Seminaries Need to Provide Domestic Violence Training

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Imagine being a young adult about to graduate from theological seminary this spring.  You have completed seven years of preparation:  an undergraduate degree followed by three years of graduate-level seminary.  In your first local church, you will now prepare a weekly sermon to instruct and inspire the whole congregation.  You are expected to be a model of Christianity in your life and in your home.  You will care for young parents and their children and lead the church youth group while you spend many hours weekly providing pastoral care for the elderly, the sick, the dying, and those who grieve.  In the midst of this responsibility for people’s spiritual care, you receive an unexpected phone call from a distraught woman who tells you that her abusive husband has become so violent that she fears for her life.  How will you respond?  How would you know how to respond?

This year I have surveyed hundreds of theological seminary students about domestic violence.  Last month as I talked with a young seminary student who had just completed the research survey, I was struck by two things that were obvious from his comments:  first, this student who is graduating this spring expressed to me his sincere compassion for victims of domestic violence.  But at the same time, he said he had received no training in seminary to prepare him to respond should victims of violence come to him for help.  He understands neither the dynamics of domestic violence nor the best ways for a religious leader to help.

He is not alone.  My research paints a discouraging picture of the continuing failure of accredited theological seminaries to provide the training their graduates will need in local congregations.  Among seminary students not about to graduate, more than 80% expect that by the time they graduate they will be at least somewhat prepared to respond to the needs of a victim of domestic violence, but among students about to graduate this spring only 3.4% think they are well prepared.

That is a serious problem because for many victims, the first person to whom they disclose that they are being battered is a pastor.  For religious victims of domestic violence, a supportive response from the pastor may be essential for their protection from abuse.  Communities, and domestic violence advocates, would be wise to reach out to local clergy to include them in the response to abuse.  From my current research, it is clear that clergy have not been well prepared to respond but it is equally clear that they want to be part of the solution.

Some seminaries are responding to the need for training (I teach a course entitled “The Church’s Response to Domestic Violence” at Acadia Divinity College).  But many seminaries continue to provide inadequate training.  That is why the RAVE website provides practical resources that clergy can access in the privacy of the pastor’s study.  The resources under the “Online Training” tab have been prepared to help religious leaders understand the dynamics of abuse and the best ways to respond to a victim in a time of crisis.  If you are a pastor or religious leader, we encourage you to make use of the wide variety of online training resources that are available here on the RAVE website.

Steve McMullin, March 23, 2018