In February we began a series of articles regarding What The Church Can Do. In Part 1, we defined domestic violence. Part 2 advised churches to start by believing when they learn of abuse. Part 3 contained pointers on communicating with victims, and Part 4 discussed how churches can network with advocates and authorities so they are able to respond to domestic violence efficiently. In Part 5, we touched on training your staff and volunteers plus having a list of resources available that you can safely give to victims.
That’s where most advice to churches stops when it comes to this scourge that affects a significant part of your congregation. We want churches to understand what domestic violence is and who to go to, but it’s still commonly treated like a private matter between the victim, suspect, and maybe a church leader. Reality is that domestic violence can pose a serious safety threat to your congregation. It can also create major liability for your church as you may be asked what you could have done to prevent a violent incident– and sued when you’re suspected of being liable.
A quarter of homicides on church property are domestic violence-related. Many mass murderers have a history of domestic violence. In 2017, 26 people were mercilessly gunned down in a Sutherland Springs, Texas church by a veteran who was prohibited from owning firearms because of a domestic violence conviction. His in-laws, who he had threatened six months prior, attended that church. Domestic violence may be subtle and sinister in church, like an estranged spouse showing up in church to make their victim uncomfortable, or it may blow up into verbal or physical altercations.
For a people group warned by their Creator Himself that He is “sending you out like sheep among wolves… be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves,” Christians can be alarmingly naive when it comes to dangers to their flock. We want to be accepting, friendly, and forgiving. We are concerned with the state of people’s souls and their spiritual growth. But we can be so hyper focused on politeness, appearances, and salvation that we allow wolves to flourish among the sheep.
We want to believe in the best in people so give suspected or known abusers the benefit of the doubt, allowing them full access to the members of our congregation. They may be invited onto church grounds more often because of suspicions about their behavior, whether for counseling, support groups, or attempts to make them more “spiritual.” This may only enable the abuse as the abuser remains accepted by the church and may just learn new ways to conceal their actions.
Some church leaders say they will only “do something” if the abuser is convicted. Many abusers are not convicted because the victim is intimidated into backing down or they have to go to anger management, alcoholism, or DV classes instead of jail. There are any number of reasons why someone is not arrested for or convicted of these crimes. Domestic violence takes many forms as well– financial, psychological, sexual, stalking, and so on– yet physical domestic violence is usually the only type abusers are arrested for.
What churches should do is keep their safety/security teams apprised of suspected or known domestic violence situations. If your church hires off-duty police officers to participate in security efforts, they should have a heads up too. Anyone tasked with keeping the peace on church property should know who the victim(s) and suspect are. They should know if there are children involved and be able to identify them as well. Safety/security personnel should be briefed on the basics of the situation, including known history, any threats, and whether the suspect may have access to weapons. Ultimately, safety/security teams should be given enough information that they can monitor the behavior of those involved and respond quickly if needed.
Sometimes it’s not advisable to allow the victim and suspect to both attend church. There are cases in which it can be appropriate to ask the suspect not to set foot on your private property and even to trespass them from the premises. Pastors have been known to say, “well, he’s in a bad place… we want to be sure he gets saved.” Or “we’re working with him on his issues, so we want to allow him to stick around.” Somehow reforming the suspect becomes the priority instead of considering the safety of the victim(s) and congregation first.
This can be a fatal error when there are domestic violence and/or stalking red flags. Churches allow suspects, including those who have court orders against them, unlimited access to programs, property, and people in their quest to care for their souls. This can legitimize the abuse because it shows the abuser there are no consequences for their actions there. It can allow the abuser to further entrench themselves in the social fabric of the church and gain allies in their efforts to portray their victim as troubled, crazy, or addicted. In the meantime, who’s helping the victims? Are they standing helplessly by as the person hurting them is unconditionally loved on? Is anyone taking them seriously enough or connecting them with resources? The first question a church should always ask in these situations is whether she or he is safe.
Churches don’t want to believe that a situation is as bad as it sounds or that an abuser is as sadistic as reported. They don’t want to entertain the thought that the mistreatment will escalate or affect other members. They sometimes fall for the Mr. Hallelujah act, when the gregarious, everybody’s buddy type greets everyone with raucous laughter and a thump on the back. “That guy isn’t the sort,” they say, not acknowledging that the whitewashed vessel may contain dead men’s bones. They may fall for the Mrs. Super Volunteer shtick: “Oh, she couldn’t hurt her children or her husband that way. Look at all she does for the church– she bakes, she organizes the women’s luncheons, she’s completely involved in her kid’s activities.” Sometimes these carefully cultivated facades are curtains, and if you draw those curtains back, you may be horrified at what you see.
Let’s look at this another way. Say that your middle school age daughter has told you that an older boy in her class is making her uncomfortable. She told her teacher when he bumped into her in the hallway and claimed to have accidentally touched her breasts. She also found him waiting outside the locker room after soccer practice and has caught him staring at her in an unsettling way on numerous occasions. His friends say he’s talked about making her “his.” When she told him she wouldn’t go out with him, he started spreading rumors that she’s a whore. When you start checking into who this kid is, you find out that he was transferred to that school after stalking a female student at the last one. You talk to his parents to no avail. They say he was falsely accused and tell you how horribly their family has suffered because of it.
Would you ask the school to take precautions? At minimum, would you ask him or your daughter to be moved to another class? Would you consider a court order? Of course you’re going to take steps to protect your daughter. You don’t want her in an environment that’s continually disrupted by a troubled student who’s fixated on your child, where she feels afraid and is waiting for the next shoe to drop. The school realizes that if something happens to her they could be held liable if they don’t take appropriate action. You and the school know that, left unchecked, this behavior will escalate and become even more injurious.
Neither you as the parent nor the school are going to say, “This male student’s education is most important. Just let him stay in that class and tell me if something bad happens. It probably won’t.” You are going to be proactive. You’re going to schedule a conference with the school resource officer and school administrators to decide how to best shelter your child and remove the threat. Her safety is paramount, and the disturbed kid doesn’t need an education in that particular classroom or at that particular school. There is concern that he could retaliate if he is removed from having easy access to the victim, but that does not negate the immediate need to protect her.
With that scenario in mind, why do so many churches default to the “Just let him stay in that class and tell me if something bad happens… it probably won’t” approach? Why would you risk the safety of the victim and everyone else present to accommodate the person suspected of harming them? Why would you assume that, in light of violence that happens on church property all across the nation, your church is exempt? Some churches also go with the well-worn “we don’t need a security team– God’s promised to protect us” theory. God doesn’t do what you can. He has entrusted your organizations with the lives of scores, hundreds, even thousands of unique individuals. Taking reasonable steps to ensure their safety, including having a safety/security team that is briefed on potential domestic violence issues, is imperative in this restless, litigious age.
Do you need help starting or training a safety/security team? Could you use help putting a written policy into place as to what these teams should and shouldn’t do? Do you want to network with others who know they are tasked with keeping their flocks safe and trade ideas? We’d like to make you aware of three organizations we know and trust to help you on this journey. Please don’t equate a safety/security team with firearms. Your vetted team members’ most important asset is going to be their ability to communicate and gain cooperation. Not all teams or team members are armed.
From their about page:
We are deeply concerned about violence at houses of worship and faith-based property. Almost 900 people have died a violent death on faith-based property since 1999; and thousands of sex crimes have occurred on such property. Our purpose (our calling) is to assist such ministries and organizations in setting up intentional safety practices that help to create the safest atmosphere possible.
We are firm believers in the practice of Verbal Deescalation. It is our hope and prayer that safety teams seek to master the art of Verbal Deescalation. We must do all that we can to decrease the chances of violence; violence that is offensive or defensive. Our course presents you with the knowledge of how you do that – and much more!
Our team has 70 years of law enforcement and security experience and over 80 years of experience in the ministry.
From their overview page:
Effective church security goes well beyond knowing how to address or manage a criminal shooting. It requires a primary focus on preventing disruptive, destructive and violent behaviors, as well as on training church members or ministry employees, couples and families to be healthy and strong. Prevention is the foundation of all we do at CV Ministries. We believe the following:
- Fixing a door, cabinet, or parking lot after an injury has occurred is not nearly as effective as identifying and repairing those things prior to an injury or accident
- Responding to a crisis or de-escalating a situation is not nearly as effective as training people to manage their anger, avoid alcohol or drug abuse, and have healthy marriages and families
- Dealing with an active shooting as it happens is not nearly as effective as identifying those who may be at risk to become a shooter and intervening long before that person decides to act
From their home page:
The FBSN is a member-owned professional organization serving those faith-based security and involved law-enforcement professionals with 5 services critical to strengthening faith-based security (as seen at the bottom of this page). The FBSN goes beyond individual preparedness as the first faith-based security association to bring together the people of all types and locations of ministries as a national connected network. It’s time to stop being silos and stovepipes of information.
The guiding values of the FBSN are transparently, unapologetically and invariably Christ-centered. We believe it is right for His church to lead the way in standing against evil as that is the very model of Christ (Romans 12:9). Of all religions under attack in America, none are more commonly the site of actual blood spilled than Christian organizations.
We invite all faiths however, to join us in this endeavor to stand against the tangible evil we have seen repeatedly strike the innocent in Houses of Worship and ministries of all faiths. We do not proselytize, but we will protect and share best practices of stopping and overcoming evil with other faiths who sincerely seek answers.
Please don’t wait for the suspected abuse victim to end up in the hospital or the suspect arrested to tell trusted people within your church what’s going on. By then it could be too late. Know what domestic violence is, know that it escalates, and know that it can affect your church in terrible ways. Not taking violence of any form seriously can cost lives. Please utilize these organizations and other appropriate resources to protect your own.
©2020 Christian Coalition for Safe Families