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Addressing the Pain from Domestic Abuse

October 13, 2021

Michael Ten Haken, pastor of Pease (Minn.) Christian Reformed Church, said he had no idea what he was getting into when one of his church members, an attorney, asked if he wanted to join a group of people seeking to set up a domestic abuse court in his community.

He simply, out of curiosity, agreed to go. That was five years ago.

“I’m a non-systems person. I had zero familiarity with how the court system works, especially with how the court system deals with domestic abuse,” said Ten Haken during the fifth installment of the 2021 Safe Church Webinar Series: On Being a Safe Church. The webinar took place during October, which is Domestic Violence Awareness month across the U.S., and is one month before Domestic Violence Awareness month in Canada.

Ten Haken added that when he stepped into the meeting about establishing a court specifically dedicated to responding to victims of domestic abuse as well as their abusers, he looked around and felt out of place.

The people who had gathered, he said, were lawyers, a judge or two, social workers and counselors, attorneys, courthouse administrators, law enforcement, and corrections and probation officers. Also on hand, he said, were victims services and child protection representatives, as well as legal aid advocates.

They sat around a large table and often used unfamiliar acronyms and terms as they tried to anticipate roadblocks that could hamper their dream of creating a community-coordinated response team to deal with domestic abuse.

It was a tough process, trying to get all of the parties on the same page regarding this unusual effort involving so many people.

When he attended his first meeting, said Ten Haken, “I was easily the dumbest person in the room. Here I was, a Christian minister in a room full of people . . . speaking a language that I felt everyone understood but me. I was completely lost.”

Nevertheless, he persisted.

In a 2020 article titled “The Role of Faith Leaders in Community-Coordinated Response Teams,” which was published in the online journal Resource Center on Domestic Violence: Child Protection and Custody, Ten Haken describes how, despite his misgivings, he kept coming back month after month to the meeting.

As he listened to people speak, he said, he began to wonder if a local pastor might indeed have a place around that table. The church, he started to realize, is not immune from incidents of abuse, and it ought to play a larger role in helping both people who have been abused and their abusers.

“I found what they were talking about terribly interesting and yet very heartbreaking and tragic, and I realized I wanted to be part of the solution,” Ten Haken said during the webinar.

The webinar also featured a conversation with Judy Pearson, director of the Pearl Crisis Center, and Glenda Rittenour, a court advocate. They discussed how they now function after the creation of a Community-Coordinated Response Team that deals with domestic violence in Pease.

“The domestic violence court is specifically designed to address domestic violence on the felony level,” said Rittenour.

“We work with the worst of the worst and use a community response to check up on the offender,” she said. “We work as a team offering wrap-around services as victims and offenders go through the system.”

Instead of being sent to prison, offenders have the chance to volunteer in the community and obtain substance abuse services, are subject to random drug testing, and can avail themselves of counseling. They must also visit their judge every week.

“If there are violations, they will be addressed immediately,” said Rittenour. “I see, among other things, that offenders really turn around” as a result of the program. New research on the program also seems to bear this out.

Meanwhile, the team works to cut through red tape to make sure that persons who have been abused can obtain the services they need, such as food, housing, employment, and safety measures. “We don’t want them to go through a lot of hoops,” said Pearson.

During the webinar, the presenters offered a PowerPoint that gave tips on addressing domestic abuse in the church, which, sadly, often tries to steer clear of such matters.

The tips include the following:

  • It is generally believed that survivors of domestic violence are more likely to disclose a history of abuse to their pastor or other religious leaders if the spiritual leader is perceived to be knowledgeable, nonjudgmental, respectful, and supportive.
  • It is easiest to begin a conversation about domestic violence if posters, literature, sermons, discussion groups, or other congregation-wide initiatives are already in place.
  • No one should be asked about domestic violence unless the setting is private and the climate is respectful and confidential. Clergy and other spiritual leaders must first be well connected to service providers in their community.

Since he became part of the response team, Ten Haken has had conversations with and has helped church members who have been abused by a partner.

“Being part of the team has helped me in my ministry in a lot of ways,” said Ten Haken. “Without my involvement in this team, I would have dealt with domestic abuse situations in my church differently. Too often this is an issue that can fly under the radar.”

Among other things, he said, by being part of the CCR team, he has also been able to speak to people who are angry and cynical and refuse to go to church as a result of abuse they experienced in a church.

“I’m working hard to get those I come into contact with through my work on the CCR to once again (or maybe for the first time) view a local faith community as a place to find healing and restoration and renewed hope,” he wrote in his article.

“What I have learned allows me to be more sympathetic to their unique needs and has given me the tools to help meet those needs as we offer to walk with them on the journey from victim to survivor.”

View the Safe Church webinar recording here.