Becoming a Safe Place for Victims of Domestic Violence

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This blog provides a summary of a workshop led by Stephen McMullin, with the Rave Project, at the recent Safe Church Conference.  

In churches and classes, when we think of making our churches safe places, we often think of children and youth. But how knowledgeable are we about making our churches safe places for adults? What can we do as congregations to give adults a sense that this is a safe community in which they can safely be involved?

Some of the challenges churches face in becoming a safe community include:

  • Lack of acknowledgement or awareness that abuse does exist in Christian families.
  • Abusers’ portrayal of the victim as a liar or themselves as a victim of circumstances that drove them to abuse.
  • Pastors or parishioners telling the victim, “it can’t be that bad.”
  • Pastors or parishioners asking the victim to forgive and forget.
  • Pastors or parishioners attempting to fix the problem by making decisions for the victim.
  • Lack of training for leaders, which can result in perpetuation or escalation of violence.
  • Idealistic views of marriage and unhelpful interpretations of scripture can make clergy blind to actual dynamics.
  • Fears of how the congregation will react to revelations of abuse in one of the church’s families drive pastors to seek a quick fix.

To make churches safer places, leaders must begin by recognizing that some families in the congregation may be experiencing violence. You can’t tell from the outside who these families are. As important as it is to address domestic violence, it should not be done without having good policies and trained leaders in place. When domestic violence is addressed from the pulpit, it tells victims that this the church is a safe place, so leaders need to be ready to respond without putting victims in greater danger.
 

Steps to becoming a safer church include:

  • Address and condemn domestic violence in sermons.
  • Model leadership that is based on respect and relationships, not on power and control.
  • Address domestic violence in premarital counseling. A survey of victims found that those who had heard about domestic violence in premarital counseling sought help earlier. 
  • Address the issue of domestic violence with youth, teaching them the dynamics of healthy relationships, rather than stressing rules about dating.
  • Ensure leaders know what to do when they see or suspect abuse. For example, if a young person, in talking to her youth leader, mentions the fight between her mom and dad and that her mom was hurt, does the youth leader know how to respond?
  • Know who to contact in a crisis, what resources are available in the congregation and community.
  • Ensure the response respects the choice of the victim. No one can decide for what the victim needs.
  • Know how to provide care for the immediate -- but also the ongoing spiritual -- needs of the victim and victim’s family.
  • Be prepared to make practical decisions about the abuser. Will the abuser be allowed to attend the same worship service as the victim? How will church minister to the abuser?

Half the battle in making our churches safer involves raising awareness that there is a difference between domestic violence and common marital problems. It’s about moving from a culture of hiding and silence to one that is open and expectant.

If we don’t care about domestic violence, it can destroy our witness. Victims of domestic violence need to know that the Gospel is good news for them and that the church is a safe place for them.

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I really cringe at the statement, "To make churches safer places, leaders must begin by recognizing that some families in the congregation are experiencing violence."  In fact, I don't know that some families in my church (admittedly, quite small) are experiencing violence.  It can very easily be counterproductive to assume "those families are out there," which quickly leads to  "and our job is to figure out which ones they are."

I would suggest it more appropriate to know there may be families in my church who are experiencing violence.

Good point. I've made that edit. Our goal is raise awareness that domestic violence occurs in Christian families as well. Thank you for your feedback.