By Anne O. Weatherholt

As churches and people of faith adjust to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the more chilling statistics from the past several months, other than the death toll, is the rise in incidents of domestic abuse. Lockdown conditions, along with business closures and children learning from home, created a Petri dish for tension and stress in the household.

Isolation is one of the well-recognized conditions of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV), and the separations enforced by the pandemic, in many cases, prevented victims from avoiding their abusers or seeking support. When congregations return to worship, prayer and practice, there is an opportunity to help prevent and respond to those seeking hope and understanding from their faith.

Churches Have a Role

While much as been written about the response to IPV, there is less written about how to prevent it. Churches and faith-based organizations are often oblivious to the messages they send, the expectations they set, and the ways that barriers discourage members from knowing the signs of abuse and seeking help promptly, before the cycle of violence ends in separation, divorce, or even death.

On the other hand, the faith community can be a wonderful place of safety, information, and support for those who are abused. Persons of faith need to know that God does not condone abuse, that suffering is not always redemptive, and that love does not have to hurt. There is an old fable that while many are rescuing those drowning in the river, it is just as important to go upstream to find out why so many people are falling into the river. There are techniques churches can use to prevent people from falling into the river of IPV, but they must be applied in a conscious, consistent fashion.

The place to begin, always, is with prayer and worship. In a spontaneous survey of participants in my workshop “The Church Responds to Domestic Violence,” less than 1 percent have ever mentioned IPV in a sermon or prayed for the abused, survivors, and abusers in the Prayers of the People. This is a consistent percentage each time I ask workshop participants. They often believe they have addressed this issue, but do not realize that their well-intentioned and theologically correct references to forgiveness, marital love, and family unity can place barriers in front of those who live daily in fear and distress.

National statistics consistently report that three of five individuals have experienced abuse or know someone in their close circle of family or acquaintances who has experienced emotional or physical abuse. Religious leaders must keep this in mind when looking at those gathered for worship. There are many in the pews who successfully hide their bruises, emotional pain, and terror about returning home behind the façade of being a good Christian. The ordinal asks priests to “preach … [and] nourish Christ’s people from the riches of his grace.” Persons who are abused need to hear in a specific manner that suffering unjustly in marriage is not part of God’s plan or redemption.

What Prevents a Healthy Response?

Several key barriers must be addressed directly to create a space of safety and grace for Christ’s people who are abused. Denial and fear, which are a result of intimidation from an abuser, can cloud the way abused persons receive the words of Scripture. Our support of the sacrament of marriage may cause us to assume that most incidents of abuse are isolated. Abused persons may feel shame and failure when surrounded by others they may think are doing well in their relationships. Issues of privacy and confidentiality, and the belief that problems within a marriage or relationship are private, may keep both clerics and laity from asking key questions about safety and well-being, and assume that the harm taking place is exaggerated. Abusers show two faces, and may be charming and involved in volunteering, especially in key positions. Clerics may be afraid to take sides when asked to intervene or address abusive behaviors, and local congregations may not feel equipped to address serious issues surrounding abusive behavior.

Those who work with victims of abuse report that women who seek counseling feel they have failed God and have not been able to “carry the cross” that God has given them. A woman may believe it is God’s will for her to suffer and that that breaking her vow is a greater sin than the abuse. The abused often believe they can change the hearts of their abusers by complying, through prayer and by redemptive suffering.

Tackling Biblical and Canonical Foundations

Premarital counseling provides an opening for clerics to unpack the meaning of covenants and the honor the spouses promise to uphold. Qualities of healthy relationships and conflict resolution can be addressed, along with the reference in the Constitution and Canons that states when marital unity is imperiled by dissention, it shall be the duty, if possible, of either or both parties, before taking legal action, to lay the matter before a member of the clergy, who has a duty “to act first to protect and promote the physical and emotional safety, and only then, if it be possible, to labor that the parties may be reconciled” (Canon 19.1).

A “way out” needs to be offered, often again and again, which may mean leaving the abusive household in an emergency situation, to go to a shelter or another safe location, or take advantage of legal procedures such as separation orders to ensure the safety of the abused and any children or pets and vulnerable persons in the household. In serious cases, when the abuser refuses to recognize any responsibility or participate in court-ordered or other programs, divorce may be the only option.

Rather than calling the marriage a failure, sensitive clerics and laity can support and assist persons as they navigate the complicated steps and issues of divorce —financial, legal, emotional, and spiritual. When the spiritual covenant is broken by abuse then the vows of marriage have been grievously and sometimes irreparably compromised. Divorce involves grieving, letting go, and embracing the hope that God’s grace offers. Forgiveness unfolds gently over time, not erasing the past, but redeeming the memories and effects of trauma. Offering consistent encouragement, active listening, and the promise of God’s time is a path of healing and wholeness.

Ideas for Addressing Prevention

A great way to build prevention is to observe “Domestic Violence Awareness Month” in October. Churches can contact local shelter activists and invite them to speak at adult forums, supply literature, and address concerns from church members. Add a petition to the Prayers of the People or a collect addressing those who are abused. (Samples are found in my book Breaking the Silence.) Preach about the nature of forgiveness, justice, and trauma. Acknowledge that there are members present who have experienced abuse and have become “survivors.” If you know people who are survivors, ask them if they are willing to tell their story. Ask the local shelter for ideas about what it most needs and take up an offering and collect supplies.

Educate church members in the basics of the cycle of violence using resources from national or state websites. Provide a link to the National Hotline (thehotline.org) somewhere on the church website. There are many online resources, and every state has its own network of providers serving those who are abused. Most providers also offer “Alternatives to Violence” programs for offenders.

Host a special session for a youth group and ask if members have experienced bullying or sexual pressure. You may be surprised to find that many of your youth have already been victimized and may feel isolated and spiritually abandoned. Begin with asking the students to look up bit.ly/violentdates on their digital devices. Let them explore the topics and share their experiences if they are willing. Share the “power and control” wheel with them bit.ly/violencewheel and talk about religious or spiritual abuse. Teach them about the idea of “Scripture twisting,” when certain portions of the Bible regarding relationships between husbands and wives are taken out of context and used as spiritual weapons. Discuss ways for them to build self-esteem and learn assertiveness when pressured or controlled in a relationship.

Finally, don’t give up: The wall of silence surrounding Intimate Partner Violence is thick with bricks of fear, shame, isolation, and discouragement. National statistics show that survivors often leave more than 10 times, going back to abusive relationships again and again before finding a way out. Church leaders may find a lack of interest in discussing the issue of Intimate Partner Violence, defining it as a legal matter, not a spiritual one.

Many persons choose to deny the reality that there are abusers or the abused sitting near them in church. However, the promises of the kingdom of God include life that is abundant, free, and filled with the gifts of the Holy Spirit. “Love is patient, love is kind” is not just advice for individuals who are in love, but the description of the powerful love of God that directs the Christian community.

The Rev. Anne O. Weatherholt (anneweatherholt@gmail.com) is a retired priest in the Diocese of Maryland. She is the author of Breaking the Silence: The Church Responds to Domestic Violence (Morehouse, 2008). She offers a four-hour workshop for clergy and laity, “Recognition and Response to Domestic Violence in the Church.”