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When Churches Harm Abuse Victims
When Churches Harm Abuse Victims

Your faith community should be a place of respite and support. But too many victims find clergy ignorant, harmful, and tragically, abusive. Learn more.

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When Churches Harm Abuse Victims

Members of faith communities who have experienced betrayal and abuse may find that they are further traumatized when they seek support, counsel, and validation from clergy. When churches harm abuse victims, the ensuing secondary trauma runs deep.

Joy Forrest, founder and executive director of Called to Peace Ministries, joins Anne on the free BTR podcast to share her powerful personal experiences working toward change in how faith communities support abuse victims. Read the full transcript below and listen to the BTR podcast for more.

When Churches Simply Don’t Know How To Help Victims

“Everywhere I turned to get help… nobody knew how to deal with our situation.”

Joy Forrest, founder and executive director of Called to Peace Ministries

Sometimes, church leaders and congregants are well-meaning but simply don’t know how to support abuse and betrayal victims.

In this case, it’s best for clergy to direct victims to experts who can give them knowledgable guidance and trained help to get to safety.

Clergy can provide spiritual support. This does not mean counseling victims to stay with their abusers. It means offering unconditional love and resources to the victim and her children. It means validating the victim’s pain and assuring her that she is believed.

When Churches Give Victims Harmful Counsel

“The way that the [church leaders] were counseling it was, well, you need to submit as long as he’s not asking you to sin. And all that does when you’re submitting, (it’s not even submission, submission is a voluntary yielding) or obeying or bowing down to abusive people, then the more things get worse.”

Joy Forrest, founder and executive director of Called to Peace Ministries

In the BTR community, those belonging to faith communities have shared harmful counsel from church leaders, including:

  • Just have more sex with your abusive husband
  • Submit to sex however and whenever he wants you to do it
  • Divorce is always the devil’s plan; if you decide to divorce your abuser, you are listening to Satan
  • The church will abandon you if you choose to leave your abuser
  • If he abuses you, it is because his needs are not being met, so be a better “helpmeet”
  • He uses pornography because you, the victim, are not sexual enough
  • He lies to you because you are an angry woman
  • Forgive and forget
  • Trust him again, right away, in order to save your marriage
  • There are two sides to every story – be charitable and see your part in this

Harmful and downright abusive “counsel” can send victims into a downward spiral. Many victims can become so traumatized by clergy that they face a faith crisis and may feel unable to participate in organized religion at all.

If Your Church Has Harmed You, Practice Self-Compassion

If you are or once were a member of a faith community and are now facing a faith crisis or have distanced yourself from church, you may be feeling ashamed, guilty, and isolated.

Know that the secondary trauma that you experienced because of ignorant, harmful and/or abusive clergy is not your fault. You trusted your church leaders and they should have been there for you.

Please practice self-care, seek support, and douse yourself in compassion.

The Betrayal Trauma Recovery Group is here for you. Join today and begin your journey to healing.

Full Transcript:

Anne:  Welcome to Betrayal Trauma Recovery, this is Anne.

Our Betrayal Trauma Recovery Group, called BTRG for short, is a daily online support group. We have over 21 sessions per week for you to choose from. You don’t have to wait for an appointment, you don’t have to leave your home, you can join from your closet or your parked car in your garage. We are here for you. We’d love to see you in a session today.

I have Joy Forrest on today’s episode. She is the founder and executive director of Called to Peace Ministries, a non-denominational nonprofit ministry dedicated to offering hope and healing to victims of domestic violence, emotionally destructive relationships, and sexual assault. She is the author of Call to Peace- A Survivor’s Guide to Finding Peace and Healing After Domestic Abuse and the Called to Peace Companion Workbook. Joy holds an MA in biblical counseling from the Southeast Baptist Theological Seminary and has been active in counseling ministry since 2005. She held the position of community educator with Safe Space Domestic Violence Services in Lewisburg, North Carolina from 2000 to 2001. She is a certified advocate with the NC Coalition Against Domestic Violence and has worked with over 2000 victims of domestic abuse since 1997. Her blog contains many articles on domestic abuse, as well as posts on victorious Christian living. In her spare time, Joy loves traveling and spending time with her family, especially her 10 grandchildren. Welcome, Joy.

Joy Forrest on the BTR Podcast

Joy: Thank you, Anne. I appreciate it.

Anne: So, Joy, how did you get into this work? What led you to start Called to Peace Ministries?

Joy: Actually, I tell people I was a victim of domestic abuse for 23 years of my life, but I didn’t recognize it until about the 23rd year. All of those years while in that marriage, we would reach out to counselors and pastors. Usually, we would go to a pastor first, and they would treat it like a marital problem, and most of the time the attempts to get help made things worse. So, as it got worse over time, we know that domestic abuse is progressive over time, it tends to get worse. And so, it was getting really volatile towards the end, and it really just boggled my mind at the lack of resources that I was encountering.

“Nobody Knew How To Deal With Our Situation”

 Everywhere I turned to get help, whether it be the courts, law enforcement, or counselors, nobody knew how to deal with our situation. And one day when it was particularly dangerous, I just said, “God, if you help me get out of this, I will help other women in these kinds of situations,” and sure enough, He has held me to it. People just kept coming into my path. Then even that job that I had at the domestic violence agency, I wasn’t looking for that job. I was helping a woman get out. I went up and told them I’d love to volunteer and gave them a little bit of my story, and then when Domestic Violence Awareness Month was approaching, they decided that they needed some survivors to tell their stories, so they called and asked me if I would come and speak at their candlelight vigil. My thought was that I don’t speak in public. I was so afraid of speaking in public, but I knew that God hadn’t brought me through all of that for me to keep my mouth shut, so I agreed to it. And then two months later, they called and offered me a job as their spokesperson. So, it was something I wasn’t looking for, but it’s just one of those many things that happened on the road to starting Called to Peace. 

“Seeing How Churches Were Treating Victims of Abuse Was Mind-Boggling”

And then I ended up going to seminary for a degree. I didn’t even know what kind of degree I was getting. It was also a very clear call to go. I got involved in church counseling ministry pretty quickly after enrolling in that program and seeing how churches were treating victims of abuse was also way more mind-boggling than what I had ever experienced because I had come through a church where the pastor didn’t know what to do. He thought that I should just get out of the marriage. And I thought, well, this man doesn’t know Jesus when he told me that. 

But I came to a church that did probably believe more like I did and the way that they were counseling it was well you need to submit as long as he’s not asking you to sin. And all that does when you’re submitting; or it’s not even submission, submission is a voluntary yielding. It’s not obedience, blind obedience, and that’s sort of the way that they were teaching it. And so, the more that women submitted or obeyed or bowed down to abusive people, then the more things would get worse. I mean, that’s what happened in my very own situation. 

“I Could Heal A Lot Quicker Because I Understand The Science of Trauma”

So, seeing all these things, it just started a fire in me that I needed to do something. And it was, I think, one of my main goals or aspirations was to help churches better respond. And of course, the other one has always been to just help those who have been abused or oppressed in their homes to find healing because I believe that our God is a healer, and he brought me through a healing process. It’s so funny when I look back on it, I didn’t know anything about trauma. I just know that the process that I came through, brought amazing healing to my life. And then when I started studying brain science in the last three or four years, when I’ve really been learning a lot about trauma, I realized that what God did was he knows the brain science and when he tells us to meditate on His Word, which is what I did, it actually reaches those traumatized parts of the brain. And so, I think that if I had to go back over it and do it again, I could heal a lot quicker now because I understand the science behind it, but I did go through this process of healing. So, we have support groups, they’re scriptural support groups, for women who are, you know, struggling and coming out of domestic abuse and really, any kind of abuse. The principles to healing are the same, I believe. 

So. that’s kind of how I got here, and I’m sure there’s probably more I could tell you, but I’m sure we got other things to talk about. 

Why Don’t Victims Know They’re Being Abused?

Anne: Yeah. I went through a similar experience when I was trying to get help. It felt like I was screaming and yelling, help me, help me, and I was facing it head-on, and no one ever told me that it was abuse. So, all of the people that I went to get help from, therapists, clergy, whatever. And so, I actually didn’t understand it, and you said the same thing. Why do you think that women who are in emotionally and psychologically abusive relationships don’t know that they are? Why do you think this happens to women?

Joy: I think that it is so insidious, it sneaks upon us. So, it’s like the frog in boiling water analogy. I tell people the first lesson that I got in my relationship with my ex was he had asked me a question, I answered it in a way he didn’t like, he slammed on the brakes, threw me out of the car, and called me names. And then a day or two later he calls back and he apologizes, and he doesn’t act angry again for a long, long time to come. So, I just filed that away. Well, I’ll never do that again. 

Abusers Condition, Or Brainwash, Victims

And so that was when I was probably 14 years old when I met him, and then by the time I’m 38 years old, when I’m getting out, there are about 5000 things I’m not doing anymore. So, the way I’m thinking has changed. I had been brainwashed. I tell people that getting into these kinds of relationships is almost like getting in and out of a cult. It’s this very gradual process that changes the way we think. And so, we start lying to ourselves. Plus, it’s very hurtful to think that somebody would ever choose to treat us that way, and we know that that is not love. 1 Corinthians 13 Love is patient and kind, and it doesn’t insist on its own way, it’s not easily provoked. All the things that abuse is, right? And so, for me, when I finally had to admit that it was abusive, I had to admit that he meant me harm and that was really painful because I had loved him and had been faithful and stood up for him and protected him and even covered up his mess for so many years. And realizing that he had chosen to do nothing but hurt and use me, and that’s a really painful conclusion. So, coming to admit that it’s pretty hard. It’s the first step to healing but it is the hardest part of the healing process in my mind.

Trauma Mama Husband Drama

Anne: I am going to take a break here for just a second to talk about my book, Trauma Mama Husband Drama. You can find it on our books page which also has a curated list of all of the books that we recommend. My book, Trauma Mama Husband Drama, is a picture book for adults. So, it is the easiest way for you to explain what’s going on to someone who might not understand it, it’s also just a good reference for yourself because it shows what’s happening with very telling and emotional illustrations, as well as infographics at the back.

And now back to the conversation.

Victim, Survivor, Shero

Anne: You know a lot of therapists who I think don’t understand abuse, they don’t like the word victim. They’re like we don’t want to say the word victim because we don’t want people to feel powerless, right. And I agree. I don’t want anyone to feel powerless, especially a victim, but I love the word victim when I finally embraced it. The reason why I loved it was because it meant I couldn’t do anything. Not that I couldn’t do anything. That is not what I mean. It meant that it wasn’t me. It meant that someone was doing something to me that I had no control over, and what I needed to do was get to safety, but that I was an actual victim. That I hadn’t done anything wrong. And for me, that word was so empowering. 

Now I tend to like the word Shero more because then once I recognized that I had to sort of be my own hero and so do women in this situation. But I just don’t mind the word victim and I use it and I use it sort of interchangeably with survivor and Shero. It’s interesting how different women feel about the different terms. Do you have any thoughts about that?

If They Are Abusing You, You Are A Victim

Joy: I absolutely do. So, I have a friend, Julie Owens, who’s a domestic violence expert, and has been for probably 30 years. At the very beginning of the domestic violence movement, she said we don’t want to stay victims, but we are victimized. Just like you said, it wasn’t our choice, it wasn’t our fault, and by its very meaning that’s what victim is all about. That it wasn’t our fault and that was not something that we could control. So, it happened to us. Then we want to move from the victim. It’s a problem when you stay in the victim mindset, or you still continue to see yourself as a victim years down the road, because healing is possible. But it has to be intentional. And so, I think that it’s really important that we make that transition, but absolutely we need to admit that we were victimized. That we were victims and then we move on to survivor and even thriver beyond that.

Anne: Some of us are still victims, and that’s one thing that I do like to talk about. So, for me as an example, I have an ex-husband who is literally still abusive to me. So, for that I want to say you know, I don’t think I’m in victim mode, per se, but I am actually literally technically still a victim, but I have moved into this empowered place where I’m separated from the harm. So even though he’s still abusive and I’m technically still a victim, it doesn’t feel like that anymore. If that makes any sense? Some days it does, actually. It depends. There are some moments where I just feel like is this still happening, is he still lying and gaslighting and manipulating? But overall, my life has so much peace in it now. So, I think that that can happen where women can move into their power, but still actually technically be victimized continually.

Choose To Empower Yourself, Even When They Victimize You

Joy: Oh, absolutely. But that’s what I would say you are not a victim because you have overcome it. And you, you’re being victimized at this point, you know, because you’ve empowered yourself. But yeah, absolutely. You’re still being victimized and that can go on, we know in these situations, that can go on for a long time after the separation and getting safe. They use the children, they use the courts, they use anything they can continue to make us miserable sometimes.

Anne: Yeah. So, you mentioned that your pastor said you need to get a divorce, and you thought to yourself, this man doesn’t know Jesus. I hear that a lot actually. A lot of women hear my podcast, or they learn about Betrayal Trauma Recovery, and they think, oh that Anne, she just doesn’t know Jesus. She must not be a Christian or something like that. Or she claims to be, but she doesn’t know Jesus. Can you talk about why many Christians get stuck in that trap, and that sometimes that trap can stop them from finding safety?

Joy: Yeah, absolutely. So, I think for me, part of it was you know, I had actually grown up in a pretty liberal church, and then after I became a Christian and moved over to one that actually had some very strict teaching on men’s and women’s roles. And so, that’s what I got when I was in high school. That submission was taught like it was obedience, and then, of course, all the years I became a homeschool mom, stay-at-home mom, and listened to things like Focus on the Family where they talk about how your children will be better off; that if you stay married, then your kids are going to be so much better off. That a divorce is so painful and hurtful to children, and my own parents had divorced, so I really had come to this point that I did not believe in divorce. 

Spiritual Abuse Is Used To Control Women

And it got to the point that it had gotten so volatile at the end, that my daughter, who was 12 years old at the time said Mom, why don’t you just get out? And I said well, God hates divorce. And she said yeah, he hates divorce, but he’s going to hate it a lot more when my mom is dead. And she had more wisdom than me. The thing is that I never actually studied that passage. When you look at that passage, it was actually meant to protect women. It wasn’t meant to be a burden or oppression over our lives, but that’s the way we come to interpret things that we’ve quoted to ourselves over and over again without even getting into the true meaning. And so, I had about a million things in my head like that that I had come to believe, and some of them were put there by my husband. He would say things like you need to submit, I’m the head of this house. He would use scripture to keep me under control. And so, there’s just a multitude of reasons why we come to that point, but a lot of it was me and the things that I listened to and the things I believed without checking them out for myself.

Anne: How did you come to realize that tolerating abuse or withstanding abuse or submitting to abuse was not what Jesus wanted?

“I Had To Get Out To Save My Life”

Joy:  Well, I don’t even know if I came to that recognition for a long time until after I got out. I just had to get out to save my life, honestly.

Anne: Okay, so it wasn’t maybe till later that you started thinking, wait a minute, all my thoughts about this verse were wampus.

Joy: I’ll tell you this. So, I actually did call Focus on the Family and I said, you guys need to do a show on domestic abuse. Well, this is like 1995, and they said, we already did. So, they sent me some cassette tapes of a ministry, and we actually paid (my ex was a physician) and so we paid $3,000 and we went out to Omaha, Nebraska and we worked with a psychologist one-on-one for a week. 

Domestic Abuse Can Look Like This

For the first time in my life, I saw something that actually spoke to what I was experiencing. They pulled out and showed me a Power and Control Wheel, and when I saw that; I had been telling myself no, this is not abuse, he doesn’t mean it, he’s just like flips out and he really can’t control it. It’s like a little nervous breakdown. I was making excuses for him. And when I saw that Power and Control Wheel, it’s basically the definition and all the tactics used in domestic violence, it’s what they called it back then. They’re changing the terminology these days to coercive control, but I realized that he had used everything on that Power and Control Wheel against me and 90% of that is not physical abuse, not physical violence, and that’s the way that I interpreted abuse as only physical. And I had had some incidents, but they had been few and far between. We could go years with no physical abuse, but then when they did happen from time to time, I would get shoved or I would get blocked in a room, and then there at the end, there was actually a strangulation attempt, and I got my head pounded into a steering wheel multiple times. But that was, you know that it’s progressive over time, it did build up and was worse there towards the end than it was in the beginning.

Why Does He Do That?

Anne: Yeah, that’s one reason why I’m always recommending that women read Why Does He Do That? by Lundy Bancroft. I had very few physical incidents until the very last one when he was actually arrested, and it was very minor. He sprained my fingers. It was a domestic abuse incident, but it wasn’t strangulation. So, I still even after that, and even after he was arrested, I didn’t think he was abusive until I read Why Does He Do That? And then it was like check, check, check, check, check, and I think that’s what women need. They need some kind of education about abuse, in order to be able to recognize it. So, let’s talk about your ministry, which is an amazing ministry, and you help so many women. Can you tell us a little bit about the mission and ministry of Called to Peace Ministries?

Joy: Yes, so Called to Peace has a two-prong mission. One is to provide practical help and assistance to survivors of domestic abuse and other kinds of abuse. So, we have support groups, we have advocacy, and we actually have an advocacy program where we train advocates. Dr. Deborah Wingfield, who used to be a professor at Colorado State University-Pueblo, came to town and said we need to get together and do something to help pass on our knowledge to younger people. 

Called To Peace Ministries

People had been asking me to teach an advocacy course and I was thinking, I don’t have time to write one. I was an advocate. But she came in and says well, I’ve got 30 courses that I’ve written. So, we have this one-year advocacy curriculum, and we have over 300 people who have gone through it now. So, we have trained advocates and volunteers across the country, and even in some foreign countries. And so, if somebody’s going through a situation and they’re doing just like you and I did where it feels like you’re bumping your head against the wall not being able to find help or anybody who can define what’s happening to you, they can reach out to us and talk to an advocate. We have support groups based on the curriculum from the Called to Peace companion workbook and the book. And then we have practical assistance. So, people that are connected with our support groups sometimes we can provide even emergency financial assistance. 

And then on the other prong of our ministry is to educate and to help churches get a better understanding, and to better respond to domestic abuse. So, we have a new church partnership program that we’ve started in the last year, and we have two pastors on staff. Pastor Jim Upchurch and Pastor Andre Turrentine, who are both on staff here part-time and they go in and they meet with pastors. When somebody calls us, perhaps they’re in a situation where their pastors are just not getting it, their church is not understanding, we will go in and we will actually help the churches navigate the situation so that maybe the woman doesn’t have to lose her church. So many we know have lost their church, they lose their family first and then they lose their church, and it just seems like you lose everything. If they want to stay in the church, we will try to come alongside and help those churches respond in a way that is going to help them rather than cause more harm. And I don’t think that the churches mean to do harm, but it certainly happens. Because they don’t understand the dynamics just like even us as victims don’t’. We don’t understand the dynamics of what we’re in, so how can we expect them to understand it? So that’s what we do.

Anne: Yeah, I think the church is just an especially ripe place for abusers because if you look like a God-fearing man, and you go in and you seem sincere, you know, and you’re attending church and you’re doing service, then they just can’t wrap their head around that this person is intentionally manipulating me and grooming me. Right? I mean, it’s very hard. So, if he says no, that’s not what happened; this is what happened. I think they’re not really set up to be super skeptical about what an upstanding member of their church would say. It’s sort of like church attendance and being able to quote Scripture and be able to say a prayer is kind of automatic trust in that community. And it’s unfortunate because it just makes it a ripe place for abusers to thrive.

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Joy: Yeah. And you know what, they know that. Jesus talked about wolves among sheep, right. So, I think that they know that, and they will actually use the church for their own gain. I mean, Paul talks about it in his epistles.

Anne: Joy and I are going to pause the conversation here. We are going to continue it next week, so stay tuned. 

If this podcast is helpful to you, please support it. Until next week, stay safe out there.

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