By Bob Smietana
When it comes to domestic violence, Protestant pastors want to be helpful but often don’t know where to start.
Most say their church would be a safe haven for victims of domestic violence.
But many don’t know if anyone in their church has been a victim of domestic violence. And only half say they have a plan in place to help if a victim comes forward.
Those are among the findings of a new report on churches and domestic abuse from Nashville-based Lifeway Research, based on a phone survey of 1,000 Protestant senior pastors. Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research, said churches want to help victims of domestic violence but aren’t always effective at doing so.
“Many pastors aren’t aware if domestic violence is happening in their congregation,” McConnell said. “And even if they are aware, they often don’t know how to help.”
Churches see themselves as safe haven
Lifeway Research found most pastors (87 percent) strongly agree with the statement, “a person experiencing domestic violence would find our church to be a safe haven.” Eleven percent somewhat agree. One percent are not sure.
Most pastors (89 percent) also agree their church regularly communicates that domestic violence is not OK—with more than half (56 percent) who strongly agree.
Yet almost half of pastors (47 percent) say they don’t know if anyone in their church has been a victim of domestic violence in the last three years. A third (37 percent) say a church member has been a victim of domestic violence. Fifteen percent say no one has experienced domestic violence.
Church size plays a role in whether pastors know of a domestic violence victim. Pastors at bigger churches, those with more than 250 attenders, are most likely (65 percent) to know of a victim of domestic violence in their church. Pastors at smaller churches, those with fewer than 50 attenders, are least likely to know of a victim (20 percent). Pastors in the West (45 percent) and Midwest (42 percent) are more likely to know of a victim than those in the South (33 percent).
McConnell suspects there are more victims of domestic violence in churches than pastors realize. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost a quarter of American women (24.3 percent) and 1 in 7 men (13.8 percent) have “experienced severe physical violence by an intimate partner.” Given those numbers, there are likely victims of violence even in a small church, McConnell said.
“Statistics on sinful activities consistently show that church attendees act better but are not without sin.” he said. “It is naïve to assume a church could remain immune to domestic violence.”
This lack of experience or awareness might explain why many churches don’t have a plan to assist victims of domestic violence, McConnell said.
Only about half of churches (52 percent) have a plan to assist victims of domestic abuse. Forty-five percent have no plan. Two percent of pastors aren’t aware of a plan.
Most churches with 250 or more people have a plan (73 percent). So do many Methodist (63 percent) and Pentecostal (66 percent) churches. Fewer Baptist (52 percent), Presbyterian/Reformed (45 percent), Holiness (45 percent), Lutheran (44 percent) or Church of Christ (41 percent) churches have one.
Among the resources churches offer to victims:
- Three-quarters (76 percent) have a referral list for professional counselors.
- Two-thirds (64 percent) have finances to assist victims.
- Sixty-one percent can provide victims a safe place to stay.
- About half (53 percent) have a referral list for legal help.
- Half (49 percent) have someone in the church who has experienced domestic violence victims can talk to.
Churches also offer other assistance like referrals to shelters or state agencies, pastoral care and support groups.
The kind of help offered to domestic violence victims can vary by denomination.
Baptists (66 percent) and churches with more than 250 attenders (68 percent) are more likely to offer victims a safe place to stay. Lutherans (55 percent) and Methodists (54 percent), as well as churches with fewer than 50 attenders (55 percent), are less likely.
Baptist (71 percent), Presbyterian/Reformed (67 percent) and Church of Christ (67 percent) churches are more likely to have financial resources to help victims of domestic violence than Methodist (53 percent) or Lutheran (49 percent) churches.
Bigger churches are most likely to be able to connect a victim with someone who has experienced abuse (65 percent). Pentecostals (61 percent) are more likely than Presbyterian/Reformed (43 percent), Methodist (42 percent) and Lutheran (35 percent) pastors to be able to connect a victim with someone else who has been through a similar experience.
Divorce leads to skepticism
The issue of divorce is one roadblock for churches that want to help victims of domestic abuse.
If a church member files for divorce and cites domestic violence as a cause, pastors often respond with skepticism. Fifty-nine percent believe divorce may be the best option. Few say couples should not divorce (3 percent) in cases of domestic violence. About half (56 percent) say they’d believe domestic violence was really present. Sixty percent say they’d investigate the claims of domestic violence. Only 1 percent of pastors would doubt such violence took place. The study showed 43 percent of pastors are unwilling to say whether or not they believe abuse took place.
Lutheran (70 percent), Methodist (63 percent) and Presbyterian/Reformed pastors (62 percent) are most likely to believe domestic violence took place if a church member files for divorce and cites domestic violence as a caus. Baptist (49 percent) and Pentecostal (40 percent) pastors are less likely.
Baptist (70 percent), Pentecostal (70 percent) and Holiness (76 percent) pastors are more likely to investigate claims of domestic violence. Lutherans (52 percent), Presbyterian/Reformed (47 percent) and Methodists (39 percent) are less likely.
Domestic violence still complicated for churches
A previous Lifeway study found domestic violence is rarely discussed in Protestant church settings. In that study, 4 in 10 pastors said they rarely or never addressed the issue. Another 22 percent discuss the issue once a year.
Julie Owens, a North Carolina-based consultant who has designed domestic violence prevention programs for churches and the Department of Justice, said churches want to be safe havens for victims. But there’s no way for a victim to know a church is a safe place if the pastor never discusses the issues.
She also fears churches often do more harm than good in cases of domestic abuse. Launching an investigation into claims of abuse, for example, can put a victim at risk, she said. If a pastor talks to an alleged abuser, the abuser will often deny the claims and then retaliate against the victim of domestic violence.
And abusers often know how to manipulate pastors, she said. Abusers will ask for forgiveness and say they want to reconcile with their spouses—and that’s what pastors want to hear, she said.
“It can be a lot easier to believe the abuser than to help a victim,” she said. “Helping a victim is a lot harder.”
Ensuring a victim’s safety has to come first, she said. That often means connecting victims to outside resources like counselors, shelters and law enforcement. Pastors and churches, she said, aren’t always equipped to deal with the complicated needs of domestic violence victims.
“Churches underestimate the spiritual, psychological and emotional damage done by domestic abuse,” she said.
Ignoring the issue in public settings can undermine a church’s efforts to help domestic violence victims, said McConnell.
“You can have great resources in place to help victims—but if no one knows they exist, those resources won’t do any good,” he said.
Former victim: Churches need to treat domestic abuse with care
Investigating claims of domestic violence can backfire for churches, said radio host and speaker Autumn Miles, who partnered with Lifeway Research on a study about churches and domestic violence.
Miles, a past victim of domestic abuse, said it’s difficult for victims to come forward and ask a church for help. And when they do, they often need immediate assistance. They can’t wait for a church to do an investigation before deciding to help.
Miles said churches sometimes confuse ministry with church discipline when it comes to domestic violence. Their first response should be to help, she said.
“If a woman comes forward and says, ‘I need help—I am being abused,’ a church needs to respond,” she said. “There’s a lot to lose if churches get this wrong.”
One of the best ways to help, Miles said, is for churches to have a plan in place. That way they don’t have to scramble to figure out a response.
When Miles first came to leaders at her church about the domestic violence she experienced, she said they were caught off guard. Church leaders had a hard time believing her claims were true, she said—in part because they didn’t think domestic violence could happen in the church. But domestic violence can happen anywhere, she said.
“If you have more than three people in your church—this is a possibility for you,” she said.
Bob is the former senior writer for Lifeway Research. In September 2018, he joined Religion News Service, where he currently serves as a national writer.
The study was sponsored by Autumn Miles. The phone survey of Protestant pastors was conducted August 22–Sept. 16, 2016. The calling list was a stratified random sample, drawn from a list of all Protestant churches. Quotas were used for church size. Each interview was conducted with the senior pastor, minister or priest of the church called. Responses were weighted by region to more accurately reflect the population. The completed sample is 1,000 surveys. The sample provides 95 percent confidence that the sampling error does not exceed plus or minus 3.2 percent. Margins of error are higher in sub-groups.