In evangelical churches, the person most likely to be the first contact of an abused spouse will be the pastor. That is why it is so important that pastors know how to respond and how to refer appropriately. Pastors who are the least equipped are least likely to refer appropriately.
As important as it is to partner with community organizations, there are barriers:
- Eagerness of clergy to protect the institution of marriage, appealing to the victim’s marriage vows and Christian witness.
- Abusers coaxing naïve pastors into being allies in seeking forgiveness and ensuring continued access.
- Community advocates’ distrust of pastors.
- Pastors who are reluctant to make referrals to professionals when needed.
If a pastor does not respond well, it can have dire consequences, for example:
- If a victim of abuse approaches the pastor and does not get appropriate response, the individual may not seek help again for several years.
- Suggesting marriage counseling or confronting the abuser may put the victim at higher risk.
- A victim made to feel he or she is breaking marriage vows by leaving the abuser is more likely return to the abusive relationship.
Most clergy are poorly prepared to respond to victims of domestic violence. A recent study of 400 seminary students showed that first and second year students expected to be well prepared when they graduated for how to respond to domestic abuse. However, those surveyed when they were about to graduate indicated that they weren’t well prepared.
It is not enough for a pastor to know the phone number of the nearest shelter. It is much better for a pastor to visit a shelter and get to know the staff. Seminarians who visited a shelter and met with staff said it was the most important preparation they received in responding to domestic violence.