NASHVILLE, Tenn.—Many Protestant pastors view domestic violence as a pro-life issue, but they almost never talk about it.
A new survey from LifeWay Research found most Protestant senior pastors say they know victims of domestic violence and believe stopping abuse is a pro-life issue. But those pastors seldom address domestic violence from the pulpit. And less than half have been trained in how to help victims.
Two Christian nonprofits—Washington, D.C.-based Sojourners and Maryland-based IMA World Health—sponsored the telephone survey of 1,000 senior pastors of Protestant churches.
The survey shows churches can do more to address domestic violence, Sojourners President Jim Wallis said.
“This is a conversation the church needs to be having but isn’t,” he said. “We cannot remain silent when our brothers and sisters live under the threat of violence in their homes and communities.”
The LifeWay Research survey is one of the first of its kind on the topic of domestic violence.
Researchers found about four in 10 (42 percent) pastors “rarely” or “never” speak about domestic violence. Less than a quarter (22 percent) speak to their church about the issue once a year.
‘A serious disconnect’
“When two-thirds of pastors address the issue of domestic violence in church one time a year or less, we have a serious disconnect with the realities of American life,” said Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research Division. “Pastors cannot ignore or downplay the issue when lives are being ruined—and sometimes lost—through sexual and domestic violence right in their own communities and churches.
“The church needs to be part of the solution here. This is an issue where people of faith, across theological lines, can speak together that it matters, we care, and it must change.”
Pastors also tend to downplay the possibility domestic violence can affect their congregation. For pastors who don’t address the issue, about three in 10 (29 percent) believe domestic violence is not a problem in their church.
Pastors who do speak about domestic violence are more likely to say it is a problem for their community (72 percent) than their church (25 percent).
“I think many pastors still don’t think it exists in their congregation,” said Yvonne DeVaughn, director of Advocacy for Victims of Abuse, which trains church leaders to assist victims.
According to a 2010 national survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than one in three (35.6 percent) women and one in four men (28.5 percent) have “experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime.”
That same survey found one in four women (24.3 percent) and one in seven men (13.8 percent) have been “hit with a fist or something hard, beaten, slammed against something at some point in their lifetime” by an intimate partner.
Victims often feel trapped, DeVaughn said. They may feel their lives are in danger. But they also fear leaving an abusive spouse is a sin. It’s a no win-situation.
“The gospel sets prisoners free—and that includes victims of domestic violence, who often feel like prisoners in their own homes,” Stetzer said. “Pastors can do more to proclaim that message.”
Justin Holcomb, co-author of Is It My Fault? Hope and Healing for Those Suffering Domestic Violence, said victims of abuse often blame themselves. Hearing sermons about stopping domestic violence reminds victims God cares about their suffering. And it gives them hope God can deliver them from the evil of domestic violence.
Some abusers, said Holcomb, use Scriptures like Malachi 2:16—which says God hates divorce in some translations—against their victims. He believes pastors can counteract that message.
“God says he hates divorce—he also hates the abuse of women,” Holcomb said.
Lack sufficient training
LifeWay Research also found half of senior pastors (52 percent) lack sufficient training to address cases of domestic or sexual violence. About eight in 10 (81 percent), say they would take action to reduce domestic violence if they had more training.
Most pastors (74 percent) know of a friend, family member or church member who has experienced domestic violence. And most (83 percent) say they would turn to outside experts to address cases of domestic violence.
But more than half (62 percent) also have provided “couples or marriage counseling” to those experiencing domestic violence.
Counseling can lead to more violence
Advocates for victims say that’s a dangerous practice, especially for women who are victims of abuse. A counseling session actually may lead to more violence, Holcomb said.
“She’s going back home with that guy,” he said. “And if she made him look bad in front of a pastor—she will pay for it when she gets back home.”
Researchers conducted the telephone survey of Protestant pastors May 7-31. They randomly drew the calling list from a list of all Protestant churches in three size categories and made up to 10 calls to reach a sampled phone number. They conducted each interview with the senior pastor, minister or priest of the church called.
Researchers weighted responses to reflect the size and geographic distribution of Protestant churches. The completed sample is 1,000 phone interviews. The sample provides 95 percent confidence the sampling error does not exceed plus or minus 3.1 percent. Margins of error are higher in sub-groups.