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Make your church a SAFER space

Churches have not always offered sanctuary for victims of domestic abuse but there are some key ways churches can change this.

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

We need to support victims – no matter their choices. Victims will often make a number of attempts to leave an abusive relationship before they leave for good. They need to feel that they will have their church’s support whatever the outcome, even if they do decide to return to the abusive relationship.

Pastors and ministers can be the gateway to a victim’s new sense of safety. A church leader can have a powerful impact on people’s attitudes and beliefs, and their teaching can give people the courage to seek help if they are concerned about what is happening to them personally.

If the abuser is a church leader

We know that there are Christian victims who have been abused by those in some form of church leadership, and so it is absolutely critical to have a plan for how to respond if one of your fellow leaders is the abuser. 

if you are a ministry worker, reporting someone you love, respect, and admire is one of the most difficult things you will ever have to do. Be prepared and make no excuses. If someone in your congregation discloses that a church leader is abusing them, be prepared to take action immediately. Hold their hand through the entire process. Assure them that you will not protect the abuser, no matter who they are.

Removing someone from leadership and keeping quiet about the abuse is immoral and unethical. Let your church community know the reason why the person had to be removed. It is unethical for a church leader to be fired for misconduct but the congregation be told they “resigned.” We know that when this happens, it simply enables an abuser to move on and take up a new leadership position in new area, while their new congregation is completely unaware of their previous abuse. Churches need to stop this practice by being transparent about their dealings with abusers.

What about forgiveness?

“We may believe that because we have had 'a word with the offender', wrong behaviour will have stopped. We may even follow up the victim, but she may have learned from the beatings that followed her last disclosure, not to tell the clergy, so she lies and says it has all stopped. As pastors we may feel self satisfied that we have solved a problem. But the only thing the victim has learned is that you don't speak up, or seek help. Our fault was that we overestimated the power and influence of our 'having a word with him'. Long-term violence is harder to shift than that.”

Bishop John Harrower

As churches we believe in the power of forgiveness, but we often misapply it. Unfortunately, teaching around forgiveness can be used to foster and prop up bad relationships, and pastors have sometimes emphasised forgiveness and repentance at the expense of a person’s welfare and safety.

While forgiveness is a central tenet to our faith, so too is repentance. Yet we have been soft on repentance, and soft on accountability for wrongdoing. The result? Violence can thrive.

It is concerning – and dangerous – that many victims have been encouraged towards 'reconciliation' and 'forgiveness' on the basis of the a naive belief that the perpetrator is sincerely repentant, when in fact this sham-repentance is a recognised stage in the abuse cycle, calculated to reel the victim back in for more abuse.

Perpetrators need to be held accountable for their violence. This may take the form of legal consequences. It could mean the dissolution of their relationship. It must involve repentance and restitution.

Churches need to call perpetrators to repent from their violence, control, abuse and disrespectful attitudes – and then hold them accountable.

Read more about how to do this in our section on Perpetrators.

What about restoring the marriage?

Many people who are experiencing violence and abuse will say:

“I don’t want to leave my relationship/marriage. I just want the violence and abuse to stop”

Sometimes after leaving an abusive situation, some victims will return and stay in the relationship where their partners choose to continue their violence and abuse. Therapeutic professionals tell us this is a textbook part of the difficult process of decision-making by those experiencing trauma while managing abuse.

Churches should not get sidetracked by deeply-held hopes for restoring the relationhip. In cases of domestic and family violence, the first obligation of the church must be to get victims to safety – not save the marriage. While Christians rightly embrace the sacredness and importance of marriage, when there is abuse and control we must recognise that the marriage is already shattered by these acts.

Following expert professional (rather than pastoral) intervention, the couple might be able to look at whether the marriage can re-established. Or the victim might recognise that the relationship is simply not safe enough to be repaired. But this must always be led by the survivor, and church communities must avoid pressuring them over this decision.

Key elements of a SAFER church

Listen to survivors Ask survivors for ideas on how your faith community can better support them. Ask survivors to share their stories and protect the privacy of those who do share. But be careful not put pressure on survivors to share. They should not bear the responsibility of educating the church.
Speak out Have a clear stance on abuse of church members. Speak out about sexual assault and violence against women and girls from the pulpit. Preach sermons that support equality and respect for women and girls. Teach on making families safe places. Encourage the congregation to accept that domestic violence happens in churches too. Warn abusers that they won’t find a secret place to take power over others in your church.
Raise awareness Lead discussions around power and control dynamics with small groups in your church. Include themes of equality, the division of labour, non-violent conflict/resolution and gender stereotypes in marriage preparation courses. Invite a practitioner from a recognised domestic violence service to your church to talk to your congregation.
Offer space Offer meeting space for educational seminars and weekly support groups or to serve as a supervised visitation site when parents need a safe place to visit their children.
Partner with existing resources Include local domestic violence programs in donations and community service projects. Adopt a local shelter and provide whatever financial support they may need. Display information clearly on local services and help lines in church bathrooms and on bulletin boards (see a NSW example here).
Resource your congregation Seek out training from professionals in the fields of sexual assault, dating and domestic violence, and stalking. Do the theological and scriptural homework necessary to better understand and respond to dating and domestic violence. Here is a poster you could use to educate your congregation on family violence. Here is another.
Train your leaders Encourage and support training and education for pastors and lay leaders, and Bible college students to increase their awareness about the signs of domestic violence and sexual assault. Consider appointing a person in your church to offer pastoral support for people who disclose abuse.
Remove abusers Address allegations of abuse by religious leaders. Remove the accused from any ministry positions pending the outcome of criminal investigations. When an abuser refuses to repent and seek professional help, remove them from your church. The victim’s safety always takes priority.

Audit your church

Domestic violence is a specialist area that requires referral to professionals. However, churches can work to become a place of safety and support for those facing domestic abuse.

Take the challenge and work through this church self-assessment tool (developed by Restored Relationships) to see what responses can be made more effective in your faith community.

Some other survey and assessment tools can be found here.