Domestic Abuse Plans in Churches

–Daniel S. Ferguson

Note: Much of the data for this post comes from a Lifeway poll that you can find here. I’ll cite information from anything else directly, but if you don’t see a citation, it’s from that poll.

Lifeway released a poll about two weeks ago that is best displayed in this pie chart:

Basically half. A little less than half don’t have a plan for this.

Which is weird, because the same poll found that most pastors (87 percent) strongly agreed with the statement, “A person experiencing domestic violence would find our church to be a safe haven.” They didn’t just agree. They strongly agreed.

But half of them don’t have a plan. And you can’t be a safe haven if you don’t know what you’ll do in a given scenario. It’d be like firefighters not training for how to fight an actual fire.

The reasons for having a plan are obvious. Churches are charged with caring for the “least among these,” and I can’t imagine feeling smaller than if I, like 1 in 4 men, were suffering from violence or threats at the hand of an intimate partner. The number for women is even worse (1 in 3).

Those figures are far too prevalent for this not to be happening in churches, and yet almost half of churches don’t have a plan for when someone is brave enough to share that they have been or are being abused.

That’s unacceptable.

But what’s even worse than not having a plan for if it happens is what churches do when it actually happens.

It’s quite discouraging that only 56 percent would implicitly believe domestic violence is really present when it’s shared, but it’s even more disheartening that 60 percent of pastors believe it is their personal privilege to take on the role of police investigator. I don’t know what seminary they went to, but mine didn’t have Medical Examiner courses in any of its programs.

I don’t have numbers on this specifically, but I guarantee you, guarantee you, that a massive majority of Americans knows someone who’s been domestically abused. And I guarantee you that there’s someone suffering right now who is afraid to talk about it at church.

And why wouldn’t they be? The church’s statements about marriage are often placed in absolutes. The church, by and large, is against divorce. Jesus is very specific about what the results of divorce are. And, specifically, men have (wrongly) lorded those admonitions over women for, well, forever in order to maintain their wives’ silence.

But hear this: The Bible’s commands about divorce do not mean you have to suffer domestic violence. You have both the legal and Biblical right to personal safety. Your body is sacred, and it is wholly yours to give away or to keep.

And churches should be a safe place for you. Often, these things are easier to reveal within a small circle of close friends than they are to the police, so I hope you can start there.

The same Lifeway poll shows this. For context, this is a poll of the 52 percent that have a plan for domestic abuse.

Those top five are all good ideas that even the smallest and most cash-strapped churches can put together. My best advice is to make as many of these things as secret as possible. No one needs to know whose houses are the safe havens, or who has experienced domestic violence, for example. I also wouldn’t advertise to your congregation that you have a few thousand dollars put aside for this. But you can definitely mention that you have a plan, and that you have a list of counselors and legal aides that can help in a crisis.

The point is this: I’m not sure if people are leaving the church because of this. Maybe they are; maybe they’re not. Probably. But this is one of the few cases where that doesn’t matter to me. People should feel safe at church. They should feel totally unjudged and warmly loved. They should feel that we can be their first resort.

And for that, we have to have a plan. Your church simply can’t afford to be in the 45 percent.

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