Is It Safe to Tell Your Pastor Your Marriage Problems?

 

In 2020, an informal Facebook survey question was posed to 800 Christians who were considering or had gotten a divorce:

How did your pastor respond to when you disclosed abuse in your marriage?

What do you want pastors to know about abuse?

 

I’ve included more than 40 powerful stories below, edited slightly for clarity or to remove names, location, and identifiers. Scroll to the bottom to see the 10 Key Takeaways

 

But Before You Read their Stories…What is Your View of God?

  1. Does God care about the weak and vulnerable? Does he want church leaders to protect them?
  2. Does God rightly judge those who are violent, adulterous, lying, treacherous, swindlers, greedy, and selfish, and those who refuse to care for their family? Or because Christ died for our sins, does God now brush everything under the carpet?
  3. Does God want to rescue us from destructive situations, or is he a distant God, who turns a deaf ear to misery and bondage because he “hates divorce”?

 

 

Stories from the Survey

Good Experiences with a Pastor

(Editor's comments in brackets with italics)

  • The pastors followed up with me. I have to say I was so blessed by my pastors. I didn’t talk to them before everything exploded and I told my ex to leave; but my friend called them the next day and they immediately called back to make sure the kids and I were safe. They were there to support us and told me to get a lawyer for protection. They called a few times a week at the beginning, and then periodically after that, and almost two years later I get random calls just checking in. Our senior pastor walked through a horrifyingly abusive divorce with his cousin, so he had seen all the ugly that can’t be hidden. I suspect the church’s response would’ve been different under our previous pastor and his wife.  [Editor's note: Notice that this woman only needed a bit of assurance that the pastors’ supported  her and understood her situation.]

 

  • The pastor was shocked but believed it when I told him my 30-year marriage was a fraud. My pastor was shocked. My ex-husband was a Bible teacher. We’ve been missionaries and we were both on the worship team. We also had a 30-year marriage and seemingly looked like we had it all together. At first the pastor thought I should “soften my heart” to my husband. So I began listing the abusive behaviors and ask the pastor if he treated his wife that way? That’s when he finally got it. He’s a very protective husband. The second time I met with him, he brought in one of our retired pastors who told me unwaveringly to get out! They both prayed with me and gave their blessings. I wish pastors knew that it takes victims a long time to understand that they are being abused. By the time we seek help, it’s often past the point of reconciliation. Pastors need to believe us and stand with us, not shame us or give our husbands a “free pass.” Don’t keep telling us “just be submissive” or “keep praying” or “keep the faith.” No, we’ve already done all of that. [Editor's note: This pastor couldn’t believe her story at first. That’s understandable, as they’d been admired leaders. But he was willing to listen, and identified the husband’s behavior as marriage-endangering sin. He told the wife that in his view, she was in good standing with the Lord. He respected her right to decide for herself.]

 

  • My pastor and his wife saw his paranoia and rage. I had very caring pastor, who already knew my side of the story. One day, my abusive husband went to the pastor’s house with the intention of smearing my character and making himself look like a victim after a rage. He didn’t know the pastor and his wife had been counseling me for many years. The pastor and his wife called me and asked me to come over. I did and asked my husband, “Did you tell the pastor that you pulled your fist back to punch me in the face?” That set my husband off and he told them everything he had said and done over those 40 years, and tried to rationalize it and explain it away. The pastor and his wife saw the paranoia, delusion, and rage. They were shocked. They said I was a prisoner in my own home. They supported me, and after 40 years of abuse, I got away. I wish all pastors knew that some spouses are covert abusers who are only in the marriage for what they can get: control and power. I believe that if I’d stayed, I would have been a murder-suicide statistic. [Editor's note: It’s rare for abusers to show their true colors in front of someone they wish to impress. After 40 years of abuse, this was the turning point that allowed this godly woman to leave. How much unnecessary pain and damage was done to her and her children all these years?]

 

  • My church was already preaching and teaching on this topic. My church held an abuse awareness training, and I wish I had heard this information years earlier. It was so valuable! And the example they used of emotional abuse was almost exactly my story. I wish the church talked about abuse more and made it clear that mental abuse is abuse even if there’s no physical violence. That’s a huge misconception I had. [Editor's note: More churches should have domestic violence training for leaders and volunteers. Here’s a basic video training one pastor created for his church.]

 

  • I didn't even know I was being abused. Pastors and church leaders need to realize that we abused spouses (women and men) question our own reality. We don’t even realize we’ve been abused for so many years. In order to survive we had to believe the false messages we received from pastors, Christian radio, and marriage authors: The implied that abuse would automatically end if we were just submissive enough, agreeable enough, or sexually enthusiastic enough. No, those are false promises. Sadly, we bought them, and every day doubled-down and tried harder until we were broken down emotionally and physically. [Editor's note: It is very common for the abuse victim not to know they are being abused. Often pastors figure it out before they do. One pastor keeps this diagram handy to help them see the truth for themselves.]

 

  • My pastor told me I was being abused. I had a good pastor and he was the one who told me I was being abused. I wish all pastors knew that abuse is ongoing, and just because you’re divorcing an abuser, doesn’t mean it has stopped. Continue to check on victims and survivors to see how things are going. Don’t just assume things are OK. [Editor's note: Again, it is common that the pastor or counselor will identify abusive behavior before the victim does. Abuse often continues after the divorce through pointless litigation, threats, harassment, stalking, turning the kids against the parent, undermining the victim’s reputation, and false allegations with no evidence. See Ch 7 of The Life-Saving Divorce.]

 

  • My church forced my dangerous ex to leave the church. Luckily, my pastor is educated on abuse, and he and the church helped me in every way they could to make my ex-husband leave. I didn’t even know I was being abused. I went to the pastor and explained an incident, just looking for help. The pastor asked a few questions and said, “Your husband is an abuser.” My ex-husband was so angry with that pastor, he threatened to burn the man’s house down with his family in it. I had to go and file a police report. Then my ex-husband developed a new story saying that I was having an affair with the pastor. [Editor's note: Praise God for a pastor who was willing to lay down his life for his flock. Abusers are chronic liars and they will do anything to marshal people to their cause.]

 

 

Bad Experiences with a Pastor

 

  • I brought evidence, but my pastors wouldn't even look at it. My pastors didn’t believe how bad the abuse was, so I recorded it. The next time my ex-husband went on a raging rant, I recorded his name-calling, my son’s whimpering, my husband’s threats, and then sent it to the pastor and my ex-husband’s mentor. They refused to listen to the recording. [Editor's note: This is very common. Some pastors don’t want to know the truth because they don’t want to get involved. The wife realized it wasn’t worth her time, energy, and emotional energy to interact with them. In order to get to safety, she had to walk away.]

 

  • My church wanted to silence me and control everything secretly. My church fought me on everything. They wanted to know who I told about the abuse. They asked if I was sure that a separation was needed. They claimed they would talk to my husband and take action but not tell me what was decided. They claimed that I had disassociated myself from the church, so there was little they could do. I’m glad I got away and divorced my abusive husband and my abusive church. [Editor's note: This church treats this woman as if she has no God-given responsibility to protect herself. The pastors want to control who finds out her side of the story. In a sense they are treating her like a child and making the choices for her, even concealing their actions from her. I don’t get any sense they will hold the husband responsible for anything. They seem to be protecting him.]

 

  • I had a protective order against my violent spouse, but the pastors removed ME from ministry. My pastor mostly wanted to know if my husband had hit me, because that was crossing a line. They removed me from ministry after I filed a protective order. They readily believed anything my husband said about wanting to reconcile. I offered to show them legal documents to set the record straight, but they refused to take me at my word or look at any proof I had. All pastors should know that marriage counseling [couples counseling] is not a solution for domestic abuse, and it actually harms the victim. Isolating the victim from serving in the church, acts as a punishment. Forbidding the victim to ask others for help or prayer further isolates her. Letting the abuser join the church in the middle of the conflict is not in anyone’s best interest. Not taking sides is giving the abuser more power. They won’t stand up to a bully. The rejection of the church and eventual loss of church community was more painful than anything my husband ever did to me. [Editor's note: This church made the victim into the bad guy. They refused to identify his marriage-endangering sin and hold the violent husband responsible for change. They refused to look at law enforcement evidence. They isolated her by silencing her. And they refused to be just and fair.]

 

  • My wife was unfaithful and manipulative, but somehow it was my fault. The pastor turned to me and said, “Yeah, you have to realize that she’s the queen, so no matter what, you need to make her feel loved.” I did what the pastor told me, but over time I became depressed and suicidal. It wasn’t until licensed therapists outside my church saw the truth that I got help. My wife never was willing to work to make the marriage safe, so I finally divorced. I had to walk away from that church, even though the pastor was a friend. [Editor's note: This well-meaning pastor naively believed that the godly spouse—in this case the husband—could single-handedly make the marriage safe and respectful, and that his wife would automatically behave better if he was a godly spiritual leader. That didn’t work out so well. The husband’s 30-day in-patient treatment cost thousands of dollars and nearly cost him his job. We are all responsible for our own behavior, not for any other adult’s.]

 

  • My pastor flip-flopped. He called my spouse a "sadist," but then he wanted me to keep trying. At first, my pastor said my husband was a sadist and to be careful, but then we separated, and he told me I should go back because I wasn’t really in danger and I needed to fight for my marriage. His message was very confusing. I wish pastors knew that women are covering up for their abuser, usually out of loyalty or fear, and that the abuse is ten times worse than we’ve ever divulged. I also wish pastors knew something about abusers: These men are great actors playing the role of a lifetime. [They have it all planned:] From the clothes they wear, to the prayer requests they make, to the stories they tell about their wives, everything abusers say and do is calculated to get you, the pastor, on their side. You’ll only see what they want you to see. Pastors need to believe the threat is real. Pastors also need to know that many abuse victims don’t know they are being abused. We wives were taught that it is our job to keep husbands happy at all costs. [We think all marriages are this demeaning. We are isolated. We aren’t allowed to talk with anyone.] I lived in fear of my husband for 9 out of the 11 years we were together. When my son was born, I cried and cried. I told him “I’m going to have to protect you from your daddy.” That should’ve been a good indication. [Editor's note: This woman lives in constant fear. This pastor knew the truth, but for some reason did not support her need to leave. Perhaps he was dazzled by a good con artist. He also didn’t realize that wives (and sometimes husbands, whoever the invested spouse is) will fall on their sword and conceal the bad behavior, in hopes that their spouse will someday change. When they finally do tell the truth, after some shattering event, no one believes them because they’ve kept their spouse’s sin a secret for so long.]

 

  • My pastor didn't believe I was being abused. My story of abuse was originally treated as a “marriage issue.” You know, a breakdown of communication, lack of love, “two sinners sinning,” and “two to tango.” They told me, “Go on a date, remember why you two fell in love.” While our pastor never blamed me directly, he would also not accept that I was being abused. To him, the term abuse only applied to physical abuse. And despite holding my husband up as the spiritual leader of the home, I was the one expected to do right and keep the marriage intact. My husband could blatantly lie, miss counseling appointments and skip church, but he was never held accountable. I wish pastors knew that rather than exaggerating the abuse, we victims are more likely to minimize it because it’s too painful to see the reality of it. Pastors need to humble themselves and admit they are ill-equipped to handle abuse. Abusers lie. [Editor's note: This woman, like the one in the previous story, minimized her husband’s bad behavior due to messages that told her it’s the wife’s responsibility to hold the marriage together at all costs, even if it damages her life or sanity. Notice how the church never held him responsible. They were not fair. He should have been held accountable for not treating her with respect. They were blinded by their theology that emotional abuse isn’t real abuse, therefore did nothing to protect a victim. That makes these types of churches unsafe.]

 

  • My pastors didn't want me to call the police. They covered for him. My abusive husband destroyed my life and my kids’ lives. My church convinced me that they cared about our safety, but in reality, they drilled me until I agreed not to go to the police. The yelled at me for not going back to reconcile and “win him without a word.” When they found out about the police investigation, they gave him a heads up and tried to cover for him. Being ganged up on by your church is the worse than being abused by an abuser. Just because an abuser claims repentance doesn’t mean you should get back together. Give it time to see if it’s real! And if the abuser’s repentance is real, he would accept the court verdict, penalty, and sentence from the state. [Editor's note: It’s common for pastors to want a victim to rush to forgiveness and smooth things over, sweeping everything under the rug, and reconciling without any evidence of long-term change. This isn’t wise or safe. Further, this church tried to protect the husband from receiving the natural consequences of his violent criminal behavior. This church has lost sense of right and wrong, and cannot be trusted. God is not mocked.]

 

  • My church forced me to go to a untrained biblical counselor. I endured a year and a half of biblical counseling with my soon-to-be ex-husband that went nowhere. The counselor had no business counseling couples at all. All he has is an MDiv. Not a degree in psychology or counseling. He’s not a licensed counselor. [Editor's note: Time, money, and effort are precious. There’s only so much energy an exhausted person has, so focus your time, money, and effort on getting to safety and finding healing. Don’t waste it on someone who is well-meaning but delusional, and refuses to see that God doesn’t promise to heal all marriages.]

 

  • My twice-incarcerated pedophile husband fooled my pastor. “My husband was caught in a child porn sting operation. He’s been arrested and incarcerated twice, but my pastor kept pushing me to forgive him, and told me about great changes in him when he was in prison. I didn’t trust he had changed, and I gave the pastor examples of verbal abuse, and revealed who he was at home behind closed doors. My husband knew I wasn’t going to read his letters anymore so he sent his letters to the pastor to get them to me that way…. I wish pastors knew how easy it is for a clever manipulator to use them as an ally and “flying monkey.” [Flying monkey is the term for someone who assists the abuser, by pressuring the victim or smearing their reputation.] [Editor's note: It’s shocking to see how blithely some pastors will risk your children’s lives and safety for their own ideology. Reconcile with a pedophile? Really, pastor? Are you planning to have that pedophile babysit your kids or grandkids?]

 

  • My abusive husband was my pastor. The elders were initially supportive of me, until a retired pastor in the congregation got to them and the narrative changed. He accused me of doing irreparable damage to the trust and intimacy of my marriage. I turned around and told him, “Do you know the irreparable damage he has done to the trust and intimacy of our marriage for the past eight years? I’m finally going to do something about it.” That was the last time I spoke with that man. Pastors need to know what convincing con-artists abusers can be. They know exactly what to say to each person to appeal to their highest values. I think every church and pastor should go through training on abuse and train their elders and leaders and read books on the subject matter. They need to be cognizant of abuse when they teach and preach. That women and children need support not gaslighting, shame, condemnation, and abandonment. [Editor's note: Another common false message churches give is that the person who files for divorce is the person who destroyed the marriage. Though it may be true in some cases, often the person who files is the victim who wants to get to safety.]

 

  • They surrounded my abuser with love and ignored me. They gave him support in order to help him change. I was essentially ignored. They sat around holding their breath, waiting for me to decide to go back to him. They wanted to save the marriage at all costs. When I did not come back, some told me they were disappointed with my choice and others just ignored me completely. I want pastors to educate themselves on abuse. We abuse victims are exhausted. It’s not our job to educate pastors who should’ve gotten this training in seminary, or by reading a few books. We don’t have the emotional energy to fix the church and train the pastors while we are trying to heal. [Editor's note: Despite the misinformation in the Christian world, there are real-world consequences to sitting around and waiting for someone to change. Over time, children and parents’ mental and physical health deteriorate in ways well-documented by medical science. Trauma affects the children, and is known to researchers. A miraculous change is, by definition, miraculous. It’s a slim possibility. It happens rarely, no matter how hard we pray. And Jesus, the only sinless person in the world, who prayed perfectly, did not change Judas, who had walked alongside him for years. If miracles were common, we wouldn’t call them miracles.]

 

 

  • I was suicidal and headed for a breakdown. My abusive husband was an elder. I was suicidal and headed for a breakdown. I was made to sit in front of my husband and the other elders and detail the abuse over and over whilst they made excuses for him. “Everything is petty,” or “Other marriages have worse problems,” or “Repeatedly standing on the back of your heels is an accident not abuse,” or “He only crapped on your stuff because he was ill,” or “Apply biblical principles, fix your marriage, or lose your privileges [in our fellowship].” They removed me from full-time service for swearing at my husband after three days of constant provocation. They said to me, “If you spent more time studying, praying harder, and putting more effort in, you’d have more self-control.” One elder got me alone after a service, and started out nice then turned nasty. He said, “If you don’t do what the elders demand, you’ll never serve fulltime again!” I was so bullied by the elders at the at a time I wasn’t in a fit state to advocate for myself. [Editor's note: To shame a person for wanting to be treated respectfully by their own spouse is hardly “petty.” Yet some churches teach that you have no right to good treatment. They become incensed when you call out the injustice and cry out to the Lord.]

 

  • My pastor called me hypocritical and hard hearted for wanting to divorce my abusive husband. My lead pastor seemed supportive [at first] and at one point asked if I felt safe. But once I decided to divorce, he called me hypocritical and hard hearted, unwilling to own up to my own issues. It was very painful. I wish pastors understood that marriage is for two healthy functioning believers to journey together. Where’s there’s chronic abuse, divorce is a grace [a gift from God]. [Editor's note: Where there is treachery, a life-saving divorce is God’s gift to a victimized parent and kids. It does not bestow a curse. It is a blessing.]

 

  • I became concerned that these pastors, themselves, were abusive husbands.  I’ve come to believe that some pastors are unfortunately living lies themselves in their own marriages and families. Not all are the wonderful pastors we think they are. I believe one of Satan’s best targets to turn people away from the church is to go after the church leaders themselves. [Editor's note: Jesus and the New Testament writers often point out that Christian leaders can fall into sin themselves, and lose their eligibility to be leaders. An abusive Christians meets the standards of 1 Corinthians 5:11. and needs to be removed from our fellowship. Not all Christians should aspire to leadership. Christian leaders should be held to a higher standard.]

 

  • My pastor, my husband, my abuser were all the same person. When I left, his district officials had him resign, but nothing was done to support me. They even appeared in court to support him. All they said to me was the trite, “Praying for you,” and I have no faith they even remembered to pray for me. Many people in the congregation “unfriended” me because I ruined their “perfect pastor.” [They don’t know what I’ve been through.] I haven’t been public about the reasons for the divorce. Sometimes I just want to post some of the reasons, and a few of the photos, but I don’t. My new church has been wonderful. The pastor and his wife to pray for me and with me. They check on me and my kids. They offered to help in tangible ways. They believe me without question. And they assure me of Christ’s love and forgiveness. [Editor's note: This is another perfect example on “falling on your sword” to protect someone’s reputation, maybe the abuser, maybe the kids, maybe the institution. The innocent spouse silently takes the criticism of others because they are unwilling to make the sins public.]

 

  • Victims don't tell everything in the first meeting. It's worse than you know, Pastor. I had to leave my church. At first, they were supportive of divorce, but they did nothing, not a phone call, text, or email, during the COVID19 lockdown. I was trapped with that man for 5 months. I wish pastors knew that anything a victim says about abuse in the first meeting is just the tip of the iceberg. The reality is so much worse. These people are master manipulators and liars. I emailed the pastor but heard nothing back. [Editor's note: As a 20-year Christian divorce recovery leader, I can verify this. I don’t hear the worst allegations (for example, felonies such as physical beatings, choking, and child molesting behavior) until I’ve been meeting with that person regularly for years.

 

  • My church ganged up on me. What really hurts is the church ganging up on you. I felt it too. It was like they were all against me because I was divorcing a man who was abusive. The church didn’t believe me at all. Yes, they tell you to forgive him and move on. In their minds, my husband didn’t have to apologize for anything. I was told I had to repent to him. It can feel like the last straw and the loss of the support system for many of us. I felt like I was divorcing my church at the same time I was divorcing my husband. [Editor's note: Yep, good riddance to both of them. This church is an abuser’s paradise. When you are told you cannot identify danger and speak up about it and insist that it be dealt with, something is wrong. They are trying to dismantle your God-given desire for fairness and safety.]

 

  • My counseling pastor told me that codependent people are manipulative, so I was the problem. I saw a counseling pastor at our church. He turned my story around and said that I was codependent, which led to me being manipulative. He said we needed to pray for my husband. I told him I couldn’t anymore (I mean, I had been praying for him for 20 years- it wasn’t a new concept.) I couldn’t go back to that pastor. I wasn’t being manipulative; I was 100% in survival mode. Just trying to avoid the abuse everyday. I changed to seeing a trauma therapist who does EMDR. God can use anyone I believe and He has done a great work in me through a counselor who may or may not be a believer. She never divulged her personal beliefs to me even though she knows mine. [Editor's note: Sometimes getting well-trained secular help is needed. EMDR is worth asking about. Although this study says it doesn't help certain issues (such as panic attacks), it's often effective at dealing with the nightmares, obsessive and paranoid thoughts, anxiety, and fears after traumatic abuse.] 

 

  • Four pastors said, "We just don't want to get involved." My husband was the pastor. So there was nowhere to go. Only one of the five pastors I spoke to was supportive. The others turned a blind eye. They were just interested in building their numbers. [Editor's note: Pastors who just don't want to get involved are playing a dangerous game called, “Let’s ignore this and hope the news doesn’t blow up and hurt me.” But good shepherds are supposed to leave their comfortable abode and go out into the storm to help the injured sheep. In the Good Samaritan, the religious leaders just chose to ignore the victim and walk on the other side of the road.]

 

  • Older women's leaders told me to ignore child abuse under the guise of being submissive to my husband. When my second was barely two months old, and my eldest was but 16 months old, I went to a women's gathering with just the baby. We had them fairly regularly; it was a small church; everyone knew everyone. My husband had not started in with all the controlling garbage he used in later years, though he was adamant that he did not want me working. After a particular meeting (I have no idea the topic that night), after everyone else had gone and the three "ladies in leadership" were busy cleaning up, I tucked my small baby girl into her car seat and approached the women. I I remember that I admired each of them, though I also remember being a bit afraid of one of them. I went to them and asked what a wife should do if she thought that her husband was "disciplining" their child too harshly. Keep in mind that at the time, I had only two very small children, ages 2 months and 16 months. The women looked up at me and one of them said without hesitation, "She should stay out of the way and let the Holy Spirit deal with him." The other two nodded in agreement. This was the beginning of "why I stayed and put up with it" for as long as I did. That 16-month-old baby boy is now the 30-year old man who lives with me, has massive panic attacks, is unable to work due to the anxiety and panic attacks, and requires the presence of his emotional support dog pretty much 24/7.
    What I wish pastors/those in leadership (and that means ANYONE to whom someone else turns for advice or support, not just "staff") knew is that if someone comes to you with what seems like an absurd question, there is a reason for it, and you should ask clarifying questions rather than spouting a pat "Let God handle it" answer. Had ONE of those ladies even come to me privately afterward and asked me WHY I had asked that, when my children were very small babies who should not have even required "discipline" yet, it could have turned the tide of not just my life, but of those two very precious and wonderful people who were forced to put up with abuse because *I* decided to "honor my husband and trust the Holy Spirit" instead of TRULY trusting the Holy Spirit to lead ME Himself!
    I used to sort of justify that if I had not stayed, then my other <insert any number of younger children here, based on the timing of any given situation> children would not have been born. I no longer believe that "God wanted me to stay so that these particular kids could be born," but rather more like "God GAVE me these wonderful, awesome younger children IN SPITE of my having stayed." Romans 2:28 in action. [Editor's note: Bad advice from women's ministries leaders can endanger the health of your children.]

 

 

Bad Experiences with Naïve Pastors

  • My pastor got conned by my spouse's false repentance. I went to my pastor for help multiple times in five years. Looking back now I see that I described abusive incidents to him over and over, but it was never called such. Sometimes the pastor would confront my husband and call him out on his behavior, but my husband would always smooth things over with either false repentance or by telling the pastor I had exaggerated or was not submissive. Last summer I really hit rock bottom. I stopped going to the pastor for help and found out from secular counselors that I was in an abusive marriage. I told the pastor, and he thought I was exaggerating. After a very bad incident last January, I left my husband. My husband immediately cut off financial support. He refused to leave the house, leaving the kids and me homeless. He changed the locks. He gave me a 24-hour window to get our clothes and belongings out before he threw them away. We only communicated through text, so I was able to document all of that. I also had photos documenting the incident, that final event that caused us to leave. I showed all of these to my pastor. He finally believed me! Eventually he supported me filing for divorce and sole custody. I’m thankful he believes me now, but it’s still bitter that he didn’t believe me all those years. Even though the pastor did eventually believe and support me, by that time considerable harm had been done. If he had believed me in the first year, much damage to myself and my children could’ve been avoided. [Editor's note: I appreciate church leaders who change their minds. It takes humility, and one has to admit they were wrong. But the change is truly appreciated. I have made a lot of mistakes and changed my mind over the past 20 years of leading divorce recovery groups.]

 

  • My pastor claimed that my justified anger (at my husband's sin) was a sin too. Yes, my pastors were willing to admit that my husband’s behavior was sinful, but if my husband said that I got angry with him, then the pastors just “mutualized” it [claiming my anger was just as sinful as my husband’s sin. Isn’t God angry at sin? Aren’t we supposed to be angry at sin?]. I actually had a panic attack in the pastor’s office after one joint counseling session. My ex had gotten heated in the session and left. The pastor didn’t understand my fear of a man who came across so charming in public and had manipulated the him so well. [Editor's note: “Mutualizing” and sin-leveling are ways to silence genuine victims. God cares about victims and hears their cries. There are dozens of Bible verses telling husbands to love their wives and treat them well.]

 

  • My pastor never observed any abuse, so he claimed my husband couldn't be abusive. It’s funny how dense pastors can be about the dynamics of abuse. Like, do pastors think these abusers walk around abusing everyone, everywhere? It doesn’t take a lot of critical thinking to realize that it’s not the way abusers operate. They operate behind closed doors. [Editor's note: Every pastor with more than a few years in ministry has been conned by someone who appeared to be godly. I have been fooled, too. It happens to all of us.]

 

  • My pastor was idealistic and naive. You would think, with the Christian theology of original sin, that pastors would know this kind of evil exists right under their nose. They should know that some people are focused on their spouse’s destruction, all the while pretending that they want to honor God in everything. It’s all a mind game. [Editor's note: I would imagine most pastors go into the pastorate because the love the Lord and want to help people. Their idealism that their ministry of God’s Word, their righteous prayers, and their belief that God can do anything blinds them to the truth of people with serious characterological issues, is simply romantic and dangerous. I used to be in this camp; I’m way too optimistic about people. But I’m improving.]

 

  • I was harassed and excommunicated by my pastor. I discovered that my pastor would try anything and everything to get me to change my mind about divorcing my husband. My pastor harassed me daily. And after that didn’t work, I sent in my resignation letter and was placed on church discipline. I refused to take any more counseling from my pastor. I was being asked to repent to my husband and the church and to Christ. In my pastors view I didn’t try hard enough to save my marriage and deliberately went with an unbiblical divorce (for abuse), I was excommunicated from the church with a letter. [Editor's note: Pastor are not to “lord it over” people but to lead by example. Anyone who would pressure, harass, or threaten a victim about their decision to find safety seems unsafe himself. And when you think about it, pastors have no skin in the game. If you get killed, injured, or are driven to depression and suicide, they don’t have to take any responsibility. In many states you cannot sue them for malpractice. There are no consequences to giving bad advice. They don’t have to bring up your kids, pay for counseling, or deal with any fallout. On the other hand, you take all the risk by following their advice. Following their advice has genuine consequences to your life, sanity, body, financial stability, health, children, and future. Only you know what’s happening behind closed doors, only you know when enough is enough. Only you know how much you can take.]

 

 

  • My pastor told me it was good for my character to suffer (and to stay married to a man who beat my kids). I told three pastors and one women’s ministry leader over the past 15 years. The first pastor looked at me like a deer in the headlights. The second pastor asked, “What do you want me to do about it”; the third pastor said, “This is going to take ‘gospel courage to face’.” Gospel courage? What even is that? I just needed my husband not to beat my kids and stop raging at me. The woman’s ministry leader said, “You need to submit to him as you do to God.” I want these pastors and leaders to know that abuse is a serious problem. We aren’t making it up we deserve to be heard and to be protected. We want them to call a spade a spade, and say evil is evil. [Editor's note: Fifteen years of trying to get help. Fifteen years of daily fear, walking through that door, back into the house with the That’s 5,475 days of showing “Gospel Courage.” I think that’s more than enough evidence of your commitment to the sanctity of marriage. Does the pastor think that 30 more days would be enough to convince him that you’ve given it your all, and sacrificed your well-being for his poor theology? Jesus does not want you to be abused for his glory.]

 

 

  • I got better counseling from a domestic violence shelter. I shared everything with my pastor and elders and I regret it. They know way more about our sex life than they should have. My husband was sexually abusive. Those pastor aren’t equipped to help. I got better counseling from my domestic violence shelter.” [Editor's note: Shockingly, what you say to elders, pastors, and to anyone in a Bible study is not legally confidential.]

 

  • Pollyanna Pastor. Our pastor had published a devotional book, and in it was my testimony of how my former husband and I met. When I went to see that pastor about the abuse in our marriage, he said, “But it was such a good story.” He just couldn’t or wouldn’t see it. First, I want pastors to believe us when we come forward and disclose the abuse. Second, I would hope that they would get training to understand the dynamics and impacts of abuse and ensure our safety. Their lack of understanding and lack of support from the church was devastating and so hurtful.” [This man’s romanticism about love stories is so delusional, he’s unwilling to see abuse. I wonder how many sweet trusting women (and men) have come to him for premarital counseling and he’s turned a blind eye to obvious danger, and merely blessed them and wished them wedding bliss. One concerned pastor wrote a blog post denouncing these reckless premarital counselors.]

 

  • The pastor said I couldn't talk about abuse unless I admitted my sins too. My soon to be ex-husband and I were separated three years ago and a friend at church was counseling me told me that I needed to make a list of my sins in the marriage. That was so confusing. Talking about adding more abuse to an already abusive situation. My pastor kept pointing out that I needed to discuss my sins too. It was so confusing. Then the talk turned to how I needed counseling to save my marriage. He would not talk about my husband and his neglect. No, he’s the man of the house and I was supposed to submit to him and take whatever abuse he gave me. [“Mutualizing” and sin-leveling are ways to silence genuine victims. It sends the message that they cannot speak up unless they are perfect. God cares about victims and hears their cries.]

 

  • My husband smeared my reputation. The elders didn't want to take sides. My church elders took the “we don’t want to take sides” mantra and didn’t get involved. Abusers are so slick at garnering sympathy and trashing their targets. They smear our reputation under the guise of caring. For example, my husband used to tell people, “My wife is really struggling, and I’m concerned about her.” Many of us realized too late that our husbands had been discrediting us long before we were out of the fog enough to seek help. I’m glad one of the pastors told me that I was completely different from the woman my husband had described to him for years. [Editor's note: As expert on trauma Dr. Judith Herman wrote: “It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement, and remembering.”]

 

  • My pastor didn't consider it abuse unless there were bruises. At first I didn’t share with my pastor because I didn’t understand that I was being abused. The abuse was identified and named by the Christian counseling team (including the pastor) we met with. They described it as emotional belittlement and severe neglect. (Now that I understand abuse better, I would add financial abuse, spiritual abuse, and sexual abuse.) My pastor said, “You told us that he never hit you. And I don’t see any bruises.” I wish pastors knew that a godly wife will tolerate everything from their husband because that’s what we were taught to do. But those abuses you cannot see, dear pastor, ARE REAL. It takes a lot of courage to come forward and talk about what is going on at home. My husband looks really good in public, but at home he’s a different person.” [Editor's note: This woman was excommunicated from her church for pursuing a divorce. A pastor at another church was so horrified by the way she was treated, he did a 6-part blog post on her story. He offers churches a better way to handle these situations, complete with biblical rationale. Part 1  Part 2   Part 3   Part 4   Part 5   Part 6]

 

 

 

These People Did Not Tell the Pastor.

 

  • I wasn't close to any of my pastors. I went to a megachurch and wasn’t close to any of the pastors. I spoke only to my women’s ministries director. She told the other pastors the basics. No one harassed me about divorce once they found out my husband was a pedophile. [Editor's note: Keeping felony behavior from becoming church-wide gossip, spread by church staff is a perfectly good reason to avoid contact with leaders.]

 

  • Why bother? I knew they wouldn't believe me. I didn’t share. I was too uncomfortable talking with church leaders. But I wanted someone at church to know my husband put on a different public face than he did at home. He’s charming and deceitful. My church is big on “the mouth of two or three witnesses” and no one outside the home witnessed my “ground zero.” My husband is an upstanding member of the community. [Editor's note: Abusers are pretty good at Dr. Jekyll-and-Mr. Hyde behavior. They don’t often abuse in front of those they wish to impress.]

 

  • I gave up trying. I refused to meet with my pastor again because he didn’t allow me to speak in a counseling session. [Editor's note: Silencing someone in a so-called counseling session sounds more like an inquisition than a counseling appointment. Isn’t the counselor supposed to listen?]

 

  • I wasn’t brave enough to talk to my pastors until I had already filed for divorce and had left. It was God’s mercy that I found a job outside of the area, so I could relocate to a place where no one knew me as a spouse of a Christian leader. [Editor's note: After reading these stories, you may find this woman’s option to be the best: Say nothing and disappear from the church. That’s what most churchgoing Christian divorcees do: 6 in 10 switch churches, and about half never tell their pastor about their marital problems.]

 

10 Key Takeaways for People Who Love Their Church But Need a Life-Saving Divorce

 

  1. Some pastors are better trained about abuse than others.
  2. Sadly, some pastors care more about preserving your marital status than about your safety.
  3. If you attend a church that does not believe in divorce for physical or emotional abuse, be realistic that your pastor or church leaders will probably not support you. In extreme cases, they may even enact “church discipline” or excommunicate you.
  4. Some pastors give abusers a “get out of jail free” card, and pin the responsibility on the godly spouse, claiming you could make the marriage safe and loving single-handedly.
  5. Some pastors don’t believe in mental abuse at all. They dismiss allegations as “whining,” and they feel that if they accepted emotional abuse as grounds for divorce, it would open the floodgates to people (women, mainly) leaving their marriages in droves. (Which says a lot about the quality of our Christian marriages!)
  6. Some pastors have not been trained to identify people with “characterological issues.” They are overly optimistic about the abuser changing.
  7. Some pastors are naïve and expect God to fix everyone this side of heaven. Abusers find them easy to fool.
  8. Some pastors are unable to act because of their cognitive dissonance. (They haven’t reconciled their beliefs about caring for victims, the deceitfulness of evil people, and their church’s policy prohibiting divorce.) Sadly, you’ll have to protect yourself and your kids without their help.
  9. Some pastors believe (erroneously) that kids are damaged more by divorce than by experiencing or observing physical, psychological, or sexual abuse in their home. They are wrong.
  10. You may have to save yourself and your children without help from your pastor. For some people it’s best to say nothing and disappear from the church. That’s what most churchgoing Christian divorcees do: 6 in 10 switch churches, and just over half never tell their pastor about their marital problems.
fsmi Most dangerous place church abuse

For pastors, see Ch 8 of my book, The Life-Saving Divorce for a 39-point list on how to be a safe church for abuse victims.  It's important because more than 1 million God-honoring Christian divorcees cannot find a safe church. To see how your denomination compares to others, see this comparison chart on divorce policies. If you wish to get educated, I applaud you, please look at the recommended book/resources list.

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