Erica Hamence explores five ways churches unwittingly partner in violence and calls us to be aware, teachable and ready to listen to those facing abuse.
I know many ministers and church members genuinely feel the weight of this issue. We are aware that, if the statistics are anything to go by, there are many women and children (and some men) in our church communities who have suffered or are suffering because of abuse.
Here are some tips for what you might be able to do to address this and create a space for victims to approach you for help. Once again, this is not intended to be comprehensive.
1. Indicate that you're safe.
Victims and survivors are are hyper vigilant and will be looking for indications of who is and isn’t safe all the time. They will be conscious of personal conversations they have had with you or that they know others have had with you. They will be thinking about Facebook interactions you’ve had. They will recall the statements you make about men and women and marriage and relationships. They will be conscious of how you deal with conflict and with sensitive issues. They will have noted whether you use guilt or other pressures to compel people to do things when they are unwilling to. So in all of these areas, indicate sensitivity, openness, receptiveness, credibility. Indicate the ability to listen, to really listen. Victims will need all of these things before they entrust their experiences to you. Remember, you may be friends with their abuser. It will take enormous courage and some significant reassurance for them to come to you about these things.
2. Don’t just indicate safety, BE safe.
There may be reasons no one has come to you yet. Prayerfully and humbly review your life. Could you have done or said anything that might have indicated that you were not a safe person for them to talk to? Are there still things you’d need to learn much more about before you could support someone who came to you disclosing abuse?
If you suspect that you have made mistakes in this area before, could you apologise privately to the people involved, and publicly (without betraying confidences) so that the people you lead know that you have been learning?
A note on safety: Ministers get trained to say ‘I believe you’ to people who disclose abuse to them, but I’ve heard from victims that they have been told this by their ministers, and then found those words to be undermined by their minister’s actions, when they have found themselves stood down from ministry, or sent to interviews which felt more like interrogations, or simply found that nothing was done in response to their claims. If you say you believe someone, ask them what being believed would look and feel like to them. You may not be able or willing to do everything they say, but you should at least open up that conversation with them so that they are not misled about the nature of your support.
3. Use your platforms to indicate willingness and ability to support others.
Everyone has a platform, not matter what formal or informal roles you hold. Mention in conversations and sermons and Bible studies that you’ve been doing more reading and listening about this topic. Indicate that you are grieved by abuse. Call it evil. Tell the people you minister alongside that you don’t know everything, but you’re keen to grow. Say, as clearly as possible, that you would be prepared to support anyone who came to you for support because of domestic and family violence, no matter what.
4. Learn from the women in your congregation.
I say this to both ministers and lay leaders. What channels do you have for that currently? What do you have in place that would enable you to let your ministry truly be formed by their experiences and thoughts? Do they help shape the teaching schedule? Do you have (meaningful) mechanisms by which they can give feedback to you on sermons (before and after they are preached), and on other significant ministry areas? Are training opportunities scheduled in times that suit them? Have you thought through the factors that might inhibit women from contributing fully? I can tell you, anecdotally at least, that I have asked this last question of a number of men in fairly senior levels of Christian leadership, and have found that almost none of them have thought about this question with any depth . Most of them appear to imagine that just being philosophically or theologically supportive of women’s ministry is enough to guarantee their full participation. Let me tell you: it’s not. If you are not able to nurture women’s meaningful participation in the life of your church, you will not be exposed to enough of the things that will enable you to support women who are being abused.
5. Give the women of your church access to leaders, especially female leaders.
Abuse victims need as many opportunities as possible to find someone to disclose abuse to, or discuss concerns with. They need to know that there might be someone who will understand (or seek to understand) their trauma, and who will support them as they seek healing and comfort. In short, they need to have options. They need to have confidence that if one person fails them, that is not the end of the line for them. That’s a difficult thing for them to find if there are no female staff members, or few female leaders who have enough expertise or training to care for them in that. It’s a difficult thing if they are aware that their sole female staff member is already overrun with other people’s pastoral concerns.
So, if you are a Senior Minister, or a member of a Parish Council or Board, and the next hire you are planning is not a senior female minister, do you have a really good reason why not?
6. Don’t make your education the task of survivors alone. Here’s why:
A. There will be things they don’t want to tell you because it will implicate them or people you know in ways that they are aren’t comfortable sharing;
B. There will be things they don’t want to tell you because they are afraid of offending or hurting you or putting you offside;
C. There will be things you will have previously indicated you don’t want to hear about from them;
D. It’s an emotional burden that they shouldn’t have to carry at the same time as carrying their own victimhood. They will likely want to tell you, because they want to see things made better for someone, but doing this work comes at great cost to them. It turns their personhood into a lesson to be learned for someone else. Every time they talk about it, they expose themselves to the possibility of insensitivity, misunderstanding, accusation, or apathy. It hurts. It’s emotional labour that they shouldn’t have to do at the time when they need support for themselves. It is also a particularly bizarre experience for someone to find the pain they have shared become a reason for being lionized by others.
7. Watch your heart – watch for hero syndrome.
You have a lot to gain by ‘standing up against’ DFV – people will laud you as a brave hero. Please be careful that you aren’t using this as an issue to prove your superiority, sensitivity or how you’ve got your ‘finger on the pulse’ of current issues. Remember what is really at stake here: people who are precious to God. God’s glory and the building of His kingdom. It’s not about you.
8. Please develop yourself theologically.
Currently, Christian women have to go outside the church to get the support they need. In a sense, that is completely appropriate. They should go to doctors and psychologists and social workers and the police and make use of all of the resources God has given us in His grace. But wouldn’t it also be great if the church brought together best practice thinking on DFV with the best possible theological resources? Wouldn’t it be great if women had the best possible theological resources to help them process and interpret what they are experiencing, and to help guide them in becoming safe and in healing?
At Common Grace, we have been engaged in a fairly lengthy process to do just that. Our project, Safer, will be coming out later this year. We’re really excited about it and we are really hoping that it will be helpful for churches and Christians.
But, here’s the thing. We belong to a body. Each member has a part to play, and we will all be better off if each member does! So let me ask you: what part can you play in our development in this area? Do you have expertise in a particular area that could be put to use for the benefit of victims of abuse?
In the last post, I detailed a number of ways in which abusers can mis-use the Bible to excuse or justify their behaviour. Could you set aside some time in your next Bible study, or devotional time, or mentoring session to working through some of those, and developing a good response to them?
9. Note the F in DFV.
There are many child victims of fathers, mothers and ‘carers’. Some are abused by siblings or other family members. We don’t tend to talk about these forms of abuse, and that can make victims and survivors feel even more isolated and overlooked. Family violence shares many similarities to domestic violence, but has some significant differences. For one, our encouragements of victims to ‘leave if possible’ are very difficult for children to meaningfully pursue. Our insistence that ‘forgiveness doesn’t have to mean reconciliation’ is enormously difficult for the child (even adult children) to navigate when enmeshed in a family system that may have done its best to deny the abuse for the sake of unity and where unhealthy relationships exist in many forms. What does it mean to have no relationship with the parent who abused you, when your siblings have an ongoing relationship with them? What does something like Christmas or a family birthday celebration look like in that instance? Be careful not to offer simplistic advice or to exhort victims to take impractical steps which might constrain them further.
10. Abusers are not evil.
Well, not any more than the rest of us. Why is this important to say? Because unless we understand this, it will be hard for us to recognise the abuser sitting next to us in Bible study, the abuser whose prayers we appreciate, whose counsel we have benefitted from, who we love as a brother or sister. Many victims and survivors still love their abusers, feel responsible to and for them, and still want to protect them. That is a complicated set of feelings to navigate, and it will be difficult for them to do so if they feel that the only options available to them are to demonise their abuser or to deny the abuse.
11. Don’t expect those who have been abused to know it.
If you suspect that someone is being abused, it’s better to ask them ‘do you feel safe?’ than ‘are you being abused?’ Help people to know what safety looks and feels like. It means not having to prepare yourself to spend time with someone. It means not having to take precautions before being with someone. It means not having to make a house or a room or an office perfect. It means not having to constantly think about potential ‘landmines’ that might set someone off.
If you suspect that someone is being abused, take them through the cycle of abuse and ask if it resonates with them. 
12. Recognise the way that a victim’s standards will have been lowered from God’s standards, and help them to lift their sights again.
Victims learn to hope for something that only approximates survival. They forget that flourishing is possible. You may be able to help and encourage them that God offers us more than that. If a survivor comes to you for support and you ask them what they need, pay attention to their answer. Has even their articulation of need been shaped by their abuse?
13. Understand that it's not your job to morally adjudicate. It's your job to help this person be safe.
Abusive relationships are likely to be much more complex than we are capable of fully comprehending, and will likely be designed to situate around the victim’s guilt.
The abuser will likely be an expert in highlighting and manipulating situations, appearing reasonable, re-characterising abuse as a dispute which simply needs mediation, to which they are coming in good faith. It will be enormously tempting for you to think that the ‘fair’ and ‘just’ thing is for the victim to acknowledge some blame. In fact, SHE is likely to want to do that. She will think it’s her fault anyway.
But please do not make a category error here. You are not being called to be a sin-detective right now. There may be many things we are not currently seeing or understanding, and we need to allow for that possibility. Domestic and family violence is incredibly complex, and the abuse has deception and manipulation at its core. Be extremely cautious before you label anything a potential victim has done as sin.
14. Please know: We're in the room.
Christians are not just people who minister to DFV victims. We are DFV victims/survivors. I’d encourage you to imagine that there is an abuse victim in the room every time you talk about this issue. There likely is. I’ve noticed that we have a tendency to imagine that victims and survivors are the people ‘out there’ that we are charged with caring for, rather than the people ‘in here’. I’ve noticed that we have a tendency to joke about family conflict because it makes us look ‘real’ and ‘accessible’. But it’s a difficult thing for an abuse survivor to hear spoken of so flippantly, because it can seem to belittle their painful experiences.
On the other hand, we also tend to speak as though everyone’s experience of their parents, siblings, partners is relatively healthy. We use examples of the love of a father to illustrate a point we’re making about God’s love. We talk enthusiastically about going home for Christmas. We express thankfulness for the support of our partners or family, assuming that this is shared by our listeners. I’m not saying that we should stop doing any of this. But each time we do, it should come with a caveat, with a recognition that not everyone’s experience will be the same.
Of course, there is so much more that can be said on this topic than we are able to cover here. I’m conscious that much of what I have written in the past three posts has been about highlighting problems that exist within our churches, and not as much has been said about how we can overcome them.
I know that can be frustrating. In the coming weeks and months we hope to bring more to you that might help form part of the solution. But right now, we think it’s time for us to look at the issues squarely, to see clearly what is wrong, so that it might be put right.
Common Grace is committed to supporting Christians to respond better to domestic and family violence. Later in the year we’ll be launching a comprehensive resource called Safer, which we hope will help Christians do just this.
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This is the third and final part of a series called 'What I wish Christians knew about Domestic & Family Violence' written by Erica Hamence from the Common Grace Domestic & Family Violence Team.
 Here are some tips for getting started: http://juniaproject.com/5-ways-support-emerging-women-leaders-church/
 See, for example, https://www.whiteribbon.org.au/understand-domestic-violence/what-is-domestic-violence/cycle-of-violence/, and http://womenscentre.org.au/wp-content/uploads/Charmed-and-Dangerous.pdf