Supporting the partners of abused church leaders

This post explores the way the church may help a person who is supporting their partner through current or recent abuse in the church. The article pays particular attention to abuse connected with a church, but much of it will apply to support of someone whose partner's abuse is unconnected with the church.

Abuse is where a person, or persons, or an institution, uses power inappropriately for their own benefit and causes another to suffer. Whether a person is directly and purposely targeted, or is an incidental victim of action focussed elsewhere, does not change the abusive nature of misused power.  Abuse can be intense and obvious, but can also be a 'slow-drip trauma' over much longer periods, and not be obvious to casual observation. Abuse can be disguised to suggest the victim is the problem. Abuse is, in the end, a form of violence.

Abuse is typically denied and camouflaged, particularly in churches, which confuse the imperative to love with 'being nice.' It frequently suits others to remain silent or deny abuse in order to avoid becoming targets themselves. The partner of a person who is being abused does not have this luxury. Indeed, within a congregation the partner is also likely to be a target. The partner (or a family's children) may be targeted as a strategy in the abuse of the primary target. This is particularly the case for office holders and clergy, and their partners; abusive clergy can likewise target the partner of someone they are abusing.

Teaching congregations to recognise and name abuse for what it is would be an excellent preventive for many of the situations in which we find ourselves, or at least ameliorate them.

The situation of the partner
Professional counsellors can have a certain distance from the emotions of an abusive situation, but a person's partner can never be disinterested in this way. As "one flesh," they always have skin in the game. This is before the fact that they may also be targeted by the abuser(s).

We cannot support a partner unless we have some idea of what they are experiencing. We need to listen to what is happening to them, which will not be quite the same as what is happening to the primary target. The following points outline some possible dynamics.

A partner can feel particularly powerless in their attempt to support the victim of abuse. If we live with someone who is processing distress or trauma, there is no thing we can do. We cannot undo the abuse. As a clergy partner we are perhaps uniquely disempowered within congregational structures. Clergy partners have no formal position or power, but are subject to often contrary expectations and resentments. And the partners of female clergy and key leaders do not fit into people's common gender stereotypes and expectations. As a partner, we can listen, encourage, and commiserate, for example, but are unlikely to be able to make things stop. This can leave the partner with their own outrage and distress, and with a deep sense of guilt, which they need to work through at the same time as trying to support their loved one. This powerlessness of the partner will be especially painful for those whose common emotional response to difficult situations is "to do something to fix it." Within the church, whether the abuse be by clergy or by lay people, the determination to be 'nice' about things provides cover for abusers and is as disempowering for the partner as it is for the person being abused. Being 'nice' stops any real remediation of the situation. To be clear: Love demands honesty, openness, and the naming of the abuse. Love demands the cessation of abuse. "Love is kind...It does not insist on its own way; it is not .... resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing..." (1 Cor. 13)

The partner of an abused person is often the primary listener. In a country congregation the minister's partner may be the only person with whom the victim feels they can talk honestly and safely. For the recipient of abuse, it is never over with one telling. Even if abuse is not ongoing, people need to tell and to re-tell what has happened. They need to be heard again and again, as if for the first time. The partner/listener cannot suggest they "move on." The partner can't tune out, or say they've had enough. Retelling is not a kind of self-pitying rehashing of things. Abuse is often subtle, and yet at the same time can be, or have been, a very real attempt to destroy a person; it can be deadly. Retelling helps a person to understand and process the abuse being done to them. It enables them to name the abuse, and to recognise and believe what a subtle abuse with an apparently friendly exterior is actually doing to them. Telling and re-telling is essential to survival. But this processing means that even if the abuser has no interest in targeting the partner, the partner becomes a proxy victim. They endure the story multiple times. They may have no one with whom they can share what is happening to them. Sometimes there is no one to listen to them.
We need to understand how isolated church leaders and their partners can be. It is not only that in a case of abuse it may be difficult to find someone safe to talk to within the congregation.  People who are not part of the church have no idea how it works. It is extraordinarily difficult for them to listen intelligently and helpfully. Long term key leaders can easily fall into the situation of having few, if any, safe confidants outside the church. And abusers can be very good at co-opting family and previous clergy etc from other parts of the church. In this isolation, the partner can feel enormously betrayed by the church as they process their own fear and carry the fear of their loved one.
Co-option by the abuser
One strategy of abusive people is to co-opt the victim's partner. It can be that abuse never occurs where the partner can witness it. The abuser goes out of their way to be pleasant and reasonable and accommodating to the partner, and even genuinely helpful. Everything is carefully managed to cause the partner to doubt the victim, even to the point of the abuser of accepting criticism on some minor points, and feigning remorse in the presence of the partner, but then continuing the abuse in their absence. This strategy is particularly insidious if the partner has their own private doubts about some of the victim's choices in responding to an abuser. Who can they talk to about that!?
The partner may sometimes feel abused by the victim.
Someone who is struggling to survive can lash out in ways that are painful and terrifying. Especially where a victim has been geographically isolated, or it has taken time for the church to recognise what is happening, the partner can be the only person in whose presence the victim can be safely angry. For a partner to even talk about this can feel like a betrayal— and again, who can they talk to about that?

In the brief points above I have used the words fear and terrifying. I do this most seriously and deliberately. As a minister I know of colleagues left destitute by the violence of the church. I know leaders and partners who carry wounds decades old. Abuse can leave people fearing they will not survive. When clergy and other leaders, or their partners, leave the church altogether, or even take their own lives, it is an added violence and denial to speak regretfully of a loss of faith, or of a misplaced calling. I suspect that more often than we know our violence has contributed to the situation.

A church can be the primary social network for a victim's children.  The children's experience can be similar to the partner's experience. Even very young children will still experience the abuse, although they may not be able to articulate what it is. Children can also be targeted. Some of these children will try to manage such abuse on their own, saying nothing to their parents, in an attempt to help or protect them.

Supporting a partner
Culture consists of the hierarchical use of power to enable us to make a life for ourselves. Culture always tends to abusiveness, because our partial humanity believes that we must gain power over others in order to be safe and to avoid death for as long as possible. This is where abuse begins. 

The culture of Christ says death has no power and that true humanity is non-hierarchical. True humanity consists in the giving away of power, and the eschewing of violence, so that all others may also live as we live. The first support of a victim of abuse, and of her partner, begins or fails as a congregation practises living like the Christ and uses power so that everyone in the congregation may live equally valued lives. Practising a way of living which is not violent, and which repents of abuse, is not an optional extra for churches. It is at the centre of our discipleship.

But many of our key leaders will have learned survival and leadership skills in harsh workplace environments, or unsafe school yards or families. Already "at the top," we leaders are especially primed to be bullies and abusers. We have learned how to get our way. We need to practise the opposite skills: listening, collaboration, valuing the weak, and valuing and cherishing those different to us. This is the way of Christ.

Where abuse is being addressed the following will support partners

Recognition that the partner is inevitably also a victim of the abuse. From the outset we are supporting Rev Anne and her partner David. (If we do not support David, we do not fully support Anne.)

This means the partner needs to be fully informed at all stages. They cannot support their abused partner if we leave them out of the process or if we insist the victim not share material with them.

A partner needs someone who is disinterested; that is, someone quite removed from the situation, who can listen with that freedom which comes from not being a part of the abuse dynamic and its remediation. This is someone who is not on the committees dealing with the issue, but someone whom it is safe, and with whom it feels safe, to tell anything. It is someone who is strong and wise because, like the victim, the partner is likely to be shaken to their core and needing to voice, and tell and re-tell even the unthinkable, as they process their pain. The listener needs to know about power and abuse, and to understand the peculiar dynamics of church. They need to be able to validate the partner's experience and feelings.

The church might even consider paying for this if need be!  The survival of a minister, or of a key volunteer leader, not to mention their continuing to serve the church, may well depend on the survival of their partner.

A partner also needs an advocate and a reporter centrally located within the structure the church has in place to support the victim and remediate the life of the congregation. This enables them to be heard, and it enables them to be informed. They should be able to bring their own needs or insights to the advocate so that they are heard in the process of remediation.

Where apology and perhaps even reparation is required of an abuser, it should be clear that it is not only the intended victim who should receive this. The partner has also been abused.

In all of this, listening carefully to the partner and giving credence to their witness is perhaps the key support. It is this practise which will inform us of the unexpected needs for support, and alert us to issues which seem insignificant to us but are devastating for someone else with a different life history.

(Andrew Prior 22/5/2021)

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