On the Church and Domestic Abuse: “Who Will Help Me Now?” (Lisa’s Story)

Phyllis Nissila

A responder to my previous post has prompted today’s story and comment.

What is so very disheartening,” she wrote, “is: it is ‘the church’ (her church), the leadership and long-time members that don’t care about abusive relationships as long as the marriage ‘looks decent’ in the public eye. Sadly, it is the secular crowd that have actually given me the protections that I have needed…”


I remember a case from years ago involving a young woman named Lisa, my sister’s room-mate at the time. Lisa was seven months pregnant when the incident, detailed below, occurred.

Lisa had recently left her husband because he was verbally and physically abusive. The day she escaped from him he had dragged her behind his truck the length of their driveway. She somehow managed to get away, pregnant and all. She secured a restraining order and began divorce proceedings. Friends helped her move when “Jerry” was not at home.

Fast forward a few months. He was still harassing her from time to time (my sister had to call 911 at one point when he decided to come by and create what verbal trauma he could), but he seemed to be getting the message.

No. More. Access. To. Lisa.

And the baby.

As it turned out, Jerry was only biding his time and honing his abuse skills.

Because they were both attendees at a local, large church, he decided to take the “Christian husband” route with her. At least his version of it.

One Sunday he came to church late (no doubt so that he could sneak up on Lisa) and during the service, squeezed in beside her in the pew. My sister and I, sitting in a different part of the church, didn’t see him come in, or we would have immediately gone to afford what help we could.

During the last hymn, when the congregation was standing at worship, we felt someone crowding in between us (we’d both had our eyes closed as we sang). It was Lisa.

As the singing continued, she rasped, “He’s here. He came in late, found me, and he’s had his arm clenched around my shoulders so I couldn’t get away. I finally had to tell him I had to go to the bathroom, and he let go of me.”

She was shaking by this time and speaking in between quiet sobs.

The song ended and people began to leave the pews. While Lisa clung to my sister, I quickly made my way over to the closest “elder,” “Gene,” the music minister.

“Please come quick!” I told him, pointing in the direction of my sister and our friend. “Our friend’s husband is here. She left him because of abuse. He’s harassing her and she’s scared! Can you help her? Order him to leave your property?”

He stopped playing the exit music and looked over at the scene. I noticed, just then, that Jerry had made his way from his seat to where his wife and my sister were standing. Even from a distance, I could see the agitation in Jerry’s demeanor.

As Gene and I made our way back to the trio, Jerry’s stuccato, “You have to forgive and forget, Lisa, forgive and forget, forgive and forget…” punched the air. Lisa clung even closer to my sister. As we came up next to them, Jerry changed his tone abruptly.

“Pastor Gene,” he began, in a pleading tone, “tell my wife she needs to forgive me…”

Gene looked from one to the other. Lisa had stopped crying for the moment. She stood, frozen, still clinging to my sister.

“Well, Jerry,” he began, “Can you see that Lisa is a little upset just now?”

Jerry hung his head.

“I think,” continued Gene, “You and your wife should come in for marriage counselling.”

Jerry smiled a little. “Okay,” he said, in a conciliatory tone, although the glance he shot at Lisa, which I could see from where I stood, was pierced with rage. “We can do that, right, Lisa?”

Lisa said nothing.

Another church “elder,” an administrator, came alongside us, too. He also said nothing. Just watched.

I drew Gene aside. “But, you don’t understand,” I began, thinking I could convey the real danger Lisa might be in just now if she was not protected. “LISA HAS A RESTRAINING ORDER OUT ON JERRY. HE ALMOST KILLED HER.”

Gene looked at me, seemingly not impressed with any sense of urgency.

“But we don’t know that,” he said. “We don’t know that she didn’t just stub her toe on her way up here which caused her to become so upset.”


Now I was shocked silent.



(Perhaps Gene hadn’t heard me fully the first time, or perhaps he didn’t know what a restraining order is.)

“Lisa could be in real danger, here!” I finished.

But Gene had already moved back to the group.

“Okay, then, Jerry,” he said, “come by the office tomorrow and set up an appointment.”

“Sure,” he said.

Okay with you, Lisa?” Gene asked.

She stood, silent, still clinging to my sister. She and Jerry had been to counselling before. Didn’t work.

The other elder continued to watch.

Jerry backed off a bit, still smiling, actually, more smirk than smile.

The elders left.

Just then, an usher who had witnessed everything came up to us.

“I will be glad to walk the three of you out to your cars,” he said, his eye on Jerry, his voice, tense.

“Thank you,” we said, grateful for some real help in this obviously traumatic and potentially very dangerous moment for Lisa.

Jerry hung back, but followed us out. Lisa stayed close to my sister, still not speaking.

“Well,” sneered Jerry, now out of earshot of any elder, “It’s not like I was going to hurt her! She’s my wife, after all! I’m her husband!”

I shot him a quick glance. “This is appropriate,” is all I said.

He soon walked away. We tried to convince Lisa she should leave her car here for now and ride with us, but she wanted to drive her own car, maybe go out to her parents’ for the day.

As we stood there and watched Jerry hop in his truck and squeal out of the parking lot, she added these words.


“Who will help me now?” she said, looking down, despair in her voice.

We understood.

She had just been disbelieved, disrespected, and disregarded by, now, not just her abusive husband, but by the leadership of her church who should have protected her—and confronted him.

I called the music minister the next day for further conversation, clarification—anything—to no avail.

Although she faced many additional struggles Lisa survived but not because of that church which, just like her husband, had abandoned her, for whatever reason, in her greatest time of need, choosing their own version of what went on and the nature of the relationship and her husband’s responses, over the reality of the danger she was in.


Although our efforts to help Lisa in that church proved fruitless I knew I would one day recount this story and perhaps others charged with protecting the Body of Christ, not just the precepts or policies of their institutions, might do something about it for “the Lisas” in their own congregation [1]. So I took good notes.

But if not, I believe it is still a poignant “reveal” of what happens when churches choose dogma over danger, “relationship entitlement,” if you will, over a relationship with Jesus Christ Who sets captives free and rescues those in distress.

As my blog responder said, the secular world often gives more help than the church. But thank God it’s there and much more available and aware nowadays than back in Lisa’s day. Some churches have also finally come up to speed on abuse and its destructive effects on families, but, sadly, still too few.

As my responder also noted, at least in her case, in her church, the marriage that “looks decent” in public is valued over the tragedy that takes place behind closed doors.

Wherever this is the case, it has to stop.



Help from a Biblical standpoint and featured in my previous post: https://bible.org/article/verbal-abuse

For those in immediate need, a place to start if your church is in denial:

http://www.thehotline.org/ also known as the National Domestic Violence Hotline. (This is not gender specific.)

National Help Hotline for Abused and Battered Women, http://www.helpguide.org/articles/abuse/help-for-abused-and-battered-women.htm

[1] http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs239/en/

I also recommend these books:

Why Is He So Mean To Me? by Cindy Burrell

WHY Does He DO That? By Lundy Bancroft

Trauma and Recovery, by Judith Herman, M.D.

Any of the books by Patricia Evans on verbally abusive relationships.

The Book of Proverbs in the Bible is perhaps the best and most inclusive source of definition and clarity on the topic of the nature and danger of abusive, angry people, and how to deal with them.

This entry was posted in abuse, Christian Women Topics, Commentaries, most recent posts and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to On the Church and Domestic Abuse: “Who Will Help Me Now?” (Lisa’s Story)

  1. healingInHim says:

    Thank you for the encouragement but I shudder for those who are faking compassion when they don’t really meet the needs of the vulnerable – like you said, “There WILL be a time, however, when these needs will be exposed, addressed, and met.”
    Nice to hear from Cindy Burrell – she has been a great encouragement to me, too:-)


  2. Wow, what an terrifying and sadly credible story. The pathetic, wimpy, religious response is all too common within the contemporary church. I pray that other pastors, lay counselors and church leaders read this and experience a dramatic turnabout when it comes to dealing with abuse victims. We have a long way to go, but perhaps little by little, inch by inch, the inroads to godly commonsense will take root.

    This is painful to read and doubly painful to comprehend, but these stories need to be told. Thank you. .


    • pnissila says:

      Hello, Cindy! I’ve been wondering when your own next post will be :). Always look forward to them.

      Yes, unless one has actually witnessed such a travesty, it is too hard to believe. I knew I had to document it and do something. I have responded to another commenter, below, with additional work my sister and I did as a result of that sad, sad event…

      I love how God can use the Internet. Yes, maybe one or two church leaders might give these painful issues a second thought. I fear, however, with the upsurge of cults such as the Biblical Manhood/Womanhood group, that the squelching of the work of the Holy Spirit in women’s and children’s lives is getting worse, not better.

      I had occasion, a few years ago, to actually teach Lisa’s now grown son ( the baby she was pregnant with at the time of that incident) in one of my classes here on campus. He turned out to be a kind, gentle spirit. She had other children, sadly, by the same guy (on-again and off-again relationship, there. I hope not as violent, as I have not kept in touch with her). She recently finished her pre-reqs for our nursing program, as well. At least he didn’t kill her…And she does not now seem bitter or angry, at least in a brief conversation I had with her in a chance meeting, so God performed another miracle for her, too. Perhaps I will have an opportunity to sit down and talk with her at some point and find out the rest of her story–that might inspire others.


  3. healingInHim says:

    VERY WELL STATED: “But if not, I believe it is still a poignant “reveal” of what happens when churches choose dogma over danger, “relationship entitlement,” if you will, over a relationship with Jesus Christ Who sets captives free and rescues those in distress.”
    Many churches have become social gatherings; the holiness of God is lost; the reverence is gone; replaced by a paper-doll Jesus:-(
    Thank you for this post … although many still struggle it is good to hear of others who have stood in the gap and pleaded with leadership to ‘wake-up’ and see the seriousness of the situation. And so, let us continue to pray that “the church” will humble themselves to be used of God to ‘set the captives free.’


    • pnissila says:

      Thank you for your input :).

      After this incident my sister and I were so alarmed and frustrated we did some research on this issue, compiled a report and a few recommendations, and brought it in to the pastorate of that church. Heard nothing for about six years. Then, somebody called me up looking for another copy of the report. They were thinking about adding a counseling program specifically for abuse victims, and somebody there remembered it and remembered us. I guess the problem finally got their attention. I feel bad for all those who sought help prior.


      • healingInHim says:

        Oh my, six years is a long time … Countless times I have been stopped by others asking how I am coping and then saying they are praying for me. Yesterday a particular man went on to explain something about his church praying for this and that … I finally interrupted and said I didn’t want to hear it. I told him I left pamphlets on abuse in each of the churches in our small community and his pastor was one of many who did not contact me. They don’t care. Their prayers are “out appearances” of holiness. Pharisaical.
        He was humble enough to admit shame to such a response. I challenged him to come speak with my husband. Said he has when he meets up with him but faltered with actually coming to our house.
        This is a small town – many churched people know my husband – I truly believe that they think I am the problem.


      • pnissila says:

        Yes, it took about that long! However, we obviously had plenty of time to do the research we needed to submit the report initially.

        Besides reviewing current literature (back then) from both the secular and “religious” arenas (very little from the religious, a fast-growing amount from the secular), my sister and I talked with local women’s shelter staff. They told us that Christian women coming in for safety, protection, and help to their (secular) agency were a significant percentage of those seeking help. Remember, this was about 25-30 years ago, so hopefully more so were in need than nowadays when at least a few churches have listened to the Holy Spirit on these matters. The women’s shelter was very grateful to have whatever we came up with for them to share with Christian clients. So I suppose I could say there was some fruit to come out of our efforts on behalf of Lisa, after all.

        I just remembered one more attempt I made to get some awareness, at least, in that church, with regard to this issue.

        I thought perhaps the church’s “women’s groups/ministries” would be more open to this information and the need to address it from the pulpit and in (trained) counseling sessions. The shelter, by the way, was more than willing to train any church staff interested. They actually urged us to get some people down there for training if at all possible. They just didn’t have the materials or expertise for this demographic.

        Back to the women’s groups. There was some kind of women’s gathering slated for not long after my sister and I finished our research and report. The topic of this women’s gathering was to be available ministerial opportunities for women. I thought this might be a forum to address the domestic abuse issue, our findings, and the call for the churches to help their families in such crises. Wrong. I was also politically active in the pro-life movement at the time, and I though I could also make a pitch for the need for “ministers” in this arena, too.

        I came a bit early, and noticed flyers on all the chairs. I picked one up and began reading a long list of “Women’s Ministry Opportunities” (“Check as many as you are interested in. We will contact you later.”)

        Okay, I am not making up what follows.

        There were opportunities to “be a friend” (nice…), bake cookies for various events (yum), serve in any of the children’s Sunday school classrooms (okay, good), help with the annual spaghetti dinner (ah…), make festive banners (um…), decorate the church for events (yeeeeeah….), organize youth group activities (weelll…). And so on in that vein.

        ABSOLUTELY no volunteer opportunities to help FAMILIES IN DANGER, WOMEN AND CHILDREN IN VIOLENT DOMESTIC SITUATIONS (and remember, back then, the statistics were that 1 in 4 women would at some time in her life experience abuse, not to mention the CHILDREN involved), if even to financially support services in existence already, write letters to pastors and church counselors to at least create awareness, support people “on the front lines” of this kind of ministry, and so on. And nothing at all about any kind of activism to save the unborn.

        I was disgusted. The same old, same old.

        Not BAD same old same old, mind you, but with the noticeable lack of help for church members in real danger, or potential danger, there was a HUGE gap of information, there. And opportunity.

        I added several categories to the bottom of the list, a few suggestions for practical ways to get involved, signed it, got up and left.

        I’m glad you are about Our Father’s business in your own “distribution” ministry up north. 🙂

        There WILL be a time, however, when these needs will be exposed, addressed, and met.

        In the meantime, we need to stay the course of information and awareness, and whatever other ways the Holy Spirit inspires.


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