A faith leader is often the first person a victim of abuse will reach out to.
Abuse happens across the lifespan, and globally one in three women will be a victim of abuse at some point in her life. In the context of our ministries, many of the women we work with have been or will be victims of abuse of some kind.
As leaders in the community, it is our responsibility to be educated and prepared to assist. Understanding the nature of abuse makes us better ministers. Congregations are not immune to domestic violence.
Physical abuse is generally accompanied by emotional and verbal abuse and other patterns of controlling behavior. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence states that domestic violence is present in all communities and affects all ages, all ethnicities, all levels of economic status and all faith backgrounds.
Although domestic violence is no respecter of gender, statistics show that most often it is women who are abused by men. So, this article focuses on women in ministry and female victims.
When a female is abused by her male partner, it might be hard to disclose the abuse to a male member of the clergy. A victim may more easily share uncomfortable intimate details of the abuse with a woman involved in church ministry – whether that is a paid staff position or lay leadership.
Victims are often hesitant to say they are being abused. Some aren’t even sure what exactly constitutes abuse. Sometimes they are ashamed because they’ve been told by the abuser that it is their fault.
These dynamics are important to women in ministry because most women already understand being marginalized. They understand rape culture. Many have experienced harassment and stalking. They have been taught to not walk alone, or at night, or to keep car keys handy to use as a weapon should they be assaulted.
Women in ministry should keep in mind that for some of their congregants, the marginalization, assault, harassment and stalking come not from a stranger on the street but from a woman’s own spouse. If that is hard to fathom for those in ministry, imagine the agony the victim experiences every day.
A prerequisite for understanding abusive marriages is understanding the difference between toxic and healthy relationships. This difference is something that should be taught at church.
It needs to be taught in youth and college groups because women ages 18-24 are at the highest risk for teen dating violence. It needs to be taught to women in rural communities because it is more prevalent there than in suburban settings.
It needs to be taught to all ethnicities because women of color have an increased risk. It also needs to be a discussion in senior groups because older women are at risk as well. It’s not an issue of income, because affluent women are also abused.
We must also keep in mind that the individual being abused is more important than saving the institution of marriage. Yet, for decades it has looked like marriage is more important than the individual – especially within the church. When we require that women stay in abusive marriages, we ignore the Bible’s warnings against evil.
It also leaves vulnerable children exposed to trauma. Children exposed to abuse are more likely to become perpetrators or victims themselves and are at a greater risk of physical and emotional health concerns. To protect the next generation, we need to be willing to be involved in breaking the cycle of abuse.
There are many reasons that a woman might stay in an abusive situation, including children, pets, finances, lack of resources and lack of a support network.
Women don’t generally stay because of minimal exposure to abuse. While the reasons are broad and personal for each victim, many women tend to stay because they have been repeatedly threatened about what will happen if they leave.
Sometimes they stay for religious reasons, and these ideas can be perpetuated by clergy and church leaders who may be uninformed on the nature of abuse, and by those who are intent on keeping the patriarchy intact.
Women might be told it is their responsibility to keep the marriage together, that they are responsible for keeping the peace, or that their suffering will bring glory to God. If we simply say that “God hates divorce” without knowing the history behind that translation, we are doing a disservice to the women we minister to.
Women in ministry can help make the church a safer place for victims of abuse. We can speak about it in small groups, and from the pulpit. Many survivors wish they had heard sermons condemning domestic abuse and that they had heard from church leaders that the fault of abuse is with the perpetrator and not the victim.
Make sure that premarital counseling sessions include multiple conversations about healthy versus toxic relationships because it is better to identify problems before the couple gets married.
Pray aloud for the struggles that victims of abuse face every day. Establish a relationship with your local family violence center and have them train the church about domestic violence.
Display the shelter’s brochures about abuse in prominent places in the church. Offer space for support groups for survivors. Provide for the financial needs of survivors through your benevolence fund.
As women in ministry, let us find ways to alleviate the suffering of the abused. Let us remember how God is a stronghold for the oppressed, near to the brokenhearted and a healer of the wounded. Let us attempt to do the same.
Editor’s note: This article is part of an ongoing series focused on engaging the emerging generations of faith leaders. If you know anyone who might be interested, encourage them to submit an article for consideration to firstname.lastname@example.org.