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.”
Understanding Domestic Violence in the Church
Elisabeth Klein agrees; she was in an abusive marriage that ended in divorce several years ago, and she now runs a ministry for women who are in difficult marriages or going through divorces. While Klein’s church was supportive of her when she shared about the abuse in her marriage, she said many women have reached out to her to say their churches and pastors are not. Pastors tend to treat marriage as an unbreakable bond, even when a spouse is being abused. Thus, women are often encouraged to stay in dangerous situations.
Klein has reported some examples of the advice church leaders give to women looking to the church for help in abusive relationships: the women she speaks to have been told they don’t have enough faith, or that they need to love their husband no matter what, or that “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.”
At a minimum, church leaders need to work on empathizing with women who say they are in difficult relationships, she said, rather than making “stay married” the primary message.
“I don’t think God is up there saying to pastors . . . ‘I’m so glad I put you in the pastor role so you could keep women in marriages that were hurting them,’” she said. “I can’t possibly understand what it is like for someone going through breast cancer, yet I would never in a million years presume to tell her how she should treat it. You can still show compassion and not understand where the person is coming from.”
In order to stop domestic violence from turning deadly on church property (and beyond), church staff—especially pastors—need to better understand the realities of domestic violence and recognize it when they come across it, Chinn said.
“There are so many pastors and counselors who themselves are not educated on the real dangers of domestic abuse,” he said. “They view it as a spiritual and temporary problem. It may be spiritual, but it’s not temporary.”
Even before pastors are alerted to abusive relationships, they can create environments that discourage abuse. Crippen suggests that pastors read about the issue and preach on it regularly—or, if they feel unqualified to do so, have a guest preacher teach on the subject.
“Don't think you have to wait to see signs of physical abuse, because it is often absent,” he said. “The best thing for any church to do is to assume that there is at least one abused woman in their midst. The evil is far more prevalent than most want to admit.” (While both men and women are victims of domestic violence, women are more likely to be victims of severe violence, and 7 out of every 10 victims killed by an intimate partner in 2007 were women, according to the 2014 Sojourners report cited above.)
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.
“You don’t know what an attack will look like at your church,” he said. “It will go down differently from anything you preconceived.”
In one 1992 case Chinn knows, a fight between a husband and wife outside a Methodist church in Colorado turned deadly in a matter of minutes: too quickly for even an armed police officer standing nearby to intervene. But when it is possible to head off violence, it is most likely to happen when a church has a security team and other staff who are trained to think on their feet and react quickly.
“What typically happens is everyone goes to the floor and freezes in fear. That’s the number one response,” Chinn said. “We’re talking audiences of people who have never hurt anybody; they’ve never been a victim of crime, and they never thought it would happen to them.”
Where liability is concerned, each case varies—but in general, if a church or ministry were to be held liable for violence, it would likely be on the grounds of negligence, said Frank Sommerville, an attorney who specializes in nonprofit tax law and assists churches in avoiding litigation. For instance, a church located in a high-crime neighborhood should consider taking steps to reduce danger to parishioners, e.g., having fences or other barriers around the church property, surveillance cameras, or hired security guards.
“Most of the time the injured party must show that the church owed them a ‘duty’ and the church failed to fulfill that duty. For example, the church owes a duty to people attending church services to keep them safe from foreseeable harm,” Sommerville said. “On the other hand, if the church member was robbed on the church parking lot and the church is not located in a high crime area, the church is not liable for the criminal act of others and had no duty to protect the member from the robbery.”
Where domestic violence is involved, a church could be liable if the harm was foreseeable and the church failed to take action to address the risk.
“For example, if the husband tells a pastor a specific threat to attack his wife at a specific time and place, the husband has the means to carry out the threat, and the pastor failed to warn the wife of the threat, then the church might be held liable,” Sommerville said.
Even without legal liability, the threat of domestic abuse is real and worth addressing in a safe, proactive manner.
Read Carl Chinn’s report on violent incidents at churches here.