October 10, 2007

Abuse in the Adventist Church?

2007 1528 page8 cap GOT PREGNANT SHORTLY AFTER WE married,” the woman explained. “My husband became very, very upset that I was pregnant. Things started going downhill quickly after that. I was trying to do everything to please him and to keep the marriage going, but nothing worked. I blamed myself, and it finally came down to a choice. I wanted to have the baby, but my husband told me, ‘If you really want this marriage, you’ll have to get rid of it.’ I believed that when the Bible said ‘submit’ to your husband, you should do as he wishes. So, I had to abort my first pregnancy.” These are the words of Shelly Smith,1 describing an early experience in her abusive marriage of more than 20 years.
Richard remembered his shock one month after marrying Elizabeth. “You slept with Amber when I was away, didn’t you?” his wife screamed at him. Elizabeth had gone out of town to a professional conference and returned agitated and angry.
“Amber was Elizabeth’s friend from church, and out of the blue she accused me of having an affair,” Richard recalled. “Nothing could have been further from the truth. After screaming at me, Elizabeth started slapping me across the chest and shoulders, first with her open hand and then with her fist. That kind of unfounded jealousy and rage continued until Elizabeth started hurting the children, and then I knew I had to leave her.”

Abuse Categories and the Percentages of Study Respondents Who Experienced Abusive Actions in an Adult Intimate RelationshipEffective Help-seeking ActionsWhat Defines an Abusive Marital RelationshipWhat Can Be Done?What Has Been Done?

More Resources Shelly and Richard grew up in the Seventh-day Adventist Church and, as expected, they married Adventists. Shelly’s husband held a church office and was a Pathfinder leader. Richard’s wife, Elizabeth, led out in the children’s divisions. Are Shelly’s and Richard’s stories isolated occurrences in our church?

A third-generation Adventist, I remember my shock when I realized that spouse abuse occurred among members of the Adventist Church. Soon after receiving my master’s degree in social work, I directed a shelter for battered women and sexual assault victims. During the first year of my employment, we housed a local church member in the shelter.
The next surprise quickly followed when I heard a pastor’s response to the situation. On Sabbath the offending spouse calmly helped to collect the morning offering, acting as if nothing was amiss. I remember feeling confused. After church, the pastor approached me. “I don’t know why Sue went to your shelter,” he said. “John said he never hit her.” I listened without acknowledging anything that would compromise the victim’s confidentiality.
Although I don’t remember clearly what transpired—the incident occurred more than 20 years ago—my mouth must have hung open before I closed it. Evidently, the pastor was only slightly more in the dark than I had been just a few months earlier, when I believed spouse abuse happened only out there.
How Big Is the Problem?
It is not known whether the problem of spouse abuse among members of the Adventist Church has grown in the last 20 years. But it is known that spouse abuse has been documented as a major problem among Adventists today. I have had the opportunity to be a part of three research endeavors investigating intimate partner violence (spouse abuse) among Adventists. The findings from each study offer evidence that our church leaders and other members must give even more attention to our troubled families. The first study covered a five-state region of the United States with more than 1,400 Adventists participating.2 The second study focused on churches surrounding an Adventist university community with seven participating churches and included university students. The third study is ongoing and involves talking to Adventist survivors of spouse abuse to understand more fully ways in which the church could offer the most effective help.3 These groundbreaking efforts are nothing short of revolutionary among American denominations. Searching the professional literature for more than three years, our research team has found only one published study on domestic violence within a particular religious denomination. That study had fewer than 150 responses, compared to our two studies with a combined total of more than 2,000 responses.
Because the findings from the first and second studies were so similar, the researchers involved in the studies believe that together the findings offer a fairly accurate picture of spouse abuse among Adventists in North America.4 The table on page 9 shows the type of actions, survey items, and percentages of people who experienced these forms of behavior.
How do these figures compare with the “world”? National studies vary in their reports of the amounts and types of abuse experienced by adults in their intimate relationships. No single study captures the total picture on victimization within any given population. From our extensive review of the prevalent literature, it appears that Adventists in North America are on par with and in some cases—particularly with male victimization—higher than national statistics. These findings should intensify efforts to promote training and education among church members both in building prevention strategies and caring for victims of abuse.
Before significant behavioral changes can occur or more ministry services are organized, it is important for more church members and leaders to recognize the extent and severity of abuse issues among Adventists. In the survey, we asked people to respond to the statement “Domestic abuse is a significant problem in the Adventist Church.” Only 16 percent of the respondents strongly agreed with this statement. Given the statistics on the prevalence of abusive experiences indicated by recent research among North American Adventists, thoughtful individuals must admit that domestic abuse is a significant problem confronting the Adventist Church today.
Where to Find Help
The first two studies also give us insight into the types of actions people took during difficult times such as abuse in an intimate relationship (see table on this page). The number 1 action that church members took to cope in difficult times was to pray. About 98 percent of the members who took the survey reported praying in response to relationship difficulties. This is a finding to celebrate—we are a praying church, and we take our difficulties to God in prayer. It makes sense that members would seek comfort, guidance, and strength in their relationship with the Lord during these difficult times.
While our members found prayer to be essential as a way to cope with difficult situations, the findings also reveal a number of active strategies that members used to move out of these painful situations. Our analysis shows that men and women find effective help in different ways. For women, professional counseling was the next most effective means for getting help that either solved the problem or made a significant difference. Men reported that going to the emergency room was the second most effective action in getting help. It might be that women seek help at an earlier stage of abuse, whereas for men, having to go to the emergency room serves as a wake-up call that something must be done.7
Another significant difference between men and women is the role of the pastor as one from whom they seek help. For women, talking to a pastor about the situation was not in the top five actions that made a difference in problem solving. Talking to a pastor for men ranked as the fifth most effective action. In our third study, we explored this difference in the role of a pastor as someone victims seek out for help, with some important findings emerging.
In the in-depth interviews with women survivors of violent situations, the findings indicate some possible reasons why seeking help from pastors or other church leaders may not be a preferred course of action among women victims. Women interviewed to date shared several concerns that influenced their choice of action, including gender, lack of condemnation of abuse from the pulpit, a church leader’s poor advice, and not being taken seriously by the church leader.
Women stated in the interviews that they would not confide in a pastor simply because in most cases the pastor was a man. Kathy, a marital sexual abuse survivor, said, “I could never go to a man to tell this stuff to. It’s just too intimate.” In the single case where the survivor’s home church employed a female pastor, the abuse survivor recalled that female pastor as being a “godsend.”
Another concern expressed by women participating in the interviews was that they were unsure where their pastor stood on the abuse issue. Betty shared, “I have never heard even one sermon that even mentioned abuse, let alone condemned it.” It is important for abuse survivors to hear clear messages from the pulpit that condemn violence of any kind in the marriage relationship. Such messages help build member confidence in their pastor as someone in whom they can confide.
Among the concerns reported by women interviewed was the fact that when they had turned to the pastor for help, the pastor had offered poor advice. One pastor told a woman who came to him for help and counsel to “stand up for herself more.” The pastor encouraged her to tell the abuser not to hit her, and to tell him “no” and “fight him off” if she did not want to have sex. The survivor took this advice, and the abuser escalated the violence to the point where the woman nearly took her own life.
Research indicates, though, that female church leaders can also respond with inappropriate, hurtful reactions to victims of abuse. The lack of understanding regarding abuse is not restricted to men.
2007 1528 page8Perhaps the greatest issue of all regarding ineffective help for women was not being taken seriously by church leaders in whom they have confided. One woman found the courage to share with a church leader her severe abuse, and the person replied, “I find that hard to believe. Roger is such a good guy.” She felt the person’s response implied that the abuse was her fault and that she was making the situation up. This woman subsequently fell into a depression that lasted for years.
Seventh-day Adventist Church leaders first began officially expressing concern about domestic abuse in the early 1990s. In 1995, at the fifty-sixth General Conference session held in Utrecht, the Netherlands, church administrators cited abuse as one of the six major issues confronting the world church, and the first official statement regarding abuse and family violence was released to the press.8 A statement is a good first step; however, what happens among local church members and leaders when domestic violence occurs? Our research does not answer this question, but strategies for prevention and education are included with this article. (See sidebar titled “What Can Be Done?” on p. 12.)
The following tragic incident highlights the unfortunate impact that can occur when church members respond inappropriately to abuse. Several years ago in a rural Midwestern town with a well-established Adventist church, an emergency room physician was arrested on charges of solicitation for murder. He had tried to hire someone to kill his wife—the worst kind of domestic violence. He had six children. He and his wife were members of no particular church, although he had been reared as an Adventist. The local Adventist church members were well aware of the situation because the man’s parents were lifelong members of that church. Then the story hit the local media.
The nearby Baptist church members also tuned in to this news, which was significant in the small rural setting. The day after the story ran, members of the Baptist church brought six bags of groceries and $200 and set them on the woman’s kitchen table. Down the road, the pastor of the Adventist church suggested to the parents of the offender that their son might need a copy of Ellen G. White’s Steps to Christ. The victim reported that the Adventist church members did nothing to help address the victim’s needs or those of her children. Today the woman and her children are all members of that Baptist church.
This account may not be considered typical for Seventh-day Adventist Church members in North America as a whole, but it can cause us to conclude that much more work needs to be done. In the name of the One who protected the abused, Adventists ought to be in the vanguard of Christians working to eliminate the tragedy of partner abuse and to design effective ways to care for its victims. A continuous need exists for informed and appropriate action, both by individuals and the church as a whole. The results of our studies on domestic violence among members of the Adventist Church point to the importance of continuing education and awareness-raising events in local congregations and institutional channels.
Ellen G. White tells us in The Desire of Ages, page 637, “When the nations are gathered before Him, there will be but two classes, and their eternal destiny will be determined by what they have done or have neglected to do for Him in the person of the poor and the suffering.”
Our research indicates that we have many members among us who are suffering in their own homes. We must move forward to educate, to protect, and to provide healing environments for our hurting members.
1All names used in this article are pseudonyms.
2While not a nationwide, randomized sample, the researchers concluded the results were applicable beyond that region.
3If you know of someone who has been in an abusive situation, volunteers are being sought to share their stories. For more information, please e-mail [email protected]
4The citations below represent peer-reviewed conferences in which various pieces of this article have been presented. The peer-reviewed article itself was: Drumm, R. D.; McBride, D. C.; Hopkins, G.; Thayer, J.; Popescu, M.; & Wrenn, J. (2006), “Intimate Partner Violence in a Conservative Christian Denomination: Prevalence and Types,” Social Work & Christianity (33) 3, pp. 233-251.

Drumm, R.; Popescu, M.; & Kirsting, R. (2006, July 10), “The Effects of Intimate Partner Violence Among Seventh-day Adventists.” Paper presented at International Family Violence and Child Victimization Research Conference, Portsmouth, N. H.
Drumm, R., & Popescu, M. (2005, November 4), “Resources to Strengthen Children and Families: Domestic Violence Intervention in Faith Communities.” Paper presented at the Twenty-third Annual Conference of the Association of Baccalaureate Social Work Program Directors, Austin, Tex.
Drumm, R., & Popescu, M. (2005, October 28), “Pursuing Excellence in Social Ministry: Preferred Domestic Violence Services.” Paper presented at the Fifty-fifth Convention and Training Conference of the North American Association of Christians in Social Work, Grand Rapids, Mich.
Drumm, R. (2005, September 20), “Religiosity and Childhood Violence: The Impacts on Intimate Partner Abuse.” Paper presented at the Tenth International Conference on Family Violence, San Diego, Calif.
Drumm, R., & Popescu, M. (2005, June 14), “Domestic Violence in a Conservative Christian Denomination: Challenges and Barriers for Women of Faith.” Paper presented at the 2005 Hawaii International Conference on Social Sciences, Honolulu, Hawaii.
Drumm, R. D., & Stevenson, S. R. (2005, January), “Domestic Violence in Religious Con-
gregations: Implications for Social Work Practice.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Social Work and Research, Miami, Fla.
5Percentages from total population of studies 1 and 2.
6Not all social scientists would identify all the items in this list as abuse. These behaviors, however, are generally recognized by professionals in the field as serious indicators that abuse may be present in a relationship, if not abusive acts in themselves.
7Some experts note that abuse is a pattern of behavior almost impossible to change. The more severe the category of abuse, the less likely it is that it will change, especially within the relationship. As difficult as it may be to do this, the victim needs to find enough external support from the community, and internal support from God, to leave the abusive situation and find a safe place for the children and herself or himself. If, however, the abuse has happened only once in a lifetime, then perhaps the pattern has not become established and external intervention may be enough to stop the behavior.
René Drumm, Ph.D., is a professor of social work and chairs the Social Work and Family Studies Department at Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, Tennessee. Marciana Popescu, M.S.W., Ph.D., is an associate professor of Social Work at Fordham University. Gary Hopkins, M.D., is an assistant director of the General Conference Health Department, director of the Institute for Prevention of Addictions at Andrews University, and an assistant professor at Loma Linda University School of Public Health. Linda Spady is a registered nurse and a philanthropist living in Moscow, Idaho.