Thursday, May 6, 2010

Cycle of Abuse

Several years ago I volunteered at a domestic violence center and learned about the cycle of abuse. It involved the abuser repeatedly working to separate the victim from support systems (usu. family, friends), to control choices and behavior, to undermine the victim’s sense of autonomy and capability so that the victim becomes more dependent on the abuser.

I found this outline of the cycle of abuse on a domestic violence web site. It’s alarming how similar this looks to what happened at our last congregation. I’ve crossed out the elements that do not apply to the conflict with sr. pastor. As it happens, that’s every item that has to do with repentance.


Any type of abuse occurs (physical/sexual/emotional)

Tension Building

Abuser starts to get angry

Abuse may begin

There is a breakdown of communication

Victim feels the need to keep the abuser calm

Tension becomes too much

Victim feels like they are 'walking on egg shells'


Abuser may apologize for abuse

Abuser may promise it will never happen again

Abuser may blame the victim for causing the abuse

Abuser may deny abuse took place or say it was not as bad as the victim claims


Abuser acts like the abuse never happened

Physical abuse may not be taking place

Promises made during 'making-up' may be met

Victim may hope that the abuse is over

Abuser may give gifts to victim

The “incident” was always some episode of sr. pastor aggressively asserting control. He was surprisingly creative about doing it, but in every case his objective seemed to be to force compliance at any cost. He did crazy things and then refused to talk about them, manipulated every confrontation so that he did not accept responsibility. He was unpredictable and blamed (privately and publicly) Husband for anything that went wrong.

Other people on staff at the church have indicated that they are discouraged, unhappy, frustrated by our departure, but that they feel they cannot say anything.

Writing this is hard for me because I am furious that Husband - we - have been treated this way. It has caused immense pain to our family. It has sown doubt about things we ought never have to doubt. Everything about this is antithetical to my understanding of what pastors are called to do. I’ve been trying to write this for weeks, but thinking about it still makes me so sad and angry.

Now that we have left that church, I feel confident we will heal. I am thankful that God provided us with a way out. I continue to feel distressed, however, by the effect of this pattern of control on the church. It turns the congregation’s energy and identity toward a few particular rules of Christian living and away from God’s love and mercy and justice and a relationship with him in Christ. I cannot imagine why God allows this to continue.


  1. I am by no means making light of what Sr Pastor did to your family. But think what he could possibly be doing to his own family, wife and children hide it I am sure. Or maybe wife does it to him and doing it to the church ( you guys) is the only way he feels like a man. Not trying to excuse his behaviour just feel so sorry for the whole situation and wonder why he chose this path.


  2. Jerri,

    I think you are on the right track. His wife has been as controlling as he has. Their family seems close but I really don't know them. I imagine his behavior toward us is connected to some pain in his own life, but it's just a guess like you are making.


  3. Cycle of Abuse is real. I keep you in my prayers.

    As to "why God would allow this to continue?" the answer is that it is not given us to know the hidden will of God, but at the same time our gracious and merciful heavenly Father is revealed in suffering. Look at Christ, dead and bloodied on the cross. Such a strange place for our Father to reveal Himself as gracious and merciful.

    Why might God let things continue? Because His grace is sufficient. And then the thorn remains.

    A few months ago you commented on the O My Soul blog that the best anti-depressant behavior is to "marinate in the Gospel." Thanks. It is great advice.

    God bless you as you are given to be away from that congregation and sr. pastor. you are in my prayers.


  4. I said that? Thanks for passing it back. Reading the Bible is a powerful corrective to my misunderstandings - about who I am, what I control, and what I fear.


Thanks for using this space to share your encouraging words.