Pastoral Perspectives on DV

What is a pastor to do when confronted with a violent marriage in his own congregation?

A woman, perhaps a key leader confides in you that she has been regularly assaulted or intimidated by her husband who is perhaps the head deacon or chairman of your board of management.

There are so many issues that have to be considered.

Some of them are pastoral- what to do for this family, being the key issue. But then you will have to consider how to help members of the congregation deal with the revelation.

There are issues of what is, bluntly, church politics. People will take sides. People will disagree with your actions. Some may leave the church.

There are personal issues for yourself, including the very real impact this will have on your job security, your popularity in the church, the well-being of your own family. You may find yourself going through a kind of grief process as all of your beliefs surrounding your church and the people in it are put to the test.

A revelation about domestic violence is like a bomb exploding in the tightly knit community that a healthy church is.

So how do we deal with it in a way that is consistent with the gospel and our deep convictions about the love of God for his people?

Each case will be different, but there are some guiding principles that must be followed. Above all, prayer and the wisdom of God are essential.

Domestic violence is largely under-reported in Australia and most countries. If a woman tells someone she trusts that she is in a violent relationship, she has overcome huge feelings of shame, guilt, failure and low self-esteem to get to the point of disclosing. The chances are that the situation is at least as bad as she is telling you or much worse. Unless you have very good reasons to doubt her word (such as some form of mental illness), then you should take her words at face value.

If children are in the family, their safety and emotional well-being need to be taken into account. Approximately 40% of women who experience violence say their children witness the behaviour. What is this doing to their understanding of marriage, of God as their Father, of love, of relationships in general?

Because christians value marriage and the sanctity of the family, it can be a wrenching experience to be in a situation where we seem to be contributing to the breaking up of a family. If a man is hitting his wife, the marriage is already mortally wounded, and polite counselling will not help.

In the scenario outlined above, the immediate priority must be the safety of the woman and any children. What usually happens is that pastors and other church leaders go into a kind of denial that refuses to admit that this can be happening, or that if it is, it's not as bad as it seems.

We need to help the woman, and her children, get out of immediate physical danger. Lister to what she is saying. If she wants to leave home then help her to do so. When she is safe, there may be an option for marriage counselling, but initially her physical safety must be paramount.

Most towns have some sort of crisis accommodation, whether it is a family crisis service or a women's refuge. It is a good idea to have a good knowledge of the services available in your area, and it's even better to have some kind of working relationship with the managers of these services, before the crisis happens.

Do not assume, as many pastors do, that these community services are inferior to church-based services. They are often staffed by very caring people who have a sound knowledge of what the family is going through. They will also be able to help them access other important services in the community, such as health care, emergency social security payments etc.

The wife may want to take out an Apprehended Violence Order (AVO) or protection order against her husband. The police, court system and refuge staff will help her to do that.

It is important that as a pastor you, or your wife or another compassionate leader in your church maintain contact with the wife. She will need to know that the church is standing with her. She will need support, love and prayer.

There are many support systems for the victims of violence, but none for the perpetrators.

The husband may be in denial, pretending to everyone that he had the perfect marriage, and that the wife is making it up. He will certainly be bewildered or confused by what's happening. Often violent men really believe that there is no problem in their marriage. Pastors have a responsibility to help the perpetrator cope with the sudden changes, but also to confront them about their behaviour and wrong beliefs about marriage. Some kind of accountability or mentoring system should be put in place where the man is confronted with false attitudes, behaviour patterns and belief systems.

It is inevitable that the claims of violence will be aired in the church community. People will side with husband or wife. It's important to maintain respect and love for both parties. Confidentiality, as always is vital. Gossip has a way of magnifying issues. Where possible encourage people not to take sides, and not to judge the parties.

It's important to understand the dynamics of domestic violence. If a woman goes back to her husband it does not necessarily mean the relationship is healed. Nor is it a vindication of the man's position. Women go back to violent relationships for all kinds of reasons- financial, loyalty, outside pressure, fear of not making it on her own. She may sincerely believe that he has changed or that she was wrong to leave in the first place.

As a pastor, you may find yourself experiencing intense emotional and spiritual stress. Make sure that you maintain your own spiritual disciplines. Seek outside support and counsel to maintain your own emotional well-being. Look out for your own marriage and family relationships as they will also be affected by the stresses of the situation.

Healthy and Unhealthy Churches

Some churches encourage genuine and open community while others unconsciously prevent the development of healthy relationships. Sadly, some churches make it easy for domestic violence to be covered up and flourish.

Healthy churches:

Unhealthy churches:

In the context of family violence, pastors need to ensure that they preach and teach healthy relationships rather then controlling relationships. A balanced teaching on texts such as Ephesians 5:22-33 is essential to ensuring that parishioners do not hear that it is fine for men to assault women.