Deacon Kim Hintzman never turned to her pastor for help when leaving an abusive relationship with her now-former husband.
In her current role as engagement director for Evangelical Lutheran Church, though, Hintzman has on more than one occasion found herself a confidante and source of support for those affected by domestic violence in the Frederick congregation.
“I think [that] because I have been open about my experience as a survivor, they feel like they can come to me,” she said.
Regardless of their experience with domestic violence, faith leaders are uniquely positioned to support victims and raise awareness of domestic violence in their congregation. But the power of the pulpit, when misinterpreted or misdirected, can also be used to perpetuate the guilt and shame that keep victims from coming forward.
Using spiritual influence to help instead of hurt was the focus of a training session Tuesday at Hood College. The Faith Leaders United to End Domestic Violence event was organized by Heartly House in conjunction with Hood, Marriage Resource Center of Frederick County and several local churches.
Including the faith community in Heartly House’s campaign to raise awareness of domestic violence and its services has long been a goal of Inga James, the organization’s executive director.
“They’re a tough nut to crack,” James said. “There’s definitely some faith groups in the community that don’t believe a person should leave their marriage once they’re committed, no matter what. Or they don’t believe anything like this happens in their congregation.”
That’s unlikely given the prevalence of intimate partner violence, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 25 percent of women and 11 percent of men will experience in their lifetime. Intimate partner violence includes physical and sexual violence or stalking by an intimate partner.
Nina Carr, Heartly House’s outreach and volunteer coordinator, detailed the prevalence of domestic violence as well as warning signs faith leaders might detect.
“A lot of people actually turn to you first when things are happening, whether that’s a death, or employment issues or relationship issues, including domestic violence,” Carr said. “We think it’s really important you’re equipped with the tools and phraseology to be able to respond as effectively as possible.”
In some cases, as Hintzman has experienced, victims might tell faith leaders directly.
More often, though, it’s a question of picking up on the subtle signs of abuse — bruises and bumps, or, for pastors who offer marriage counseling, an obvious power imbalance in a couple, Carr said.
That’s how the Rev. Bill Reinke, Frederick Christian Fellowship Church’s marriage and family pastor, has often detected situations of abuse among the couples he and his wife, Amy Reinke, counsel.
Amy Reinke estimated at least 20 percent of the couples they mentor exhibit signs of abuse, particularly those who stop coming for counseling after just a couple of visits.
Abusers often agree to counseling as a last-ditch effort to stop victims from leaving, only to renege on their promise shortly after, Carr said.
Carr recommended marriage counseling services include opportunities to meet with people one-on-one to give victims a chance to voice their circumstances. She also encouraged faith leaders to refer to victims to Heartly House, as well as their abusers.
While a majority of its services — legal, counseling and a transitional shelter among them — are intended for victims, Heartly House also offers a 26-week counseling program for abusive partners.
“Not everyone can be an expert in intimate partner violence,” James said, echoing Carr’s encouragement to refer to their agency. “We know from the statistics that if we can just get someone through our doors and help them ... there is a great decrease in homicides.”
Nearly half of female homicide victims were killed by a current or former male intimate partner, according to a study published in 2017 by the CDC.
James also detailed a list of do’s and don’ts for faith leaders who witness or suspect abuse.
Don’t tell a victim when to leave, she warned. They know better than anyone what the safest times are to leave, and conversely, when they might be in too much danger to risk it.
Don’t respond by emphasizing the eternal bond of marriage or the vows a married couple took at their wedding. Abuse is not a part of those vows, nor should it be a reason why a marriage must endure, she said.
Instead, she encouraged a trauma-informed care model in which faith leaders offer a safe, trustworthy source of support catered to each person’s needs. For those with children, speaking to their safety and well-being can prove effective, too, she said.
The Rev. Cynthia Mason, a former chaplain at Hood, highlighted the value faith leaders can play simply as listeners.
“I think it’s very hard for clergy not to answer, not tell people what to do,” she said. “But in this situation, it can be very damaging. I think the most important thing we can do is listen. When you listen, you also empower them.”
Mason also suggested the benefits of turning to Scripture. While certain biblical passages can be twisted or reframed to justify abuse, others give clear examples of Jesus respecting and empowering battered women, she said.
Faith leaders can also exert their influence to raise awareness of the problem. James suggested topical sermons, bulletin inserts and guest speakers as ways congregations can take a proactive role in bringing attention to the topic.
Although Bill Reinke thought his church had already adopted some of these techniques, he still found several new takeaways from the training.
“It’s like getting a good pair of reading glasses,” Reinke said of the training. “You already knew how to read, but now you can really see it.”