For Ministers

Advice for Ministers…

on Verbal, Emotional, and Spiritual Abuse

in a Christian Marriage

by Del Hungerford

How do you keep the worst from happening?

         I write this article on the heels of a fellow teacher being killed by her physically abusive husband (June 2009). It appears that he “lost control” and accidentally killed her. Seeing what he’d done, he tried to cover up the crime by burning her body. He then went to the gym to work out. Not only did it burn her body, it destroyed the house. He came back home from the gym to “discover” the fire department trying to extinguish the fast burning fire. When her family came to town, they had nothing of hers to take with them other than what she had at school. It was sad watching them clutch to every item of hers, while crying, as they carefully loaded the contents of her classroom into bins and boxes.

        At the time, this teacher was five months pregnant. Her husband was eventually charged with double first-degree murder along with first-degree arson. She and her husband were both active in a local church. My understanding is that he was in counseling for anger management. In addition, the couple was in counseling at their church. They were separated for a short time toward the beginning of their marriage. This took place after she’d missed two weeks of school because of a beating. Since we started teaching during the same year, I was aware of this incident. Because of my experience, I tried to talk with her more than once… to no avail. Why?

        I have learned that people will listen only when they are ready. As my own pastor told me, “You’ll know when enough is enough.” In Christian homes, women tend to be more embarrassed because they believe somehow they should be able to rely on God to help fix the “problem” in their marriage. When things don’t seem to be working, women tend to think they are doing something wrong by not trusting God enough. This alone will keep many Christian women from letting others know that there are problems with abuse in the home. Let’s not mention getting in trouble from her husband for exposing the abuse.

        To make matters more interesting in the case of my teacher friend, I had been in her pastors office a few years earlier with another abuse case. This woman was one of my employees at the sorority where I worked. After hearing her concerns, I agreed to go with her to see her pastor. All she wanted was for him to help her husband. I threatened to call the authorities because a minor was also involved. At that point, he finally took the issue seriously. He told me that the church would take care of everything so I wouldn’t need to call the authorities. Against my better judgment, I agreed not make that dreaded call. Do keep in mind here, in some professions (including clergy), I found out years later that they are considered “mandated reporters.” Anything involving a child or “vulnerable adult” must be reported to the proper authorities. The pastor DIDN’T follow the law and his advice didn’t help the situation. My friends husband needed a professional who specialized in the types of issues that he had. Sadly, this couple was divorced within two years because the husband refused to get the right kind of help.

        Within five years, the same pastor was dealing with my teacher friend’s marriage. (We’ll call her Lisa) Only this time, his parishioner dies. Although many pastors do try to help in abuse cases, I believe this type of counseling is generally outside the realm of what ministers are trained to deal with. The husband (we’ll call him Kevin) of my teacher friend may have been in counseling but unless he was seeing someone who specialized in abuse, Kevin didn’t appear to be getting the help that he truly needed. Ministers need to learn that it’s all right to refer a member of his/her congregation to professional counselors when necessary. There ARE good counselors out there that understand Christian ideals and can address the mindset of a person of “faith.”

        FACT: abuse is NOT limited to families outside the church. In reality, it probably happens more IN the church because there are religions that teach that the wife is to submit to the husband and that his word is the final say. Husbands use this as an excuse to power or lord over their wives. When the wife doesn’t do as instructed, husbands often use scripture to prove their point. Flat out… this is a form of spiritual abuse. God never forces things on us, so why should a husband force his wife to submit to HIS will? The last time I checked scriptures, I believe it says that we are to be in the will of God, not of man. If God treated us the same way we often treat each other, no one would want to be a Christian. God is love. We are commanded to treat each other with love.

        So, how does a pastor handle the current problems of domestic violence within his/her own congregation? I believe had Lisa’s pastor encouraged the couple to stay separated longer and not allowed them to move back together until there was good evidence the abuse would be curtailed, Lisa might have lived. I heard that Kevin and Lisa were back together after a few short months. A year may not have been long enough in this case.

         I understand that many Christians think “outside counseling” will taint them and their belief systems. With the right counselor, this will not be the case. All forms of domestic violence must be referred to professional counseling in order to stand a chance of solving the abusive issues. A minister can still provide spiritual counseling but should leave the abuse counseling to those who are trained in working within the nuances of domestic violence.

        Lisa didn’t want to talk to many people about the abuse. Her family was shocked to hear that Kevin had EVER been abusive to her. She never told them. Things she said gave you clues, if you knew what to look for.  Lisa, like I had done, hoped things would get better. I know this because of what her friends told me. Kevin was controlling and this was evident in how he communicated with her. The first clue was in how he wanted to always keep tabs on her. Lisa’s church friends thought his need to control was a bit over the top but not knowing what abuse is, just thought the husband was acting odd.

         Women in Christian religions often think that by loving the husband enough or by having more faith, the husband will become a better man, even if he’s being abusive. Praying harder and truly believing for her husband to change is what many are taught. She must be long-suffering and show that she loves him, despite how he treats her. Through her continued kindness and gentleness, she will win him over and then he will change. The problem with this thought process is that an abusive man will take advantage of that kindness and gentleness. Therefore, the abusive behavior often intensifies. A vicious cycle has started; the wife tries to love unconditionally and show more kindness while the abusive husband lets her give more control over to him. She continues to defer to him more and more while believing things will get better if only she can have more faith for him to change. Meanwhile, the husband takes more and more control until eventually, the situation is out of control.

        What happens next? Enter… stage left; the minister or pastoral counseling staff. Enter… stage right; Christian friends, co-workers, family etc. Confusion begins as the wife gets counseling from all sides, often with varying opinions. Meanwhile, backstage, the husband is continuing to go about his life as normal, often making everyone believe he’s not the problem because he’s a stellar citizen or high-ranking member of the congregation. How could he be the one with the problem? The wife is the one who appears to be having issues so what’s the big deal? They key here that his behavior in public is not the same as it is in private. In reality, a husband should treat his wife the same in public AND private situations.       

We have now sufficiently created confusion and chaos. Moving onto the next scene where clergy tries to help…

Advice for ministers concerning abuse in their congregations:

  • If a woman comes to you saying that she is being abused… BELIEVE her! Most woman don’t want to come in and tell this to a pastor, especially a male pastor! Generally, a minister is her last resort. By the time she gets to your office, she doesn’t know where to turn. Her hope is that you can give her direction. Your first mistake will be to try and help her solve the problem. DON’T! Listen, be empathetic and support her. Then… send her to the appropriate agency or counselor.
  • Know the signs of abuse so when people do come into your office, you can direct them to the proper resources. Understand all facets of physical, spiritual, emotional, and verbal abuse.
  • If you suspect abuse/neglect of any family member, have a good list of counselors you trust that parishioners can be referred to. Be ready because these people will walk through the doors of your office if they are brave enough to do so.
  • Even if you are of the belief that woman should always submit to their husbands, know that it can’t be forced. Husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the church. Christ NEVER forces submission upon us. It’s an act of our own will. We choose to submit to God so a wife should choose to submit to her husband. Any kind of forced submission is abuse. A woman should never fear her husband. If she says she’s fearful, there’s a reason. Listen to her!!!
  • Don’t feel that because you can’t help that you’re a failure. It’s not YOUR failure that has caused the problem. However, you could be held accountable for not reporting a dangerous situation. If you know what’s going on and don’t report illegal activity (especially sexual abuse or abuse involving children), you ARE responsible according to the laws of the land. You could be sued. Be wise in knowing what to do.
  • If you’ve been counseling a couple and see control or anger issues with the husband (or with the wife if she’s the abuser), more than likely, there is something going on. Remember that abuse is all about control. One person wanting to control the other is abusive. If you suspect this is happening, counsel the couple separately. The wife will rarely tell you anything with the husband present. Specialists can help you ask the right questions. They can train you what to watch for in words and body language. If you suspect abuse, immediately refer the wife to the proper counseling. This not only validates her but let’s her know what she’s suffering through is not acceptable, even in a church setting. Because many women believe the minister will always side with the husband, you will have to gain her respect and confidence.
  • Don’t be fooled by the husbands “position” in your church. Many of the most abusive men at home cover it up by being stellar citizens in the communities they work and by holding coveted positions in church. After all, who would ever suspect a deacon of being a wife beater? It’s happened more than once. An abuser is smart and will know exactly what to do to get you to believe he’s a wonderful Christian man.
  • If a woman feels threatened in any manner, encourage her to immediately go see someone at a local domestic violence agency.  If there’s not one in your area, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-SAFE). They will direct her to someone in your area. In fact, I would let her make that call from your office.
  • Don’t take sides! As a minister, you CAN support both husband and wife. Remember that God loves both of them. They are HIS creation so you must love them, as God does. God may not like what is going on but His love for the husband and wife doesn’t change. His desire is for the couple to work it out but people do make choices. That choice is not yours to force upon anyone. People have to walk out the consequences of their actions. Keeping that from happening is only enabling them, which is not God’s will for anyone.
  • If a domestic violence agency recommends that she immediately leave, she should do so.  Don’t try to stop her on the grounds of your religious beliefs. I don’t believe it would be God’s will for her to stay and possibly pay with her life. If you disagree, consider reading articles that might change your paradigm.
  • The counseling that a minister gives the couple should only focus on spiritual issues. Leave domestic violence counseling to trained counselors. Both husband and wife will need to be built up in the Word and encouraged to continue to grow spiritually. I believe that couples who are dealing with abuse should never see their minister as a couple. You will not get what you need out of either of them. They both will play the “cover up” game; the wife won’t reveal her true feelings and the husband will make you believe he has everything under control. Spiritual counseling is what ministers ARE trained to do… so keep it at that.
  • Very few ministers have the expertise to know when a couple should get back together. In fact, most couples get back together too soon, as Kevin and Lisa did. An abuser could easily go for over a year with good behavior if he tries hard enough. This is just long enough for the wife to think he’s “healed.” There must be a complete heart change. How many years did it take him to become an abuser? More than likely, many, many years. Heart changes don’t happen quickly. It could take two or more years of “proof” before a couple might be able to get back together. Rely on professional counselors to make the decision.
  • Don’t be embarrassed that this is happening in your church. In fact, it probably is occurring more than you think. The only way to truly stop abuse is to acknowledge it and then teach against it. There should be no “skeleton’s in your closet” when it comes to acknowledging domestic violence within the congregation. People are human and do things that humans do whether they are Christian or not. Christians will abuse each other because they are human. It’s your job to help educate people in the Word and help them spiritually through the tough times in life.
  • Take abuse and neglect classes. Do whatever you can do to learn about this issue. With statistics showing that one in every four women are abused or sexually assaulted, these women ARE in your church. Many turn to faith to help with the pain. Understand what causes and contributes to abuse in the home. Help your congregation understand what causes people to treat others so poorly and then hold them responsible for their actions.
  • By holding people responsible, this may include removing an abuser from positions of leadership. There’s no place for this type of “spirit” to be hidden within church leadership.
  • Decide whether someone’s life is more important than divorce. I think ministers get stuck on the divorce issue rather than the “life” issue. I cannot believe that God would allow a woman to stay in an abusive relationship, especially if her life is in danger. That is not a ministers call. If you feel that divorce is sin, remember that so is beating your wife, yelling at her, demeaning her, controlling her, keeping her from her family, and/or eventually murdering her. God views sin as sin. 
  • When it comes to divorce, also remember that you have TWO wills to deal with; the husband’s and the wife’s. If the husband is unwilling to make that heart change, you shouldn’t encourage the wife to live with him anyway in the hopes that God will eventually change his heart. First of all, in order for God to “assist” with the heart change, a person must be willing. The couple can stay apart until the husband decides to make the heart change and then walk it out until the change is evident.
  • If a minor or “vulnerable adult” is being abused/neglected/sexually assaulted, as Clergy, you’re REQUIRED by law (in most states) to report it. I believe that people of faith fail to  report instances because they believe these issues don’t happen in Christian homes. If it does happen, it’s usually an isolated incident (or so they believe). In addition, people are fearful of exposure and that it will ruin their “witness.” I can imagine that many ministers don’t report or even acknowledge certain things for this very reason. It’s that old “if you don’t look, it doesn’t exist” syndrome. But… God sees and it breaks his heart.
  • Ministers often represent God’s voice here on earth. Be sure to use that voice wisely. In this “sue happy” world, you could be handed a lawsuit at the drop of a hat. Protect yourself and your congregation. Expose what’s wrong and reward what’s right.
  • Read “The Character of God” All people are the same. The difference between Christians and non-Christians is that one has a relationship with Jesus Christ and another chooses not to. As we mature in Christ, our behavior should change to more resemble a Christ-like attitude. After a heart change (which requires a paradigm shift), our behavior can often take a little longer to catch up. In other words, Christians are no better than non-Christians. Don’t expect people in your congregation to behave better than everyone else out there. Some Christians just get better at hiding their sin to let you believe they’ve had a heart change. This is where you have to learn to judge the fruit and love the person.
  • It’s important to understand that abuse is prevalent in our society. You WILL see it in your church. If not, it’s because people are covering it up. There are many speculations as to why this is the case. Ultimately, I believe abuse is rampant because of the break-up of the family. When we don’t have a complete family unit that functions the way God intended, we have dysfunction. Dysfunction leads to all kinds of issues within the family unit. Lack of good parenting skills comes from not having good parents to train their children. Children learn from their parents and when they don’t have good parental guidance, this leaves the door open for abuse and other issues to enter in. If more ministers taught against domestic violence (and this includes verbal, emotional and spiritual abuse), maybe we might see less of it in the Church.

Some final thoughts…  

        All forms of domestic violence falls in the selfish category. A man who abuses his wife is only thinking about himself and the control he wants over her. The last time I checked, this is considered sin. As ministers of Christ, one goal is to help the parishioners learn to live like Christ. People must understand all facets of sin and then deal with it. Walking in sin knowingly cuts off our blessings from God. A husband needs to know that even though he may hold a high position in the church while he’s abusing his wife, that abuse negates what he thinks is scoring him points. God will not honor his prayers. I do believe the Bible has plenty to say about this.

        In closing, abuse is not of God. It is sin. When you see it in your church, deal with it like all other sin. If it means that a couple eventually gets a divorce, then realize that you may have saved a woman’s life. God still loves both husband and wife, despite the outcome. She should not feel guilty if she divorces him. She should feel free to do so if her husband is unwilling or unable to make the necessary heart and behavioral changes to demonstrate that he’s capable of being the husband and father God intended for him to be. If they DO stay married and he continues to abuse her, think of the behavior he is modeling for the children. Kids learn from the adults around them. Is this the kind of behavior you want to see a man demonstrate toward the mother of his children? This is how we “grow” abusers. As a minister, you can help prevent this poor modeling by doing the right thing simply by supporting separation and/or divorce when it warrants it. An abuser who won’t or cannot change will model this behavior for his children and destroy the family. The cycle will repeat itself and we will continue to grow more abusers. You CAN stop it but only if you’re willing to not accept abuse in the family as a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.