Guidelines for Clergy Members
When a woman comes to you for help or you suspect there may be violence in the home, there are some specific things to keep in mind. Problems associated with domestic violence are difficult to work through. Usually patterns of abuse have existed for a long time, and only a counselor trained in domestic violence should enter into a long-term counseling relationship with her. You are in a unique position to relate and minister to all parties and these parties and these pastoral relationships need to be preserved.
The response of clergy and laity to the religious crisis caused by domestic violence can be a great resource for victims. The following guidelines may prove helpful; however, as a clergy person, you need to be aware that the life of the victim may be in immediate danger and safety should always be the first concern.
1. Ask the question. Woman rarely come in and announce they have been abused. Women may come for counseling and speak in terms that are general or vague. Develop some ways that you are comfortable with for asking specific questions such a, “Are you in danger?” “What does he do when he gets angry?” Are you worried about the safety of you and your children?” Listen to the woman and understand her situation; uncover abuse; recognize panic and fear. Take seriously her assessment of a life threatening situation and the potential danger to her from her partner’s violence. Do not discount her fears that he may try to kill her if she leaves, or that if she stays she may end up dead.
2. Believe her! Victims will often be telling you the minimal truth, not an exaggerated version. There are many things a domestic violence survivor fears and the fear of not being believed is a strong one. This fear will be compounded in religious settings when her husband chairs a board, sings in the choir, or is a “pillar of the community,” all of which are very likely. It is important for her to break the silence by describing what is happening to her. Telling you the story is embarrassing for her. She is not likely to exaggerate.
3. Listen to her and affirm her feelings. It is crucial that clergy respond with affirmation and without judgment to a domestic violence survivor. Let her be your teacher and educator. You be a listener. Listen without assigning blame. Active and respectful listening may be more important than giving theological answers. Listening carefully and attentively can help you discern what is important to a person in crisis. The important thing is to learn, from inside the victim’s own theology, what will be helpful to her for her safety and well being. You can discuss theological differences when the person is not in crisis.
4. Unequivocally challenge violence. It is often difficult for victims of domestic violence to come forward because of our tendency to “blame the victim.” It is important to state clearly that violence is not acceptable and not ask a woman questions such as “What did you do to provoke him?” A victim is not responsible for the violence in her relationship. Confront her with the reality of the situation: she can’t make him stop and neither can you. She can, however, declare that she will leave if he does it again, or that she will not come back until he gets help.
5. Encourage her to find a safe place for herself if she is in physical danger. This could be the home of a friend or relative, a shelter, a motel or a church-family refuge.
6. Offer the woman alternatives from which to choose. Her vision may be so clouded from a life of abuse that she may not be able to see her options. Some of these options may be individual counseling, career counseling, support groups, education, separation, help for the abused, divorce or legal aid or counsel.
7. Empower her to make her own decisions. It is extremely important that a domestic violence victim make her own choices and make them in her own time. Support her even if you disagree with her decision. If she decides to stay in the relationship, it is appropriate to share with her your concerns for her safety and to discuss ways she can increase her safety. It is not appropriate for you to tell her what she has to do or should do. Beware of your tendency to want to rescue the woman. It is imperative for her to make her own choices: whether to stay or to leave, and how to do it.
8. Help her discover and develop her own resources. Resources can include money, friends, relatives, employment, stress reduction. Encourage her to make contact with the nearest shelter.
9. Confront what is happening to any children who are involved in this relationship. Are they being abused by either her husband or her? Does she want this kind of future for them? Sometimes concerns for the welfare of her children can motivate a woman to act. In many cases there is a legal obligation to report any known child abuse.
10. Encourage her to get the help that she needs. Have it as your goal to involve her in a domestic violence program as soon as possible. In addition, a woman counselor or lay leader or woman’s group can provide further support she may need to deal with her situation.
11. Continue to support her. It is important to not just give resources and then exit the scene, particularly if she has been an active member of your congregation. Maintain contact by checking with her periodically to see how she is doing and offer more information on resources.
12.Assure confidentiality. Let her know that you will not discuss this matter with anyone else without her permission. Agree that you will not call on her at home and bring up the subject. Doing either of these may increase her danger as well as increase her fear and distrust.
13. Confronting the abuser. Any information shared by a victim about her assailant’s behavior must be considered confidential in order to guard her safety. Clinical experience suggests that confrontation with abusive partners by untrained practitioners may endanger victims and should be avoided at all costs.
14. If the abusive partner confronts you, remember he may vehemently deny any wrongdoing and may not even be able to remember the episodes of violence. You will need to be patient with him, yet unrelenting in your statements that the violence must cease today. The abusive partner may have a long history of violence in his own family and will need help in seeing his behavior clearly and beginning to identify the patterns of violence in his life. This should be a learning process to effect change and NOT an exercise in finding excuses for the violent behavior. There is no short term solution to a life of violence; therefore it should be your goal to involve him in a batterer’s program as soon as possible. It is just as important for you to maintain contact with the abusive partner to offer hope and support as it is for you to support the victim.
15. DO NOT SUGGEST MARRIAGE or COUPLES COUNSELING. Unless the violence has completely stopped and the man had successfully completed a batterer’s program, couples counseling could increase the level of violence a woman experiences. She faces the fact that if she talks about the situation she will be beaten later, and not being able to talk about the situation nullifies the counseling process. The immediate goal is not to save the marriage, but to stop the violence.
16. Give her the gift of time and be prepared for frustration. A domestic violence victim needs time to sort through a lot of religious, social, emotional and economic issues. She deserves time and patience from you as she does this. She will know when the time is right for her to act. Provide support and help her rebuild her sense of self-worth, self-confidence and the belief that she can make it on her own.
Connected with ideas of sin may be the victim’s feeling that she must forgive the abusive partner and stay in the abusive situation. Respectfully suggest that if abuse is ongoing, that means that the abusive partner has not repented and that therefore forgiveness is not appropriate. You may suggest that forgiveness is the end, not the beginning, of the healing process. You may suggest that forgiveness is up to God, not to the victim.
17. Refer! Refer! Refer! Domestic violence affects the entire family. Many local domestic violence programs have professionals who will work with the women, the children and the abusive partners. Domestic violence does not stop by itself. Children who grow up witnessing violence may become victims and abusive partners themselves.
Adapted from The Spiritual Dimension in Victim Services Toolkit