3 Ways the Church Can Care Well for Victims of Domestic Abuse
I have bad news and good news.
The bad news is that many churches do not do a great job of supporting domestic abuse victims. Even those who express a desire to help have often failed to accomplish that. (I wrote a guest post for my friend Rebecca Davis that explores some of the reasons for this failure. You can read that here: 3 Reasons Christians Fail to Care Well for Victims of Domestic Abuse)
The good news is that the more I and others speak out about this subject, the more people I see who are genuinely doing the hard work of listening and learning how to better support victims of abuse. Everyone would say that abuse is bad and that victims ought to be supported; but it is so encouraging when I see people actually putting action behind their words!
With that in mind, I put together a list of 3 things you can do that will make a big difference for those you know who are suffering abuse in their marriage.
1. Listen and learn
Sometimes when you are in the role of helper, it feels like your job is to do the talking. You feel that you need to give advice and counsel.
But sometimes the more helpful thing to do is just to listen.
When you have not walked in another’s shoes, you do not know what their life is like. You may think you know what they should have done differently or what they should do moving forward, but you don’t know. You are not them.
And you cannot help effectively until you stop and listen.
What listening IS NOT:
Listening is not simply allowing sound to pass through your ears.
Listening is not biding your time while the other person speaks until it is your turn to speak and offer your pre-determined response.
Listening is putting aside your own expectations, agenda, and emotions, and truly seeking to understand the perspective of another.
Listening is entering into the experience of the other person.
Christian counselor Diane Langberg, in her book Meditations for Counselors, writes, “God…became flesh and learned what it is like to be us. He listened by becoming like us. He allowed who we are to impact Him and shape His response to us to the point of death. The truth determined His response. May we as counselors learn to listen to others as our God has listened to us, with humbly entering into and being impacted by the truth of our lives. It cost Him. It will cost us as well.”
Learning to listen well to domestic abuse victims may cost you your ability to feel that you are right.
You will not be able to give “easy answers” like,
“Here’s a book about communication in marriage.”
“Have you tried praying for him?”
“What can you do to help him not feel so angry?”
When you listen well, you will find that the answers are not so simple at all. But what you will also find is that your willingness to truly listen and enter into the victim’s experience with them is often the most important thing they need. We can help people feel the love of God by helping them feel seen and understood.
Dietrich Bonhoffer wrote:
“Just as love to God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them. It is God’s love for us that He not only gives us His Word but also lends us His ear…
So it is His work that we do for our brother when we learn to listen to him. Christians, especially ministers, so often think they must always contribute something when they are in the company of others, that this is the one service they have to render. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking.”
For further encouragement in this area, meditate on James 1:19, Philippians 2:3-4 and I Peter 3:8.
2. Have compassion and empathy
You cannot effectively do this step without doing step number 1.
After you listen well to the experience of the victim, you can make decisions about how to help them based on a true understanding of their experience.
Your compassion and empathy can guide you to skip the “easy answers” as mentioned above and to offer the victim something deeper and more meaningful.
- Instead of
“No one’s perfect; can’t you show him a little more grace?” you can offer “It’s not okay for someone to say they love you and prove the opposite by their actions.”
- Instead of
“At least he didn’t hit you,” you can offer “It is wrong for your husband to manipulate, intimidate, deceive, and control you.”
- Instead of
“Aren’t you being a little dramatic?” you can offer “I believe you.”
And when your words are coming from a deeper place of compassion and empathy, you will then…
3. Back up your words with actions
What are some actions that the church can take that will demonstrate the sincerity of their words to an abuse victim?
After validation that what they are experiencing is indeed abuse, the first thing a victim needs is safety. You can help them establish safety by connecting them with safe housing away from their abuser; by helping the victim obtain orders of protection against their abuser; by keeping the abuser away from the church grounds so that the victim may worship in safety.
After safety, the victim also needs security. There will likely be many physical needs that a victim has to help her gain footing away from her abuser.
The needs will vary from person to person, but here are some of the things that would add to their security once they have left their abuser:
- Money. (Lots of it. There are innumerable expenses that a victim faces after leaving her abuser such as lawyer’s fees, fees for getting housing set up – deposits, utility connection fees, etc.)
- A job that pays well
- Trustworthy people to provide childcare
- A safe, comfortable place to live
- A reliable vehicle
- Small comforts for their children
If you as an individual do not have the funds to support victims in financial ways, there are many additional ways that you can support a victim that do not require money. Here are some valuable, yet money-free things you can give:
- Validation that they are not crazy and not worthless
- Moral support in court
- Help with day to day annoying stuff. They are overwhelmed with single parenting, meeting court demands, filling out paperwork, trying to keep a job afloat, etc. Fix them meals, mow their lawn, ease their load however you can.
- A place to spend holidays, people to spend special days with. Someone to be their family.
- Give your time to help them search for things they need – community resources and aid, free household items that are being given away in local groups, support groups
- Help them identify their own strengths and assets and help them build and expand upon those so they find the motivation to help themselves and move forward in their life.
This article is in no way a comprehensive do/don’t guide for walking with a victim of domestic abuse. These are the foundational elements that must be in place before you can effectively support victims – listening, empathy, and willingness to put action behind your words.
If you are committed to these things, I encourage you to sign up below and receive a free guide that will give you greater insight into how you can recognize and respond to abuse in your congregation.
Subscribe to download the Free Guide to Domestic Abuse in the Church
How to recognize and respond to abuse in your congregation