Shane Waldron was once skeptical of the term “emotional abuse”. 

As an associate pastor at Faith Covenant Presbyterian Church in Kalispell, Montana, Waldron was assisting with a marriage counseling session when the wife said her husband was emotionally abusive.

Waldron balked until he borrowed the wife’s copy of “The Emotionally Abusive Relationship” by Beverly Engel. “Chapter 2 was like reading a handbook of her husband,” Waldron said.

During the next few months, Waldron learned of more abused women in his congregation. He started a support group so that he could minister to them together. In the process the Lord placed a burden on his heart to help others find healing from abuse. And to train church leaders to understand the problem and properly care for survivors.

Definitions, Please

In his teaching, Waldron defines abuse as “a form of oppression in which a person uses certain behavior patterns to control their intimate partner.”

Waldron stresses that abuse is a pattern of behavior, not a one-time event. The behavior is always intended to preserve the abuser’s power by controlling others. Typically, abuse falls into one of five categories: psychological, physical, economic, spiritual, and sexual.

Psychological abuse is nonphysical behavior designed to control someone through degradation, humiliation, or fear. Physical abuse is any behavior that dominates a person through physical force or violence. Economic abuse is meant to control and dominate financially. Spiritual abuse is an attempt to use a person’s faith to manipulate and control them. Sexual abuse consists of unwanted contact or interaction that occurs for the sexual stimulation of the perpetrator.

Waldron borrows language from trauma expert Diane Langberg by referring to those who experience abuse as “survivors,” rather than “victims.” Abuse is a form of trauma, and calling those who have experienced it “survivors” bestows on them the dignity they deserve and affirms their courage in seeking help.

A National Crisis, a Silent Church

Domestic abuse is not rare. A 2010 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that “more than 1 in 3 women (35.6 percent) and more than 1 in 4 men (28.5 percent) in the United States have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner.”

Those statistics do not account for psychological, spiritual, and financial abuse.

This toxic dynamic has seeped into the church, too. And many leaders don’t understand that it is fundamentally different from typical relationship problems. Domestic abuse involves patterns of intimidation and control that must be handled differently.

“Most people think of domestic abuse as marriage conflict on steroids,” Waldron said, “and their strategy might be to respond as they would to any marriage conflict. In reality, the dynamics are different.” This means the response to abuse “requires a different paradigm.”

Most pastors use a counseling model that puts the couple in the same room, allowing both parties to share their thoughts. But because abuse is typically one party’s word against the other’s, this model is ineffective. Moreover, if the wife is abused, sharing details in front of her spouse could invite dangerous consequences.

As Waldron counseled the abused women in his church and sought more training, he was dismayed by how little local churches were doing to help vulnerable women. In Kalispell, a city of more than 20,000, there was no Christian ministry or counseling center equipped to handle abuse referrals.

That, in part, is what prompted him to act.

Abuse Is Oppression

The word abuse does not appear in the Bible, but the term oppression is everywhere. And as Waldron notes, the clinical definition of abuse resembles biblical oppression. In his workshops, he defines oppression as “to crush or burden someone by the abuse of power or authority.”

The book of Psalms has vivid descriptions of oppression and God’s feelings about it.

In Psalm 9:9, David says, “The Lord is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble.” In Psalm 56, he says, “Be gracious to me, O God, for man tramples on me; all day long an attacker oppresses me. … You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book? Then my enemies will turn back in the day when I call. This I know, that God is for me.”

The Psalms also portray oppression in a manner that echoes the way abuse survivors describe their experience: “His mouth is filled with cursing and deceit and oppression; under his tongue are mischief and iniquity,” writes the author of Psalm 10.

Waldron says that for an abuser, the power dynamics of the family are shaped like a pyramid. “It is an entire approach to intimate relationships that is fueled by deeply entrenched idolatry,” he said. “[The abuser] views marriage as a pyramid of power with himself on top. He is constantly trying to take measures to secure his position.”

Thus, abusers are controlling, easily angered, critical, and tend to isolate spouses from friends and family.

Take Her Seriously

So what should a pastor or session do when a woman says or implies her husband is abusive? The most important thing a church can do is take her seriously.

Sometimes church leadership worries that the woman wants a divorce and is fabricating the allegations so that the church will rubber-stamp her plan. Waldron admits this seems plausible, but in his experience an abused woman is more likely to minimize her experiences than to embellish them. “Many survivors will tell you a little bit about the abuse at the beginning to see how you respond,” he said. “If you prove trustworthy, they will disclose more over time.”

If a wife describes behaviors that reflect the specific pattern of abuse — erupting into anger, controlling behaviors, constantly criticizing, isolating her from friends and family, acting violent — she is experiencing abuse. “It’s not that hard to see when you know what to look for,” Waldron said.

Giving Survivors a Refuge

In May 2012, Waldron developed Refuge Ministries, a multifaceted ministry to help survivors heal.

Shortly afterward — at the encouragement of his senior pastor — Waldron was trained in group therapy; the idea was to help men who were abusive. Waldron has put the training to good use by founding Turning Point, a group for abusers.

He also wanted to do more for children. He identified a woman in the church who had the appropriate background and experience and provided her with domestic abuse training. She then developed a program, Refuge Kids, to help children heal through play — and to provide them with a safe place to process what they’ve seen and heard.

Since its beginning, The Refuge has helped more than 100 women from Faith Covenant Church and the greater Kalispell community. Sissy Hashley, a participant in the program who now mentors other women, noted, “Most women come to The Refuge with overwhelming feelings of worthlessness.” She understands these feelings because she felt the same way. “I want [attendees] to know God values them and made them in His image,” she said. “Because He sees us through the blood of Christ, we are perfect. That is the biggest part of our healing: take the lie of shame and replace it with the honor God gives us.”

Waldron has now written a curriculum and developed a format churches can replicate, using his training. The curriculum helps women gain a biblical perspective on their identities while learning to identify and respond differently to the patterns of abuse in their lives.

As Refuge Ministries grows, Waldron hopes to train more leaders to bring The Refuge to their churches. As churches learn more, they can become safe spaces for more women to share and find healing.

Refuge Ministries makes many of Waldron’s training resources available online. For a list of recommended books, audio recordings of training sessions, handouts, and more, visit refugeministries.com/resources/.