When the Church Gets It Right

Hope and Healing for Victims

Generally, positive stories about how the church responds to abuse are far and few between. It may be because bad news travels much faster than good. But, I would guess that there just are not as many good responses as there are bad.

Janice was married to an abusive pastor. They attended seminary together and the wives of the future pastors were told that they should never tell others bad things about their pastor husbands. It can create trust and respect issues among the congregant members.

Marriage books and conferences speak often to this topic. Wives (and husbands) are normally encouraged to keep bad things to themselves. It is one of the ways you love your spouse these books and speakers say.

All Bets are Off

The problem comes when that spouse is abusive or a philanderer. Then, those bets are off. It took several years and a period of counseling for Janice to realize she needed to share her story with friends.

She had begun questioning if her faith was a sham. As her husband preached on Sunday morning, she would “mostly tune him out.” When he served communion, she would come up “with an excuse to leave.” Was God really there? Everyone loved her husband. He was a great preacher. But it didn’t seem to her to jibe with the loving God she knew.

One elder noted “his duplicit[ous] and deceitful behavior between what he preached from the pulpit and his personal and family behavior.”

When she threatened to talk to the elders, Janice had been told over and over by her abusive husband, “You think those men will believe you…do you think they care?” She had become accustomed to be called a “worthless piece of shit.” It became difficult to really know what God thought of her after her husband’s years of lies about her.

When a target of abuse finally admits to the brokenness of her home to a church’s leadership, often it goes south at this point in their story. The leaders often do not want to see the abuse and will seek to protect their well-loved pastor. They fear scandal and a loss of giving to the church or organization.

Often, the fellow leaders become complicit in the abuse.

The Church at its Best

However, Janice experienced the church at its best. The elders began doing all they could to help her and sought to help her pastor husband with his alcoholism and abuse. After these shepherding attempts did not bear fruit, the full elders’ council was brought together to hear the story.

When you get a whole leadership team together, normally there will be naysayers who will take the side of the abuser, despite the instruction of Deuteronomy 22 –

If in the open country a man meets a young woman who is betrothed, and the man seizes her and lies with her, then only the man who lay with her shall die. But you shall do nothing to the young woman; she has committed no offense punishable by death. For this case is like that of a man attacking and murdering his neighbor…

Deuteronomy 22:25-26

You BELIEVE the woman. There were no witnesses to the abuse in this passage, and the LORD tells Israel in essence, “Believe the woman and hold the man accountable.” Even when a woman has evidence of unfaithfulness or abusive behavior, many people will question the veracity of her claims.

Doing Good

However, these elders wrapped their arms around Janice, believed her story, and sought to serve her needs while ministering to her abusive, pastor husband.

One elder said, “We told him if he did not accept our offer of treatment…that we would ask for his resignation.” In the end, the pastor failed to fulfill the requirements and was asked to resign.

“His sermons were filled with the need to hold onto God’s grace as the believer seeks restoration, forgiveness through restoration. Yet his pronouncements from the pulpit were contrary to his abusive behavior towards his spouse.”

Janice’s elder

As Janice’s elders, they took their shepherding responsibilities seriously, doing everything in their power to help her and seek accountability for their pastor:

  • They believed her. Janice said incredulously, “They believed me. They didn’t throw me out into the street with my kids.”
  • They listened to her concerns that if they told the congregation, she would be in danger emotionally, physically, and financially. So, to this day they have kept her secret for her safety though they have every right to report it to the church.
  • They provided rent for Janice and her children for several months.
  • They provided money for counseling for her and her children.
  • They provided a leave of absence for the pastor and encouraged him to get counseling.
  • When he refused their loving help, they held him accountable and required his resignation.

Read the Manual

Janice’s church leadership read the manual on caring for the abused!

Later, Janice moved to a community a distance away and her new church also took her family in and provided for Janice and her children’s counseling.

Two churches who understood abuse, helping the hurting, and holding the abuser accountable…despite her husband being a well-known and respected preacher. What a story!

These stories are few but they help us know from the survivor’s perspective what is most helpful rather than just what not to do. Our churches need to take heed:

  • Make it clear that the leaders are safe with whom to share these kinds of brokenness…and make sure they truly are safe. One friend of Janice’s brought charges of her husband’s (an elder in another church) infidelity and abuse to the church leadership and they excommunicated her for slander. Unfortunately, this is not uncommon.
  • Help the victim escape the violence whether emotional, physical, spiritual, or financial.
  • Seek ways to provide confidential counseling or support groups for targets of abuse.

God is Good

When asked what provided the most healing for her, Janice suggested the following:

  • She hung out in the Psalms. The psalmists speak deeply to the oppressed.
  • She focused on reading verses that promise that God sees and will take care of the downtrodden.
  • She said, “I am clinging to the verses about beauty from ashes.”
  • She remembers what Satan (and her ex) meant for evil, God can use for good. 
  • She recommends Scott Sauls’ book, “A Gentle Answer.” Janice said, “When I wanted to respond with the intention of hurting him, there was so much in that book that spoke to my heart…that changed my heart. My daughters read it too and it greatly helped them.”
  • Janice fed on God’s deep and abiding love for her as His chosen child. She remembered that she is a daughter of the King!
  • She sought out the truth that God speaks, and ignored her abuser’s lies.
  • Janice also mentioned, “When I was in sin or in a horrible pattern, these two [elders] and their wives, and my Counselor held me accountable.”

Janice noted that she and her children (some still in the house and some grown) have many sweet times together now. When before they tended to do their own thing and hang out by themselves in their own rooms, they now get together and share their stories and what they are learning from their counseling sessions.

When Janice and I finished our conversation I asked her if she had anything more to say. She said, “I finally feel like I’m at a point now where sharing isn’t a form of revenge.”

She has come a long way in forgiving her ex-husband, though he remains unrepentant and has never asked for it. That forgiveness took much time and effort, but it has brought much peace to her life.

Janice hopes that her story can help someone. She explained, “Maybe I could be a listening ear…encourager.”

Beauty from ashes.

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