Recommendations for churches from a victim of Domestic and Family Violence
By Kelly Crawford
I was speaking recently with a woman who for many years was subjected to abuse-physically, emotionally, verbally, and more at the hands of her husband. Her husband also happened to be a leader in the church. Her story is raw and painful and contains a lot of food for thought for those in our churches. Although we would like to believe it is not true, there are people in our churches who are experiencing abuse and for some of these people, the abuser is also a leader in the church. I have attempted to pull out a few key thoughts from her story that may help us to explore how we best respond to these situations and even create church cultures that help prevent abuse from occurring.
We often ask for help identifying the warning signs of an abusive relationship. A few signs that the woman I spoke to mentioned were:
- Does the spouse deter the partner from being involved in activities that interest him or her?
- How engaged are the couple in church life? Have they created good friendships or are people kept at an arm’s length? Do they move around a lot before the chance for the spouse to build good relationships can occur?
- Does the spouse seem unreasonably concerned about going places without the spouse or spending too long doing a certain activity?
These do not necessarily mean that abuse is occurring but can prompt us to ask questions such as: do you feel safe in your relationship? How does he behave when he is angry? I remember Bruce Chan, director of Hope Street, saying that it is also helpful to look for absence of health in a relationship.
It is hard to think about leaders in our churches being perpetrators of violence and yet, we sadly know that it sometimes happens. The woman I spoke to presented several helpful ideas that can shape cultures in our church to make it easier for people being abused to come forward and prevent the perpetrator from staying in positions of power and leadership:
- Has an outlet been created for people who are experiencing abuse to be able to come forward in a manner that is confidential and supportive? Have people been trained who are not necessarily the “leaders” in the church?
- Often women do not leave abusive relationships because they do not know how they will be supported. Is the church prepared to offer support: emotional, spiritual, financial, etc. to the spouse of the leader if the leader is in a paid position in the church?
- What are the ways that churches communicate to wives about their roles in the family? Even unintended messages can have harmful consequences-for example what it means to be a good housewife, the importance of being available sexually to meet the husband’s needs. Does a woman in an abusive marriage feel that it is her role to placate the husband and provide for his needs?
- If separation of marriage does occur, is there pressure put on spouses to reconcile the marriage for the sake of “healing the marriage” and being a “good example”? This pressure can put woman in vulnerable and dangerous positions.
- Do conversations about “calling” into ministry roles include the person’s spouse? The woman I spoke to said, “When Joe (name has been changed) decided to leave his job and go into the ministry, I was very disturbed. Once again it was not a joint decision that we prayed over together. Elders in the church strongly encouraged him in this; they only saw the skilled preacher, teacher and pastoral care gifts that he had…we had 15 moves in 13 years.”
- Do we recognise the weakness of our leaders or do we put them on a pedestal? From the No place for Violence Here Church Audit tool, “Like all people, members of churches want to present the best of themselves to those around them. This can create a culture in which achievement is celebrated and failure is not recognised. The Christian household is perceived as one that is happy, harmonious and has life together. Such an environment can leave victims of abuse feeling they dare not admit their household is anything but perfect.”
- Is there a willingness from the leader for ongoing accountability, training and mentoring? Does this happen on a regular basis or is it only given lip-service?
If you are currently experiencing abuse at the hands of your partner and that partner is in leadership in the church, the woman I spoke to wants you to know this:
“Do not take the burden and weight of the church and what would happen if you spoke out. Leave that to God. You are not responsible for the success or failure of the church or what the outcome will be.”
For resources for the church, please visit https://ajustcause.com.au/no-place-for-violence/.
If you need to speak to someone please contact:
National DV Service Hotline
1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732)
Men’s Referral Service
1300 766 491