By Brad Hambrick
A church does not get to choose a “client” or work exclusively from the perspective of one individual. That is the approach of mental health professionals. It has advantages for which we should be grateful. However, the church has a calling to care for all of its members. This means that we also need to be wise and skilled in how we care for someone who has a history of being abusive.
One of the first things you need to know is that abuse is private. When you attempt to minister to someone who has been abusive, it will feel like an invasion of privacy to them. This accounts for much of the resistance you are likely to experience.
A second thing you need to know is that abusers are used to being in control. The demeanor they show when they are in control changes dramatically when their sense of control is threatened.
In the early phases of pastoral care, it doesn’t matter whether the abusive actions were intentional or instinctual. Until an abusive individual acknowledges what they’ve done, the actions and effects, it is of little pastoral value to focus on why they did it, the intent or motive. Though abusers may not “intend” to harm, this does not make their actions less destructive or less dangerous.
Any beneficial care for abusers begins with their acknowledgement of the nature, extent, and impact of their abusive behavior. Without this acknowledgement, working on other areas of personal growth, like ways of being “nicer” or a more engaged parent, will, at best, create a façade of change. Resistance to acknowledging their abusive behavior reveals (a) this person is not repentant, and (b) this person is not safe to be back in the home.
There are two approaches recommended to gain acknowledgement. First, focus on the clearest examples of abuse. Self-awareness and acknowledgement typically develops from the greater to the lesser. Think in terms of a 1 to 10 scale. If the abuser’s worst actions were a “9,” those actions will have to be owned before they will acknowledge a “7.” Once you get to a “6” or “5” event, they will likely want to treat these as “not that bad.”
The objective is to help them realize that when their average or “normal” conflict response level registers as a “5 or 6,” this is a healthy person’s worst conflict response. They are forcing their family to be perpetually bracing for an unsafe response and tolerate an elevated conflict environment as their “normal.”
A second approach is called rolling with resistance; a style of communication developed in working with individuals who are resistant to change. In the follow up resource section, an introductory tutorial on rolling with resistance is included. The basic idea is this: if you are addressing someone who lacks the motivation to change, then the initial goal, the first step towards the ultimate goal, should be on raising the level of motivation and commitment to change rather than offering solutions to the problem.
The abusive individual is going through an emotionally stressful time. But they are not the victim of their own actions. We can be empathetic without letting up on expectations. If past abuse, addiction, or mental health concerns contribute to their abuse, pursuing the needed care should be a requirement of the church discipline, and a release of information document should be signed so pastors can speak with whatever caregivers are involved.
This article is adapted from Becoming a Church that Cares Well for the Abused. Access this free training at ChurchCares.com.
*Please note the curriculum is not intended to be legal counsel or to provide holistic training for counseling or pastoral care on the issue of abuse but is an accessible tutorial on how to respond with pastoral and ethical excellence. The curriculum gives a theological foundation for the topic, brings understanding on the issues connected to abuse disclosure and reporting, and gives practical wisdom by which leaders can navigate complex situations.
Brad Hambrick serves as the Pastor of Counseling at The Summit Church in Durham, North Carolina.