National Edition

Even religious leaders have things to learn, like how to better serve domestic violence victims

Published: Saturday, July 12 2014 4:00 a.m. MDT

Updated: Monday, July 28 2014 10:44 a.m. MDT

Higher Learning: This is the Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh, which houses the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, among others. While religious leaders are not taught how to handle domestic violence in these halls, students are taught about important matters under the Gothic architecture, emphasizing the balance between temporal and spiritual concerns.

Brian Donovan / Flickr Commons flickr.com/photos/58621196@N05/

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."

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