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What Pastors Can Do To Help Victims of Domestic Violence in the Church

By Grant L. Martin

It was 10 p.m. Kirstin, overwhelmed with pain and fear, was sitting at the kitchen table. Every bone in her body ached. Her arms were bruised, and one eye was almost swollen shut. Her husband, Tim, had just stormed off in their only car after another one of their “family squabbles,” as he called them.

Feeling hopeless and trapped, with no idea of what to do, Kirstin reached to pick up the phone to call the pastor of the church she sometimes attended.

Imagine that you are Kristin’s pastor. What would you do? The probability is good that domestic violence is shattering lives in one or more families in your church. Domestic violence is one of the secret tragedies occurring within the church.

Consider the following facts: Persons killing their spouses account for 15 to 20 percent of all murders committed in the United States. The FBI estimates that in this country a wife is beaten every 15 to 30 seconds. Two to four million women are abused each year, and 4,000 of them are killed.

Domestic violence is an epidemic problem. Nearly one-third of American women have reported that their husbands or boyfriends have abused them. In 2001, the U.S. Department of Justice found that more than half a million American women were victims of nonfatal domestic violence. Each year, as many as 324,000 women experience domestic violence during their pregnancy.1

Unfortunately, domestic violence or spousal abuse appears to take an equally damaging toll within the church community. A national survey completed several years ago by the Seattle Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence found that typical clergy see almost 14 people each year whose problems involve family violence.

One national denomination polled a sample of its membership and found that 68 percent of those questioned had personally experienced some type of family violence, including spousal abuse.

The anguish of thousands of desperate people can be described by the words of David: “My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death assail me. Fear and trembling have beset me; horror has overwhelmed me” (Psalm 55:4,5).

While the vast majority of victims are women, there is some evidence that men are also abused. One study estimated that 3.5 million women and 250,000 men are battered by their spouses or intimate partners. However, because of the preponderance of abused women, this article will be limited to a discussion of women victims.

What Is Domestic Violence?

Domestic violence refers to actual or threatened harm. Physical violence includes any act or behavior that inflicts bodily harm or is intended to inflict physical harm, such as kicking, hitting, shoving, choking, throwing objects, or the use of a weapon.

Emotional abuse may include ridiculing or demeaning statements, withholding affection or privileges, and blaming the spouse for family or interpersonal problems.

Threatened violence is a type of emotional abuse. It can include verbal threats to harm, the wielding of weapons, threatening gestures, injury or killing of family pets, destruction of property, or any other intimidating verbal or nonverbal behavior.

Phases of Violence

A predictable progression of events seems to continually repeat itself in an abusive relationship. The first phase is a time of tension building. Irritations over things such as discipline and finances may lead to a feeling of walking on eggshells. Regardless of the wife’s efforts to avoid confrontations, the crisis phase is inevitable.

The second phase starts when acute violence begins. This is when the batterer unleashes his aggressive behavior on his wife. The abuse can be verbal or physical, but there is always a victim, and there is always pain.

After the explosive release of violence, a period of relative calm follows. This is the remorse phase. Like a penitent alcoholic, the abusive husband may express guilt, show kindness and remorse, and shower his partner with gifts and promises that the violence will never happen again. This behavior often comes from a genuine sense of guilt over the harm he inflicted, as well as the fear of losing his spouse. The husband or boyfriend may really believe he will never allow himself to be violent again. The wife wants to believe her husband, and for a time, may renew her hope in his ability to change. The problem is that the cycle will repeat itself unless outside intervention takes place.

How the Pastor Can Help

As a pastor, you may often be in the forefront of identifying a domestic-violence episode and in helping a family in severe need of support and intervention. Important goals for pastoral involvement need to include: safety for the woman and children in the family; accountability and treatment for the abuser; and restoration of both the victim and abuser, and hopefully, reconciliation of the relationship.

Often, your first contact may be with the wife who is being abused. If you observe the woman wearing long sleeves in the summer, sunglasses indoors, withdrawal from social situations, unexplained injuries, signs of stress, and alcohol or drug use, these may be signs of abuse. Chronic low self-esteem, a need to rescue or cover the mistakes of her husband, social isolation, and emotional and economic dependency are often seen in women who are battered.

To assist in taking inventory of a situation, you could have the wife respond to the following questions about her husband’s behavior.

If the wife answers yes to two or more of these questions, she may be living in an abusive situation.

The violence will not go away by itself, even if she and her husband claim to be Christians. Talk to the wife about taking action for her own safety and perhaps the welfare of her children. After the safety procedures are implemented, more consideration can be given to restoration.

Following are some suggestions for pastors as they begin the process of understanding, guiding, and helping protect a potential victim.

What To Do for a Suspected Victim Of Domestic Violence?

Most victims of spousal abuse feel totally helpless and have no idea where to begin. The following approach is suggested:

Following is a short list of things a pastor should not do while working with a victim of domestic violence.

Do not:

Remember, no one deserves to be beaten or threatened. There is no excuse for abusive behavior, and it is not part of any suffering for Christ. Violence at home will not just go away, but if you help the victim take action and reach out for help, it can be stopped.

A comprehensive perspective for ministry to those experiencing domestic violence would be to: (1) Make clear pronouncements from the pulpit about the evil and harmful consequences of violence in the home. (2) Establish policy and procedures to protect victims and to minister to their practical needs, as well as to offer healing for their emotional and spiritual needs. (3) Take clear steps to ensure the abuser is held accountable for his actions, often in cooperation with the legal system, in the process of restoring the person and assisting him in developing new patterns of behavior.

As a pastor, you can be a significant instrument of God to bring accountability and grace into a traumatized family. You can affirm to the victim and to the abuser that God can heal the broken hearted. This includes the entire family — the victim who struggles with hopelessness, the perpetrator who carries insecurity and shame, the children who are preoccupied with fear and apprehension, and the church family who has experienced shock and disbelief. God, through Jesus Christ, can bring reconciling love, mercy, grace, forgiveness, and justice to all those concerned.

GRANT L. MARTIN, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Edmonds, Washington. His books on domestic violence include Counseling for Family Violence and Abuse (Word, 1987), and Please Don’t Hurt Me (Victor Books, 1987). His other books include Help! For Teachers: Strategies for Reaching All Students (Purposeful Design, 2004), and The Attention Deficit Child (Victor, 1998). Martin can be reached by e-mail at drgrantmartin@drgrantmartin.com, or through his Web site at http://www.drgrantmartin.com.

Endnote

1. “Domestic Violence is a Serious, Widespread Social Problem in America: The Facts,” Family Violence Prevention Fund [Internet]; available from http://www.endabuse.org/resources/facts; accessed 16 April 2005.

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