In the early part of my ministry, I volunteered with victims of domestic violence. One night, a desperate woman called our hotline. After being repeatedly beaten by her husband, she went to her pastor for help. Without her consent, the pastor called her husband. The pastor had them both – the abusive husband and the abused wife – sign a contract that the abuse would not continue. He prayed over them and sent them home, where, unsurprisingly, the husband beat his wife until her face was covered in bruises and she managed to escape and call us from a nearby motel.
This was not an isolated incident. Pastors repeatedly fail to help victims of domestic violence and often enable the abuser to continue. This is why, as a commissioner to the 225th General Assembly, I amended a motion to add that Teaching Elders should be required to receive training in identifying domestic abuse and supporting victims and survivors.
It was 10:25 p.m. on July 6, 2022, after a long day of plenary sessions on Zoom. We came to the last business of the day: [VIOL-08] On Living in Healthy Relationships Free of Violence and Coercion, addressing domestic violence and access to guns. After a two-hour discussion of gun control recommendations, commissioners and advisory delegates were exhausted and eager to end the day. Fatigue overran the ongoing and critical issue of domestic violence.
The discussion began with a notice that interpreters would sign off at 10:45 p.m., clearly indicating that the goal was to bring the day to a close. However, I moved to add that presbyteries require teaching elders to take domestic violence training provided by each state. 15 minutes later, with 10 people remaining in the queue to speak, an individual called the question and the debate ended. The amended motion failed.
The short and dismissive discussion at GA is a stark illustration of how our denomination fails victims of domestic violence. Ruling Elder Vilmarie Cintrón-Olivieri, co-moderator of the 223rd General Assembly (2018) said during an online worship service in 2021, “To end violence within the family is an act of love and justice that the church has been called to do. It is in the sacred space of the family where we talk about our faith and teach our values, it is in the sacred space of our faith communities that we learn to live in love, seeing God’s image in the other.” Teaching elders are at the forefront of this act.
The Presbyterian Church has studied the issue, so we cannot pretend that we don’t understand the damage done by untrained and ill-equipped pastors. “A Study Paper on Family Violence”, approved by the 203rd GA (1991), includes this quote from a Presbyterian woman: “When I told our pastor about the children’s fear, the verbal abuse, hospitalizations, and miscarriage caused by my husband’s violence, he told me that I had married for better or for worse. He sent me home with the assurance that if I continued to be a faithful wife and mother, my prayers would be answered.” Unfortunately, teaching elders continue to perpetuate violence in this manner to this day.
Teaching elders are in a critical role. Domestic violence victims and survivors of both physical and mental abuse often seek help from a pastor and should receive pastoral care that promotes their safety. They may not be ready to reach out to organizations, but they need to be affirmed of God’s love and reminded that love is never defined by physical violence and/or mental abuse. Teaching elders require a basic knowledge of domestic violence and should receive training on how to provide appropriate care based on a practical theological understanding.
In the short 15-minute discussion around my proposed amendment at GA225, one teaching elder responded, “I don’t need to take the training because I can refer to those who know what to do.” Not only is this irresponsible and neglectful, but it is a dereliction of our responsibilities as teaching elders to love and care for each of our parish members.
There are resources available in each state, as well as from church bodies and publishers, but they are useless if teaching elders refuse to participate. If teaching elders continue to refuse to deepen their theological understanding, we will continue to fail our church members and communities God has called us to serve.
In the same plenary, we spent 45 minutes debating whether to keep the title “honorably” in “honorably retired” in the Book of Order — again, protecting victims and survivors of domestic violence was allocated just 15 minutes. This indicates a clear lack of care and concern for those impacted. We require boundary training of all leaders because we know the pain caused by sexual harassment does — should we not require teaching elders to receive training to understand and respond to very real harm of domestic violence as well?
“. ..from prophet to priest everyone deals falsely. They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying ‘Peace, peace; when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:13-14).