Online Training Lesson #2: Mildred Jennings’ 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.
Mildred Jennings was a deeply spiritual person. In her pastor’s words, she was a “beautiful Christian” who was very active in their congregational life. All five of her grown children were high achievers.
Rev. Jones had just arrived in the area, having moved from a more urban environment to this small town setting. About three months into his ministry here, Mildred started to tell him small details about her marriage and life at home. Before long, he began to realize that her smile and warm manner were covering up conflict and disappointment deep within her soul. Things were not as they seemed on the outside.
She was regarded by most people in the church as a very balanced person, but Russell, her husband was a most controlling man. He yearned for power and status. To satisfy his thirst for flashy cars and gadgets, he was continually borrowing money. This was driving the family further and further into debt.
One day Mildred was talking on the phone to her eldest child, Anna, a family doctor in a neighbouring community about 100 miles away. In preparation for this critical call, Mildred had retrieved some handwritten notes of past abusive episodes from a secret hiding place in the attic. Russell came home as the call was in progress, saw the papers scattered on the desk in front of her and flew into a rage. Fear gripped her—she began to relive the fear she had experienced months before when Russell had tried to kill her.
The following Sunday, Russell gave his 62 year old wife and her 83 year old mother, two hours to leave the family home forever or face the consequences of staying.
Mildred turned to her pastor for help. She left a note on the pulpit of the church asking him to meet her after the second service. They met. He listened to her story. And that very afternoon, Allan Jones escorted these two frightened, older women to the home of a church family who was willing to offer them respite and care for a few days.
In the words of Rev. Jones, “I remember the very first day, when I was driving her…saying someday you’ll see this was the best thing that ever happened to you. But it was a terrible time, terrible time.”
As a spiritual leader, Allan Jones felt an incredible responsibility to do the right thing. In the moment of crisis, he knew that temporary lodging was critical. Indeed that was the first step in a long journey to assist Mildred and her elderly mother.
The minister saw Russell’s problem as his desire to control Mildred, to control their money and to control her friends and all of her activities. In his obsession to know where she was at all times, Russell even began to curtail her church activities.
When Mildred resisted Russell’s control, he would fight back with words and threats, or he would give her the silent treatment, and refuse to speak at all.
As a result of all this chaos at home, Mildred began to see herself as worthless. In the words of Rev. Jones, “Her self-esteem was [already] low because she had grown up in a family where there was abuse…She had seen her grandfather knock her grandmother out, leave her on the floor in a pool of blood. She saw her father treat her mother very negatively…so she had very low self-esteem.” Russell, too, had childhood experiences that contributed to the present violence. As a childhood victim of abuse, he had learned as a little boy to use his fists to get his own way.
After Mildred and her mother had been turfed out of the family home, she spent the next four or five months feeling sorry for Russell. To the pastor’s astonishment, she was the one who felt guilty. She felt responsible for the break-up. She felt everything was her fault.
As Allan Jones recalled, “Even though he was the one that put her [out] with two hours’ notice, she felt that she was hurting him by having blabbed…I felt so bad for her, she was so vulnerable. And he was always calling her…she would pity him so much. Pity him because he never knew what love was as he was growing up.”
With no where else to turn, Mildred had looked to her spiritual leader for help. At her point of despair, she looked to the church and found a pastor willing to help her begin the long journey towards healing. Mildred had immediate needs for safety and shelter and she had nagging doubts about her faith and her responsibility to make her marriage work. The questions just kept on coming: Could God forgive her for leaving Russell? What about the part in the marriage vow that says, for better, for worse? Where was God in the midst of her suffering?
With patience and tenderness, Allan Jones tried to answer her questions and free up time to talk with her on a regular basis. “I did a lot of listening,” he confided during our interview. “I reminded her that she would have never have left…It wasn’t her…decision.”
Through pastoral counseling, Rev. Jones tried to challenge Mildred’s faulty beliefs—that she was at fault, that God would hold her accountable for leaving the marriage, that she was responsible for Russell’s misery or that the breakup was her idea.
Mildred received care and spiritual support from her pastor for quite an extended period of time: sometimes it was a phone call, other times, it was over coffee, or in his office at the church. Allan Jones received her permission to talk to other professionals in the community and beyond its borders so that he could understand more fully the depth of her despair. He sought other resources. He helped her lawyer to comprehend why her spiritual life and its values were making her so ready to forgive Russell and so unwilling to terminate their relationship.
Meanwhile, Russell blamed the abuse and its heartache on Mildred, on the pastor and on anyone else he could think of. But he never blamed himself. He was unwilling to accept assistance from the church or elsewhere. He preferred to be left alone.
Over time, the minister helped Mildred to be less forgiving of her husband, helped her to see that God was not asking her to ignore the pain of the past, and helped her to see that it was Russell who needed to accept responsibility for the abuse.
Rescue and temporary shelter were immediate needs. But these were followed close behind by a variety of spiritual questions and concerns. Mildred’s erroneous beliefs were eating her up inside. They were blinding her from clear thinking. They had the potential to compromise her safety.
For Mildred and her mother, spiritual needs were primary in the aftermath of crisis at home. Since faulty religious thinking can be best challenged by a pastor or other person with spiritual credentials, Allan Jones’ role was critical on Mildred’s road to recovery. The language of the spirit, God’s word spoken through a loving pastor, brought healing and hope.
Questions to Consider:
- Why do you think Mildred sought spiritual care in the aftermath of crisis at home?
- What might a local congregation offer to a woman in Mildred’s situation?
- How would you evaluate the pastoral response of Allan Jones to Mildred and her mother? Would you have responded in a different or similar way?
- Do you think there would be resistance in the congregation to Rev. Jones’ intervention? Why or why not?
- In what ways did the pastor build bridges to the community in his response to Mildred?