Domestic Violence and Church Safety
From the Bible
“Thy desire [desire to control; see Gen. 4:7] shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee” (Genesis 3:6).
Husbands, love your wives, and be not bitter against them ... Fathers, provoke not your children to anger, lest they be discouraged. (Colossians 3:19, 21).
Likewise, ye husbands, dwell with [your wives] according to knowledge, giving honour unto the wife, as unto the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life; that your prayers be not hindered (1 Peter 3:7).
The featured training for October is the Safety Member Certification. The training module within this program relating to this article is Protecting Children from Abuse. The featured free download is the Safety Member Training Record.
Also featured is the book Ready Refuge by Hannah Fordice. It helps churches know how to deal with domestic violence.
Background: Domestic Abuse and Church Safety
Domestic abuse is now recognized as a threat to church safety. This was heavily underscored on November 5, 2017, when a shooter with a history of domestic abuse killed about half the congregation of the church in Sutherland Springs that his estranged wife sometimes attended with her family.
Statistically, most deadly-force attacks in places of worship stem from domestic abuse, mental illness, or a mixing of the two. That is true for the articles posted so far in the series Lessons Learned from Church Shootings. The question is, how can we protect the church from violence stemming from domestic abuse? Better still, can we prevent it?
Most of the spillovers of domestic violence are by men. However, in reported cases, while one out of three women have experienced abuse in the home, close to one out of four men have, especially when this includes emotional and psychological abuse. Gen. 3:6 indicates that this is a two-way power struggle, but men can use their greater size and strength to physically dominate.
A Place of Safety
It's a general fact of life: We can't treat or prevent something we do not know about. Domestic abuse is often unknown to or unsuspected by those in a church who could intervene for the safety of the victims. The problem here is that often the abused do not speak up or ask for help. Unfortunately, sometimes no one in the church knows about the abuse until the abuser shows up with a gun, or an arrest makes the news.
Safe to Tell
Besides the safety and security of the congregation, we should be genuinely concerned about the wellbeing of those who come through our doors. The church should be a place of safety for those who are being mistreated and threatened at home. Abused persons should feel free to share their experience and fears with someone in the church, especially with church leaders. Too often we hear that church leaders disregarded the account, made an abused woman feel it was her fault, were swayed by the man's smooth talking, etc. This happens early on and when the threat is more serious, she does not have confidence in those who could have helped her.
The same thing happens with abused children. If they do not have confidence in their teacher, group leader, pastor, etc., they will not tell what is happening to them.
See the Signs
In 2008, CaringChurches.com interviewed Lynette J. Hoy on the subject, "What Churches Can Do to Address Domestic Abuse," and this was reposted by Crosswalk.com. Among other things, she said, "Pastors, church leaders, professionals, coworkers, and friends need to become educated about domestic violence symptoms so they can identify potential victims." She went on to describe a few of these symptoms.
Be Ready to Help
What if a person in the church tells you about abuse in the home, whether it is emotional, psychological, sexual, or violent abuse? How can you help that person, whether a child, youth, dependent elder, disabled person, or spouse?
First, listen attentively without interruption. Your verbal responses while they are talking should just be signals that you are following what they're saying. This far, it is like verbal de-escalation.
Second, find help. When they've finished with their account, if you can help them, do so. If it is not all in your ability, take them to someone who can. At the least, the abused person will need sound advice on what to do. Help them get out of a dangerous situation. Find a safe place, such as a shelter, for them to stay.
Note that when the abused person leaves, threatens to leave, or states their intent to leave, the violence will often escalate. At this point, a protective (restraining) court order is often obtained. This is when a lot of abusers become desperate, and they may come to church for any of several reasons:
- To persuade their partner to come back
- To take their child from the spouse
- To kill the spouse and/or others
At this point it is a severe church safety/security issue. What can we do to (1) protect and help the abused persons, and (2) prevent this from endangering the congregation? We've already touched on #1.
How do we protect the flock from domestic violence spillover?
Be Aware of Threats
The first step in protecting the flock in these cases is to be aware of the undercurrents of domestic abuse among those who attend our church as well as those in their immediate families. We do not have professional investigative teams in the community, and we shouldn't. Those in the congregation should have enough trust in us that they feel free to share their hopes and fears with us, to tell us what they're going through.
In Sutherland Springs, Texas, the church shooting assailant sent a threat to his mother-in-law. We do not know if she shared this with any of the church leaders, but they were unprepared for the attack.
At Zion Hope Missionary Baptist Church in Detroit, many knew about the violent boyfriend, but were not prepared for him showing up with a weapon. His mother-in-law, her sister, and a man on the street were killed.
Neither were those at the Ministry of Jesus Christ in Baton Rouge prepared for the violent husband, even when they knew about the wife's intent to get a protective order and his spoken threat. One person was seriously wounded and four others killed in the church, and the wife was kidnapped then killed elsewhere.
These two churches did not have safety/security teams, which were very rare at that time, but if you're reading this, your church probably does have one.
When you know that a threat on the church is likely, share this with the team members on duty. This may be fairly general, just a "keep alert" notice, unless the abused victim gives permission to share the name of the abuser and gives a description. Then you can keep a lookout for that specific person.
Watch all unlocked entries. Too many times a killer has come in through a side door or back door. Actually, lock all doors except the front one after the service has begun. Every unlocked door should be manned by either a safety team member or a safety-trained greeter.
Keep an eye on the outside. Watch for the approach of anyone suspicious or someone fitting the general description of the abuser.
If it is a direct threat of violence, especially if specific to a day, it is not out of place to ask for police protection (though this may now be more difficult in some jurisdictions). This would have been an option for churches that did not yet have safety teams.
If child abduction is possible, assign a team member to the childcare area to ensure that login-logout procedures are being followed. The team member may stay to back up the childcare workers if they face hostility from a non-custodial parent.
Be Ready to Engage
This is not necessarily a violent engagement. The abuser is coming on an emotional high. If the abuser comes to the door with no visible sign of a weapon, engage him (or her?) in conversation. For some this may defuse the anger, letting him unload verbally. If he is gesturing with his hands, then they're not on a weapon. Have the backup team member watch for signs of a weapon which may be revealed while the subject is moving. If the backup is out of the abuser's line of sight but within yours, he can signal you if a weapon is spotted.
What can we do to prevent domestic violence? House of Faith and Freedom (HOFF) says on its website, "Be Proactive. Not Reactive. Together we can end domestic violence."
Here we are trying to heal the hurt before it becomes an open sore. HOFF, founded by Hannah Fordice, aims to train church leaders in the healing and prevention of domestic abuse. She, like Hoy 14 years earlier, says the pastor needs to set the tone. According to Fordice, sermons and lessons on domestic abuse – all kinds – helps the church as a whole to take the subject seriously.
Fordice tells more in her book, Ready Refuge. This book "gives a broad overview of domestic violence, Christ-centered advocacy, and appropriate church responses." It introduces a training program for churches in addressing domestic violence. Curriculum is being developed.
Abuse thrives in silence. Abused persons need help breaking that silence. Many of us may be aware of some abuse among people we know. If the church is taking it seriously, more will be willing to address the issue and find help for troubled families, and more troubled families will be willing to seek help. Also, those aware of abuse may be more willing to tell someone what they know.
Caveat: an abuser is likely to be angered if he finds out that the abuse is being revealed. This calls for discretion and confidentiality on the part of anyone helping the abused. It also calls for courage when facing the abuser.
Depending on the size of the church, a ministry may be established to help abused persons, whether spouses, children, the disabled, or the elderly. All of these classes have been abused in homes, and all need to experience the love of God shown through caring and compassion.
Through all of this, hold up abused persons in prayer. Pray for guidance, wisdom, compassion, and courage in handling each case. Nothing in ministry really succeeds without prayer.
It is no longer a secret. Domestic abuse is more common than previously acknowledged, even within the church. Let us do what we can to prevent and stop abuse, and to help the abused.
There Is More
This is a special article for October, which Domestic Violence Awareness Month. The four regular articles are "Neutralize the Threat" (Containment and Engagement), "Colors of Force" (Use of Force Continuum), "Limits of Force" (Use of Force Laws), and "2007 Neosho First Congregational Church Shooting" (Lesson Learned).
- Kris Moloney, "Safety Member Certification," ("Sheepdog Church Security Academy," © 2020) Sheepdog Church Security, © 2021 [https://sheepdog-church-security.thinkific.com/].
- Kris Moloney, "Safety Member Training Record," Sheepdog Church Security, © 2020 [https://sheepdog-church-security.ck.page/4bdb00c915].
- Hannah Fordice, Ready Refuge: A Cross-Denominational Guide for Church Leaders on Intimate Partner Violence, House of Faith & Freedom, © 2020 [https://www.amazon.com/Ready-Refuge-Cross-Denominational-Intimate-Violence/dp/B08GLQNKLK/ref=sr_1_1?crid=20Y9INM29LI3K&dchild=1&keywords=ready%20refuge&qid=1608673378&sprefix=ready%20refuge%2Caps%2C215&sr=8-1].
- Kate Shellnutt, "A Top Reason for Church Shootings: Domestic Abuse," Christianity Today, November 7, 2017 [https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2017/november/top-reason-church-shooting-domestic-violence-texas.html].
- Lynette J. Hoy (as interviewed by CaringChurches.com), "What Churches Can Do to Address Domestic Abuse," Crosswalk.com, December 9, 2008 [https://www.crosswalk.com/family/marriage/what-churches-can-do-to-address-domestic-abuse-11596483.html].
- Hannah Fordice, "About," House of Faith and Freedom [https://www.houseoffaithandfreedom.org/].