When the Rev. Kristen Leslie became a college chaplain, she knew that the job would require her to meet with hurt and suffering people. Chaplains, like all faith leaders, are called upon to counsel and comfort during life's hardest moments.
Unfortunately, Rev. Leslie's training hadn't prepared her for a situation she'd regularly face: offering advice to victims of domestic and sexual violence.
"The first time a rape victim came to me, I had no idea what to do and I knew that I could do harm," Rev. Leslie recalled. "I scrambled and found any kind of training I could get."
Rev. Leslie, who is now a professor of pastoral theology and care, knows that her experience is not unique. A new survey of Protestant pastors found that few are prepared to serve the survivors and perpetrators of domestic violence in their communities.
"Only 43 percent of pastors are familiar enough with sexual and domestic violence resources in their communities," the study "Broken Silence: A Call for Churches to Speak Out" explained. "Eight percent of pastors are not at all familiar with sexual and domestic violence resources in their communities."
The lack of awareness is dangerous in faith communities where abuse victims are inclined to turn to pastors before calling the police or a crisis center. "As a chaplain, oftentimes I am brought in to be with people during their most difficult and darkest times," said Sohaib Sultan, Princeton University's Muslim Life Coordinator and chaplain. "I think it's a matter of trust. When people turn to their (faith leaders), there's a greater level of trust that they will be able to offer them relief or a solution."
With the data from "Broken Silence" in hand, the faith-based organizations that commissioned the study — Sojourners, IMA World Health and WeWillSpeakOut.US — are working to ensure that faith leaders repay that trust with helpful advice, directing pastors to resources on domestic and sexual violence that are only a phone call or website visit away.
Exploring the data
Since that initial exposure to ministering to victims of domestic and sexual violence, Rev. Leslie has made a career helping others understand the church's role in addressing sexual violence.
She has served as a rape crisis counselor, a Methodist Church pastor, a therapist for women who survived childhood abuse, and a consultant to military leaders to address sexual violence in the U.S. Armed Forces. Even as a professor at Eden Theological Seminary, she continues to preach on domestic and sexual abuse in churches, connecting congregations with the resources they need.
The "Broken Silence" study shows that her expertise is rare among Protestant leaders, as is her willingness to address domestic violence from the pulpit. "Two out of three pastors (65 percent) speak one time a year or less about the issue. Twenty-two percent say they speak about it once a year. Thirty-three percent of pastors speak about it 'rarely.' And one in 10 are silent, never speaking to their congregations about this topic," the study reported.
The study emphasized that the lack of conversation in congregations about sexual and domestic abuse continues in spite of the staggering number of Americans who experience such violence. "More than 1 in 3 women (35.6 percent) and more than 1 in 4 men (28.5 percent) in the United States have experienced rape, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime," reported the 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"We've got to work harder at this," said Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research, which conducted the study. "I am hoping that pastors will take from (the survey) that they need to address this issue more often and that they need help addressing it well."
Emily Esworthy, the marketing and communications director at IMA World Health, explained that pastors need to understand that being able to effectively counsel someone who's suffered domestic abuse and connect survivors with crisis counselors is crucial to nurturing spiritual health among congregants. "A pastor should be part of the solution," Esworthy said.
The study showed that many Protestant pastors are unaware that domestic and sexual violence is as prevalent in their congregations as it is in society as a whole.
"An overwhelming majority of faith leaders surveyed (74 percent) underestimate the level of sexual and domestic violence experienced within their congregations, leading to infrequent discussions of the issue from the pulpit as well as a lack of appropriate support for victims," the survey reported.
Rev. Leslie said pastors often resist prying into family matters from the pulpit. "For whatever reason, we've seen domestic violence as a private family matter. We don't want to get involved," she said.
When pastors offer a prophetic sermon, using biblical passages to critique societal injustices, they often begin the message with a sentiment like, "Now I know no one does this in the room," Rev. Leslie noted, because in the case of domestic violence "we have a much harder time dealing with the ... perpetrator in our midst."
Stetzer, who is also a leader at Grace Church in Tennessee, said pastors need to be honest about the issues that impact church members. "If you don't recognize the brokenness of the world, then the gospel itself doesn't make sense," he said.
Rev. Leslie, who uses the rape of Tamar from the Old Testament book of 2 Samuel chapter 13 to preach on sexual abuse, explained that the text helps her illustrate how victims often have their voice taken from them in the midst of abuse.
"There's a point in the story where Tamar no longer has a voice. ... It becomes the church's role to hear the voice of Tamar," Rev. Leslie said.
Addressing the issue
In 1992, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops took a stand against domestic abuse within Catholic families by publishing "When I Call For Help: A Pastoral Response to Domestic Violence Against Women."
The statement, which was reissued in 2002, suggests mentioning domestic violence in homilies and including information about crisis centers in church bulletins. The information is intended to raise awareness and let victims know that someone cares — goals shared by activists of all faiths.
"No correct interpretation of any religion supports domestic abuse," said Sharon O'Brien, a Catholic who co-founded Catholics for Family Peace and serves on the board of the Peaceful Families Project, an organization dedicated to ending domestic violence in Muslim homes.
In a recent column for Time, Sultan mentioned Peaceful Families as being on "the forefront of preventing domestic abuse and promoting healthy families."
Sultan said the Muslim community has come a long way in addressing the issue of domestic violence. "A topic like this (used to be) completely taboo. Now a broad spectrum of organizations address it," he said, noting that it is often addressed at Islamic conferences.
Finding the answers
Bringing an end to sexual and domestic violence in society in general requires the cooperation of faith communities, the study explained. The words pastors speak from pulpits are forces for change in society.
"The survey reveals an unrealized potential within churches for the prevention of and response to sexual and domestic violence," stated "Broken Silence." "Unfortunately, awareness is low, preparation is inadequate and critical relationships have not yet been forged."
However, organizers believe pastors are ready to learn.
"There is an opportunity here," Stetzer said. "(The survey's) biggest surprise was the pastors' willingness to engage more on the issue. Eight out of 10 (81 percent) would take action if they had training or resources."
Esworthy said that WeWillSpeakOut.US is already working to provide new tools for pastors. "Our next step is working on the 'Sacred Spaces' model. It's a multifaceted approach to things churches and other faith communities can do to make their worship a safer place," she said. The guide will address pastoral training, preaching, church policy on domestic violence counseling and other employer policies like background checks.
The organization will also host a training for faith leaders in October. By partnering with a local rape crisis center, it will be able to facilitate relationships between pastors and the people trained to serve victims of sexual and domestic abuse.
Esworthy explained that faith leaders might feel more comfortable suggesting crisis counselors to their parishioners after meeting with the therapists face to face. Being able to say, "I know this person. This person can help you get the help that you need" is valuable, she said.3 comments on this story
Rev. Leslie echoed that sentiment, saying that the best first step for pastors who feel unprepared is to seek out local partnerships. "Go introduce yourself to the head of a domestic violence shelter or rape crisis center," she suggested. "If you do nothing else, sit down and have a cup of coffee."
"Broken Silence" concluded with a charge for faith leaders to take advantage of the many faith-based organizations that are already working to combat domestic and sexual violence. Suggestions included the FaithTrust Institute, the Spiritual Alliance to Stop Intimate Violence, the Religion and Violence e-learning Project and Safe Havens.
For Esworthy, visiting these websites or contacting local crisis counselors is part of the job description for faith leaders. "I don't think it's an issue of going the extra mile," she said. "It's the pastor's duty to look out for (congregants') spiritual, physical and emotional health."
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