When Love Hurts: A pastor’s guide to helping parishioners in abusive relationships
Chances are good that if you have more than three members in your church, one of them will be touched by domestic/dating violence during his or her lifetime.*
Sadly, most of these hurting parishioners (both women and men) will never find their way to your office and receive the spiritual nurturing they so desperately need.
Believers are uniquely vulnerable to domestic abuse.
Their faith leads them to believe that, no matter what happens, they are bound to keep the marriage together. They believe they are to blame for the abuse, thinking that only if they could be a better wife or husband, the abuse would stop. These personal beliefs make it difficult to seek help from a pastor.
Your help is vital.
Your counsel and spiritual reassurances are important to these souls who have been told by their spouse that they are worthless and unlovable. They need to be reminded that they ARE a loved child of God, and that His will for marriage does not include abuse.
Being a safe person who understands abuse is an important step in helping those who are in an abusive relationship. It can also be incredibly difficult.
Here are a few tips to get you started.
Five ways to be approachable to those being abused
1. Learn more about relationship abuse in all its forms.
The more you know, the better equipped you will be to both identify and understand the dynamics of an abusive relationship. Abuse takes many forms—it’s not just physical violence. Physical abuse often garners more attention and sympathy, but emotional abuse damages self-esteem and long term mental and spiritual health. Taking the time to understand the different forms of abuse will help you counsel and support survivors.
2. Talk about it.
We've written before about how to bring the subject of abuse out in the open and discuss it often. As the spiritual leader, you can change the culture of your congregation. Make it a place where domestic/dating violence is not tolerated in any form. Be aware of scripture references that may be used to control a victim (e.g. submission) and proactively explain them.
- Ephesians 5:22-33
Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior
- Colossians 3:18-19
Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them.
- 1 Peter 3:1-7
Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives. Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight. For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to adorn themselves. They submitted themselves to their own husbands, like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her lord. You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear. Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.
3. Be ready to believe.
Many women report that when they went to their church to report abuse by a highly regarded member, they were not believed. This allows the abuse to continue unchecked.
When you hear a report of abuse, believe in the moment. This does not mean you will always believe, for other facts may become available. But by believing first, you demonstrate that you care for the individual and that you are a safe person. You will become known as someone who is understanding and this will keep your door open to others who may also need your help.
Survivors start to believe the lie that even God couldn't love them. Being aware of the tactics and verses abusers use to control survivors can help you better share the truth—that Jesus died for all and loves the survivor deeply.
4. Don’t judge.
The initial disclosure of abuse is not the time to judge what the person did right or wrong in the relationship. It’s also not the time to require forgiveness.
At the time of disclosure, the victim will be dealing with the trauma of the abuse and will not be able to give time to rational thought. This is a time to listen and empathize with what is happening. Ask how you can help and if you can pray together. The time will come later for the application of the law and gospel and more spiritual conversations.
5. Assess for safety.
Ask if the parishioner feels safe in their home or the relationship. If they do not, help them create a safety plan. Know what resources are available in your community and refer to them when needed. Most domestic violence shelters have trained professionals who can help assess safety needs and create a safety plan with them.
I am thankful that you care about survivors of abuse and that you are reading this.
You know a problem exists and want to address it. To learn more about the intersection of faith and domestic/dating violence, watch the recording of my recent webinar.
Sign up to receive the When Christian Love Hurts webinar recording
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Michelle Markgraf, community expert on survivor advocacy and safety, helped launch the Empowering Survivors of Relationship Violence program at Kingdom Workers. She previously worked as a volunteer advocate and later as the Executive Director of a rape and domestic abuse crisis center.
*Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2015). National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: 2015 Data Brief – Updated Release. Atlanta: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.