Unholy subject: Pastors have little training for domestic violence, rarely sermonize about it

Unholy subject: Pastors have little training for domestic violence, rarely sermonize about it

November 23rd, 2014 by Susan Pierce in Life Entertainment

"WHEREFORE, MY BELOVED BRETHREN, LET EVERY MAN BE SWIFT TO HEAR, SLOW TO SPEAK, SLOW TO WRATH: FOR THE WRATH OF MAN WORKETH NOT THE RIGHTEOUSNESS OF GOD." JAMES 1:19, 20

Illustration by Laura McNutt /Times Free Press.

POLL: Should ministers address domestic violence?

Pastoral survey results

Among the 1,000 Protestant pastors surveyed by LifeWay Research, most say they believe stopping abuse is a pro-life issue, but it's a topic seldom addressed from the pulpit.

42 percent said they "rarely" or "never" spoke to their congregations about domestic or sexual violence.

22 percent said they spoke on the topic once a year.

4 percent said they spoke about it once a month.

29 percent of pastors who don't address the issue said they believe domestic violence is not a problem in their churches.

52 percent said they don't feel they have sufficient training to address cases of domestic or sexual violence.

81 percent said they would take action to reduce domestic violence if they had more training.

70 percent said they have given a victim a referral to a service agency.

62 percent said they provide marriage or couples counseling.

43 percent said they had provided private counseling with the abuser.

15 percent said they've never dealt with domestic violence situations at all.

Source: LifeWay Research

Last year, more than 1,200 victims of domestic violence and more than 635 victims of sexual violence were served by the secular Partnership for Families, Children and Adults in Chattanooga.

But when it comes to turning to a familiar source of comfort -- the church -- few victims of domestic and sexual violence take that route. Four local pastors -- two of whom have spent 30 years in ministry -- say they've counseled a total of 11 women who were victims of domestic violence.

"I think if they (female victims) are a member of the church, they are too embarrassed to go to their pastor," says the Rev. Bill Mason, pastor of Morris Hill Baptist Church in East Brainerd. "By the time somebody comes to the pastor, the abuse is so far gone that they are desperate; we are their 'last straws,' in a sense. Domestic violence really is something I think is hush-hush to some extent in the church."

Being the "last straw" seems to contradict the image of the church as a place of safety for the frightened, of protection for those in danger, of comfort for those in pain. But Mason's words parallel the findings of a survey released by Nashville-based LifeWay Research, a company whose purpose is to enlighten clergy with insights into social issues to help them better serve their congregations and communities.

Over the decades, pastors nationwide have been known to use the pulpit to launch discussions on such social or political issues as civil rights, gay marriage, immigration, gun control, drugs and wars. But in LifeWay's national survey of 1,000 Protestant pastors, a majority reported knowing victims of domestic violence, but few ever addressed the topic from the pulpit. Though domestic violence has been in the news lately with the arrests and suspensions of high-profile athletes in the NFL and NBA, 42 percent of minsters said they rarely or never discussed it in their sermons.

And even among the pastors who said they spoke out against family violence from the pulpit, 22 percent said they only did so once a year. Less than half of survey respondents said they felt trained and equipped to help victims, yet 62 percent said they provided marriage or couples counseling.

Relying on one's faith in God -- being given the assurance that God has a better plan for their lives -- is a factor in helping victims break the cycle of violence, say professionals from the Partnership and the Domestic Violence Coalition of Greater Chattanooga. In order to recognize the signs of domestic violence and how to counsel parishioners, training is essential.

Eight in 10 pastors surveyed by LifeWay said they would take action to reduce domestic violence if they had more training. Locally, both the Coalition and Partnership offer it -- the problem is getting people to attend.

Charlotte Boatwright, president of the Domestic Violence Coalition, says lack of training in pastors is a problem she's encountered many times. At the coalition's last training designed and promoted specifically for ministers, attendance was very low, she says, and many of those present were not ministers but police officers and other professionals whose work brings them in contact with violence. She is presently teaching seminarians at Sewanee: University of the South on how to recognize signs of domestic violence and ways to help women break the cycle.

Domestic violence is"just not a topic you hear from the pulpit," she says. "I find preachers are very reluctant to be involved. It's an ugly subject. I think clergy feel that people want to hear good things from the pulpit."

Part of the problem is the male-female division between mostly male preachers and mostly female victims, Boatwright says.

"Women are uncomfortable discussing this with male preachers -- it's embarrassing," she says. "Eighty-five percent of cases are male-to-female violence, so the victim's experience with men has been bad. She doesn't trust males. I've tried talking to ministers about this, but they shy away from the topic."

Boatwright says she knows victims who went to their male pastors, only to be given such advice as: "Go home and pray about it." "If you love him, you'll figure it out." Even "Go home and be a better wife."

In the LifeWay study, 29 percent of the pastors said they didn't believe domestic violence was a problem in their church.

Yet sometimes, victims don't even come to female pastors.

The Rev. Janice Keebler, senior pastor of the Holston Gap parish of the United Methodist Church in North Georgia, believes abused women are much more likely to confide in a female minister, but she has only had three women see her for counseling on the issue in 29 years of ministry.

"The three had been in abusive relationships for years -- egregious cases with broken bones, broken noses, broken spirits. They'd made attempts to leave but always went back, usually because of their children," says Keebler, whose parish includes Fort Oglethorpe UMC, Simpson UMC in Rossville and Flintstone UMC.

She successfully helped two break free of their violent lives.

"I feel qualified to work with anyone who would come to me," she says. "If they are open to leaving, I know where to refer them in Walker County and how to help them with that first step. In Walker and Catoosa counties, it's a serious problem; but it's often a hidden problem."

Not hush-hush

Advocates for victims say women raised in the church often have been taught that divorce is a sin, and their abusers will quote half of Malachi 2:16 to maintain their hold: " 'I hate divorce,' says the Lord God of Israel" in the New International Version. The second half of the verse says: "Because the man who divorces his wife covers his garment with violence."

In addition, women raised in abusive homes may think that's the norm because that dysfunctional lifestyle is all they've ever known.

The Rev. William Terry Ladd III, pastor of First Baptist Church on East Eighth Street, says such misconceptions about a "normal" home life are addressed frequently in his Wednesday night Bible studies.

"Speaking out against domestic violence is not hush-hush at all here -- it's a must," he says. "It opens the door to discussion. What you have to do is point it out as being dysfunctional.

"People in those relationships see it as normal, perhaps they grew up with it. Or maybe they feel they deserve it. I have to reinforce that it's not normal," he says.

Ladd says training on domestic violence was part of his coursework while studying for his master of divinity degree. In his 13 years of ministry, he has counseled a half dozen victims and says he has referred some to the Partnership for help. He also has set up an in-house support network for victims to get help.

"They may not feel comfortable talking to me, but I can refer them to someone they will feel comfortable with."

The Rev. Jon Anderson at Christ Church, an Episcopal denomination at the corner of McCallie Avenue and Douglas Street, says he has never had a domestic violence victim from his congregation come to him for counseling in 12 years of ministry. But he's not naive enough to believe it never happens.

"I've seen no signs that led me to suspect anything, but let me make clear -- it's not always obvious. In the Episcopal church, there is almost nothing off limits for a sermon or a public pastoral response," he stresses.

But unlike denominations where pastors may select their weekly topics, Episcopal clergy follow the Revised Common Lectionary, a weekly guide of lesson topics.

"On a three-year cycle, it goes through an Old Testament, New Testament and Gospel lesson every week," Anderson explains. "However I don't doubt that somewhere in that three-year cycle there would be a text that would lend itself to teaching about domestic abuse."

The UMC's Keebler says raising awareness and prevention of domestic violence is an outreach of the United Methodist Women, who receive ongoing training on how to help females. And all Methodist churches have adopted the Safe Sanctuary Policy in which "if we are aware of vulnerable adults, youth or children being abused, we are bound to report it. I think we do a good job in the Methodist church in this issue," she says.

Reaching out

"Statistics say when people have problems, pastors are the first they should turn to. But they may wait to reach out until they are in the hospital," says Oren Grubb.

That's when Grubb meets them.

Grubb is pastoral care and education director for Erlanger Health System, working as Erlanger's chaplain for 10 of his 19 years in ministry. In addition to counseling patients and their families, he is in charge of two staff chaplains who work with internal medicine residents and five chaplain residents.

By law, Grubb is required to report abuse of anyone age 17 or younger. He can encourage victims older than that to seek help or press charges, but it's ultimately their choice. While chaplains are most likely to meet victims after they are discharged from the emergency department to a room, he says they are often called to the ER for "the two Ps: prayer and presence."

Grubb says rules from the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) put strong limitations on chaplains. He can't make a phone call and let a pastor know their parishioner is in the ER, but he can talk to the patient and ask "if it would be helpful" to call their pastor. If a person requests that call, he can ask, "What would you like me to tell your pastor?"

But how does a chaplain reconcile "God is love" with trauma patients beaten black-and-blue or answer their family's questions about why God would allow this to happen?

"When people ask, our response is an honest, 'I don't know, but I want to be with you and support you while we give care,'" Grubb says. "Sometimes they might be angry or hurt. Usually that question is a reaction to anger, a reaction to grief. Our stance is to listen, accept and help them say whatever they need to say.

"On those rare occasions when a trauma patient is conscious and able to talk, they want us to hold their hand, offer a prayer. I kind of think of it as a spoken prayer that they aren't calling a prayer."

Contact Susan Pierce at spierce@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6284.


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