According to Chinn, pastors need to understand that abusers are unlikely to stop abusing, no matter how much their spiritual lives may improve under pastoral care and counseling. Once a churchgoer reveals an abusive relationship to a pastor, the pastor should take steps to protect the abuse victim. For instance, in many US states, pastors are legally required to report abuse if they find out it is happening. Every pastor should know the reporting laws in his or her state. Pastors could also suggest that, if someone has disclosed an abusive relationship, a security team keep watch over them to protect them on church premises, Chinn said. If the pastor is concerned about compromising privacy, he or she should ask the person who disclosed the abuse for permission to share the concern with the team, or at least its leader.
“There is much that a church can do, even if the justice system is not involved,” Crippen said. “We can gather around the victim and support her, aid her financially, find her a place to stay, go with her to court if she needs to . . . and if needed, we can even stand guard for her.”
Understanding Legal Obligations
As noted, pastors—and all staff and volunteers—need to be aware of their duty to report abuse under any applicable state or local laws. This takes increased awareness.
In addition to prioritizing an increased awareness and understanding of domestic abuse, church leaders should also be familiar with the church’s legal obligations and potential liabilities if an attack were to unfold on the church’s property.
Violent attacks at church are especially likely to take place near church entrances or in parking lots, said Chinn, because they have easier escape routes outside the building. For instance, last August, Trinyce Sanders-Wilson was shot and killed as she left a morning church service at Second Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago. The pastor, Kenneth Giles, identified the suspected shooter—who committed suicide on the scene—as Sanders-Wilson’s husband. In another case, on June 11, 2016, the estranged husband of Lashon-Lofton Harris shot and killed her and then shot himself in the parking lot of Greater Dry Ridge Missionary Baptist Church in Mendenhall, Mississippi.
Since something as small as an angry look or gesture can be a tip-off of a violent plan, it’s important for church staff to be aware of things that don’t look right, said Chinn. And prepare for the unexpected.