In a church context, a minister will often know both the victim and the perpetrator of violence. This dual relationship can be highly problematic, especially when the stories told by both parties do not align. It can be extremely difficult to reconcile that someone we know, love and trust as a friend, can be a perpetrator of violence and that their partner, who we also know and love, has been suffering enormously.
Regardless of our feelings, or our love for both members of a partnership, we must put the needs of the victim (and their children, if any) first. Sadly, churches have often put other concerns first – unbiblical notions of ‘forgiveness’ and ‘reconciliation’, marriage vows, the reputation of individuals or the church – but have neglected to provide the victim options for safety. If you take one thing from this resource, please let it be this: the safety of a survivor is the most important factor. Any other conversations, and any other concerns, have to wait until that vulnerable person has options for safety.
We need to go beyond advocating for forgiveness, without taking the opportunity to ask what form this forgiveness might take. Too many times, Christians have been asked to reinstate their partner to their former role after forgiving them. This has put the victim back in harm’s way, and the perpetrator back in power.
A victim should never be made to feel guilty for leaving their marriage or home, or for taking legal or other action in order to protect themselves and their children.
A word of caution
The safety of victims and their immediate families in situations of domestic and family violence is of the utmost importance. First, make sure there is no imminent danger. If there is, call the police immediately on 000. You should not hesitate to call emergency services if:
- A crime is happening now
- A life is threatened
- The event is time critical (e.g if the perpetrator is approaching the victim's location).
However, victims need to lead both an individual and a collective response to domestic and family violence. Yes it is a crime, but church members and workers reporting to the police without consulting victims can sometimes put victims and their children at further risk.
Some victims are just not ready to leave an abusive relationship, or attempt to leave but then return. They should never be made to feel that they can’t keep being part of a church just because they choose to stay in an abusive relationship. The goal should always be to foster communities of support for women's choices, not create opportunities for reinforcing shame at not leaving, or reinforcing blame for women who don’t leave.
When in doubt, just ask what the victim needs from you and the community. Be led by them.
Never refer to relationship counselling
Working with victims and perpetrators of violence is not something to be entered into lightly – generic counselling and ministry training do not provide the adequate skills required. In fact, traditional couples counselling can make family violence worse. 1
This is because one of the underlying assumptions in couples counselling is that both people in the relationship are responsible for the problems in the relationship. While this can be a useful approach for couples who have lost the ability to communicate, it can be highly dangerous if a person experiencing family violence has to talk about this while the person using it against them is present. When confronted like this, the abusive spouse may deny or minimise their behaviour and carry out further abuse at home as punishment for speaking out during counselling.
Abuse cannot be addressed with relationship counselling because abuse is not a relationship problem. An abuser’s choice to mistreat another human being is their own choice, and not the couple’s problem.
Do’s and don’ts for church leaders
There are good and bad ways to address domestic and family violence. Here is a short list, specifically written for ministers and leaders.
Believe the victim
Someone comes to you and asks for your help. They may not seem like the “victim-type”, but they are saying to you that they are. Always believe them and start supporting them.
Communicate that belief by saying things like “it is not acceptable for you to be treated like this” and “there is never an excuse for treating someone disrespectfully”.
Also, validate their decision to disclose:
Belittle their problems
It can be hard to believe that you are talking to a victim or a perpetrator of violence. Don’t excuse away what these people are saying to you, and don’t attempt to smooth over the situation by telling the person they may be overreacting.
Abuse is not acceptable and is not the fault of the victim. A pastor’s silence when counselling can be harmful because it can send a message that it is the victim’s fault. Never evaluate or blame the victim for the abuse by saying things like:
This kind of language minimises the abuse and causes victims to feel blamed for the violence, meaning that they are less likely to seek help again.
Meet practical needs
Many victims become homeless once they leave an abusive relationship. They need financial, practical, emotional and spiritual support.
Other victims are still living with the perpetrator and may need options of safe places to stay, so we need to respect the fact that some victims are not yet ready to leave, so they may require a professional to work on a safety plan for while they remain in the relationship, and for when they decide to leave.
Practical assistance can include:
Some churches may be in a position to offer safe housing, food and clothing and other necessities to those who flee violence and need to start over. Emergency help is critical to whether a victim will return to their abuser or not.
Just pray for them
Prayer is an important part of the Christian life, but often victims of domestic violence need more than this.
Refer the person on to professionals
Now is the time to get help for your community members that will see them make important changes in their lives – before it’s too late. Police and other frontline responders across the nation are more equipped than ever to deal with domestic and family violence. Police can take out a Domestic Violence Order on behalf of the victim if they are high risk.
To best help someone, make contact with specialist domestic violence services in your area.
More advice on how to find a good counsellor.
Counsel and mediate
There is a temptation for Christian leaders to provide advice. Now is not the time to dust off your counselling skills textbooks.
Humbly put aside your desire to be the couple’s guide at this time, and ask a professional to step in and help. You can still be a support person where appropriate and journey alongside the victim.
In most cases of domestic and family violence it is not wise for the couple to receive joint counselling.
And never confront the abuser without the victim’s permission. Abuse can escalate as a result of a confrontation with the abuser and supporters can end up being manipulated by the abuser into disbelieving the victim’s testimony.
Often domestic violence will build over time. The habits of control and desire for power aren’t always exhibited violently, especially in the first instances. Refer on to professionals.
Warm referrals are best – this means instead of giving the person the name and contact of a domestic violence service and leaving it up to them to make an appointment, you contact that service (after gaining the victim’s permission), offer to attend with them, and follow up with the person to see whether the service is helping.
Do not advise a victim to return to their abuser. This is NOT your choice and is NOT safe. Beware of minimising the danger to the victim as only they truly know what their abuser is capable of.
At the same time, do not withdraw support for the victim if they decide to return to the abusive partner. They may make decisions and choices that you think are unwise or that you don’t understand, but they need to know that they have your unwavering support.
Read all of SAFER. Read up on the real statistics and testimonies of domestic violence. Make sure you have a generalised awareness of where and what resources are available in your area such as women’s refuges and men’s behaviour change courses. Get educated about legal orders as well.
Ask a local domestic violence specialist worker to act as your mentor – someone you can call on for advice and supervision as you walk this road with those who are experiencing abuse in their families.
Think you’ll work it out as you go
Domestic violence is not an issue that can be taken lightly. It’s not enough to think that you can just play it by ear – your action could make things worse.
Participate in trainings and try to educate yourself about domestic violence. Is there a social worker or other welfare professional in your congregation who you can consult with? Or consult with colleagues in the wider community who may have expertise and be able to assist you in your response.
When in doubt ask the survivor what she needs from you and the community.
Talk about repentance
A perpetrator can make a change in their life – and needs to. It is right for them to be held accountable for their abuse and called to turn away from this. Professional support – counselling and behaviour change programs – are helpful ways to help repentance take shape, practically.
False repentance is always a danger. Perpetrators will often manipulate situations and present themselves as ready for reconciliation. This simply adds to their power play and control over the partner.
Christian perpetrators are still subject to the laws of our country and despite your relationship with the couple, it is still important to report offences or concerns to the police and, sometimes, make child protection notifications. However, reporting to authorities should be done cautiously following discussion with the victim or advice from local domestic violence services.
Wrongly emphasise forgiveness
Forgiveness is one of the core tenets of the Christian faith – it is vital to who we are as believers. However, the doctrine of forgiveness has often been misused to pressure victims back into their abusive relationships without adequate consequences and accountability for the perpetrator.
It is best if you try to stay away from this topic when a victim is seeking your help. Remember, if they are a Christian, they already know about forgiveness. Trust that God will direct their emotional healing in a wise and timely way.
Think about your language
Language shapes our cultural norms. Think about the way you talk about your partner, or your male and female friends. Think about what kind of language you use in different scenarios and ask yourself, is this healthy language? Am I perpetuating a sexist cultural norm through my words?
Laugh off sexist comments
It might be a bit of ‘locker room humour’, or a joke between mates, but casual sexism contributes to a culture of violence. It’s slow, quiet creep into our daily ideas and identities often creates patterns and behaviours which are unhealthy, and potentially dangerous. Call out such behaviours in others, whether the behaviours are in a face-to-face setting or online.
Rethink your culture
Ask yourself, is my church open to both male and female leadership? Is it endorsing both genders in a variety of roles? Do we have men teaching Sunday school and on morning tea duties? Do we have women teaching and overseeing?
Reaffirm unhealthy power structures
Commission an audit of your church and leadership structures. Ask for help to identify potentially toxic structures and make a change.
If you suspect abuse
If you suspect domestic or family violence is occurring, it is important to be alert to opportunities to create space for someone to open up to you, particularly before the abuse escalates to a severe crisis.
This should not be a formal or obvious screening or investigation like that of a doctor or police officer. Rather, it is about asking simple, curious, open-ended questions to help elicit information you might otherwise miss.
Curious questions might include:
“How are things going at home these days?”
“I noticed you mentioned you had some anxiety about your relationship. Do you want to tell me more about that…?”
“I’m wondering about what you said about your partner’s problem with temper/stress/drinking …”
“Would you talk some more about…”
“I think I heard you say… did I get that right?”
“I imagine that would have been a bit stressful?”
“I noticed you frowned when you said…”
“I noticed (Insert name) speaking disrespectfully to you before, how are things going at home?”
"I noticed your partner was short tempered with you and the kids the other day... would you like to talk about it?"
“Tell me more about what happens when you are feeling fearful when he is….”
“Are you and the kids feeling safe at home?”
Always do this in a private, face-to-face setting. Make sure the victim is comfortable. If there are kids present, ensure they are safe, occupied and out of earshot. It can be re-traumatising for children to hear the full story. Don’t press or probe, simply ask curiously and gently, and accept the answer given, without judgment.
If you need to ask more questions after this initial conversation, make sure the victim is able to prepare themselves for the conversation. Don’t spring it on them.
Stop, slow down, and listen
When someone tells you that they need help, the next step is simple - just ask them to tell you more. You don’t have to say much to get someone to talk, but it’s very easy to shut them down.
Then, the best thing you can do is ask them what they want to do. Take it slowly. You are not going to wrap this up in a five minute conversation.
- Tell them you believe them
- Let them know that it is not their fault
- Let them know you want to help them
- Tell them about services that can help (visit our Resources section)
- Offer to organise a “warm referral” – this is where you contact the specialist service, offer to attend with them, and follow up with the person to see whether the service is helping
- Understand that they might not want to leave their relationship, and that resolving this crisis could take a long time.
For more advice on this, read our section Dealing with disclosures of abuse.