The Common Good
December 2013

Beyond Anger Management

by Tony Lapp | December 2013

What your church can do to address abusive behaviors.

IN THE PAST, programs like Menergy were often described as “batterer intervention.” Today we prefer to situate battering behavior within the broader definition of abuse, and work with our participants to change abusive behaviors, big and small.

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In 30 years of work with men and women who act abusively toward an intimate partner, Menergy has had thousands of people of faith go through the program. Sometimes their faith community helped them get to our door; other times they came in spite of messages they received at church.

A faith community that seeks to encourage change for abusive members can have a dramatic impact. Here are a few suggestions for how to start:

1. Embrace the secular programs in your community. “Groupthink” often supports abusive beliefs. Don’t try to keep it in-house. In Menergy’s counseling groups, we see that diversity in life experience, culture and ethnicity, economic class, and religious belief aids group members in challenging each other’s ideas.

2. Learn more about domestic abuse. Contact the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (1-800-799-SAFE) to get a list of local victim-advocacy programs. Send several members of your church to a training for people interested in learning more. Effective support that allows a survivor to grow stronger and safer can often be the fastest path toward holding the abusive partner accountable.

3. Find out who local victim advocates refer to when asked for a resource for abusive partners. Responsible intervention programs for abusive partners maintain close, accountable relationships with programs that work with survivors. Some states have established standards for work with abusive partners. Whether or not such standards exist in your state, a stamp of approval from local victim advocates is the quickest way to find a responsible and experienced program.

4. Visit programs for abusive partners. Find out if they allow group observers. Get to know the workers. Ask how your church might partner with them. Look for common values.

5. Reserve couples counseling and family therapy for non-abusive situations. Many abusive partners handle themselves quite differently outside of the home—even when they are in couples counseling. What can feel like a productive session involving family members may create feelings of public humiliation in the mind of the abusive partner and lead to private punishment later.

6. Understand that domestic abuse is not only a problem of anger management. Some of the most hurtful abuse can be committed in a state of calm. In addition, many people who act abusively are able to manage their anger quite well in other areas of their lives.

7. Develop a procedure for handling disclosures of abuse in your faith community. Don’t, for example, pull everyone into the same room to hash it out. In the beginning, individual conversations are less threatening and safer. If the disclosure comes directly from the abusive partner, then make sure the immediate response includes at least respect for the person’s willingness to disclose, concern about the impact of the abuse on the person, their partner, and their children, and confidence in the possibility of change.

8. Tolerate different definitions of success. Having an abusive person stop acting abusively is the best outcome—but not all abusive people will stop acting abusively. In those cases, success is whatever steps can be taken to support the people being abused.

9. As a community, spend time discussing the pervasiveness of abuse in everyday life. The spectrum of what we call abuse includes things that most of us have done—belittling, undermining, or controlling others. Owning up to the times when we also have abused power does not excuse patterned abusive behavior. Rather, when done thoughtfully, it can be a powerful example of the humility and accountability we seek from the abusive parents and partners in our midst. We are in community together. 

Tony Lapp is associate director of Menergy, a Philadelphia-based counseling program for people who have been abusive to an intimate partner.

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