Domestic Violence in the Church Parsonage

No form of domestic abuse is uglier than when violence hits the parsonage. Through my work as the executive director for Hope for Healing.Org I have heard from the wives of many pastors through the year who shared stories of horrendous abuse and suffering. Wives are told to pray harder, give more of themselves or to have more faith. Sometimes, they are questioned about what they are doing wrong in the ministry and urged to be more supportive.

Fortunately, I have also heard from a number of pastors seeking information on how to help a victim of domestic violence. There are far more pastors who fall into this category than who are abusers. As with anything, it is the few bad apples in the bunch that taint the whole bushel.

Hope for Healing.Org has been online since 1996.  It was incorporated as a nonprofit and granted 501c3 status in 2002. We have been through the dot com boom, the dot com bust and everything in between. Emails come in from all over the world. This year we heard about abuse from 5 wives of pastors, no husbands of pastors and one wife of a missionary.

That's an average of one every other month. We know that domestic violence in the parsonage is underreported. None of these victims were in any of the headlines I read that involved domestic abuse and ministers. In each of the cases this year all of the victims have so far chosen  to remain with their abuser.

Tragically, the church often turns a blind eye to such suffering. When there is a supervising pastor or a district superintendent or supervisor and the wife does come forward with allegations of abuse the supervisor often doesn't know what to say or how to act. Often, these supervisors want very much to fix the situation but lack the training. So, they fall back on the training that they know which is to offer spiritual guidance and unintentionally leave the victim wondering where she falls short and why.

The truth is that violence is never the fault of the victim. Domestic violence is a pattern of power and control where the abuser seeks to control finances, movement, friends and other aspects of the life of a victim. Isolation from family and friends is the norm in households where domestic violence is prevalent.

When victims tell us the reasons why they stay with an abuser a key reason is often isolation. These wives feel that they have no friends or family to turn to and no place to go. Two other key reasons are often finances (which includes health insurance) and their faith.

Ideally, denominations should look at the role they play in domestic violence in the parsonage. Isolation of the victim is compounded when wives are forced to give up jobs and leave family and friends behind to follow the call of their husband. The constant moving ruins or strains relationships. Close friends and family may be hundreds of miles or hours away.

Financial problems are also compounded when a wife has to give up a job because of a husband's transfer.

Ideally, denominations could provide a supportive atmosphere for wives who choose to keep their jobs if their husbands are transferred within driving distance of their work. Sadly, not one of the pastor's wives who have contacted us for domestic violence assistance has ever mentioned that this kind of support was forthcoming. Unilaterally, survivors of domestic violence in the parsonage have indicated that they were expected to follow their husbands careers cheerfully. Several voiced concern that any discontent could potentially affect the career of their husband which could potentially escalate the cycle of domestic violence in which they feel trapped.

When it comes to domestic violence in the parsonage there are no easy answers. There also seem to be no documented studies on the extent of abusive behavior in the homes of church families. To effectively design prevention programs we must first be willing to admit that church parsonages can be dangerous places, then we must have the courage and the faith to study and design prevention strategies.

Until we are willing to remove our heads from the sand and examine this issue the battering will continue and victims who will continue to experience domestic violence in the parsonage.