By Bob Smietana
More than a decade ago, Hannah* called her pastor with terrible news.
Her boyfriend had locked her in his room and repeatedly raped her.
When she finally got free, Hannah needed help. Since her boyfriend was involved, she didn’t know whether it was a crime. So after talking with a friend, she turned to her pastor.
She was a Sunday school teacher and church member and thought the pastor could help. But instead of comfort and pastoral care, she got shame.
“Well. Maybe next time you’ll pray more,” Hannah recalls her pastor saying. “Surely you’ve ignored God somewhere along the way.”
“I said, ‘OK,’ and hung up because I believed him,” she told Facts & Trends.
“In that phone call to my pastor and in his response, he had the power to speak life and justice and grace and mercy over me, but he didn’t,” she says. “Instead, whether maliciously or ignorantly, he used his power and authority to kill me even further.”
Most pastors want their churches to be a safe haven for victims of abuse. But half have no plan in place to help victims of abuse, according to Lifeway Research.
Without a plan, victims can be left on their own—or, worse, they can feel abandoned or punished by God.
Churches can take a few simple steps that make a big difference, says Yvonne DeVaughn, director of the Advocacy for Victims of Abuse (AVA) program for the Evangelical Covenant Church. Those small steps can help victims be safe and show them God’s love during some of the worst moments of their lives.
Make sure the victim is safe.
“The safety of the person being abused is the paramount concern,” says DeVaughn. A pastor can ask victims if they are safe at home—or if they have a safe place to go.
If not, the pastor can connect them with a local domestic abuse shelter or another organization that can help them. Or the pastor can help them find a safe place to stay. Safety comes first; everything else comes later, says DeVaughn.
Faith Against Domestic Violence, a faith-based task force in Madison, Wisconsin, that works to make churches a safe place for victims, suggests asking questions like:
- Do you have a safe place to go?
- What kind of help do you need?
- Where is your abuser?
- Has this happened before?
- When did it first occur?
- Are you hurt?
- Have you ever been threatened with a weapon, or has a weapon ever been used on you?
- Have your children ever seen or heard you being threatened or hurt?
Believe the victim.
If a victim comes forward, take the claims of abuse seriously. “Believe them,” says DeVaughn. And let them know you are listening and want to help. Then act.
Better to take action than to be overly cautious—at least in the beginning, says DeVaughn.
There’s time for counseling and other long-term planning later. People being abused know what their abusers are capable of, says DeVaughn. Don’t second-guess them—support them.
Hannah says she wishes her pastor had acknowledged her pain and been sympathetic.
“He didn’t need a magic wand or a list of right answers,” she says. “He needed empathy and I needed the ministry of the gospel. I feel like that’s baseline pastoral care … just empathy and the gospel.”
Don’t disclose accusations of abuse without the victim’s permission. Don’t try to bring in the alleged abuser for counseling when the victim is present. And don’t give the abuser any details about the victim’s whereabouts without permission, according to Faith Against Domestic Abuse.
Give victims space and time to get back on their feet, says DeVaughn.
“Let the survivor guide the conversation,” advises Domestic Abuse Intervention Services of Madison, Wisconsin. “This can be difficult to practice, but by encouraging someone to make a decision they are not ready to make, you could unwittingly be putting them in further danger.”
Offer options and an advocate.
Ask victims what they need. Then offer options and a helping hand with practical concerns.
“If she is ready to leave or feels she must leave, ask her if she would like someone to provide moral support or help care for her children on a short-term basis,” says Faith Against Domestic Violence in its advice for churches.
DeVaughn says churches can also identify an advocate—someone who can walk with victims and help them address their needs. And the advocate can connect victims with community resources.
Hannah’s pastor didn’t offer that kind of support, and it left her foundering. She says she didn’t need a to-do list. But she needed a roadmap of the next steps—or a list of options—so she could move forward. And she needed someone to walk alongside her.
She needed someone to go through those steps with “gentleness and consistency,” she says. “Someone to say the right things in the moment, someone to stay with me through the next steps, and someone to commit to me for the long term.”
Be prepared for domestic abuse.
One of the best things a church or pastor can do for victims is to plan ahead. Go out into the community and meet domestic abuse advocates, says DeVaughn.
Many communities have shelters or other organizations to help victims of abuse. There are also church-based networks like AVA where volunteers can get training.
Church leaders can also think through other practical ways to assist victims. DeVaughn recently talked with a church where there was a case of abuse. The victim had an order of protection taken out against the abuser, but he still wanted to come to church.
In that case, the church had more than one location—so the husband wasn’t allowed on the campus where the wife was. In other cases, the alleged abuser may have to go to a different service.
“Ask questions like, ‘What if we get a restraining order—what would we do?’” says DeVaughn. “Churches should think about that ahead of time.”
Hannah left her church as a result of her abuse. She stayed away from church for several years afterward as she began a long healing process that eventually involved counseling, medical care from her doctor, and pastoral care at a different church.
Her pastor’s response left her feeling she was somehow at fault for what happened.
“I felt worthless, valueless, and dehumanized,” she says. “I felt all of these things very deeply already on my own when I called my church and, in my pastor’s response, he essentially affirmed all the awful things I already believed about myself and reality. And if my pastor said it, it must be true.”
Years later she joined a new church after moving and told her story to the pastors there. They were sympathetic and caring toward her—and angry at her abuser.
“For the first time, I felt like I had someone to stand up for me,” she says, “someone who cared for me and who would take action to protect me. And isn’t that what shepherds do—protect their flock? The rod and staff aren’t cutesy Precious Moments accessories; they’re instruments of force and protection. I felt seen. I felt justified. I felt protected and safe. I felt sheltered.”
Her new pastors have helped her feel safe at church again. Things aren’t perfect—the abuse left long-term scars. But she’s healing, and she knows her pastors support her.
And that has power.
“They have my back,” she says. “They care about me for the long term, they see me, and they’re fighting for me in the spiritual realm. And that’s a big deal.”
*Editor’s note: Hannah is a pseudonym. Facts & Trends is using it for privacy concerns.
- Churches Have Good Intentions, But Lack Plans for Domestic Violence
- Pastors Seldom Preach About Domestic Violence
- Former Victim: Churches Need to Treat Domestic Abuse With Care
BOB SMIETANA (@BobSmietana) is senior writer at Facts & Trends.