When a violent encounter happens at a church, it’s often a surprise—and 90 percent of the time, the violence doesn’t stop until the perpetrator decides to stop, according to statistics collected by church security expert Carl Chinn. Sometimes these violent events unfold too quickly for staff or law enforcement officials to respond.
While quick, in-the-moment responses are important in these situations, it is also crucial for church staff to watch for signs of violence or strained relationships among church members on a daily basis. In 2016, 11 of the 47 murderous attacks at churches and ministries had the same culprit: domestic violence. (Chinn tracks these data using news reports and labels the cause “domestic violence” when the victim and killer were co-habiting, married, or related.) In such cases, the church tends to let the ball drop long before violence turns deadly.
A Lack of Awareness
According to Chinn, church leadership’s awareness of possible violence should start well before the violent encounter begins, particularly when domestic violence is involved. Pastors who might hear of abusive situations from their parishioners need to better understand the realities of domestic abuse.
“As Christians, we are dedicated to the preservation of the marriage, as we should be. But when there is abuse, or even the suspicion of it, we, as the church, often refuse to recognize it for the danger it is,” Chinn said.
According to a 2014 poll of 1,000 pastors conducted by LifeWay Research for Sojourners and IMA World Health, pastors tend to underestimate the likelihood that members of their church have been or are victims of domestic abuse. About three-quarters of pastors (74%) estimate that less than 20 percent of people in their congregation have been a victim of domestic violence, but national research consistently finds that one in three women (33%) and one in four men (25%) in the US have experienced intimate partner violence at some point in their lives. In a more recent report, LifeWay found that nearly half (45%) of pastors surveyed said their church does not have a plan in place to respond if someone says they are a victim of domestic violence.
When church staff members do encounter domestic abuse, they tend to respond in ways that discourage the abuse victim from protecting herself or himself.
“The local church is a rather pathetic resource for an abuse victim to go to for help,” said Jeff Crippen, a former police officer, pastor at Christ Reformation Church in Tillamook, Oregon, and author of A Cry for Justice: How the Evil of Domestic Abuse Hides in Your Church. “Most often the victim is disbelieved, the abuse against her is minimized, she is given orders to go back home and be a better wife, she is told God does not permit her to divorce, and if she dares to go against any of this instruction, she will be excommunicated from the church and her abuser embraced as a fine Christian.”
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