Understanding abuse: one pastor’s journey
A true autobiographical story. Names (including the author’s) places and dates are fictional.
My name is Michael Lehman. I’ve served in pastoral ministry since my ordination in 1986. I’d describe my theological convictions as reformed evangelical. For the past few years I’ve been on an extended sabbatical, devoted to further study and writing. During this phase my wife and I have been pleased to worship in a small local congregation of our denomination. We’ve been valuing the ministry of Rick, the pastor there, and have been pleased to be able to support him. Here is one small part of my story …
Until 2 years ago …
I understood, like most people — pastors included, that ‘domestic abuse’ (or ‘domestic violence’) meant simply what’s commonly called ‘wife battering’. Along with that, based on some direct pastoral experiences, I understood that Family Court processes were generally biased in favour of the woman, meaning that separated fathers got a raw deal in child access.
I had heard the odd reference to domestic violence in church contexts. But I was sure it was all but absent from evangelical churches. If it did happen, I was confident that any capable pastor would get to the truth and protect the innocent and vulnerable.
2011: the year it all changed
The change came about in a very short space, through a combination of a series of circumstances in people close to me, and the impact of two jaw-dropping, mind-changing books. Here is the timetable:
In a phone conversation with my dad, I learned that my sister’s marriage was under strain. She had reported that her husband had been increasingly unkind and unpleasant to her in the past few years, and she was unsure how much longer she could stay with him. They had been in counseling for about a year, with almost zero progress.
I was shocked. Theirs was a marriage of nearly 30 years, both strong Christians, the husband a church elder for many years. They had raised a delightful family together in Perth, Australia.
Over the ensuing months, more details emerged. I learned of years of controlling, belittling comments causing her to feel at fault for every problem; that she had had to regularly beg for cash to buy essential personal items, while he had kept large debts secret from her; he had expected her to do all the housework with no help from himself, whatever the circumstances; he had regularly denigrated her family (us included), causing her to keep a distance from us in every sense; and that’s just for starters.
My sister phoned to say she and her husband had just separated, and her financial security was very uncertain.
My wife befriended a woman named Clare, who’d recently joined the church, with her two daughters and son. I learned that Clare had recently separated from her husband Adrian, also a Christian, and a respected doctor with a practice in a nearby suburb.
In the ensuing weeks, I got to know Clare also, and she began sharing more detail about the marriage she’d left. I don’t recall the order in which the story unfolded. But the picture that took shape was an alarming one. Regular explosive tantrums over innocuous subjects, demands that she dress a certain way and not put on weight, angry outbursts if the children made mistakes, frequent use of the Bible to ‘prove’ he was right, degrading sexual expectations, messing with her mind so she doubted her own judgements on even basic things … and that’s just to name a few.
An article about domestic violence was published in a ministry journal by a senior colleague, describing a largely hidden but widespread and well documented pattern of domestic abuse, within the church and beyond. It described abuse as not only physical or sexual violence, but also emotional, social and financial. A few paragraphs amounted to a book review of Lundy Bancroft’s Why Does He DO That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men [*Affiliate link]. The author strongly recommended the book to anyone in pastoral ministry.
I mentioned the title to Clare. She knew it well, owned a copy and had read it over and over.
It became clear I needed to read it. So I did. To say that scales fell from my eyes would be no overstatement. The book was simply a game changer for me. It documented a behaviour pattern I had not imagined existed, let alone so widely.
I sent my sister a copy. She emailed back the day after it arrived, saying it was the best, most enlightening thing she’d read on the subject. (And she’d been researching an awful lot!) She had read it through in a single evening. At 400 pages, it had taken me a fortnight. She then went on to say that she had clearly identified her husband with two of the ten abuser types described in the book.
[Caveat from the leaders of this ACFJ blog added April 2017: We do not recommend the Healing Retreats which Lundy Bancroft conducts in America. If anyone is passing on Bancroft’s book to a survivor of abuse, we advise you to also pass on this caveat.]
While still getting my head around my sister’s story, Clare’s story and the implications of Bancroft’s book, more family news came, this time from New Zealand. A close cousin, married 20 years, was also making heavy weather of it and wondering how much longer she should stay. The parallels with my sister’s situation were simply eeerie. Again a marriage of two openly dedicated Christians, again a history of leadership, again a seemingly exemplary marriage, again extraordinary emotional abuse behind the façade.
And again, I sent a copy of Bancroft. And yes, again, it made sense of a woman’s world of turmoil.
2012 a year to stand
At the end of 2011, I began to wonder why God had chosen to open my eyes to the shadow world of domestic violence in the general community and in the church. It wasn’t long before I learned one part of the answer.
2012 was to be a time of both growth in understanding domestic violence and testing in a collegial relationship. The stories of my sister and cousin continued and are ongoing. However it’s been mainly Clare and her story that have taken me further on this long unseen path.
Clare is on a long journey of recovery from more than a decade of being controlled by a man who loved control, rather than loving her. One of her struggles whilst married and still now a few years after separation and about a year post-divorce, has been finding and keeping trusted and loyal friends and supporters.
There seem to be two main reasons for this. Firstly, having been comprehensively controlled and abused for so long, Clare like many women in such a situation can easily appear ‘flakey’ in her behaviour. She makes rash decisions or commitments, then backs out or just defaults. She has good days and bad days in her mood. In short, she can be ‘hard work’ and some people step back from her because they’re uncertain of her.
Secondly, and more profoundly, her ex-husband Adrian has been a master at recruiting allies for himself, including among her friends. The result is compounding insecurity for her and isolation.
I had read about this pattern in Bancroft’s book. 2012 was the year to observe just how skilfully an abuser can win a recruit. My respected pastor and colleague, Rick, became the next one.
Clare had joined the church after receiving a warm and understanding ear from Rick. Rick accepted her story of abuse, gave time to her pastorally, and Clare was satisfied that this church would be a safe place for her and her children. Sadly it was not to remain so. Adrian made sure of that.
It had started well the previous year (2011). Rick and I compared notes regularly on Clare, and I made it clear to both Rick and Clare that he was the pastor and I was a friend only.
Meanwhile Rick met with Adrian a couple of times over coffee. This seemed entirely appropriate. Clare had expressed the wish that she and Adrian might somehow be reconciled. (A goal she later realized was inappropriate and unattainable.) Rick had done what any pastor would instinctively think right, seeking to occupy neutral ground between the two parties, with a view to facilitating mutual forgiveness and healing. Just what the counseling textbook says. Presented with a similar scenario, I’d have done the same. But as I now realize, ‘the textbook’ doesn’t understand abuse.
Early in 2012, Clare began expressing doubts about whether she could still trust Rick. She expressed the fear that Adrian had “got to him”. I assured her that Rick was a very savvy and experienced pastor who was no one’s fool.
But then Rick started expressing doubts to me about Clare, even to the point of doubting that she could be believed. The penny started to drop. I remembered Bancroft’s chapter ‘The abuser and his allies,’ about an abuser’s skill in recruiting even the savviest professionals as his allies, by sowing just the right seeds in their minds. Rick was and is a very mature pastor with wide experience with people. I had been sure he was too smart for that. Though my love for him and my appreciation and respect for his ministry are undiminished, on this assumption I was wrong.
I talked with Rick at length about what I’d learned in the past year, including the family stories. I applied it to Clare and Adrian respectively. Rick thanked me sincerely and we penciled a date for a meeting between Rick, Clare and myself to restore the pastoral relationship, so I could return to being the friend.
But three days later it was all off. In a single masterful phone call, Adrian had convinced Rick that Clare was a bad parent who was starving the children spiritually, and couldn’t be believed. The pastoral relationship was over. Rick said it would be best if Clare found a new church. I realized that without Rick’s confidence, our church would no longer be a safe place for her.
The story will run for many years yet, at least until Clare’s children come of age. We helped Clare find a new church, where the pastor understands abuse. She’s receiving excellent support there as well as through a local secular counselor who specialises in domestic violence recovery. She’s learning to respond to many things better and with self-confidence. She still has to deal with Adrian because of shared access to the children. And Adrian is still trying to mess with her mind and working at recruiting allies.
That’s life …. And I’m now a wiser pastor, waiting to see what the Lord would do with my still very new understanding of domestic abuse and its impacts in churches. Speaking of which — the second book that has opened my mind on this incredibly important subject is the one that needs no introduction here: Jeff Crippen’s A Cry for Justice: How the Evil of Domestic Abuse Hides in Your Church [*Affiliate link].
[Note from Eds: Jeff Crippen has also written Unholy Charade: Unmasking the Domestic Abuser in the Church [*Affiliate link]. It came out after this post by Michael Lehman was published.]
I pray that this story may encourage other pastors to consider the subject of domestic abuse (or violence). Copies of the two books by Bancroft and Crippen belong on every pastor’s shelf, in my view. The former is rightly commonly regarded as the best source for a comprehensive understanding of the anatomy of abuse. The author is not a Christian, but nothing he says in the book is anti-Christian. The latter book I’d rate as in some senses a Christian, pastoral equivalent of Bancroft, but also more than that. Pastors who want a thorough biblical approach to the subject should find themselves in very safe hands.
I’d also encourage any pastor who finds themselves dealing with a marriage where the woman reports abusive behaviour by her husband, to begin by believing her, to doubt anything her husband says or implies about her, and not to stop believing her without the counsel of a professional skilled in domestic abuse.
Ps. Michael Lehman, July 2013