Unconscious Incompetence

Paula Glassborow reflects on her professional and church experiences working with people experiencing family violence, and calls us to acknowledge what we don’t yet know, and commit to learning more.

Content warning: This article involves discussion of the experiences and impacts of domestic and family violence. Some survivors might find its content troubling.

Donna* and I had been friends for a long time through our local church.

We regularly caught up at each others homes, after church, in the many cafes near where we lived and cheered each other on to live our best lives. But our friendship became a close one when her relationship with her partner suddenly fell apart. She left him after one night when he got drunk and tried to strangle her.

That’s when my training kicked in.

As a family dispute resolution practitioner who routinely undertakes risk assessments for family violence, I knew that strangulation is only one small step away from killing someone.1

Donna sought an intervention order with the support of our local specialist family violence agency. And there I was, supporting her to deal with the aftermath, listening to her grief, listening to her anger, listening to the fact her trust was in tatters.

I thought I was skilled at picking perpetrators of violence. I had worked many years with victims of family violence as a family law mediator, a lawyer and also a migration agent who worked with women brought over to Australia only to find themselves in a domestic violence situation (among other things). But my friend’s partners’s abuse shocked me. I had trusted him. I had been over at their place many times. He was a lovely guy... or so I thought.

Not only that, I was also shocked at the response of our church.

About a week later, our pastor rang Donna and asked, “We were just wondering whether you were coming to church this weekend, as Bruce* would like to attend?”. Obviously they were grappling with how to respond, but clearly Donna’s safety was being undermined. Influential people in the church continued to support her abuser without having a good understanding of just how close he was to killing her.

Over the years since the split, my friend has described the pressure she was under as important people in her life encouraged her to get back together with Bruce, laying guilt and blame on her for leaving him and “hurting their child” by separating them from their father. There were so many times that I wanted to sit them down and explain just how serious the violence was, and just how close they came to her death.

I’ve since learned that his violence on this occasion wasn’t an isolated event, and that there had been many warning signs over the years. But Donna had been receiving Christian counselling about her marriage where she was told to “submit and pray”. Her church encouraged her to keep seeing that particular counsellor, and when she wanted to stop, church members intervened and suggested that stopping counselling was her “running away from the truth”.

Understandably, Donna now really struggles with church. Not only did her former community risk her safety, but they seriously messed with her faith. They might have been well-meaning, but they were responding to an issue that they were ill-equipped to handle.

Why is the Church’s response often so poor?

I recently completed four years of training in Christian counselling practice in a well-known Australian training college. The relationship counselling training looked at domestic violence and the types of behaviours that can be abusive and reference was made to the cycle of violence, the statistics on the prevalence of domestic violence and why women stay in abusive relationships.

However, compared to my secular training, I found the training was lacking and, at times, downright dangerous. For example, during one counselling class, on a case example of a supervisee dealing with a female client who had been assaulted by their partner, one of my lecturers commented that it “isn’t Christian to not want marriages to stay together”. In another class we were taught that in every marriage each partner is “50% responsible for what was happening in the relationship.” But as a result of my training and experience, I know that when a person chooses to harm the person that they say they love, the victim never bears responsibility for their partner’s choice to use violence.

Concerningly, teaching around rehabilitating perpetrators did not mention that this is highly specialised work that requires specific training to ensure that the perpetrator does not use the intervention to manipulate the victim into returning to the abuse. Indeed, the use of the term “batterer” in the course material showed a lack of depth of understanding of the many different ways violence can occur in a relationship. And the course material described abusive behaviour as an “addiction” - an incorrect description which undermines the responsibility of the perpetrator for their choice to use violence and their accountability for those choices.

Key information was also missing. For example, in Victoria we use a Common Risk Assessment Framework. As the name suggests, it is a common approach and language that most agencies involved in family violence use. This standard tool was not even mentioned in the training. Nor do I remember them mentioning Men’s Behaviour Change programs, which is a key perpetrator intervention in most states and territories.

A blind spot

When I think about how churches respond to domestic violence, I am reminded of The Johari Window – a tool used by psychologists to help people better understand their relationship with themselves and others:

Diagram: The Johari Window
The Johari Window

If the Church were to really look at how it seeks to help people in violent relationships, it would realise that we have a massive Blind spot where we are ‘not known to self, but known to others’.

Did you know that there is a sense of distrust in the family violence sector when it comes to the Church’s ability to respond to family violence? I can only imagine the stories that they have heard of how perpetrators have used religion against victim’s, manipulated churches to support them rather than the victim, and after the Royal Commission and the ABC reports, trust appears to be at its lowest in the Church’s ability to respond to allegations of abuse. It is important that these stories come to light as it’s the only way our blind spot will dealt with. It’s hard to deal with how public these stories have become, but there seems to have been a lot of not listening prior to the publicity.

Another framework I’ve found helpful is the Four Stages of Competence:

Diagram: The Four Stages of Competence
The Four Stages of Competence

A few years ago, I had started a new role in a work team where this model was being discussed, and because I was a new staff member and was presumed to have no experience, someone said to me, “you’re 'unconsciously incompetent' at the moment”. Put on the spot, I was embarrassed and wanted to defend myself. There were so many reasons I wanted to tell them why they were wrong!

Looking at each of the stages, where do you think the Church currently sits with how it deals with violence in families?

As much as I love the Church, I would say that much of the Church is currently unconsciously incompetent when dealing with family violence. I say this humbly, knowing I have made my own mistakes in this very area. But knowing the truth about where you are at offers a starting point - so that when you become aware of an area of incompetence, that discomfort can stir you on to moving out of that space. You then seek to learn, you seek to grow, and you seek to connect in with resources that support you where you are weak.

It is in those areas of discomfort where the most change can occur.

Are we properly training church leaders to deal with family violence?

It seems unfortunately clear that formal training and preparation for ministry have not equipped most church leaders to understand, recognise, or know how to respond appropriately to domestic violence, which raises the following questions of current ministry training:

1. Are pastors and Christian counsellors aware how often family violence occurs and how it manifests in marriages?

There are many forms of domestic violence. Some of these include subtle manipulation and control or ‘gaslighting’ (causing the person to feel like they are going mad, that their perception isn’t accurate, even though it really is). Not understanding how common abuse is or its many forms has meant that church leaders are less likely to believe that it can happen in Christian homes and may not be aware of it even when it does happen.

2. Does ministry training teach that keeping marriages together is more important than the safety of victims?

There were indications at my training college that some lecturers held the view maintaining marriage vows was such a priority that the attention to safety was undermined, and there’s a sense sometimes in the Church that when an unsafe marriage stays together, this is evidence of God’s intervention. Sadly, these views mean that leaders neglect to give victim options for safety, and can pressure victims to stay in highly dangerous situations.

3. Does ministry training confuse marriage conflict with abuse?

Due to a misunderstanding about what abuse actually is, churches tend to conflate abuse with a relationship issue to be addressed by both the partners. This confusion is a problem because one of the underlying assumptions in couples counselling is that both people in the relationship are responsible for the problems in the relationship. However, this approach can be highly dangerous in situations where one partner is fearful and under the control of their partner. Any kind of couples therapy can encourage the perpetrator to carry out further abuse at home as punishment for speaking out during counselling.

4. Is offering “prayer ministry” to abuse victims appropriate?

Prayer is an important part of the Christian life, but victims of domestic violence need more than this. Responding to domestic violence principally with “prayer ministry” implies that the issues a victim faces are primarily spiritual. Yet the impact of abuse is complex and involves a range of physical, emotional, mental, financial, and relational trauma. What abuse survivors really need from church leaders may include compassionate prayer, but primarily should involve calling police in possible criminal instances and an immediate referral to a family violence service.

5. Do church leaders view themselves as authorities on marriage?

Church leaders should be aware of the need to feel like a powerful expert, and recognise their limitations. A pastor’s skills may be better suited to working alongside the professional advice provided to both victims and perpetrators. Over the years I’ve heard of churches providing mediation in abuse situations. Combine that with a less than adequate understanding of family violence, and this approach can actually reinforce an abuser’s power and undermine the victim’s efforts to get free from the abuse. Pastors who do not have formal training to deal with family violence should always defer to specialists.

6. Are churches afraid of non-Christian specialists?

In my decades of church involvement, it seems as though Christians are afraid to seek assistance from professionals in the family violence sector. I’ve witnessed the differing responses from well-meaning but unqualified Christians, versus those with appropriate qualifications and experience but who do not share my faith. In my experience, it is always preferable to ask someone with specialised family violence training (whether Christian or not) to step in and help.

Moving towards competence

Acknowledge what we don’t know. Knowing the truth about our deficits is key to our churches becoming more competent in identifying and responding to family violence. It is essential for the safety of women and children in our church communities, and for the men who make the choice to abuse. The Church has an amazing potential to be a healing and safe space, but for this to happen, church leaders must be properly equipped in this complex area.

Access knowledge about what we don’t know. Don’t choose to stay in unconscious or even conscious incompetence. A good starting point is to look at SAFER. Common Grace created this resource because there were few resources available which brought together best practice from secular specialist organisations with the kinds of theological and spiritual concerns Christians who are experiencing DFV have. Then get to know your local domestic violence services and refuges so you can know where to refer people to and who to ask for advice.

Learn from those who are consciously competent. You could attend sector-wide family violence training (take a look at the Safe and Together training as an example). Not many Christian leaders undertake this kind of training and you may have to learn from people who have learned not to trust the Church. Sometimes, there may be a strong feminist perspective to the training that can be quite challenging to Christian leaders. But that uncomfortable space is where you are going to receive the best information from trained professionals who have been working in the area for many years. By learning from the experts, we can work on our blind spot and start repairing our poor responses to victims.

Paula Glassborow is a non-practicing lawyer who is now a Family Dispute Resolution Practitioner, working with separating or separated couples, many of whom have experienced violence in their relationships. Paula became a Christian over two decades ago and has been a member of a range of Pentecostal and Baptist churches. She currently lives in Melbourne and is part of the Red Church community (Churches of Christ) and has recently joined Common Grace’s Domestic and Family Violence justice team.

* Real names have been changed

1 Reviews of domestic violence homicides have shown that, while strangulation is rarely a cause of death, any man who has purposefully chocked and/or strangled their wife/girlfriend, is highly likely to kill their wife/girlfriend by other means. Studies have also shown that the effects of strangulation are often not detected straight away and often many victims will pass out and not actually be aware that they have been strangled, but it is possible to have life-long effects including brain damage, memory loss and brain haemorrhages.

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Domestic & Family Violence