ‘abuse’ because it is such a hidden word, an unwanted word,” he says. His intent is to raise the consciousness of church members about domestic violence, and about resources that are available locally.

Behind the scenes, Pastor Tim maintains connections with leaders of domestic violence shelters in the Greater Toledo area, and has invited representatives from several shelters to his church to “share their issues—their people with our people.”

This year, his church hosted an Unveiling Ceremony, during which officials from a local abuse shelter displayed full-size plywood silhouettes of women in Wood County who had died from domestic abuse. “We had a worship service, unveiled the silhouettes and read the names and stories of each of these women with all their families there. We have also had people from the Cocoon Shelter come to our place on an annual basis. They bring…their silhouettes, tell their story, raise money and keep connection.”

Members of his congregation have also stepped up to the plate to help the local shelters with material support, including money, food and clothing. One member has served on a shelter board. “There are people in our church who know about problems of abused women, and people who have family members (with abuse issues),” Pastor Tim explains. “Some already knew about the shelters and had some contact with them. I think our church has made a very caring response to this ministry.”

In addition, Zoar Church has instituted a practical alert system for women suffering abuse. Behind the doors in each stall in the women’s restrooms are small pieces of paper designed to be unobtrusively inserted into a woman’s shoe. Entitled “Do You Feel Safe?” the papers contain the name and phone number of a shelter, phone numbers of Pastor Tim and the church’s female pastor, the RAVE Project website and other resources.

“What my staff and I still find intriguing is that I always put six papers behind each stall, and they disappear. None show up in the trash cans or are thrown around… We’ve come to the conclusion that they’re being taken, which is valuable…what I hope for. They’re obviously meeting a need. I have no idea who takes them. They’re designed to be anonymous.”

Dr. Nason-Clark says that it’s wonderful when pastors “shatter the silence” about domestic violence, because this gives immediate credibility to DV as an important issue, and also gives women permission to come forward. Moreover, “It says to those who would be violent that this will not be tolerated. It gives incredible support to those who are helping other victims, and it really changes the world of survivors because it says the church is walking with you.”

She notes that many women and men are very frightened to talk about domestic violence “because it challenges the notion that families of faith have it together….Somehow, people can cope with the notion that cancer can eat away at the body of a believer, but they have a lot of trouble understanding mental health issues and…issues of abuse. I think there is a resistance, and when I say that in Christian seminars and conferences, it gives a challenge to religious leaders to speak clearly and unequivocally that God does not support this kind of behavior.”

Nancy’s research has shown that women of faith often stay much longer in abusive relationships than those who are not. She encourages pastors to address this issue with women, because often they will say, “Until he touches the children, until he hurts the children, I will not leave.”

“When women are enduring abuse themselves, it is hurting the children. You cannot be a victim of domestic violence living in a household with your children and not have it impact them…If women are encouraged to see that the children are already being impacted, they’re more likely to believe that they should seek safety for themselves and the kids.”

Regarding the practice of some church leaders who insist, on Scriptural grounds, that a woman must remain with an abusive husband, Nancy quotes her colleague and Gordon-Conwell professor, the late Dr. Catherine Clark Kroeger, with whom she collaborated on several books. “I can tell you how Cathy would handle that. I have been with her many times when she would say, ‘What do you do with the body bags?’ That would be her response.”

According to Pastor Tim, “Women (who are abused) feel powerless and unable to make a change. Or they are fearful of what might happen… In counseling women, my biggest issue is to trust the woman who has been abused. I need to listen carefully to her story and provide mercy. Safety for the woman and the kids is paramount.

“A pastor also needs to know what kind of resources are in the community, to know who to call when someone calls you and says, ‘I’m having problems with my husband. Where are the contacts for the shelter or the YWCA or the safe houses?’”

Dr. Nason-Clark says that “when pastors listen to women, they can respond to the questions that women are asking: ‘Why has God abandoned me?’ ‘I promised forever ‘til death do us part. Why is this taking place?’ ‘How can I be a better Christian?’ …Pastors need to be in a position to listen to what the heart cry is and respond with the toolkit that is available to them as a result of their training and knowledge of Scripture.

“Sometimes it’s as simple as praying with the victim without placing blame... Sometimes it’s giving them a selection of five or six passages to look over and think about… When pastors have an awareness of some of the dynamics of abuse, they are able to listen with ears that are attuned. And then they’re able to harness their repertoire of spiritual helps to offer a woman spiritual counsel. Some pastors do that. And when they do, it augments a survivor’s journey towards healing.”

Pastor Tim says that most of his counseling about domestic violence occurs with non-abusive, soon-to-be married couples during pre-marital conversations. And while he has experience in counseling congregants, the RAVE website gave him helpful resources on how he could better help a woman who is in trouble. He advises pastors to check out this website, and take some of its online training courses. “Of course, most pastors are not skilled in abuse counseling, so knowing what your referral possibilities are is vitally important.”

Can change and reconciliation occur when each individual in an abusive situation receives professional domestic violence counseling? “It takes a lot of work,” he contends, “but we’re gospel people. There’s always hope.

“And, for me, I would say clearly to my people, ‘God never takes delight in abuse of women, of children, of anyone…God never takes delight in abuse.’”

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