One of my take-aways from being asked “Do you feel safe at home?” during every medical appointment is that we religious professionals can take a cue from our health care colleagues. We can weave “Do you feel safe at home?” into the standard questions we ask in a variety of situations and not just when we may suspect domestic violence. We can even use the frequency that this is asked in medical contexts to frame why we are asking: “There are certain questions that people in caring professions ask as standard policy. You may have been asked some of these at your physician’s office. Asking is part of providing quality care in general and not because of any specific suspicions about your situation. One of these is, ‘Do you feel safe at home?’”
Despite the increasing frequency that people ask this question, I am not suggesting that clergy drop it in casual conversation, say during a crowded coffee hour after a worship service! However, there are occasions when it can be woven naturally into the rhythms of pastoral care and ministry. I now include it in pre-marital counseling along with several other standard questions that I make clear I ask every couple so as not to seem accusatory. E.g.: “Have you been married or engaged or cohabited before? What were the ‘rules’ in your families of origin about money, hospitality, etc…? Are you currently sexually active?” One important difference is that I never ask a couple together, “Do you feel safe at home?”, since the vulnerable party is unlikely to answer freely and the abuser is likely to suspect that “someone talked” and take it out on their partner with a renewed round of violence. This same approach of asking “standard questions” could also be taken with marital counseling.
More public contexts for ministry can also be a good occasion to get the question out there to inform and empower, even if there is less opportunity for hearing an answer and following up. In a Bible study or sermon on marriage and family, you might include the question as an illustration: “Most of you have probably been asked by a nurse or a physician, ‘Do you feel safe at home?’ Many of you might take offense at being asked, and think or even say, ‘Well, of course I do. We’re a good Christian family!’ But sometimes the homes of even some ‘good Christian families’ don’t feel safe because of angry outbursts, demeaning language, and even physical violence. If that’s your situation, you don’t have to suffer in silence. You can talk to me or to another helping professional when you are ready, and we can help you explore various avenues to greater safety discreetly and professionally.” A youth group talk on dating and relationships could include an adaptation of this approach: “’Do you feel safe on a date?’ No matter how much someone might claim to love you, remember that Christ-like love doesn’t dominate or humiliate. It’s not controlling or jealous or angry. It never threatens or injures. You don’t have to settle for anything less than Christ’s best on your dates.”
What should clergy do if we do suspect someone is suffering from domestic violence? Even in this situation, we can use the broader context of asking the question to empower the person to seek help, if not immediately, then sooner rather than later. Religious victims are much more likely to act if they sense support from religious professionals, especially their own clergy.
David Currie, 4 September 2019
This is the second in a series of three posts by David A. Currie, Dean of the Doctor of Ministry Program & Ockenga Institute and Professor of Pastoral Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.