The life that I had known for all of my existence came to a screeching halt in the same year. It was the year that I resigned from my position as a pastor at a local church, while simultaneously ending my marriage of fifteen years. I didn’t tell anyone about my marriage (with the exception of a few close friends and my family). I feared that sharing the demise of my marriage would just lead to more pain and scrutiny so I focused on what I could– the good that came out of serving the church. But more pointedly, I chose not to share about my marriage because it was in keeping with what I had been shown and told while growing up in the church and then even more so while I was a minister—to keep the broken to myself. There is a model of ‘keeping secrets’ that the church has become effective in teaching through strategies of shaming and an over reliance on church leadership.
I wish I’d had the courage and the vehicle to have told people about my marriage. If I could go back I would— if for no other reason than for the sake of other women who hold their own shame & secrets of domestic violence to themselves.
In the second year of serving the church, the lead pastor learned of the circumstances of my marriage. He sat us down for a talk to confront us on the matter. I was choked with fear and then with shame. I remember feeling the need to not only preserve my marriage but also to preserve my job at the church and so I swallowed my shame and I promised that my marriage would not come before my role at the church.
After that conversation, the relationship with the lead pastor never was the same. We (my family) were never regarded in the same manner. The relationship between myself and the lead pastor became more and more distant over time. I learned from these cues to not bother him with my worries or concerns and maintained this status quo.
Shame became such a familiar cloud. I learned how to be available for others while also hiding my own pain and my own face. I became incredibly adept at this skill. My availability was completely sincere, but my insides were melting.
One night things got out of hand at home. I remember so little of the circumstances other than the fear and shock. What I do remember is that I grabbed my two and half year-old daughter and with no shoes ran out of our apartment to a friend’s apartment. My friend took my daughter and I to a hotel for the night. The next day we returned to her studio apartment and I took refuge in her bed for a week while she helped look after my child. When Sunday rolled around I emotionally, mentally, & physically dusted myself off—returned home to the huge hole in the wall and showed up to my pastoral duties at church that morning.
No one ever knew about that week with the exception of that one friend.
The roller coasters of instability would continue throughout my marriage and I would do what I learned to do keep it to myself, show up for others and never complain. I was wracked not only with incredible waves of shame, but isolation.
My story is not really all that special or unique. It is an unfortunate thing to realize that between 25-33% of women (in the U.S.) are dealing with domestic abuse in all forms of physical aggression, financial deprivation, emotional battering and psychological warfare. Think about it church and church leaders—that means that every 3rd or 4th female and every 10th male is dealing with some form of domestic violence while showing up to church every Sunday and maybe never telling a soul of the pain that they are in.
There are certain aspects of pain that the church is willing to do deal with that involve: biological illness and disease or a loss of a loved one through death, but the more sticky areas of pain having to do with mental illness or domestic abuse are overlooked—never to be spoken of. In part, I believe it’s because the church doesn’t know how to respond. They get so mired in the awkwardness and discomfort that it becomes easier to distant oneself from it then learn about appropriate ways to respond to not only the survivor, but the entire family system. And so whether they mean to or not their distance communicates to the survivor and the entire family that something is fundamentally wrong with them and that they are not worthy of engagement.
For many survivors, who already have frail and shattered identities, they take that message to mean this is the best that they are gonna get—so they take it. Community is incredibly important to survivors—a sense of being connected—even if it is not authentic is important and meaningful and gives even the smallest sliver of hope.
But you know what? This-is-not-okay. It is not okay for the church to slough off the awkwardness of domestic pain—maybe with the hope that someone else (a social worker, family member or government program) will intervene. It’s not acceptable for the church not to learn culturally sensitive ways to interact, support and engage survivors who are experiencing DV. It is not okay for the church to think that there is a ‘one size fits all’ approach that will be adequate for how it supports partnerships and families.
And so church leaders, you have some work cut out for you and one place you can start is by telling people that you believe them and that the circumstances do not change how you love them, embrace them or continue connection with them.
And then go get some training on domestic violence as well as a multi-cultural/inclusive approach to family systems.
New Beginnings is offering community-wide trainings and something they call courageous conversations: http://www.newbegin.org/courageous
The Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence (WSCDV) offers trainings and online courses: http://wscadv.org
Most importantly, Dear Survivor: you are not alone. Your story, your experience… well it is real and valid and true. You may question whether or not there is anyone that could understand or accept your experience. You may even blame yourself. You may be in a community or in a family where the norm is to keep secrets and you don’t think anyone would believe you if you came out and shared. You may feel all kinds of love and confusion about the relationship and unsure of what the choices or options are. You may be hearing all kinds of voices of judgement about why you stay or why you don’t leave or that it is immoral for you to end a marriage. You may be feeling scared for your children and their futures. You may be fearful about where you would live or how you could financially sustain. You may be struggling with the belief that this is the norm in relationships. You may be scared to your very core. You are right there are no easy answers. One blog entry and a few words are not going to be a balm for all you’re feeling and experiencing. But I want you to know that I believe you. I believe all of it and I know that there are others out there that do, too. You are worth working through the hesitation to reach out. Here are some safe places where you can do that:
New Beginnings: http://www.newbegin.org // 24-hour helpline 206.522.9472
DAWN: http://dawnrising.org // 24-hour helpline 425.656.7867
Lifewire: https://www.lifewire.org // 24-hour helpline 800.827.8840