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30 Strategies for Fighting Abuse in the Church

On July 13, 2017

We asked our supporters what concrete measures churches can take to combat abuse in Christian communities and strengthen their internal response to abuse. Some of you weighed in with some great ideas and examples (and I chimed in with a few ideas too), which we’ve compiled below.

We talk a lot about the theological roots of abuse, and we regularly critique theology that puts women and girls in danger. We also call for greater transparency in churches and Christian organizations, greater accountability from Christian leaders, and better theology that empowers women and girls. But systemic change takes time. So, what practical steps can churches take to prevent abuse now, and what can they do to keep survivors safe if it does occur? We asked; you answered (responses have been edited for clarity and length):

1. Preach about abuse. Define it and describe it. Many people don't actually know what abuse is (a pattern of coercive control). Speaking about abuse in churches tells abusers they are not safe in that church and it tells victims that they are safe. –Becky Castle Miller

2. Never, ever, ever cover up abuse or try to keep it within the church community when a response from authorities is needed. –Hannah Mudge

3. Share the stories of abuse survivors, like Dinah and Tamar, from the pulpit. Don’t shy away from what happened to them, but don’t allow it to eclipse their personhood either. Avoid spiritualizing (it happened for God’s greater good) their abuse. –Rachel Asproth

4. Train parents, key adults, and kids to report abuse. Kids need to know that “no” is okay and that telling is okay. Make sure kids know they can trust adults to believe them. Training should be compulsory and enforced by each denomination. –Bronwen Speedie

5. Educate pastors and therapists with good resources on the myths of abuse and understanding the minds of abusers, so they can develop a victim-centered, trauma-informed, and abuser-accountable response. –Rebecca Kotz

6. Hire staff members who know how to create a safety plan, and make sure it and other helpful resources can be found online. A spouse is in the most danger when leaving, so safety plans are important. –Sarah Davis

7. Have people on staff who understand the nuances of abuse, including emotional abuse red flags, and financial abuse. Make sure people know that abuse is so much more than physical violence. –Hannah Mudge

8. Mention abuse and domestic violence when preaching about sin. –Amanda Waldron

9. Refuse to play devil’s advocate for abusers. Reject neutrality. The church’s place is with survivors (the least of these). –Rachel Asproth

10. Form a pastoral care team specially trained to understand and spot abuse, and to lead survivors toward recovery from abuse. –Becky Castle Miller

11. Have a solid, working child protection policy that is regularly updated, trained, and used. This will help shape/change church culture. Many insurances demand it, but our theology and praxis should even more so. –Suzannah

12. When preaching about sex, talk about consent. Marriage does not equal automatic consent for every sexual encounter. Marital rape is real. –Becky Castle Miller

13. Have people on staff who are willing to advise victims of abuse to get out of a situation rather than simply advising more prayer. –Hannah Mudge

14. Buy books by abuse experts such as Why Does He Do That by Lundy Bancroft and beg your pastors to read them. –Becky Castle Miller

15. Require pastors to take/audit mental health counseling classes. I'm a student at a Christian school getting my MA in mental health counseling. My professors have provided excellent advice for handling abusive relationships. –Sarah Davis

16. Use caution when advising a mental health/therapy class for pastors. Make sure an abuse expert approves the messaging. –Rebecca Kotz

17. Set aside benevolence funds to help abuse victims escape from their abusers. –Becky Castle Miller

18. Partner with domestic violence shelters as a church staff. –Laura Robinson

19. When teaching on marriage, always, always, always include caveats that the sermon should not be applied to abusive relationships. Teach about biblical divorce in cases of abuse. –Becky Castle Miller

20. Require criminal history checks for everyone in any leadership/service, not just those who work with kids. –Bronwen Speedie

21. Invite abuse survivors to publicly share their testimonies. It lets other victims know the church is safe and will help them. –Becky Castle Miller

22. Require pastors to go through a sexual assault advocacy training. Most states have a version of this. In MN, anyone who is employed by or volunteers at a sexual assault center must go through at least forty hours of educational training on all forms of sexual violence, trauma, crisis response, what to say/what not to say, etc. Typically, these classes are open to anyone and are often free. This training usually covers both domestic and sexual violence. –Rebecca Kotz

23. Promote a fuller understanding of divorce passages in the Bible, and their role in the ancient world, etc.  –Laura Robinson

24. Acknowledge the power differential between pastors and congregants and allow that to inform your pastoral care of abuse survivors. –Rachel Asproth

25. Consider spiritual abuse a unique category of abuse. Understanding spiritual abuse helps church leaders know how to support members who have come from spiritually abusive backgrounds and how to avoid triggering them. –Becky Castle Miller

26. Teach women and men to spot warning flags of abuse in their relationships, and teach on what healthy relationships look like. –Laura Robinson

27. Take your congregation through your church’s plan to fight abuse and aid abuse victims annually (at minimum). Use victim supportive language, and invite criticism from experts and survivors to improve the process. –Rachel Asproth

28. Ask churches to examine their beliefs on mental health issues and counseling. –Sarah Davis

29. Don’t advise couples counseling in response to abuse. This is probably the most common advice from both pastors and therapists, and is so damaging to victims. The vulnerability asked of victims in a counseling session is not safe when the abuser is present. Therapists are often trained to hold both people equally accountable for problems. They will have the victim and the abuser ask themselves what they did wrong and what they need to change to make it right. This erases the intrinsically unequal power dynamic of abuse if both abuser and victim are held equally responsible.  –Rebecca Kotz

30. Find a strong curriculum that acknowledges the link between theology and abuse. CBE is developing a comprehensive resource specifically geared to helping pastors and educators promote women as equals and prevent domestic violence among Christians. –Rachel Asproth

CBE plans to develop a Bible-based training resource designed to help pastors, lay leaders, and educators intentionally create a church culture that confronts sexism and abuse, and develops women leaders. You can make a difference for women by donating today.

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