Why do pastors struggle to support abuse victims?
The church is supposed to be a pillar of truth and refuge for the hurting.
But quite often, faith spaces are a thorn to the suffering and a comfort to perpetrators. Many churches are unsafe for those fleeing abusive relationships and environments.1
So how can pastors who want to do good (not just in words but also in action) better align themselves with those seeking help for harmful or stressful relationships?
What can they do differently so churches stop being havens for abusers and dangerous for victims?
Today, I’m excited to host Laurie Tims of No More – Finding a Path of Righteousness Out of Abuse to share an important shift that might help pastors better support abuse victims.
Recently, I was visiting with a pastor who had a graduate degree in hermeneutics. I had a general idea of what hermeneutics was, but I wasn’t exactly sure, so who better to explain it?
He shared that hermeneutics is the way we interpret the writing – the author and the intended audience make a difference in interpretation, as do many other factors. He had a helpful analogy: If he received the same text message from his daughter verses his friend, he would interpret those messages differently because of who had sent them.
Something clicked. I was better able to understand an unfortunate experience we had had as we sought accountability for our abuser and, in a way, protection for ourselves.
When my sister and I forwarded abusive text messages to church leaders, the leadership was unable to see the abusiveness of the messages. It was baffling and disheartening.
It wasn’t until visiting with the pastor with a graduate degree in hermeneutics that I realized my former church leadership had had the wrong (or uninformed) hermeneutic! As the original recipients – in the context of more than 40 years of abuse with this person – we knew the tone and facial expressions, the history and patterns behind each message. We could feel his words.
Sadly, when church leadership fails to see the abusiveness of such messages, they aren’t able to respond to it appropriately.
How Pastors Can Better Support Victims of Abuse: Believe Abuse Victims
Victims of abuse have lived with the language and the patterns of the abuser.
They have seen and experienced so many words and phrases in the context of the various forms of abuse. They are the ones who have the correct interpretation. Not having that first-hand experience with an abuser is one of the many blind spots for pastors.
A pastor may hear of a statement made by an abuser, but they often have a tendency to want to give the accused the benefit of the doubt, and they do not trust the interpretation of the victims of abuse.
When I was in college, my parents had a church leader and his family over for lunch one day after the worship service. My mom served lunch like a buffet line. The leader made a comment, observing that it was “self-serve.”
My dad then, in the presence of this church leader and myself, made a snide comment, “Well, they’re all pretty self-serving.” I believe the leader laughed it off, not thinking my dad was serious about what he was saying.
It may have also been awkward and new – our family hadn’t attended the church for very long. I was standing there, and I knew from experience that my dad was serious because he often ran us down, telling us how self-serving and lazy we were (among so many other things).
I remember thinking I was glad that the leader had heard my dad say that because it was a window into the reality that we lived. I was also kind of embarrassed because his insults were part of my own confused identity. But again, the leader didn’t understand. I don’t fault him for not understanding at that time.
Likewise, I didn’t have the confidence as a 20-year-old to speak up and offer the correct interpretation of that comment – through my own hermeneutic. The leader also missed this because he didn’t know what to look for.2 If we were in a church that spoke often and regularly about abuse, this would be recognized by both the pastor and myself.
Supporting Victims as They Step into Healing and Clarity
A couple of years later, I visited with this leader at his office.
I can’t remember the reason for the meeting. During it, though, I must have tried to share a bit of our experience because the leader assured me, as an encouragement and response to my grief and frustration, that my dad was “proud of me.”
He had heard my dad say that so many times. I had some tears. I remember thinking that he must think this was some kind of happy revelation for me – to know my dad was proud of me. No. I was accustomed to my dad telling me that he was proud of me.
Now I know why such words from my dad felt so uncomfortable – because in the context of the verbal abuse – it just didn’t jive. It just wasn’t true. While he may have had some pride in his daughters, the mounds of abuse muted any significance of those words.
Again, I lacked the confidence to challenge the church leader’s interpretation. I recognize some of those tears were from wanting to believe that my dad was proud of me, but there was some added frustration of not being understood. Dare I say now that I wasn’t believed.
I had my story, and my concerns about our relationship, and the leader was there to assure me that the better overall narrative was that my dad was proud of me.
While I recognize his intentions were good, no matter how proud my dad was in a fleeting moment, he had us believing how rotten we were to our core. That was the predominant belief out of which he spoke and acted.
As helpers, church leaders, counselors, and peers, we need to be aware that victims and survivors of abuse are the experts. They are the ones who have the most correct hermeneutic to interpret messages and actions from those who have abused them – particularly as they step into healing and clarity.
I recognize that while victims are still in and controlled by the abuse, they will interpret even abusive actions as love – and that’s part of the sinful design of abuse. As they get away and get stronger and seek accountability, they are the accurate interpreters. They have the correct hermeneutic. Believe them.
ABOUT WRITER: Laurie Tims grew up in a family where she learned about Jesus and, at the same time, experienced spiritual, verbal, emotional, and physical abuse. In the last few years, she’s observed patterns of these abuses happening in “Christian homes,” and the ways that teaching from the pulpit can inadvertently disable women to resist abuse and enable abusers. She now studies domestic abuse and advocates for others in similar situations. She lives in the Midwest with her sweet husband and their five rambunctious, thoughtful and wonderful children. You can find more of her writing at her Facebook page : No More – Finding a Path of Righteousness Out of Abuse