This past Sunday, I listened with thankfulness as one of our pastors clearly and helpfully addressed domestic violence in his sermon. He talked about the importance of the church being a safe place for survivors, he talked about the power-and-control dynamic of domestic violence, and he urged victims to seek help. He spoke positively about the important work of a nearby women’s shelter and of his conversations with the director.
It reminded me of how much things have changed. When I began serving as a pastor in the 1980s, domestic violence was rarely mentioned in public, and the dynamics of Intimate Partner Violence were not understood by many (not only in churches, but in society in general). I remember for the first time mentioning domestic violence ever so briefly in a message in the early 1990s, and hearing the thankful response of women in the congregation who were survivors—just that brief mention had been liberating and empowering for them, and it was something they had never heard before in church. It was the first step that led the congregation to begin to respond meaningfully to the needs of victims in our community.
Domestic violence continues to be a horrible problem in our society, and too many churches are complicit in their silence. There are still too many congregations where domestic violence is never mentioned and is misunderstood. Too many victims feel shame. But there is hope and there is much progress. There are many encouraging signs of ways that research, advocacy, and community partnerships are making a difference. Most denominations now provide clear, informed, helpful public statements about domestic violence and many provide good resources for their congregations. Increasing numbers of theological seminaries have begun to provide appropriate training for their ministerial students. Churches are more likely to work with community partners to address the problem and to respond to the needs of victims. Clergy are more likely to condemn domestic violence in their sermons.
There is much work to do and more research to complete and disseminate. There are still far too many victims. But we can celebrate the progress that has been made as increasing numbers of religious congregations and their leaders better understand how they can have an important role in bringing safety and hope, as well as practical and spiritual support, to those in their midst who suffer violence at home.
Dr. Stephen McMullin, 16 December 2020