I have been part of the church institution for over three decades. It is not a perfect institution, but it plays an important role in the Christian environment. I served in leadership most of those thirty years and, for over 20 years, served closely with different pastors. I have to be honest, I do not admire the expectations that are placed upon pastors by their congregational members. They are expected to be available 24/7 and never let anyone down; obviously these are unrealistic expectations! Pastors lead their churches how they feel called; and most accept that they will never be able to please all of their members all of the time. Their primary focus is to please God and follow His leading and that is appropriate. This writing is in no way meant to tear down or criticize pastors; I have a healthy respect for the calling on their lives and for their leadership. My only goal is to highlight a common thread that I have seen and needs attention so that it may be addressed. Many pastors are most likely not even aware of how much victims of domestic violence are being given unwise advice; and in turn are putting them in further danger.
The term ‘pastoral care’ is one that is intertwined with church life; however, it must not be confused with ‘trained counseling’. Unfortunately, the lines between these two roles can be blurred. Pastors and pastoral staff play fundamental roles in a church backdrop and the needs they fill are indispensable. These persons serve their congregations tirelessly and, much of the time, self-sacrificially. When it comes to giving Biblical teaching, spiritual direction, and personal care, they are legitimately the ones to turn to because they are immersive in their Biblical knowledge. However, when it comes to domestic violence, there is a need for better discernment on how to handle these cases. I believe there is a line that is too often crossed between persons who need pastoral care and those who need professional counseling. This is frequently the case when it comes to handling members who are entangled in abusive relationships.
In a future blog, I will share the story of Ellynna, who was being mentally, verbally, emotionally, and sexually abused by her live-in boyfriend, Rob. For the purposes of this writing, I will jump to the part of her story that pertains to the current subject-matter. Both Ellynna and Rob attended the same church, therefore, when a restraining order was issued it became necessary to involve church leadership. In the restraining order, it laid out many of the atrocities that Rob had put Ellynna through. Mind you, they were explicit in their descriptions so there could be no doubt about how vulgarly abusive he was to her. One of the staff pastors, Chuck, was put in charge of mediating their relationship. He was fully aware of the details of the abuse and is a good example of why the roles of pastoral care and professional counselors need to be better defined.
On one occasion, while counseling Ellynna, Chuck told her that she needed to forgive Rob because, “…ultimately, you will both be in heaven together.” This is one of the worst things you say to a victim because It is not a comforting thought to a person who has been deeply wounded by their abuser. Firstly, it implies that Rob is walking the Christian walk, but clearly he was not. I know him personally and he is a predator who has looked for, and found, several of his victims in a church setting. If I had the proper credentials, I would label him as a narcissist; but I do not have a medical degree. However, he knows how to spot a potential victim and is a master manipulator at getting people to believe that he is a ‘wonderful Christian and a Godly man’. As the facts have proven, he is neither. Secondly, it reveals how manipulative he is because any educated counselor would have seen right through his smoke screen of manipulation. But Chuck, whose job it is to believe the best in everyone, couldn’t imagine that Rob would lie to his face; he had little discernment of the manipulation happening and it caused more unnecessary pain and confusion for Ellynna.
On another occasion, Chuck sent Ellynna a text telling her that there was a leadership meeting that he would like for her to attend and that, while she was there, he would give her an update on Rob. She was in the car with me when she read his text and she immediately became anxious and started to cry. After talking through how to handle it, she sent him a text explaining that, because of the abuse Rob had put her through and that she was in the beginning of the healing process, it was not healthy for her to hear about his life; she also said that she hoped he understood. His response was akin to, “Ok, I guess I do. To a point.” A professional counselor would have known that it would be triggering for a victim to hear about their abuser’s life as if nothing hugely unjust had happened. Also, when Ellynna was honest about needing space to heal, Chuck should have realized he was wrong. Instead, he responded from the spiritual perspective that put Ellynna and Rob on the same level. She was the victim, and he was the abuser; this fact alone should have been enough for Chuck to have treated Ellynna with gentleness and understanding; as well as to have given her the benefit of more concern for her health than Rob’s ‘growth’. He was not qualified to give her professional counseling/support and needed to have passed that baton to a trained counselor.
In Ebony’s case (Ebony: Part 4), Dick had so much power over her that, even after he had been served a restraining order and was removed from her home, he still had control over her. He made her feel like she had to call him and have him over. When she and her sister spoke with the pastor to inform him of what was going on, the pastor looked at Ebony and said, “Are you ok?” She was surprised and said, “What do you mean?”. He responded, “You have a pattern of getting into abusive situations, so that makes me wonder if you are ok; if there is something wrong with you.” How was this supposed to make her feel safe??? She was there to inform him of the abusive behavior exhibited by Dick, and instead, he turned it on her. Yes, she was clearly in an unhealthy pattern, however, he needed to compassionately and gently help her get the help she needed.
A few weeks later, Dick, continuing his manipulative behavior, went to that same pastor and told him that Ebony had called him despite the restraining order. The same pastor from above, called Ebony and in a very firm voice said, “Ebony, I can’t believe you called Dick knowing there was an order of protection in place. I am righteously angry with you.” The fact that he pulled out the ‘righteously angry’ term from the Bible is maddening! You should never speak to any victim with such verbiage! Dick’s control over her was the issue but the pastor’s lack of professional phycological training and discernment kept him from seeing that. To make things worse, Ebony received a formal letter from the church’s lawyer stating that she was no longer welcome in their congregation and asked to stop attending services and events there. This is the epitome of the point I am making! A trained counselor would have known how to handle this situation and able to give the church better advice on how to speak with her.
My message here is that pastors and pastoral staff need to implement better actions plans whenever a domestic violence situation is brought to their attention. I believe that every church should either have a trained counselor on staff; or have a working relationship with professional counselors whom they can refer these complicated situations to. There have been too many times that victims do not feel taken seriously, feel safe or protected in their own churches. I cannot tell you how many times they have been the ones forced to leave when they should have been the ones who were stood up for. I know there are organizations out there whose mission it is to help pastors navigate these waters more effectively and I am thankful for them.
I can only hope that more churches open themselves up to getting training in recognizing domestic violence and the experiences of trauma victims. It is ok to make mistakes, however, glossing over them and not making changes to avoid making them again is a travesty; especially to any future victims of abuse seeking refuge from their abusers. I implore all pastors to humbly pass the baton to those who are better equipped for the sake of bringing true healing for victims; or at the very least get professional training for your pastoral teams.
Until next time, stay informed and stay safe!