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What Women Wish Leaders Knew (part 1)

It happened again. Only this time, Maggie had barely two hours to get herself and the kids ready. She ran through the house moving quickly from room to room. She packed whatever clothes she could find and herded everyone into the minivan. When she turned the key in the ignition, her whole body shook. She thought to herself, “Now what? Where should I go?”

Greg, Maggie’s husband, had just left the house for a meeting with the elders when her pastor called. He wanted to let her know they would further censure her husband in his discipline case that night. Maggie knew Greg would come home from the meeting infuriated. It would be best if she and the children weren’t around when he returned.

Greg’s newest form of “torture” was interrupting Maggie’s sleep. He had read that the U.S. military found this tactic very effective. Greg found it effective as well. Depriving his wife of sleep left no visible marks and it accomplished his purposes. If he could prevent her from getting rest after caring for six kids, he had her right where he wanted. Greg preferred a compliant Maggie. He attributed all their arguments to her nagging and, if she raised any concern, he compared her to the proverbial woman who “continually drips.”

Maggie backed the van out of the driveway and prayed for wisdom. She had no idea where to go. She just knew she had to find safety.

The elders had good intentions, and the pastor thought his call was a courtesy. But both events unleashed a chain of terror and jeopardized Maggie’s safety. Oppressed women wish their church leaders knew more about these dynamics of abuse. Of course, they want them to know how to help. However, equally important; they want leaders to know how they hurt.

I’ve spent many hours interviewing victims of domestic abuse. In our conversations they say, “We feel unseen, unheard,” and, “We’re afraid if we push for help we may push leaders away.” They feel trapped in their marriages, trapped by their circumstances, and trapped in their homes. One woman said, “Every time I turn the key to unlock my front door I feel like I am unlocking my own cage.”

In this series of posts, I’d like to give these women a voice. I want to share what they wish church leaders knew about them and their situation. Insight into the nature of oppression is necessary for the church to subdue this sinful behavior. Domestic abuse is not a side issue. To confront abuse and minister to the victims is to tend the flock.

I’ve had enough.

By the time a woman reports abuse, she has typically endured years of her husband’s oppression. Abusers don’t become abusers overnight. For church leaders to ask wives to be patient while they investigate accusations, or wait until the elders can get a meeting on their calendar, feels like eternal damnation. Each day of the investigative process will be filled with threats, intimidation, ridicule, and even harm. We need to remember these women are harassed and helpless (Matt. 9:36). Their wounds require immediate triage.

Yes, I really am unhinged.

Days, months, years of abuse takes its toll. Abused women are broken and shattered. If there was anything “normal” about these women it is that they appear unhinged. Confusion, insecurity, shame, and internal turmoil are all key characteristics.

This shouldn’t surprise us. Proverbs 22 says, if we make friends with a man of wrath, he will condition us to his ways and entangle us in his snare (vs. 24, 25). Women of oppression are caught in this kind of trap. As their husbands manipulate, they question their own perspective. When their husband controls, they lose the ability to make decisions. As abusive husbands intimidate, wives live in fear. The atmosphere in the home is shaped by abusers in order to get their wives to worship and adore what they worship and adore: themselves. And, turning their wives away from worshipping God has a way of making them unhinged.

Please listen, I’m saying things you should know.

When women finally find the courage to share what’s happening behind closed doors, they do so with fear and trepidation. Chances are, they’ve been carefully listening to their pastor for months—even years—to discern whether he is safe enough to trust with their information. When they approach him, they’re putting a toe in the ocean, testing the waters of response. What they share will literally be the tip of an iceberg.

Proverbs 20:5 says that a man of understanding draws out meaning. The wife of an abuser is likely afraid to share too much information—information that might lead to dire consequences for her and the children. She may also find it difficult to formulate clear thoughts or complete sentences. Her experiences are very confusing. The person who hurts her is an intimate partner who committed his love. However, what he’s doing doesn’t look anything like 1 Corinthians 13.

Listening to what a woman doesn’t say is also important. It involves listening with all of your heart and demonstrating thoughtful curiosity. Scott Mehl, author of Loving Messy People says, “good questions spring from genuine curiosity… by actually wanting to know the answer. Good questions show that we care enough about people that we want to know them.”

In part 2 in this series, I want to illustrate just a hint of what happens behind the closed doors of oppression. Increased comprehension will be key in making it possible for us to provide these women with informed, empathetic care.

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