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Ministering to Abusive Families

minister abusive families

I had just finished speaking at a mountainside retreat when I got the call, and since my cell phone had no reception, my student’s tearful message went straight to voice mail: “I’m sorry Dustin, but I think I have to leave the country.  Thanks for all you have done for me.  Bye.”  When I returned home, I frantically dialed my student’s number over and over again, hoping to find out where he was and what was going on.  Once we connected, I found out that he was still at home—not leaving the country—and then the real news.  His father had been physically abusive.  His father had screamed, thrown full canned-goods at his wife and child, and brandished a large kitchen knife to show the seriousness of his verbal invitation to a bloody fight.  I wanted to help, but what could I do?

Youth ministry is so much more than just getting kids to show up to programs and events.  Youth pastors ultimately become family pastors, because reaching into students’ lives entails reaching into the place they spend a great deal of their time: with their families.  Our engagement with students’ family systems will inevitably lead us to witness both “the good” and “the bad” of their home lives, and sometimes even “the ugly” of family dynamics: abuse.  These situations call for skills and knowledge beyond the training of most youth pastors, but how we deal with abuse is incredibly important.  This article will attempt to uncover the cyclical nature of abuse, how that cycle distorts abused persons’ views of God, how pastors get caught up in the cycle, and make some suggestions about how youth workers can protect abused students without getting caught in the cycle themselves.

The Abuse Cycle

Dr. Dale Ryan of Fuller Seminary and the National Association for Christian Recovery teaches a course called “Pastoral Care and Abuse” in which he details the issues surrounding the treatment of abuse in the local church and gives insight and advice into how pastors should interact with abusive systems. (1)  Though it is easy for us to believe that abuse is a series of incidents between only the victim and abuser, abuse is much more complicated than that.  Dr. Ryan describes familial abuse as a cyclical system with four characters who all equally perpetuate the abuse: Abuser, Non-Protector, Victim, and Messiah.

  1. Abuser: the person who is directly perpetrating the physical, sexual, or emotional abuse (e.g., my student’s father)
  2. Non-Protector: a silent or impotent bystander who is aware of the abuse but does little or nothing to stop it (e.g., my student’s mother, who refused to report the incident)
  3. Victim: the person who is directly targeted, victimized, and harmed by the abuse (e.g., my student, and in this case his mother vacillated between non-protector and victim)
  4. Messiah: one who continually steps in to protect the Victim from the Abuser (e.g., the protective sibling, youth pastor, social worker, or therapist.  In my example, I was certainly tempted to play this role!)

The abuse cycle includes not only the interaction between these characters, but their dynamic movement as well.  People fluidly change roles within the system, as the diagram below illustrates.  The characters shift roles as the abuse continues, creating a powerful cycle that can endure even the relocation or death of the Abuser.  A victimized child who grows up to abuse their own families moves from Victim to Abuser.  Non-Protectors move to the Abuser role by default in the eyes of the Victim, sharing guilt by allowing the abuse to continue.  This abuse cycle is vicious, and no role is a good role. (2)

Pastors in the Cycle: Messiah Complex

If you ever get that panicky call from a student and realize something is truly wrong, you may feel forced to act.  Clearly when it comes to ministry with families, we youth workers are asked to play the Messiah character.  A parent may ask us to come and “fix” their teenager because they’re at the end of their rope, or a student may ask us to save them from their abusive parent.  Usually we’re glad to oblige, because after all, aren’t we supposed to bring healing to abusive situations, to swoop in and save the day?  Isn’t that following the example of our Savior, WWJD-style?  We may feel that it’s our Christian duty to play the Messiah, but there are two big problems with the Messiah role.

1. Help-aholism

Our need to play the Messiah can easily get pathological and dangerous to us and others.  Carmen Berry’s When Helping You Is Hurting Me: Escaping the Messiah Trap describes the habitual Messiah as a “helpaholic,” addicted to helping others at their own expense.  Helpaholics:

  • Don’t notice their own needs going unmet,
  • Pretend that they have no inner needs or hurts,
  • Insist on providing others with answers while ignoring their own nagging questions,
  • View life as a choice between their needs and others’ needs, and
  • Believe that there is enough nurture and love for everyone but them.

Helpaholic Messiahs are dominated by contradictory attitudes that believe “If I don’t do it, it won’t get done,” and “Everyone else’s needs take priority over mine,” at once making them feel both indispensable and worthless.

Does any of this sound familiar?

If it does, you might have a case of helpaholism, which can damage you and those to whom you minister.  Berry puts it like this:

Since they unconsciously focus on self-need, Messiahs tend to misinterpret the needs of others.  Messiahs tend to give to others what they so desperately need to receive themselves. What others may actually need often goes unnoticed as the Messiah misjudges the situation.  It is impossible to genuinely give or receive love when caught in the Messiah Trap. (3)

It is all too easy for youth workers, both paid and volunteer, to fall into this trap and not only damage themselves but their students as well.

2. Messiahs Don’t End the Abuse

The bad news for youth workers (and everyone involved) is that every role in the abuse cycle keeps the abuse going.  The Messiah character is just as likely to perpetuate the abuse as the Abuser and Non-Protector.  The nature of the Messiah is that they step in to shield the Victim and are thus assailed with the violence of the Abuser themselves.  As the abuse continues, the Messiah is worn down by the Abuser’s wrath, and the Victim (though perhaps shielded from the worst) continues to be victimized.  If the Messiah gets tired of defending the Victim, they may begin to identify themselves as a Co-Victim of the Abuser because they would rather take the abuse than continue to protect the Victim.  Or fatigue prompts the Messiah to retreat, causing them to become the Non-Protector.  Or sometimes the Messiah is so tired of dealing with abuse that they become complicit with the Abuser and begin to blame the Victim.  In all of these cases, the Messiah actively continues the abuse.

If we are only interested in protecting our students from the worst pain of abuse in the short term, then the Messiah role is fine.  But if we want any hope of long-term transformation, we cannot be our students’ Messiah.  What, then, are we supposed to do?  Youth workers who want to stop abuse must step outside the system to find solutions.

Be a Game Changer

As we’ve seen, every role in the abusive system is a bad role, and even the Messiah perpetuates the abusive environment.  Our goal should be not only to shield the Victim, but to make the abuse stop for good.  In order to do that, we must act from outside the abusive system, choosing none of the roles offered to us.  That being said, in most states youth workers are legally obligated to immediately report abuse to state authorities, so every youth pastor and volunteer should research and keep handy the guidelines for reporting abuse.  But state services do not ultimately end abuse because even when youth are removed from their homes, they continue in the Victim role.  Thus, as we seek to protect the abused, we must also seek to change the system.  Rather than becoming a Messiah, we can become a Game Changer.

A Game Changer remains firmly outside the abusive system.  They are not a Co-Victim that absorbs the Abuser’s violence.  They are not an Abuser who heaps more guilt and shame upon the Victim.  They are not a Non-Protector who turns a blind eye.  They are not a Messiah who runs in to save the day, only to be battered, bruised, and burned in the process.  Instead, Game Changers come near the abuse environment and invite the system to change.  Game Changers seek to teach all the characters new rules for interaction and expression.  Game Changers are worldview-shapers.

Game Changers also have an expanded view of ministry.  Messiahs are laser-focused on the Victim alone, seeking to protect them from the pain of abuse.  Game Changers have an eye to reform the entire system.  They look to help the Non-Protector see the reality of their family and empower them to act with courage.  They look to help the Abuser see the damage they cause and empower them to become a peacemaker.

Jesus is known as the Messiah, but he was also a Game Changer. He ushered in a kingdom with new rules, fresh and different ways of relating to God and others.  Jesus, the Game Changer, died not only for the broken and oppressed but for the break-ers and oppress-ors.  When we minister as Game Changers, we minister in the style of Jesus.

Churches are excellent environments for game changing.  After all, that’s what conversion, baptism, discipleship, and kingdom living are all about, right?  We live by different rules than the rest of the world. Here are some ideas for becoming a game changing ministry:

  • Consistently put abused students into environments where people interact with them in healthy and encouraging ways to show them that the rules of their homes do not apply to the rest of the world.
  • Pair students with caring adult mentors who model healthy marriages to give them hope that the family they might eventually start doesn’t have to be as chaotic and painful as the one they were given. Find ways to change the rules.
  • Ensure that diligent and thorough background checks are done for all church employees and volunteers who work with minors. Make sure that the people in place to minister to students have the least possibility of abusing them.
  • Research the social services available to your area as well as your own church’s service agencies (e.g., food pantry, deacons, etc.) and familiarize yourself with emergency services like 2-1-1 (created to increase access to health and human services).  Create an easily accessible resource list for families to find social services to help stabilize them financially while dealing with their problems of abuse.
  • If you want to be really ambitious, create opportunities for abused students in your church and surrounding community to receive direct help.  The sky’s the limit on what programs could help: summer camps for at-risk children, support groups to process abuse, Life Hurts/God Heals seminars, annual events in connection with Child Abuse Prevention Month, and more.  Check out http://www.nacronline.com/resources-for-leaders for a wealth of resources on starting support group ministry in your church.

When I found out about the abuse my student had experienced, I let him know up front that I had to make a report to the state, which I did immediately.  I already had a relationship with the family, so after the authorities made their visit to their home, I offered to help.  I did some research on mediation and conflict resolution and set up a mediation session with my student and his father, to help both of them learn new rules of interaction.  With the process of change initiated after a long and difficult talk, this family began to interact differently, acting with love and respect instead of anger and violence (see the Mediation Guide below for some goals and ground rules to help you in this process). Our church provided short-term help with groceries and bills in order to relieve financial stress while they began to work through their problems.  After some hard work, accountability, and support, this home is becoming healthier, and the rules are changing for the better.

Being a Game Changer in some ways is significantly more difficult than being a Messiah, because it’s less about fixing problems and more about seeking justice (which almost always requires a systemic response). (4) After all, we know what a Messiah looks like, and our protective instinct toward the students we love compels us to don the armor and become the knight who slays the evil dragon.  But imagine what could happen in your ministry’s families if you became a real Game Changer.

Read the rest of the article here.