You probably like to think of your church as a place where people can come to have a safe haven from the world and all its troubles. They can wrestle with their faith, ask difficult questions and find like-minded others for mutual support. For survivors of abuse, however, safety is never a given. It is likely that they live in constant fear of when the next attack will come.
If you want to communicate that your church is a safer space for the most vulnerable, you must be intentional about it. To reach this goal, you have to go beyond merely being nice and welcoming. A true sanctuary atmosphere can only be realized through study, attention and deliberate proclamation.
The first step is knowledge, and it starts with church leadership. Host presentations by domestic violence experts and encourage your pastor, council, elders and committee heads to attend. This provides an opportunity for them to brainstorm specific things the church can do to offer a safe space for survivors. For example, the announcement board in the church's common meeting area is a great place for a poster detailing the warning signs of abuse:
- Sudden personality changes
- Frequent unexplained absences
- Unseasonal clothing choices (to potentially hide bruises)
- Fear when talking about partner
- Frequent check-ins with partner
- Excuses for bruises or injuries
Look for ways to extend learning opportunities to the whole congregation. Educational efforts should also include resources for people who are being abused. In addition to the National Domestic Abuse Hotline contact information, find local organizations that offer shelter and other assistance to those who need to escape their living situations. Contact these groups for more information on how to partner with them so that you are ready to connect people to support as soon as the need arises.
One of the most important things you can do for people who have been abused is believe them. Many struggle with low self-esteem and lack of trust because their abusers continually gaslight them into believing that the abuse is their own fault. Be a part of breaking that cycle by listening to their experience without judging them or telling them how they should feel.
Those who have successfully escaped domestic violence may want to share their stories with others. Talking about their past can be healing for them, and it can also give those who are still in the midst of abuse the courage they need to leave. However, the burden of educating or inspiring others should never be placed on their shoulders without their consent. Leaders must never pressure people to talk about their private business, and all disclosures should be held in the strictest confidence.
While it's important to be discreet about personal information that survivors share, it is just as vital to be outspoken about the church's stance on abuse. Include declarations in sermons, statements on the church website and links on social media accounts that make it clear that abuse of any kind is not acceptable. Preach equality often and loudly.
One of the most difficult things for church leaders to do is to admit the frequent culpability of religious institutions in allowing domestic abuse to continue. Be open about the prevalence of abuse in churches and transparent about the specific measures your church takes to hold people accountable. If people who hold ministry positions are discovered to be abusers, remove them from their positions. While this is likely to spark heated discussions, it's more important that the survivors of the abuse be protected than to keep the false appearance of peace.
No church leader likes to imagine domestic abuse happening among their members, but it's a common reality that you must be prepared to address. Protecting survivors involves the right combination of knowledge, understanding and action.