Participants at the Domestic Violence workshop

Churches learn to respond to domestic violence

“Faith communities are really instrumental for providing (domestic violence) survivors with help and healing,” a trainer told about 60 church leaders from around the Eastern PA Conference recently. Julie Owens, a survivor herself and the daughter of a retired Presbyterian pastor, shared her own horrific experience of being brutally attacked, abducted and threatened by her husband, who then attacked and tried to kill her clergyman father.

Both escaped, the former husband went to prison, and Owens, who shares her painful but redemptive story freely, found her life’s passion in helping others–including church leaders–to understand and respond to domestic violence. The first response is to help victims and survivors find safety and support, which for many is in short supply.

Every nine seconds a woman is assaulted or beaten, most often as a victim of domestic or relationship violence, the leading cause of injury to women in the U.S. Daily, women are threatened, attacked and murdered by husbands and boyfriends. Yet, too often their fearful screams are silenced, their bruises and broken spirits hidden even from churches they may belong to or live near. Fearing rejection, victim-blaming or public exposure, they are afraid to seek help in the one place where it should be most available.

So what can the church–any church–do to help them?

Teams of clergy and laity came to learn about this scourge that inflicts pain, loss and secret shame on numerous households, including many whose names are on church membership rolls. The attendees were challenged to devise and lead other churches in fulfilling what the training’s title promised: “Domestic Violence: A Faithful Response.”

The full-day workshop, held June 6 at West Lawn UMC in Reading, revealed the dynamics of “DV” and how churches can and must begin to speak up and step up to address the needs of victims, survivors and their abusers. Owens conducted the training on behalf of FaithTrust Institute, an organization based in Seattle, Wash., that trains and resources religious groups to seek proactive solutions to clergy sexual abuse and domestic violence. The national office of United Methodist Women, based in New York City, selected Eastern PA Conference from among several conferences that applied to receive the free training.

Participants came in groups from the conference’s six districts, learning together in plenary sessions and then separating to attend three breakout sessions. Those sessions focused on rendering effective pastoral care to victims and survivors, ensuring safe places for them to disclose abuse and seek help, and helping teenagers recognize and create healthy relationships.

Owens, a trainer with two decades of experience in developing, managing and resourcing domestic violence programs, provided a primer to the gathering, covering social, spiritual, situational and psychological causes and consequences of the problem. They explored a broad range of concerns including:

  • victims’ safety issues and barriers to leaving their abusers;
  • misuse of scripture and how religion can be both “a resource and a roadblock”;
  • guidelines for effective responses by faith groups; and
  • collaboration with community allies to help victims and abusers.

“A faith response begins with knowing your role,” Owens told the gathering. “You are not therapists or social workers, police officers or shelter providers.” Instead, she said, churches can provide respectful confidentiality, caring support, guidance, resources, advocacy, information and referrals. The goal is not to tell victims what to do, but to offer them safety and support if they choose to leave, and encouragement if they don’t. And to hold abusers accountable for their misdeeds.

The goal of the training, which will be provided to other conferences, is to generate creative, coordinated responses to domestic violence in districts, churches and communities, according to Mollie Vickery of the National UMW agency. That coordination should involve UM Men’s, Women’s and youth groups.

Two FaithTrust Institute staff facilitated interactive breakout discussions during the training. Program Director Jane Fredrickson led a discussion on ways to help churches ensure safety and confidentiality for victims who need to disclose abuse. Program Manager Danielle Hill helped another group creatively examine the growing problem of teen dating violence and how to prevent it.

“Our church teams came ready to learn and to work,” said Sharon Hachtman, RN, a UM Deaconess who applied for the training opportunity and organized it. “This event was a wonderful success with expert training; and I look forward to more opportunities to increase our abilities and expand this learning so more of us can respond to this serious problem in loving, informed and effective ways.”

Also attending the workshop were Mary Wilson, RN, chair of the Conference Health & Wellness Team, Ruth Carr of the Conference UMW Social Action Team, and participants from A Woman’s Place, a domestic violence service agency in Bucks County.

Participating churches at the training were:

  • Church of the Open Door UMC
  • Doylestown UMC
  • East Stroudsburg UMC
  • Hopewell UMC
  • Iglesia Nuevo Nacimiento (New Birth) UMC
  • Janes Memorial UMC Philadelphia
    Schuylkill Haven UMC
  • Union UMC
  • West Lawn UMC 

PS: “When Violence Comes Home”
The Rev. Robert S. Owens, FaithTrust Institute trainer Julie Owens’ father, who was attacked along with her by her then-husband, has been involved in ministry to victims of domestic violence and their families for many years. A retired minister in the Presbyterian Church(U.S.A.), he prepared and preached a sermon on this topic, titled “When Violence Comes Home.” His sermon may be read on Religion and Violence E-Learning Project’s Website.

By John W. Coleman


A 2nd DV training opportunity in October. Register asap!

Another free, weekend training for church groups wanting to learn and respond faithfully and strategically to family violence will be offered at the Doubletree Hotel in King of Prussia Oct. 23-24. FaithTrust Institute, which facilitated the June 6 training, will also lead this “Safe and Healthy Churches: Ending Family Violence” training event, which is free to participants and funded by the InFaith Community Foundation.

This overnight training event–with free hotel lodging provided–will be ecumenical, inviting 25 four-person teams from Christian churches in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware.

They will develop actions plans to support DV survivors and their families, help prevent future harm, and hold abusers accountable. The training will address:

  • Pastoral Care Responses to Domestic Violence;
  • Child Abuse Prevention for Lay Teachers and Ministers;
  • Healthy Teen Relationships for Youth Ministers; and
  • Child Sexual Abuse: Prevention & Intervention for Risk Reduction Leaders.

The deadline for online registration (http://www.faithtrustinstitute.org/training/safe-and-healthy-churches-training-2015-king-of-prussia-pa) is Aug. 15, and churches accepted for the training will be notified by Aug. 29.

If you need more information contact Sharon Hachtman at 570-460-7301 or shhooma@live.com.
At FaithTrust Institute you can also contact either Clare Obradovich at 206-634-1903 ext. 27 or clareo@faithtrustinstitute.org, or Carolyn Scott Brown at 206-634-1903 ext. 23 or csbrown@faithtrustinstitute.org.