Online Training Lesson #1: Claire & George Brown’s Story
Mending Broken Hearts Series
Over the last 15 years, our research team has interviewed hundreds of pastors on their knowledge of abuse and their experience in responding to victims and their families. Using the methods of the social sciences, our data has been collected and analyzed by highly trained personnel. E-learners interested in the mechanics of the research initiative should consult the refereed scholarly publications of the research team or other published work by Nancy Nason-Clark.
The stories chosen for the Mending Broken Heart series offer a rare glimpse into how pastors respond to families in crisis. Throughout the series, we offer both stories of hope and stories of missed opportunities. The names and other identifying characteristics of the women, the clergy and the community have been changed to protect confidentiality.
Claire and George Brown were both schoolteachers, living in a suburban community outside a major industrial city. He had a history of addictions, and when he was drinking, George acted resentful and nasty toward his family. In these situations, he often became violent.
Claire sought out pastoral help initially because she was concerned about how George’s drinking was affecting Tommy and Mike, the couple’s school-aged children. She worried that they were frightened of their father. She worried that George might deliberately harm one of them in a bout of rage. She worried that their childhood memories would be clouded by the picture of their father in a drunken stupor.
The truth was—Claire worried a lot. And she had reason to be concerned.
Inside the pastoral study, where safety and confidentiality was assured, Claire began to recount the cycle that was controlling her life. George would always promise to change his ways, to stop drinking to excess and to begin to build a relationship with their sons. She never considered herself a battered wife even though on many occasions she had received bruises and beatings.
From Claire’s vantage point, she was a woman married to a man with a drinking problem.
After Claire had been able to confide in the pastor about George’s drinking binges, she felt that it was safe to tell him more about the fear she felt deep inside. For the first time, she was able to talk about the abuse George had inflicted upon her. Yet, she kept going back to the relationship, back to the verbal assaults, back to the broken promises and back to the violence. She lived with a great deal of fear. She blamed herself most of all.
For years, the Browns had lived on the fringes of church life. She came alone, some of the time. Some of the time, the boys came with her. After one especially explosive drinking-then-remorse-and-repentance-episode, George began to join his wife on Sunday morning. They sat near the back.
At this point, the minister, Rev. Stephen Townie, became more involved with the family. He would “drop in” to their home, which was located rather close to the church, when he did pastoral calls.
One evening he found George in a bad state: there was chaos in the household; Claire and the children were fearful of his anger.
Having assessed the level of danger, Pastor Steve encouraged Claire and the boys to leave with him and take refuge for the night with his family at their home. As Steve recounts this story later, he is still rather surprised at the protective shield he was able to become for Claire, Tommy and Mike. The parsonage served as a temporary safe house, a shelter in the time of storm.
But the problems faced by this family could not be solved by temporary respite. George spent money recklessly, in part to sustain his gambling habit. If his addictive behaviour as an alcoholic and gambler became public, Claire worried that he would lose his job and their family would lose their economic security.
Claire told the pastor that she deserved the abuse that was meted out to her. This belief was part of the baggage she brought from her childhood, growing up in a home with an alcoholic father. Rev. Stephen Townie was shocked that a woman with a university degree would interpret her husband’s abusive acts as her fault. But as he learned more about Claire, Steve came to interpret the self-blame of this woman as history repeating itself.
Home visitation became the way that pastoral support was offered to Claire and the boys. Paradoxically, the abusive home became a safe place to disclose abuse to a spiritual leader who was willing to act as a protective shield. Steve would have preferred that Claire and the boys seek refuge in one of the local transition houses, until suitable alternative housing was found. But Claire was not willing to leave. So Pastor Steve visited, assessed danger and waited for the right moment when Claire would be ready to take the next step. When she was ready, Stephen Townie had all the referral information at his finger-tips.
Questions to Consider:
- What are Claire’s greatest needs at this time in her life?
- How did Pastor Steve begin to win Claire’s confidence?
- What might a local congregation offer to a woman in Claire’s situation?
- How would you assess Steve’s intervention with the Brown family? Would you have responded in a different or similar way?
- What would you see as the next step in pastoral care?