What causes the church to fail to be a place of healing for survivors of domestic violence, sexual exploitation, and other forms of abuse? In this article, I explore just a few of the challenges to the church as a place of healing.
1. Denial: We don't have that problem here.
“Sinners Anonymous” read the large lettering on the church’s sign in front of the sanctuary, along a busy street, just as the upcoming sermon title each week was posted on this sign. On Sunday, the pastor of this large, suburban congregation took the pulpit and opened his sermon with a bit of levity. “We’ve had many calls to the church office this week asking, ‘When’s the meeting?’” The congregation chuckled, for they knew it was only the sermon title, not a ministry program.
What a lost opportunity! Yet, the pastor and congregation all shared a general denial that there would be any need for such a meeting among those who would choose to attend church in their sanctuary. Sometimes churches enter such a state of denial that they think sin is something outside the doors of the church rather than something within each one of us. If we are unable to admit the reality of sin, we may also be blind to the effects of sin. Acknowledging the presence of victims of domestic abuse implies also the presence of abusers—and that is threatening to a church stuck in denial.
2. Silence: A lack of genuine invitation to healing
I once spoke with a pastoral counselor, a specialist in the care of victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse, who shared the following story with me. He was asked to be the guest preacher for two weeks in a local congregation in his denomination while the pastor was on vacation. For two Sundays, he preached about what he knew best: the problem of domestic violence. Only a few days after returning from vacation, the pastor called the pastoral counselor to ask, “What on earth happened while I was gone? I’ve had women coming to my office every day this week sharing their experiences of violence and abuse at home.”
The need had been there all along. Perhaps this was the first time these survivors heard a genuine invitation to seek healing in the church. The silence was broken, inadvertently, by a preacher unafraid to name the problem of domestic violence. Just hearing the words “domestic violence” from the pulpit was sufficient invitation for at least a few women in the congregation to begin sharing their own stories of victimization.
3. Fear: Clergy feeling overwhelmed and unequipped
The pastor in the above story clearly felt overwhelmed by the brokenness of his congregants. Once the silence from the pulpit was broken, once survivor/victims felt a genuine invitation to share their own traumatic stories of violence and abuse, once they felt it safe to bring this part of their lives to church, the pastor felt overwhelmed by the tremendous need.
Many clergy may simply feel unequipped to handle the needs of victims of domestic violence. If they have no experience dealing with sexual abuse or intimate partner violence, they may feel that they lack the skills to provide spiritual care in these circumstances. Thankfully, there are many resources available in the community. Pastors can make appropriate referrals if they’ve done their homework ahead of time. Domestic violence awareness begins with learning and teaching basic definitions and information.
4. Shame and Brokenness: Clergy dealing with their own past traumas
There is no reason to think that pastors are exempt from victimization. Whether as a primary victim of intimate partner violence or a secondary victim of violence against another person in the family, many clergy have been traumatized by domestic violence. In fact, there is some evidence that the percentage of sexual abuse survivors is higher among clergy than among the general population. This brokenness is not an obstacle to ministry in itself. However, when brokenness turns into shame, it becomes internalized in a way that prevents effective ministry. Karen McClintock writes persuasively about the problem of shame in the church.
When a pastor has not done the difficult work of grieving, when a pastor has not experienced healing in his/her own life, it is hard for that pastor to be a healing agent for others who have suffered from domestic violence. Furthermore, some judicatories make it difficult for clergy candidates to get the help they need. I have heard of boards of ordained ministry and other credentialing agencies that consider a past history of victimization to be a disqualifier for ordained ministry. In other words, clergy candidates may be afraid to seek help for fear that they will be denied ordination. Shame, culturally and institutionally reinforced, then carries over into their ministries and the churches they serve.
5. Distrust: Survivor/Victims seeing the church as complicit
US culture has reached a heightened awareness of sexual assault in recent years. Abuses by politicians, entertainers, and religious leaders have all made headlines. The public is more aware than ever of the problem of sexual assault in the military, in scouting organizations, on college campuses, and in places of worship. Many of these institutions, including the church, are complicit, having a history of prioritizing self-protection rather than providing justice for victims. For survivor/victims of domestic violence to trust the church to assist them, the church will have to show more convincingly that it can deal justly and pastorally with sexual abuse in its own ranks.
Far too many churches still deal ineffectively with allegations of clergy sexual abuse. Complainants are revictimized through institutional procedures that are not designed to provide healing for the victim. Congregations wounded by the betrayal of a trusted ministerial leader are left on their own to deal with the trauma and its aftereffects. Without a process of intentional healing, wounded congregations remain mired in dysfunctions for years. Victims of domestic violence see the way their “church family” fails to heal from its own history of abuse. Is it any wonder that survivor/victims might distrust the church and its ability to provide healing in cases of domestic violence?
Churches can be places of healing
Churches can overcome these obstacles to effective ministry, becoming a place of healing for survivors of domestic violence. We must be willing to make this journey of healing together, though. All of us.
Speak Out Sunday is October 11, 2015. Take this opportunity for dialogue, teaching, prayer and action around sexual and gender based violence and its prevention.
Additional resource for immediate assistance:
The National Domestic Violence Hotline
1−800−799−7233 or TTY 1−800−787−3224 and http://www.thehotline.org.