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Exploring African Conservative Clergy and Service Providers’ Experiences of Supporting African Christian Women Survivors of Intimate Partner Violence in England: A Clergy Perspective

Authored by: Pamela Aben Shelley

Together we can address intimate partner violence within the Christian Community effectively

In this blog post, I would like to share some clergy perspectives on intimate partner violence as these emerge from my research for my PhD thesis in Public Health and Health Promotion at Brunel University London. I focus on the experiences of conservative African clergy supporting African Christian women survivors of intimate partner violence in England.

Why did I choose to research intimate partner violence within the conservative African Christian community? My decision is informed by the recognition that intimate partner violence happens in churches too (Aune and Gilles, 2018) and in African Christian families (Kagou and Kamgno, 2015; Adejei and Mpiani, 2020). In addition, conservative Christians believe in the Bible’s infallibility and will adhere to the literal interpretation of the scriptures. For example, scriptures on the sanctity of marriage, male headship and female submission, and divorce as sin (Bent-Goodley and Fowler, 2006; Nason-Clark, 2009; Heggen) may condemn intimate partner violence but are more likely to emphasise marriage preservation (Nason-Clark et al., 2018). Moreover, I desire to see Christian women have relationships free of violence and abuse based on love, peace, and respect.

Why should we care about the experiences of clergy in supporting Christian women, specifically African Christian women survivors of intimate partner violence? The main reason is that clergy have a unique opportunity to support the survivor, her abuser, and their family. Christian women who have experienced intimate partner violence tend to turn to their clergy for formal and informal support (Nason-Clark et al., 2018). The clergy provide spiritual and physical support to women and may refer them to other professionals (Kroeger and Nason-Clark, 2010; Zust et al., 2018, Shaw et al., 2020). However, many clergy feel they are not well-equipped to adequately address intimate partner violence (Nason-Clark et al., 2018; Istratii and Ali, 2022).

The qualitative systematic literature review that forms the basis of my research highlights that clergy desire to have training on intimate partner violence and to work with statutory and voluntary service providers to adequately address the issue (Peterson, 2009; Dyer, 2010; Dyer, 2016; Housley and Klatke, 2017; Drum et al.; Tedder and Smith, 2018; Houston-Kolnik, Todd and Greeson, 2019). In addition, faith organisations can play a vital role in the community-coordinated response to address intimate partner violence among Christian women (Bent-Goodley, St. Vil and Hubbert, 2012; Aune and Barnes, 2018; Nason-Clark et al., 2018; Istratii and Ali, 2022). Therefore, the clergy need to be a vital actor in the coordinated response.

The literature review also revealed that the experiences of clergy and service providers in supporting African Christian women survivors of intimate partner violence have been under-researched in England. My research responds to this gap by exploring the lived experiences of African Pentecostal, Baptist and Catholic clergy in supporting African Christian women who have experienced intimate partner violence in England. I was particularly interested in identifying their understanding of intimate partner violence and how they support women who have experienced intimate partner violence in their congregation. I also wanted to explore the challenges the clergy face and how they collaborate with service providers. Additionally, since the research overlapped with the Covid-19 lockdown period, I wanted to know the impact of the pandemic on their role in supporting women survivors of intimate partner violence.

I approached this research from a philosophical stance of relativism and as a qualitative inquiry. I believe that African Pentecostal, Baptist and Catholic clergy will have multiple realities of their experiences of supporting African Christian women survivors of intimate partner violence. Clergy experiences supporting victimised women are shaped by their theological interpretation of scriptures on love, marriage, male headship, female submission, and divorce. Their experiences are also shaped by their knowledge of intimate partner violence, their cultural background, and their interaction with their congregation, service providers and the community. I have wanted to hear about their subjective experiences because I believe that understanding their experiences can generate knowledge that will expand the body of knowledge on intimate partner violence within the African Christian community and the Christian community at large.

The research utilised an interpretative phenomenological analysis (Smith et al., 2009) guided by the intersectionality feminist theoretical framework (Crenshaw, 1991; Collins, 2019) to explore the experiences of 10 purposefully selected African Pentecostal, Baptist and Catholic clergy in supporting African Christian women survivors of intimate partner violence. The recruitment of the clergy was challenging, but especially recruiting Baptist and Catholic clergy. At last, 12 clergy agreed to participate in this research. Interestingly, most of the clergy I contacted stated that they had been in ministry for over 30 years. They stated that they were not aware that intimate partner violence occurred in their churches. Hence, they had no experience supporting women in their congregations.

Non-contact semi-structured interviews were conducted on Zoom and by telephone. The interviews were audio-recorded, transcribed verbatim, and analysed using interpretative phenomenological analysis guidelines. Data collection using Zoom and telephone was quite effective. Although there was a lack of physical contact as it happens with face-to-face interviews, the Zoom video interviews were a close replica of face-to-face interviews because the participants and I saw each other, built rapport, and reacted to our respective verbal cues and expressions. It was interesting to explore the use of Zoom interviews in a sensitive area, intimate partner violence within the Christian community.

I interviewed 12 clergy, but I decided to analyse 10 interviews due to the evolving nature of the study. All the clergy were very interested in the topic: they opened up and gave insightful information. Five clergy were excited that “someone was researching the plagues of intimate partner violence within the African Christian community”. This answer suggested that some clergy may be becoming tired of the ‘holy hush’ in their churches and are ready to tackle the problem.

The data analysis is still in progress. However, the preliminary findings show that the clergy understood intimate partner violence despite the lack of adequate relevant training.. In addition, the study found that they support women through prayer, individual, couple and family Christian or spiritual counselling; they refer the women to secular services, and they raise awareness in the church. However, the study also showed that they lack training on intimate partner violence and collaboration with service providers and that they desire to have training on intimate partner violence and to collaborate with service providers.

The clergy who were interviewed understood the causes of intimate partner violence as the interactive effect of individual personality, Christian and cultural beliefs. They highlighted that some African men have a “distorted religion” whereby they misrepresent Biblical scriptures on husband headship and wife submission to validate their patriarchal cultural beliefs. They stressed that Christianity and culture are interwoven. Therefore, they explained that Christianity cannot be divorced from culture, yet Christianity supersedes culture according to their perception. Therefore, they explained that a Christian is responsible for choosing healthy practices from their culture that align with Biblical scriptures. The clergy believed that it would be difficult for a spiritually matured Christian who studies the Bible, has fellowship with the Holy Spirit, and regularly attends church services to abuse his wife. Therefore, their understanding of intimate partner violence within the African Christian community through an intersectional lens of individual personality, Christian beliefs and cultural beliefs enabled them to support these women.

Most clergy stated that they prefer to support women through individual and couple Christian counselling because it is the best way to address the problem. However, the clergy felt discouraged from doing couple counselling due to safety issues for the woman. These clergy presented a thoughtful approach to couple Christian counselling by putting woman’s safety first. First, they counsel the woman. Then, with her consent, they contact her husband and counsel him. Finally, they counsel them together when they are ready and agree to meet. The clergy attributed the success of couple counselling to the intensive individual counselling, prayer and the couple’s readiness to meet and to address the problem.

This couple Christian counselling model extends the body of knowledge on couple Christian counselling that needs further research. Rather than condemning and discouraging clergy from counselling couples altogether due to safety risks, since some clergy will continue to do so, it would appear more appropriate to train clergy on how to counsel effectively. The majority of the clergy would not support divorce. However, they encouraged separation. They explained that they do not support divorce in the sense that they will not tell a woman to divorce her husband, but if she decides to do so on her own, they will provide her with spiritual support. Although they do not support divorce, they put the woman’s safety first by encouraging separation in abusive situations.

Most of the clergy explained that although they do refer women to secular services, they do not collaborate closely with providers and that they desire to establish collaborative relationships. They expressed the hope that this research will form the foundation to build a bridge between them and secular services. This suggests that many clergy are ready to overcome the existing tensions with secular services and to effectively address intimate partner violence within the conservative Christian community. This research hopes to contribute to forming the foundation of “bridge-building” between clergy and service providers.

The majority of the clergy interviewed stated that they were not aware of the increased rate of intimate partner violence in their churches because their churches were closed and they provided services online. They said that they would have more information when their churches reopened. A few other clergy stated an increased rate of intimate partner violence in their churches. Two clergy, however, highlighted that the Covid-19 lockdown rather brought stability and God back into families.

In conclusion, the preliminary findings of this study indicate that the clergy play an important role in supporting Christian women who have experienced intimate partner violence. Their understanding of the causes of intimate partner violence as a complicated web of Christianity, culture and individual personality enables them to give these women appropriate support. Therefore, they need to be included in the multi-sectoral community coordinated response team on intimate partner violence, have active education, and build reciprocal pathways to share their knowledge and experiences with the rest of the actors responding to the problem in the community.

I want to appreciate all the clergy who took the time to share their experiences with me. I look forward to sharing the service providers perspectives of this study with you in a future blog post.


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About the author

Pamela Aben Shelley is a 3rd Year Doctoral Researcher at Brunel University London. Her professional experience, lived Christian experience, and personal intimate partner violence experience inspired her to conduct this research to contribute to knowledge in intimate partner violence and Christianity.

She also works part-time as a Health and Disability Nurse Assessor for the Department for Work and Pension (DWP) through APM Ingeus. As a Clinical Research Nurse for Entrust People Ltd and Wentworth Pharmaceuticals, she worked on various clinical trials. She has worked as a Clinical Research Nurse at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge University NHS Foundation Trust. She managed clinical trials and developed an interest in furthering her research career. She also worked as a Midwife at Rosie Hospital, Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.

As a Christian leader in a charismatic church in Cambridge, she provides support as ‘women helping women’ to Christian women survivors of intimate partner violence.