Sanctuary for the Abused

Monday, September 03, 2018

Few Religious Leaders (or Religious-Based Therapists) are Trained to Deal with Abuse

Silenced by shame; Fixing broken lives can be frightening, arduous
BY: Linda Espenshade

Religious leaders who believe it's their job to save an abusive marriage are taking on a job that gives even professional marriage counselors a headache.

"It's awfully hard to unscramble an egg," said a Mennonite minister simply. Yet that's precisely what a couple asks for when they bring their beaten marriage to their leaders.

"I don't think these ministers want these problems to be there, but because they don't know how to work with it is why it goes on," said Paul, a conservative Mennonite pastor who counsels abuse victims from all over the East Coast.

In many conservative churches, the leaders have no training in theology, family dynamics, abuse, psychology, conflict management or leadership principles, nor do many want to know more than what they read in the Bible.

Many are selected for church leadership through the lot, a kind of God-ordained lottery. The church chooses several men they believe are godly. After prayer, each man selects a book, one of which holds a special paper. The man who selects the book with the paper in it is the new leader.

Now, this man, in addition to working full time, must lead a church, preach, counsel people, go to meetings and nurture his own family in his spare time. Chances are he doesn't have time to deal with an abuse situation.
"Well, if you start getting involved in someone's life where there are marriage difficulties, it's going to take tremendous amounts of time," said Mary Boll, a Lancaster Conference woman who is a consultant for Mennonite ministers dealing with abuse.
"This isn't a quick thing. It's not one or two sessions and then it's done. This can be several years of involvement. I know many who have been involved for long periods of time."

In addition to the time commitment, dealing with abuse can be frightening for a minister, said Boll.

"If this guy is really doing what she says she's doing, is he dangerous? If I interfere, is he going to come after me?" a minister may ask himself, Boll said.

"The other fear that I think comes in there is, what if she wants to leave him? Heaven help us if we break up a marriage. And I don't say that lightly because I believe in marriage," said Boll, who's been married for 36 years.
Paul said some leaders are so concerned about keeping the church pure, they miss the needs of the person.
"If they are a bishop, they feel like their job is to administrate and take care of ordinances...and make sure everything is straight, that everybody's following the rules...rather than to sit down and listen to somebody."
Some leaders may be afraid to listen and acknowledge the abuse because then they would have to admit that they don't know how to deal with it. Then they feel powerless and impotent, said Mary Steffy, executive director of the Mental Health Association.

Even those who do know how to deal with abuse can end up feeling used and powerless when they get involved, said Boll. For example, if a minister tries to hold an offender accountable, the man can go to another church or denomination where the minister has no influence.

Or a minister may get involved in helping a woman get out of an abusive situation, only to have the victim change her mind at the last minute.

Paul said he is dealing with an abusive marital situation at his church now that won't resolve. "I've done everything books and literature say to do, but unless a person wants to fix the problem," it won't happen, he said.


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