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Domestic Violence and Spiritual Abuse: Part 6
Additional Practical Steps for Christian Leaders and Laity
Throughout our series, we’ve addressed and discussed many aspects of domestic violence and spiritual abuse:
- The myths—and the facts—about domestic violence and spiritual abuse;
- The “Stay/Pray/Obey/Okay” counsel that many victims-survivors hear from their clergymembers—responses that can pressure them to remain with the very men who are harming them;
- The common misplaced and untrue justifications, cited in the Bible or perpetuated by some spiritual leaders, behind this advice, and the texts it comes from;
- The direct impact spiritual abuse and this pressure to remain with an abuser can have on victims-survivors, as told through one woman’s story;
- An example of multi-disciplinary partnerships that can support survivors throughout the medical, legal, spiritual, mental health, criminal justice processes.
These are daunting obstacles to creating a safe, supportive environment so that our community members are safe and those who aren’t can come forward and seek help. But there are practical steps that Christian leaders and congregation members should consider when supporting domestic violence victims-survivors and holding offenders accountable:
- Make the safety of a victim-survivor and her children top priority. This is a vital first step. Often Christian leaders and congregation members express the desire to “save a marriage” and “keep a family together.” These goals, however, should only be considered after a perpetrator has gone through an offender-specific recovery program, after there is reasonable certainty that his abusive behavior has completely stopped, and only if the victim-survivor wishes to continue in the relationship.
- Help a victim-survivor to establish a safety plan. Christian leaders and congregation members can assist a victim-survivor by helping her establish a safety plan that can be implemented quickly should her husband’s or boyfriend’s abuse continue or escalate. Include in this plan a safety kit, kept in a place where the perpetrator will not discover it, that contains items such as cash, a change of clothing, toiletries, and an extra photo identification card, a copy of her children’s birth certificates and childhood immunizations, and a list of phone numbers of counselors, friends, pastors, physicians, and shelters. It bears repeating: although clergy and laity can offer vital assistance to a victim-survivor in the area of safety planning, we must always work with a team of community service providers to offer a victim-survivor the best possible opportunities for safety. The National Domestic Violence Hotline has more resources on creating a path to safety.
- Hold the abuser accountable. A perpetrator of domestic violence rarely takes responsibility for the destruction he causes. Instead he will blame alcohol and other drugs, children, job stresses, mood swings, Satan, and, especially, the very woman he is violating. Members of faith communities must be cautioned to not get taken in by an abuser’s slick and manipulative ways. They must also be encouraged to resist the notion that no self-professed “man of God” would use violence and other abuse tactics to control his wife or girlfriend.
- Listen to and believe a victim’s story. Always thank a victim-survivor for the courage and trust she demonstrates by sharing her story. Tell her that there is no excuse or justification for domestic violence. Refrain from asking for more details about the abuse than what a victim-survivor volunteers. Also, never ask a victim-survivor what took her so long to disclose the abuse or why she stays with her abuser. These questions could appear as though the victim-survivor is being blamed for her own victimization.
- Do not recommend or participate in couples’ or marriage counseling. It is a common, but dangerous mistake to suggest that a battered woman and her partner or husband seek couples’ or marriage counseling. Domestic violence is not about men and women struggling as a couple. It is about the conscious decision of one partner, usually the male, to use abusive and violent tactics to maintain power and control over his female intimate partner. Couples’ or marriage counseling is inappropriate and risky in these situations, and could lead to further abuse or even the death of a victimized woman.
- Do not facilitate couples’ or marriage counseling, even when abuse is not occurring or suspected, without having appropriate qualifications. Many Christian clergy and lay leaders admit to not having the proper credentials, education or licensing to be considered as a couples’ or marriage counselor. This requires a high level of skill and training most clergy and lay ministers do not possess. Nevertheless, a number of spiritual leaders and laity engage in what is called “Christian counseling.” It is prudent that we either obtain the necessary education and training to meet the standards of the counseling profession, or make referrals to those individuals who have already achieved this level of competence.
- Preach and teach on the egalitarian nature of females and males. Cite examples of this virtue from the Hebrew Bible and Christian Scripture and in the teachings of God and Jesus Christ. The more Christian clergy and lay congregation members focus on the equal responsibilities, equal value and equal worth of females and males in church and society, the less likely men will attempt to claim male entitlement and male privilege as justifications for abusive and other harmful tactics they perpetrate against their female intimate partners. Embracing an egalitarian viewpoint also offers the best hope for the entire culture to be positively transformed.
- Accompany a victim-survivor to court hearings. The presence of Christian leaders and congregation members, upon the request of a victim-survivor, at child-custody or protection-order hearings provides much-needed support to the battered woman and indicates to the entire community that we condemn domestic violence. This is true whether or not we are being asked to offer testimony.
- Do not accompany batterers to court hearings. Men who hurt their female intimate partners will often ask Christian clergy and lay members of a congregation, especially other males, to accompany them to court hearings to “speak on their behalf.” The alleged offenders are most often seeking our collusion. While we have a responsibility to provide spiritual care to offenders as well as victims-survivors, Christian leaders and laity must take extra caution as to not be manipulated. We should not participate in any actions that help violators escape accountability and justice.
- Maintain healthy boundaries. No single person, not even individuals who have worked against sexual and domestic violence for decades, has the knowledge and training to deal with all the complexities associated with these pervasive problems alone. Members of faith communities and all others seeking to help victims and survivors must therefore not go beyond their level of training. Otherwise, we will end up causing more harm than good and might even further endanger the life of a victim-survivor, her children, and even our own lives. To be most effective, Christian leaders and lay congregation members need to partner with and make referrals to community service providers: advocates, batterers’ intervention specialists, child protective services providers and crisis intervention counselors, law enforcement officers, legal professionals, shelter workers, and victim and witness assistance personnel, to name just a few. In addition, we all need to take added caution so as not to foster an emotionally dependent or sexual relationship with a victimized woman. Bear in mind, a victim-survivor is very vulnerable.
- Seek education and training. If members of faith communities are to take a vital part in helping victims-survivors and offenders of sexual and domestic violence, then it is essential that they seek proper and ongoing education and training. We must keep updated on the articles, books, videos, and workshops that can help us become effective team members. Remember even with this training never try to care for a victim-survivor or batterer alone.
In Part 7—the final post of our series—we’ll explore ways to engage and inspire more men to join women in addressing situations of domestic violence and spiritual abuse that are occurring throughout religious and secular society.
About the Author
The Reverend Al Miles is a member of the Joyful Heart Foundation’s Board of Directors. Since 1993, he has served with Pacific Health Ministry as the coordinator of the Hospital Ministry department at The Queen’s Medical Center in Honolulu, Hawai‘i. A nationally recognized expert on how culture, faith, religion and spirituality intersect with domestic and sexual violence, especially when perpetrated against women and children, Miles speaks widely on these topics. He has authored four books and hundreds of articles on intimate partner violence. Rev. Miles is a Board Certified Chaplain with the Association of Professional Chaplains and has been an ordained minister in the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana) since 1983.
This is the fifth in Rev. Miles's series. Read his previous posts below.