The community connection you're missing
My grandparents lived on the Apache mission in East Fork, Arizona when I was young. I’ll always remember our car trips to visit them. We’d leave from our home in Ohio (and later, Oklahoma) and drive. The trip literally took an entire day.
Once in the mountains, the end seemed tantalizing near. But it wasn't. We still had to travel back and forth on switch back roads. Ascending and descending along the way to our seemingly unreachable destination. Talk about frustrating!
Working with survivors of abuse can feel the same.
There are many ups and downs that accompany the life of a survivor. Two steps forward can easily be followed by two steps backward.
Their life is one big switchback road, and it’s frustrating, complicated, and messy. You may be tempted to step back and distance yourself from the chaos. Even if you're their pastor.
My encouragement? Don’t.
Working with a survivor will be some of the hardest work you do; but it’s also some of the most rewarding. And you don’t have to do it alone.
In Deuteronomy 31:6 God promises, “The LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.” God is by your side and will encourage you through His Word. He has also placed people in the community to help you.
Embracing Community Support
Across the United States almost every community has access to a local domestic violence shelter or crisis center. These non-profit agencies have trained professionals, like advocates, who can assist you as you work with a survivor of abuse.
Community advocates are found in all domestic abuse agencies.
Advocates provide emotional support to survivors, assist with safety planning, accompany the survivor to court hearings and meetings with law enforcement, and connect survivors to other community resources. They are the experts at helping survivors of abuse.
If one of your members had cancer, I am certain you would encourage them to seek the help of a cancer specialist while you provide spiritual support. Working with domestic abuse is no different.
Use the experts God placed in your community to assist survivors with the physical and emotional support they need while you walk beside the survivor, providing spiritual care.
Working with an Advocate
Including an advocate on a survivor’s care team is important. Equally important is that you and the advocate build trust with each other. That trust starts by understanding what an advocate will do and say to the survivor God placed in your life.
Here are some of the things you can expect when a survivor works with a community advocate.
- Confidentiality is a high priority. Community advocates will not talk about a survivor with you unless they have written consent from the survivor that spells out exactly what may be discussed. In fact, they will neither confirm nor deny that they know the person you’re asking about. The advocate will not speak to anyone, even law enforcement, without written consent from the survivor.
This can be frustrating, but remember it has nothing to do with you. Confidentiality keeps the survivor safe. If you call and ask to talk about that person, how does the advocate know if you’re really the pastor? You could very well be the abuser pretending to be the pastor.
- An advocate does not tell a survivor what to do. The advocate’s role is to brainstorm options with a survivor, to help them identify the pros and cons to possible solutions, and then support the survivor’s decisions. The advocate will not make moral judgments—that is highly inappropriate for their role. Rather, they help the survivor reach his/her goals.
As pastor, you will naturally want to fix the situation; this comes from a caring heart. Take a page from the advocate book and don’t try to fix it. This is not something an outside party can make better. You can help best by listening and believing.
Listen to truly understand what is happening in the relationship. A survivor will minimize or sanitize what is really happening in his/her relationship. Getting a glimpse of the ugly things occurring can be difficult, but it's not impossible.
- Safety is the top priority for an advocate, so much so that the advocate will ask a survivor if they are safe during every conversation. Community advocates are well trained in safety planning and often help survivors create safety plans that are several pages long. When a survivor states they need a separation or divorce to be safe, the advocate listens and will not counsel for or against it. They understand that a survivor is the best expert at knowing what is needed to remain safe.
As Christians we also need to prioritize safety and frequently check that the person we're helping is safe.
Abuse can escalate quickly. Someone's situation can change hour to hour. Dig deeper when someone says they want a restraining order, a separation, or a divorce. Withhold advising for or against it until you listen and ask questions about safety. Are they fearful about what will happen if they stay? Do they feel their emotional or spiritual stability is faltering?
- Community advocates tell survivors that they don’t deserve to be abused, that it’s not their fault. Advocates put the responsibility on the perpetrator alone. They do this for several reasons. Survivors readily take all the blame for what’s happening. After all, every day they hear from their abuser how terrible they are; if they just stopped a certain behavior, the abuse would stop.
A survivor’s belief that they are to blame gives them the false hope that they can change the relationship by being different. It keeps them bound to their abuser. What the abuser tells them is not true; no matter how much the survivor changes, the abuser will change the rules to keep the advantage.
Christians must understand this dynamic between an abuser and his or her prey and be wary of counseling for the survivor to change. Will the survivor also be a sinful human? Certainly. However, they already are taking on sole responsibility for the abuse, including the abuser’s sinful acts. They need to hear that the abuser alone is the cause of the abuse.
Developing a relationship with your community advocates is an important piece of working with survivors. Get to know the people who work at the local shelter or crisis center. Find out more about what they offer and how they help survivors. This will create better care for the survivors you serve.
You can also partner with Kingdom Workers to train your church members to become volunteer advocates.
See how you can bring this volunteer opportunity to your church today.
Kingdom Workers can help
Not sure how to do this? Kingdom Workers can help. Our Empowering Survivors of Relationship Violence program is available and free to churches. As part of the program, we help you establish relationships with your local agencies.
Are you a pastor? Download the recording of our webinar You're not alone.
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.