SOS: Domestic Abuse and Personal Protection Orders at Church

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“Speak up for those who have no voice; seek justice for those on the verge of destruction.”—Proverbs 31:8

“Everyone must submit to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except God, and those that exist are instituted by God. So then, the one who resists authority is opposing God’s command, and those who oppose it will bring judgment on themselves.”—Romans 13:1–2

Have you ever wondered how you or your faith community would respond to a situation where one member holds a Personal Protection Order (PPO) against another member? Have you considered having a policy to guide your decisions? (Find out more about a PPO here)

By the time a woman finds the courage to speak to leaders in her faith community, the abuse has risen to a level where the danger and fear have become greater than the guilt and shame that has kept her silent for years. Don’t waste time wondering what to do. Please be prepared.

Like many women, I didn’t self-identify as a victim of abuse. I argued with people who attempted to open my eyes to the reality of the danger that was present in my home. I defended abusive actions and accepted blame. For years, the one abused is systematically convinced that everybody thinks she’s crazy. God gets real loud when we don’t hear Him whisper, and there came a time when my only choice was to listen.

Holding a PPO against another person is meant to provide a level of safety and accountability. Unfortunately, it also increases the fear and anxiety for the one abused when a violation of the PPO occurs. It’s terrifying enough to initiate the effort to acquire a PPO, and now the violations need to be reported. It becomes one more decision to be made about how to cope and survive. Do I report a violation and risk nothing being done other than increasing the anger level of the one abusing me? Is it easier for me to be the one to leave the building? After all, there is no violation unless I am present in the same place. For me, the PPO became my prison. It dictated my movements, my choices, my freedom. I wanted to keep the peace, be loving, non-confrontational, and safe all at the same time. I struggled with believing that my experience was actually abuse because it had slowly become my normal. So many of my early decisions were focused on what was best for him and his recovery. If this thought-process seems irrational, this article may increase awareness. I have since learned it is Godly to get a PPO, as noted in the article Forgiveness and Leaving Room for the Wrath of God.

Being involved in a faith community has always been an important component of my faith walk. When I held the PPO, I believed it would be safe to attend worship services. In reality, my experience was far from safe. For a while, I attended a different service. After a time, though, I didn’t feel it was fair to be the one who had to alter my lifestyle patterns so that he wouldn’t be in violation of the PPO. I was tired of living in fear and realized I was the one giving away my freedom. I returned to the service that I had always attended with my friends, my support system.

I would lie in bed Saturday night convincing myself that I could go to church the next day. “If I don’t go, Satan wins. I must overcome the fear, put on the full armor of God. I can do this.” Moments later, “No, I can’t.” The cycle repeated until I fell asleep, exhausted.

I’d wake up Sunday morning, and the anxiety was immediately present. I reminded myself, “I must hurry. I must arrive very early and park my car where it is obvious I am present, therefore this service is off-limits to the one named in the PPO. I cannot fellowship in the narthex. I must get to my seat in case the presence of my car is not enough to keep him away. If I need to use the restroom, I must leave an identifiable article of clothing at my seat so he would know he can’t sit in that area.”

I was in a constant state of high alert. Every time a door to the sanctuary opened, I would look behind me. I never settled in. I was hyper vigilant to every sound and movement. I was determined to look strong and not show the fear, anxiety, and grief that was coursing through my body. By the time the service began, I was spent.

I constantly doubted myself. If I were actually in danger, wouldn’t somebody else do something about it? The inaction fueled my fears that I was wrong. I was told to report the violations. I was too afraid. I wanted somebody else to do something so I could feel safe in church, but I didn’t even know what that would be. Often, in the absence of visible aggression and hostility, others believe there is no danger, no reason to be concerned. In reality, public displays of aggression and hostility are rarely present. One who regularly abuses someone else doesn't need to raise a hand, look hostile, or show aggression in order to instill and evoke fear. (See Intimidation: Power and Control Wheel.)

The PPO expired. I saw no point in renewing it. I felt no safer with it. I was too afraid to report violations. The “Stay Home, Stay Safe” executive order during the pandemic was a reprieve. I felt safe in my own home.

Chances are, there is someone in your congregation feeling the same sense of terror as they contemplate attending church this Sunday and facing the one who has abused them. I pray that all churches seek to become aware of the dynamics of coercive control. If you’ve been thinking, “When should we begin to learn more about the intersection between domestic abuse and the faith community?” The answer is, “Now.” It’s never too early to start, and the journey begins with awareness. Becoming a Church that Cares Well for the Abused is a video training offering a great place to begin the conversation, but as they say in the introduction, “Education is not the answer because lack of knowledge is not the problem. If your child were being abused, you would find the answers.” Remember, You May Be the First Link to Safety (Faith Leaders Wheel).

Key Points to Remember:

  • Remember the children!! Children growing up in an abusive environment often follow the victim’s lead to remain silent. Children’s brain development is adversely affected by indirectly witnessing abuse in similar ways to direct abuse against them. Consider the Circle of Grace curriculum for all children to empower them to speak up for their own safety.
  • Silence kills! In the relationship, silence signals disapproval, loss of connection, and often precedes an increase in abuse. From the church, silence signals disapproval, loss of connection, lack of support, disbelief, and more.
  • Don’t be overwhelmed. No one person can meet every congregant’s needs. Admit at the outset that there are others who might have specialized qualifications for addressing domestic abuse. This is a “walk alongside” need. People can take on different roles. Get her to a domestic violence advocate or bring one to her. Do NOT hand her a phone number and tell her to call. She just spent every last ounce of energy walking through your door, and every fiber of her being is relying on the hope that you will provide her safety.
  • There is safety in knowledge. Do not blame her fear and unease on the fact that she knows what is happening in the life of the one who has abused her. That knowledge might very well be the only thing keeping her safe, reminding her of the danger she is trying to outwardly minimize in an effort to “keep the peace.” Blame her fear on the abuse, where it belongs. Blame her lack of peace on the realization that in order to attend church, she must face the one who abused her.
  • MOSAIC is a free online threat assessment that helps the assessor weigh the present situation in light of expert opinion and research, and instantly compare the present situation to past cases where the outcomes are known.
  • An expired and non-renewed PPO does not indicate the danger has ceased to exist unless there has been true repentance over an extended period of time. It may likely be an indication that she sees the reality that it is merely a piece of paper that does little to provide protection unless she continues to expend the energy and effort to make it so. She has learned well that it is indeed easier to just keep the peace.

Has your church experienced having members with a PPO or a restraining order? If so, how did your church navigate that issue?

Note: Safe Church offers additional resources about domestic abuse and emotional abuse.

Also, this resource has been found to be very helpful: 10 Steps to Recovering from a Toxic Trauma Bond

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