I went to the dermatologist the other day for my yearly checkup. In the course of my appointment, I mentioned that I had broken my arm this summer. The doctor paused and looked at me, asking how it happened. I knew why she asked. It wasn’t simple curiosity that prompted the question. Rather, she is a health professional, trained to look out for signs of abuse in her patients. As soon as I told her I fell while trying to teach my kids how to roller skate, she moved on with the exam.
Educators, counselors, those in law enforcement, and health professionals all receive training in how to identify a victim of domestic violence. Many states require such training for licenses. But for those who work in ministry, too few are aware of the signs of domestic abuse or what to do when they hear about such abuse from one of the members of their congregation.
The U.S. Department of Justice defines domestic violence as “a pattern of abusive behavior in any relationship that is used by one partner to gain or maintain power and control over another intimate partner. Domestic violence can be physical, sexual, emotional, economic, or psychological actions or threats of actions that influence another person. This includes any behaviors that intimidate, manipulate, humiliate, isolate, frighten, terrorize, coerce, threaten, blame, hurt, injure, or wound someone.”
Statistics report that one quarter of all women will experience domestic abuse at some point in their lives. While men can also be victims of domestic violence, the numbers are significantly higher for women and for the sake of brevity, this article will focus on violence against women. Women that we see in church on Sunday mornings may have witnessed such violence in their homes of origin. Some may have been in such a relationship in the past. And others may even now be married to or dating someone who is abusing them.
Pastors and ministry leaders need to be prepared to hear a woman’s story of domestic abuse and know what do to help her. It’s not only important to know what such a relationship looks like but also what resources are available in the local area that can offer services to abused women and their children. Additionally, a church’s diaconate or mercy ministry should be prepared to help practically and financially if needed.
Carefully ask questions
If you have a woman in your congregation you suspect might be in an abusive relationship, here are some questions you can ask to help you learn more. It important that you ask such questions of her in private and in a place where she feels safe.
- All couples disagree about things. Tell me about some things that you and your spouse disagree about. Describe a recent one. What do they look and sound like? How do you feel in the midst of them? Do you ever feel frightened during a disagreement? Why were you frightened?
- Does your spouse ever call you names, curse at you, put you down, make you feel stupid or inferior, or humiliate you? Give me some examples.
- Do you ever feel controlled by your spouse? Does he keep track of what you are doing? Does he follow you or monitor your phone calls? Does he restrict you from seeing friends or family? Does he control the finances and not allow you any access to it?
- Does your spouse throw things, punch things, or do other things that frighten or intimidate you? Do you ever fear that he might hit you? Has he ever hit you? Has he ever threatened you with a weapon? Has he ever shoved you, restrained you, grabbed you, choked you, or pinned you down? How often has this happened?
- Does he threaten you? Does he threaten to take your children away, call authorities on you, or threaten to say things to your family or others that isn’t true?
Consider her safety
Safety is of primary importance and if you learn that the woman you are meeting with is being abused, you must take every precaution to help her stay safe. This is not a situation where you go to her spouse to double check her story. If her spouse knows that she has spoken to you or that she plans to leave, the risk of harm for her and her children increases. Contact your local authorities to find out how they handle domestic abuse in your area. They may suggest that she file a report on the abuse. They might also suggest she get a restraining order. Many areas have local shelters that will take women and children for an extended period of time.
Above all, a woman who is being abused needs to know that what is happening to her is wrong and that the way she is being treated is not love. She is not to blame; no one ever deserves to be abused. What she needs most is someone who can stand up for her and defend her. May the Church be a place of help and support for those who need it most.