Church’s domestic violence response predates NFL news
What does the face of domestic violence look like?
It could belong to the person sitting next to you in church each Sunday, says Ginger Grissom.
She knows from experience. For eight years, as executive director of the United Methodist-supported Wesley House Community Center in Meridian, Miss., she has helped abuse survivors rebuild their lives. She is also a survivor, she says.
United Methodists, like Grissom, have been confronting family violence long before the NFL’s response to players’ assault charges was making headlines.
United Methodists for decades have helped support shelters for women and children. They also have worked with policymakers and law enforcement to treat domestic violence not simply as a private matter but as a crime.
In the past five years, United Methodist Women and United Methodist Men have collaborated to provide training and advocacy on the issue. Other United Methodist agencies, including the Commission on the Status and Role of Women and the Board of Church and Society, also are involved in advocacy.
Still, Grissom and other advocates — including UMW and UMM executives — say church leaders can do more to address a problem seldom mentioned from the pulpit.
A May survey by LifeWay Research, which included United Methodists, found about four in 10 — 42 percent — of Protestant senior pastors “rarely” or “never” speak about domestic violence. Nearly three in 10 — 29 percent — said they believe domestic violence is not a problem in their church.
Those pastors are wrong, Grissom pointed out.
“The church needs to be open (to the fact) that domestic violence happens,” she said. “It’s happening to people in every church in the United States. The only way that we can fight it is to know that … and to be open to bringing in professionals who deal with it every day.”
The numbers bear her out. About three in 10 women and one in 10 men have experienced violence or stalking by a partner, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
What the Church teaches
The United Methodist Church addresses domestic violence in its Book of Discipline, which contains the denomination’s laws and teachings. Here is what the book says about “Family Violence and Abuse."
Domestic violence crosses all racial, cultural and socioeconomic lines. Perpetrators can include plumbers, business professionals and even clergy.
The people affected include not just abuse victims themselves but also their loved ones, especially their children.
Mississippi Area Bishop James E. Swanson Sr., like Grissom, has personal experience with the costs of domestic violence. When he was 18 in 1968, his mother was killed by his stepfather because she refused to give him money for alcohol.
His loss has shaped his ministry and has given him better understanding of why people stay in abusive relationships, he said.
“A lot of times, they are trying to be a savior of that man that they love,” he said.
“Pastors have to know that when they first offer assistance, they are probably going to be turned down. But if you remain a non-anxious presence, sooner or later that person will turn to you and you can offer resources to her.”
No matter the victim’s educational or financial background, leaving an abusive relationship is tough.
“Why do people stay? Most of the time it’s because of fear,” Grissom said. “And absolutely that fear is substantiated by statistics. The most dangerous time for any victim of domestic violence is when she chooses to leave. People die.”
Grissom said it took her 15 years to leave. Her story is similar to many other abuse survivors’ firsthand accounts. She found herself isolated from family, banned from eating fattening food and under financial and spiritual control.
“The fact is that I am survivor, but I am a survivor by the grace of God,” she said.
Working with men
Gil Hanke, the top executive of United Methodist Men, told a recent meeting of his commission that only men can stop domestic violence.
Resources on Domestic Violence
Resources from United Methodist Women and United Methodist Men
United Methodist Women’s Facebook page on domestic violence
Resources from United Methodist Board of Church and Society
United Methodist Women and FaithTrust Institute offer a free webinar on Men’s Role in Ending Violence from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. ET (11 a.m. to noon PT), Thursday, Nov. 13
U.S. Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233/ 1-800-787-3224 (for deaf)
Women historically have done a great job of drawing attention to the issue and protecting those escaping abuse, he told United Methodist News Service. Now, men must step up.
“It has to do with how they view women, how they talk about women, how they tolerate the demeaning of women in the media and in their everyday conversations,” Hanke said. “Principled Christian leaders who are men don’t talk like that and don’t listen to things like that, and they do not assert their position at the cost of someone else.”
People have the misconception that domestic violence results because the man is angry and has lost control, Hanke said. “In fact, it’s all about control.”
He now leads workshops that help men to think about how they treat and talk about women and help to raise awareness about domestic violence. United Methodist Men and United Methodist Women also work to connect churches with resources in addressing the problem.
For example, the United Methodist Men and United Methodist Women groups in the Baltimore-Washington Conference offered Domestic Violence Church Team Training on Oct. 11.
What more the church should do
"Faith can either be a resource or a roadblock to ending violence," said Jane Fredricksen. She is the executive director of FaithTrust Institute, which educates religious groups in addressing sexual and domestic violence. The institute works with United Methodist Women to provide training.
"A victim of violence may experience a crisis of faith questioning 'Why did God let this happen to me?' or 'I can’t divorce my spouse because God hates divorce,'" Fredicksen said.
A church needs to be a safe place where the battered can disclose their doubts and fears and still be reminded they are children of God.
Harriett Jane Olson, the top executive of United Methodist Women, urges pastors to discuss domestic violence with their congregations. But she warns that if they do, they should be prepared for people who feel trapped in abusive relationships to come forward.
Grissom stresses that when confronted with an abuse survivor, pastors should not try to go it alone in trying to help.
“When someone has been abused, they need someone with real skills devoted just to that,” said Grissom, who also is president of the Meridian District’s United Methodist Women. “If churches would pull in organizations that are already doing it, then they have resources so when — not if — it happens, ministers don’t have to be put in the middle. They don’t have to choose between the man and the woman.”
Swanson also advises pastors “not to try to be Superman” and save the day. For one thing, he said, doing so could put that pastor at risk.
But he urges clergy to get to know local law enforcement and make resources available to congregants. He suggests putting resources in restrooms where women can look at them privately.
Swanson, who is president of United Methodist Men, said he sees God at work in the attention the NFL’s troubles have brought to the problem of domestic violence.
“I realize that the church has to do so much,” Swanson said. “If there is anything I have learned as bishop, it’s that there are so many forms of evil out there that we are called to address every day.
“But this is one I think that can unite as a church across so many different lines. If nothing else, we can create a groundswell of awareness.”
Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org