Supporting someone who has been or is being abused is incredibly challenging and draining. An emotional reaction to working with trauma survivors or violent perpetrators is probably inevitable. How do pastors and supporters ensure that they do not burn out in the process of helping?
If you feel distressed after someone makes a disclosure of abuse, do not despair. An emotional reaction when working with trauma survivors or perpetrators of abuse is normal and quite common. When such distress escalates to the point that you are feeling panic or fear or having flashbacks or trouble sleeping, you are experiencing vicarious trauma. Hearing about traumatic and violent incidents can be upsetting and overwhelming. It can also have a negative impact or triggering effect if you have had personal experience of domestic and family violence in your past or childhood.
Vicarious trauma is more likely to arise where church leaders have the qualities that make them good at their roles – empathy, relational connectivity and the skills that assist community members to disclose their own traumatic experiences. Managing the risk to yourself is important.
Don’t try to attend to situations of abuse by yourself and don’t expect things to be resolved quickly. Never pressure victims to do what you think would be best for them and don’t make decisions for them. It usually takes much longer than expected for these kinds of situations to be resolved, if ever.
Try to avoid burn-out by pacing your involvements so you can stay engaged over the long-term. Ensure the core part of your support is making referrals to specialist domestic violence victims’ services in your area. If you can safely do so, refer abusers to specialised perpetrator programs which are more effective than ordinary therapy or counselling.
Establish support for yourself
You cannot be everything the victim or abuser needs. Journal writing or meditation may be helpful to express strong emotional reactions to this work. If you have a personal history of abuse, you may find personal counselling to be helpful. Or you could seek out some training on trauma, domestic and family violence practice.
You cannot minister well in such situations without support and consultation. Therefore, ask the victim for permission to tell the basic facts of the situation to at least one appropriate person so that the victim can also consult with them and have their support. This helps to share the burden so you are not supporting the person alone.
Debrief with someone you trust. They should be mature, sensitive, compassionate, able to keep confidences – for example, whoever provides oversight for you in ministry. If the victim has reservations about the person you have chosen, respect their concerns and suggest an alternate person. If you can’t find anyone you can ring 1800 RESPECT on 1800 737 732. The 1800 RESPECT telephone and online counselling services are available for workers to discuss the personal impact of helping people who have experienced trauma.
Plan for safety
Planning for safety is also important for the church leader, as they face the same dangers the victim faces. The abuser may show up at a church service or church office, or even the pastor’s home. You should have a plan to respond, perhaps calling security or police quickly if needed. Legal avenues can be explored such as legal protection orders if any threats to harm have been made or carried out.
Always take the victim’s fear and their sense of how dangerous the abuser is seriously.