Safety or Faith: Must I Choose Between the Two?

Ellen Johanson

It was a plain, white piece of copy paper tacked on a bulletin board with this simple message:

This is a safe haven.  If you are in an abusive or dangerous situation you can use  our telephone to contact the local sexual assault and domestic violence hotline.
My reaction as I hurried past the church bulletin board was one of thankfulness, hope and pleasure mixed with a brief memory of sadness, loss and regret.

It always pleases me to find churches willing to engage in creating communities free of violence and abuse.  There is much to be gained when churches partner with community agencies to prevent domestic violence.  Although coordinated community responses to violence are more common now, it wasn’t always this way.  Many faith communities still believe the old adage “not in my church” which translates into denying the reality and presence of serious problems like domestic violence and sexual assault.  It’s time to take that phrase “not in my church” and transform it from a statement that implies “those things don’t happen here” to a passionate declaration of our desire to create safe places starting with The Church.

My sadness from viewing that small poster came as I wondered what might be different today if that poster had been available in my church more than 30 years ago.   At that time, I was in college and my dad sent me a newspaper clipping that completely shocked me.  It was an article about an “estranged” husband and wife.  The woman had been walking at the local shopping area when she was suddenly chased by a man with a gun.  He shot her and then shot himself. It was a horrible, violent, premeditated crime; yet, as shocking as that was, what was even more surprising to me was that this woman was a member of my church and her killer was her husband.

That was when I first became acquainted with domestic violence (although it wasn’t called that then). The battered women’s movement was in its infancy/early childhood in the 1970s and the range of services available now weren’t common and widespread at that time.  My church was completely unprepared to respond to this tragedy.   If this were to happen in your church today, would you know what to do?  Would your pastor be equipped to respond appropriately?  What would your congregation do?  How should our churches respond to domestic violence in our midst?

I suggest we take a cue from the ancient call of Jesus to PREACH the good news.  The gospel of Jesus is one of liberation from sin, captivity, fear, imprisonment, death—from all those things that bind us and keep us from abundant life—that certainly includes domestic violence.  Let’s look anew at the word PREACH and walk through the steps that lead us into the ministry of domestic violence prevention.

Pray.   We need to pray for victims of abuse and for those who are abusing them.  Battered women need to hear that they are not alone; that God and our church members care about them and their safety.  Abusers also need to know that we are praying for them, that they can change, that they will be held accountable for their behavior and that domestic violence is wrong.  Do not underestimate the power of speaking about domestic violence in pastoral prayers, condemning it as sin, lifting up both abusers and those they abuse (not by name) and supporting them spiritually. Preaching on domestic violence from the pulpit is a clear and compelling way to reach many people with life-saving information.  Not only are there many texts in scripture that lend themselves to domestic violence sermons, but pastors who preach about domestic violence and let their congregations know that they are aware of abuse dynamics are much more likely to receive requests for help from parishioners.

Read.  There is a wealth of information available from books and publications to videos to websites.  Research the helping agencies (governmental and non-profits) in your community.  Be prepared to give referrals to community services and domestic violence professionals.  Pastors can provide spiritual care to both abusers and victims while referring them to specifically trained professionals for counseling, therapy, safety planning, shelter and batterers’ intervention (not anger management) programs.  I recommend reading Do’s and Don’ts for Pastors and Rabbis and A Commentary on Religious Issues in Family Violence.

Additionally, here are some titles of books and videos that are helpful for personal and group study.

Women, Abuse and the Bible by Catherine Clark Kroeger, Domestic Violence: What Every Pastor Needs to KnowViolence in Families: What Every Christian Needs to Know, and Ending Violence in Teen Dating Relationships by Al Miles, God’s Reconciling Love by Nancy Murphy, Keeping the Faith by Marie Fortune,Broken Vows: Religious Perspective on Domestic ViolenceWings Like a Dove: Healing for the Christian Abused Woman and Domestic Violence: What Churches Can Do (available from FaithTrust Institute) and I Believe You (Diva Communications).

Educate. After educating ourselves we can begin to share our knowledge with others.  Sunday School or small groups are perfect venues for hosting an awareness seminar, churches can partner with community education groups to sponsor educational conferences, we can post phone numbers for the national domestic violence hotline, shelters, and support groups on bulletin boards, in newsletters and Sunday worship bulletins and we can teach our youth about dating violence and healthy relationships in youth groups or at youth retreats.  You may want to bookmark and browse these helpful websites and remember that education is an on-going process. I highly recommend taking advantage of the online training and webinars offered by these organizations.

Religion and Violence E-learning (RAVE) believes that every abused person who looks to a faith community for help deserves to receive accurate, compassionate, practical help with SAFETY as the top priority.  RAVE provides information (best practices and what to avoid), shelter referrals and resources, andonline web-based training  to religious leaders and congregations.  Based on 15 years of social science research that examines the relationship between faith and domestic violence, RAVE believes that churches and their communities are co-partners in responding to abuse and working together.

FaithTrust Institute is a national, multifaith, multicultural training and education organization with global reach working to end sexual and domestic violence.  It offers a resource store, news blog, articles and training (both online and personalized) addressing religion and abuse.  Check out the specific  information on a training partnership between FaithTrust Institute and the Lutheran Community Foundation.

Peace and Safety in the Christian Home (PASCH) is a coalition of academics, professionals, clergy and laity whose goal is to increase peace and safety in Christian homes and in the world by addressing and decreasing all forms of abuse.  Their site offers publications, an article archive, bookstore and referrals to international and domestic agencies that help abused persons.

The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV) works to eliminate personal and societal violence against women and children by building coalitions at local, state, regional and national levels; supporting community-based safe home and shelter programs, providing public education, technical assistance, policy development, legislation, and assisting in organizational development to under-represented groups.  They also focus on efforts to eradicate the social conditions that contribute to violence against women and children.

You may also want to learn what faith-based women’s groups are doing.  For many years domestic violence prevention has been a national focus of United Methodist Women (UMW)  and Women of the ELCA.   These women’s groups are strong advocates for all women and do excellent work on many levels to address domestic violence and support battered women.

Advocate. To be an advocate is to support, defend, recommend, speak or plead on behalf of others.  Some of the steps discussed above such as hosting an educational forum are examples of advocacy.  Lobbying, writing letters to legislators and newspaper editors, supporting victims by accompanying them to legal proceedings or providing financial assistance are other examples of advocacy. If a woman has to leave her home, having a church help her with emergency expenses such as groceries, clothing, school supplies, rent, medical bills or utilities is a huge relief and a concrete example of being a compassionate advocate.

Care.  This is the motivation for doing things.  As Christians we must care about people just as Jesus did.  My favorite verse that inspires me to care about domestic violence is found in Philippians 2:4   “Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” Freedom from domestic violence is in everybody’s best interest and our homes and churches must be safe places to live, grow and thrive.  No one should have to choose between safety and faith.

Help.  Once we have decided to care about domestic violence, become educated through reading, prayer and advocacy, we will find that ministry has already started.  I applaud the little and big steps that lead individuals and churches into domestic violence prevention ministry. Whether it is providing a safe space to make a phone call or running a shelter every day of the year, each helpful act leads us one step closer to a violence-free world.

As I finish writing this article, I am in the midst of planning a conference on domestic violence titled “Why, God Why:  Breaking the Cycle of Violence.” This event is open to all United Methodists and our ecumenical partners.  I’m pleased that there are members of Lutheran churches who have registered for this event that will take place on April 14, 2012.  If you’d like more information or want to register for this day long conference, visit our website at  My hope is that more districts, annual conferences, synods, presbyteries, dioceses and archdioceses will take up the challenge of making our homes and churches safer places, so that no church family will experience the tragedy that mine did 33 years ago.


Ellen Johanson has more than 30 years of experience in sales, marketing and customer service in faith-based non-profits, corporations and governmental agencies.  Her interest in faith-based violence prevention work grew out of membership in a church that utilized the services of FaithTrust Institute to address clergy sexual misconduct.  Ellen subsequently worked for FaithTrust Institute for nearly 13 years prior to coming to the Pacific Northwest Conference of the United Methodist Church where she currently is the manager of the Regional Media Center, a media ministry that serves United Methodist Churches and our ecumenical partners in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Alaska.