What can a healthy church provide to victims of abuse?

I want to begin this post by saying a huge thank you to the folks at Redemption Hill Church of Iron Mountain, Michigan. I had the wonderful privilege to speak at a conference they hosted a couple weeks ago designed specifically to raise awareness in the church regarding domestic violence. It is such a thrill to see churches and leaders humbly ask for help in learning more about how they can speak into the lives of victims, survivors, and perpetrators. The pastoral team at Redemption Hill are very supportive and affirmed the need for more and better quality church-based training. Unfortunately, other than the host church, there were few pastors in attendance. This is a common problem that must be remedied. We, as pastors, are often the first contact for victims and yet are consistently ranked among the least helpful. We need more resources and equipping for pastors.

Some Thoughts

Today, I’ll attempt to highlight a few things our churches can do for victims and abusers. Before I offer suggestions we need to ask ourselves, are we approachable? Are we trustworthy? Are we safe? Does our preaching, teaching, and leadership communicate to those we serve that they can trust us with their stories, pain, and anger?

Suggestions:

  1. Believe her: When a woman in particular gathers the courage to tell her pastor what she is experiencing it is important that we believe her. Remember we are not gathering evidence for a court case; we are supporting a sister who is hurting. Belief validates her suffering and puts us in a position to help. My experience has informed me that we may be the first people to truly believe her story and her, genuine, response to that kind of hope will convince us of her sincerity

2. Support her:

    A. When she is willing and able to walk through her pain in community, surround her with loving sisters who will comfort, pray for her, and hold her accountable to the process.
    B. Provide Biblical counsel which will include a process of healing and forgiveness in the context of safety. Ensure her that the church will not rush reconciliation but will promote her healing, while aggressively calling her husband to repentance, change, and accountability. While I know this will be a difficult subject for some churches, consider how your plan may include considerations for separation, and even divorce if necessary. For more information on a biblical approach to abuse and divorce please consider my friend Barbara Robert’s book Not Under Bondage. http://notunderbondage.com
    C. Consider meeting physical needs. For instance should we establish an emergency fund to help her and children if the abuser is unwilling to financially contribute to her wellbeing? Should we establish safe houses within our congregations for temporary shelters? Are we prepared to offer rides or other services that may be needed?
    D. Confront the abuser: I believe the greatest means of serving victims is holding abusers accountable. WARNING. Unless you fear for her health or immediate safety and are taking her to a safe house, communicate to the victims your desires and intentions before you address her abuser. Articulate your plan and seek permission before hand. Confronting her abuser before she is safe may actually endanger her further. With that said, Here are a few suggestions based on an assumption that he is willing to change.
    -Make it very clear that abuse is sin and will not be tolerated. “We love you too much to allow you to continue down this destructive path.”
    -Contact and familiarize yourself with local domestic violence intervention programs or local counselors trained in domestic violence interventions beforehand and encourage him to seek help. Better yet, offer to go with him.
    -Provide a well-trained accountability group where men from the community are given permission to ask him about his behavior, challenge his beliefs, and pray for his transformation.

Final Thought:

Here is a post by a friend of mine that I felt very helpful. It was intended to encourage victims in the ways they approach their pastors, but I found it very helpful as a means to educate me as a pastor.

http://cryingoutforjustice.com/2014/07/11/how-can-you-get-your-pastor-to-help/

What do you think?

Where are all the pastors? How do we engage them? Are you a pastor? What resources do you need?

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17 Responses to What can a healthy church provide to victims of abuse?

  1. Ellie says:

    “When she is willing and able to walk through her pain in community, surround her with loving sisters who will comfort, pray for her, and hold her accountable to the process.”

    I would like to share what that looked like for me. My friends held me accountable and it was very helpful. They hold me accountable to my boundaries. If I am allowing X to trample them, thinking that my showing “flexibility” will encourage him to do right, they tell me to stop it. If I am ever thinking that I should ____ to try to entice X to Christ, they throw a flag on the play.

    My friends also recognized that processing my trauma was above their pay grade. One friend in particular would insist that I seek professional counseling. I didn’t want to. I knew the best counseling for my situation was at a shelter and I was ashamed to seek help from there. But I did and it was very beneficial to my recovery. My friends also asked what my counselors had suggested and then asked if I was doing those things.

    One friend is in charge of the child protection policy at church. She has had a great deal of training about recognizing manipulative patterns and people who are trying to use guilt and people’s hope against them. She is not afraid to call X’s pity plays for what they are. I was so used to making excuses for him and I was still holding on to hope that he was changing or would change. But my friends, my pastor, and my counselor NEVER suggested that he was changing. They pointed out that his boundary breaking behaviors are abusive and a changed man would honor boundaries without complaining or seeking adulation.

    Recently I have had a couple of people who aren’t as skilled in dealing with abusers suggest that X’s boundary breaking apologies are perhaps evidence of change. Those people might as well punch me in the kidneys.

    I would ask churches to not suggest to a target that her abuser has changed or will change, but to hold her accountable to no contact and other healthy boundaries until there has been evidence of change; honoring boundaries, no deal making or manipulation, no complaining, doing right for Christ’s sake instead of for image management’s sake – and for a long time (at least a year). The target will know little things that you don’t. They target will know ways that he uses to demonstrate his superiority. There are code words and phrases. There are postures and facial expressions. Just the way X breathes sometimes was a signal that he wanted something. Please never try to persuade her to go back. If that happens, let it happen because she has peace about it. Your priority, Church, is to keep the people in that family safe and lead them to the Cross, not to keep them married or convince them to remarry.

    • So true Ellie, the ony one who truly knows the heart is God. But, for those of us working through the process the most informed person in the room is still the victim. She knows her abuser better than any of us and if she is unable or unwilling to accept his behavior as repentant or transformative than I believe we need to honor that, even if it makes us uncomfortable. -Peace

    • Amen, Ellie!
      very well said.

  2. ChuckSigler says:

    Something that could help pastors and churches is a “rehab” program for abusers. What I mean by that is a weekend psycho-educational program, like the Men of Valor seminars for sexual addiction, coupled with a “continuing care” program for when the men return to their churches. The suggestions you give above would also fit into the continuing care part. Some level of ongoing support and accountability for the men is essential. Training, guidelines or other support to local churches seeking to implement such a program would be helpful. Begin with a particular church within a specified geographic area that would develop a continuing care program, gather volunteers for training, network with other churches in the area about the specialized support and services available.

    • Chuck, sorry to rain on your parade, but I think that the subtle evasion and manipulation tactics of the domestic abuser are way too difficult for even trained voliunteers to see through. I caution you against this kind of recipe. I know you mean well and I think it’s great that you want to see abusers change. But the thing is: most/many abusers do not want to change, but they are more than happy to appear to jump though the hoops in order to get well meaning Christians to think they are changing.

      Psycho-education is all very well, but no one changes from psycho-education programs unless they really and truly want and are determined to change. And for abusers, the payoff from maintaining power and control over their target is far better than the laborious work of humbling self-abnegation and arduous character development that is required to convert them to someone of moral integrity and merit.

      A weekend program or a few weekend programs would not scrape the sides of the lifetime of character disorder and responsibility-resistance that abusers have habituated.

      Abusers have been asked / told / begged / exhorted for years by their wives (their victims) AND by pulpit preachers / teachers / police / authority figures — that they ought to show respect for others especially their family members, their spouse, their children . . . They have ignored these exhortations for years. What makes you think that a few weekends of advice-giving and moral exhortation will fill a hole that needs to be filled?

      I suggest to you that you are living in a Pollyanna world. I suggest you read Lundy Bancroft’s book “Why Does He DO That?” and really mull it over — and spend a goodly amount of time listening to survivors of domestic abuse, before you think you can come up with any ideas for fixing domestic abuse.

      Also, the program you are suggesting is a discipleship program (your words). Only believers need discipleship. What makes you assume that abusers are Christians? Don’t you need to examine this assumption? If you’ve got that wrong, the whole premise of your program is wrong.

      Non-believers need to be warned about the penalties of sin, and offered the gospel. But gospel-givers need to beware of Simon the Sorcerer and Diotrephes! The church these days lets Simon the Sorcerer and Diotrephes be in pulpits and eldership! So we have a lot of cleaning up of the church to do before we can even have a faint hope of having enough astute, hard-nosed, wise people in church whom we could draw upon as volunteers for any Abuser Behaviour Change Program.

      • ChuckSigler says:

        Barbara, there are a range of behaviors that could fit into domestic violence and what Leslie Vernick refers to as emotional destructiveness. Chris did a video with her, which is how I found him and his blog. The extreme of the range you referred to: “Abusers have been asked / told / begged / exhorted for years by their wives (their victims) AND by pulpit preachers / teachers / police / authority figure,” needs church discipline, not discipleship. And if the behavior is serious enough, the church should support the woman in filing legal charges against her husband, and separation. Even divorce can be permitted, in my opinion, if that is what she wants and if his pattern of abusive behavior, when investigated by the church leaders, constitutes an abandonment of his call as a husband in Ephesians five.

        But not all conflict in marriages will rise to the stage of domestic violence that you mentioned. And, isn’t psycho-education what Chris does in his own program with incarcerated men? Additionally, his above post SUGGESTED accountability groups” -Provide a well-trained accountability group where men from the community are given permission to ask him about his behavior, challenge his beliefs, and pray for his transformation.” I don’t see where you are seeing me say something different here than he did.

        It seems to me by your response to my post here, that your view assumes the extreme in situations of domestic violence or emotional destructiveness. All men who are abusive or emotionally destructive are not like that. The proper response of a church would be to NOT automatically assume a man is not a believer if he has abused his wife. If he failed to submit to accountability and demonstrate true repentance over time, then the church should exercise its duty to put him publically out of the church. Here he would be an unbeliever. If the church had previously seen him as a believer, he shouldn’t be assumed to be an unbeliever until the steps of discipline are followed.

      • Chuck, firstly I want to apologise for some innacuracy in my previous comment. I was overtired and not thinking as well as usual.

        I said “Abusers have been asked / told / begged / exhorted for years by their wives (their victims) AND by pulpit preachers / teachers / police / authority figures — that they ought to show respect for others especially their family members, their spouse, their children . . . They have ignored these exhortations for years.”

        That was an exaggeration and somewhat intemperate; please forgive me. Many abusers have not been confronted let alone held accountable by preachers, teachers, police or authority figures — it’s only their wives who have been expressing concerns/distress about their behaviour and occasionally begging them to stop it. And many wives in such situations do not even identify that they are being abused, they just know they are not happy in their marriages. That is partly because the abuser spins all sorts of manipulations and falsehoods to shift the blame off himself and onto his wife. And it’s partly because churches typically do not understand abuse and they teach about marriage problems generically as if one recipe fits all, but the recipe to help marriage problems is actually the worst thing in abuse; it makes abuse worse, not better, and it greatly disempowers the victim and sends her into a rabbit warren of self blame.

        The abuser is usually very covert and secretive about his evil doing, so that only his wife and maybe his kids see it for what it is (if they see it at all, they are more likely to be subsisting in a fog and not seeing it clearly, just suffering it in fear and bewilderment). The bystanders, the people who see the abuser and his family in public settings, have no idea of the evildoing the man is engaging in behind closed doors, or doing covertly even in public, in ways that his victim can be stung by but bystanders will think are innocuous.

        That is why abusers can be in church leadership and go unrecgonised as abusers. Abusers are often highly respected as nice guys and a good Christians. They can be elders, pastors, home group leaders, sunday school leaders, worship leaders, or the guy who helps out whenever anyone in the church needs a hand. Of course, they can be other types too, but often they take prominent roles in the church as a disguise, the old sheep-suit trick used by wolves from time immemorial.

        Hence, because churches are usually blind to this cancer in their midst, they typically, in my observation, do not have have many — if any — men who could hold an abuser rightly accountable.

        Chris and you both endorsed the idea to “Provide a well-trained accountability group where men from the community are given permission to ask him about his behavior, challenge his beliefs, and pray for his transformation.”

        The men from the community may ask a man about his behaviour — but if the man is an abuser, his answers are almost certainly going to be laced with lies and spin. Unless the men from the community can see through that and resist all the manipulations of the abuser, they will be led down the garden path. And they will end up praying for the auser while the abuser secretly smirks, being aware that his abusive belief system and defective character is still intact at its core.

        Challenging abusers is only effective if you can detect and resist their lies and abuse-supporting narratives. That is a highly skilled task. I am very sceptical that volunteer men could be sufficiently trained to do this well, and do it consistently well.

        I believe what is needed is a real sea change in church culture (and in society) and a revolution in Christian men’s understanding of how much privilege they have simply by being men, and how that implicit male privilege subltly fertilises the entitlement beliefs that abusers have in excess. For churches to have men in the pews who could see through and call out abusers’ disguises, manipulations and evasions, would take this massive sea change.

        Most men, and many women, have no idea how much male privilege pervades our culture. Even professionals like counselors often get it wrong and they frequently see all marriage problems as mutual and thus fail to recognise that many of the cases in their consulting rooms are simply abuse by one spouse against the other spouse.

        If counselors so often get it wrong (and I know they do, because I hear the stories from victim all the time at A Cry For Justice), isn’t it rather naive to think that ordinary men in churches could, even with some training, get it right most of the time and thus could adequately hold abusive men accountable?

        Having said all that, I am very glad to hear that you endorse a) divorce for abuse, and b) biblical discipline/excommunication for abusers. That is terrific. You are a lot further on that many other Christians in that respect. 🙂

        But you might like to give thought to your picture of what and how that bibical discipline should look like. Many people think that Matthew 18 is the only scripture for biblical discipline and excommunication. And many people presume that a Christian cannot divorce unless she or he has obtained prior permission from the elders/pastor of her church, and that permission must be preceded by the elders decarling that the abuser is to be treated as an unbeliever.

        One of the big problems with this when the rubber meets the road, is that Christians often overlook the excommunication teaching in 1 Cor. 5, especially verses 11-13. Furthermore, Matthew 18 with its step by step process is often used by abusers to snow the leadership and the church.

        1 Corinthians 5 is for heinous sinners, and I maintain that that is what all abusers are, whether or not their abuse is physical or criminal. All abusers use a pattern of coercive control and they all use verbal abuse in some form or other, and verbal abuse is ‘railing’ — one of the heinous sins listed in 1 Cor. 5:11. I hope you are willing to consider that passage as you mull over this whole issue.

        And I hope you will open your mind to the idea that maybe the victim of abuse does not HAVE to have the big tick of approval from her elders in order to divorce her abuser. Because all too often the reality is that the leaders do not excomminicate the abuser (having been snowed by him) so they do not approve the woman’s decision/wish to divorce, and when she gets divorced she is stigmatized and rejected by the church as a result. This ought not be so. I am making an indictment on the churches here, not on the victims.

        Implying that church MUST have decided to excommunicate the abuser and the church MUST approve the divorce before the victim can get divorced, is a perpetuating a paradigm that is trapping many victims in bondage to abusers and burdening them with false guilt and shame. Please take this into account whenever you make statements about divorce.

        You might like to check out this post I wrote at A Cry For Justice, on how Scripture pertains to biblical discipline and church permission for divorce in cases of domestic abuse.
        http://cryingoutforjustice.com/2013/10/04/church-discipline-and-church-permission-for-divorce-how-my-mind-has-changed/
        Sorry for the mini novel, and apols for the lateness of my reply.

  3. I agree Chuck. I’ve been working and praying through what that would look like. The need is great and I think the church could bring a great deal to the table. The reality is that not every man will change, and many may see a program as an opportunity to control or manipulate. That doesn’t mean we refuse to try, but that we be aware of the potential hazards of this kind of care. I’ve encountered individuals in the past desperate for me to work with their spouse as if I have some magic potion. I’m happy to do this work, but must be realistic.
    BTW did you get my e-mail, and in regards to this post do have something in mind? Peace

    • ChuckSigler says:

      I don’t have anything specific in mind. But I was thinking about some of the things that Harvest USA does with sexual sin in training support group leaders to facilitate groups in local churches. Coupled with weekend conferences like those that Men of Valor and The Man in the Mirror do for sexual sin, a discipleship and counseling program for domestic violence and/or emotional destructive relationships could develop.

    • Ellie says:

      I want to underscore the need for any program to abstain from pressuring the targets to reconcile. If the abusers change, great, but the targets should never be pressured to reconcile. Also, Chuck, I am glad to see you supporting the targets seeking legal protection. In my state there is no provision for legal separation. The only way to get the court to order custody and child support is to file for divorce. I submit that a repentant abuser would use that as a chance to demonstrate his changed ways. He would use the divorce process to ensure that those he previously targeted are protected from financial ruin, from legal harassment, from having to interact with him if they are uncomfortable with that, from his CONTROL. A reformed abuser would recognize that his abuse ended the covenant and he would seek to make the ones he claims to love feel safe and provided for. He would relinquish all the bargaining chips he previously used to terrorize.

      Make her feel safe. Let the targets be free of any obligation to the abuser.

      Any abuser who refuses to give up that control and vows to “fight for his marriage” is not repentant. Fight for your targets’ safety and well-being and I’ll start to think you’re a changed man. Then keep it up because you love Christ and honor Him, not because you want to be with your wife and kids, and I’ll believe a little more. That’s the way to show repentance. Protect them and release them of obligations.

      Along with that there could be VERY well trained (I’m talking Lie to Me http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1235099/ quality folks here) people working with those who are claiming repentance. These people would be challenging the men in the program to acknowledge their tactics and learn to trust Christ instead of dominate and abuse.

      But the first priority to to protect the people who have been targeted for abuse and to release them from the abusers’ power.

      • ChuckSigler says:

        The Ephesians five “headship” role for husbands is to lay down his life for his wife. IF an abuser has truly repented THEN the separation and support (whichever way it has to happen within a particular state), can be evidence of his repentance. Reconciliation of the marriage is a process that takes time, as does the demonstration of true repentance in the case of domestic violence and emotional destructiveness. I’ve written on the process of repentance and forgiveness on my blog here: http://faith-seeking-understanding.org/2014/09/19/where-is-the-repentance/

        I also think in this day and time as Christians, we have to distinguish between civil marriage and biblical marriage. When a state requires a woman to file for divorce before gaining access to court ordered custody and support, the action is not necessarily a violation of her biblical marriage vows. The state is viewing these actions as necessary through the lens of civil marriage.

        I do not think there is any “sin” on the part of a woman who has to file for divorce to get court-ordered custody and support for her and her children. And, the husband’s willingness to comply can be evidence of his repentance.

  4. Ellie says:

    Chuck said, “Reconciliation of the marriage is a process that takes time, as does the demonstration of true repentance in the case of domestic violence and emotional destructiveness.”

    I have an upcoming post at ACFJ about true repentance I’ve seen walked out – after the divorce. It’s taken almost 6 years, but the wayward spouse has honored boundaries for 6 years and made his ex feel safe, cared for, and respected for that time. He never pressured her or even asked her to remarry. Reconciliation of the marriage wasn’t his goal. Making her feel safe and respected was. You’ll have to read my post to see how it turns out. 😉

    As we minister to people, I don’t think the goal should be to “reconcile.” Safety and Eternity are the goals. I have forgiven my abuser. But he isn’t serving Christ. He is still breaking boundaries and seeking his own glory. He isn’t safe. A repentant person will be seeking Christ, not reconciliation. If his goal is reconciliation, then Christ is just a tool for him to get what he wants. He must be surrendered and accept that his abuse broke and ended the covenant. He must relinquish all power he had over his target and entrust her to Christ.

  5. Pingback: How the Church can help victims heal | A Cry For Justice

  6. Chuck, did you read my last comment? Are you considering making a response?

  7. Pingback: How churches can help victims of domestic abuse | Tamar weeps

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