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Online Training Lesson #4: Jill and Robert Smith’s Story

Mending Broken Hearts Series

Lesson #4

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 have 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.

Jill and Robert Smith

Dennis Dunhill was a rural pastor who liked to do things the traditional way. He felt close to the members of his congregation and it was his pastoral prerogative to visit each family at least once or twice a year—more often when life threw them difficult circumstances.

Because of this, he had established a bit of a reputation in the community as someone with whom you could confide: a friend par excellence.

Sometimes men and women not formally connected to his parish contacted Rev. Dunhill for assistance.  Jill was one such woman.

One night…I just pointed out that I’m 6’2” and he’s 5’2” and if he hit her again I’d visit him in the hospital, ‘cause that’s where I’d put him. Then Dennis smiled. Now that’s not professional counseling.

This was a couple—the Smiths—who were older in years than the pastor, in a second marriage, and headed for disaster. Robert Smith was himself a child of the manse: he had grown up in a family where his father served as clergy.

Robert and Jill had asked Rev. Dunhill to marry them several years before. I did the wedding against my better judgment and have learned [the hard way] not to go against my better judgment; if I don’t feel good about it [now], I won’t do it.

While they were not members of his congregation, Jill and Robert were active participants in another church. They met Rev. Dunhill at a denominational convention, where apparently they were lay representatives of their church. Could there have been resistance on the part of their own pastor to marry them? Perhaps, but Dennis really didn’t know for sure.

As two divorced people, in a rural church environment, it would not be uncommon for a couple to have to look to several conservative pastors before finding one willing to perform a second marriage ceremony. Her first husband she had divorced because he had moved out on her, he was living with another woman…

Robert’s ex-wife, on the other hand, had been granted a divorce on the grounds of mental and physical cruelty.  Not surprisingly, this made Rev. Dunhill nervous.  And I wouldn’t have touched this with a ten foot pole, but he made a straight statement, claimed up and down that that was before his conversion, that he’d been saved, this was all taken care of.  Robert even quoted Scripture to Pastor Dennis, 2 Corinthians 5 says, “If anyone be in Christ, he is a new creature, old things have passed away, all things have become new.”

All of this caused Dennis Dunhill angst. Here was a man claiming that his salvation had wiped clean the slate of his past. Here was a woman who had been treated very poorly by her first husband who was looking to start a new life. And he was the pastor, the one who believed more than most that God could change a person in an instant. What a predicament!

As we spoke, Dennis Dunhill picked up rest of the story when he dropped into their home on his way home from doing some Christmas shopping…just a social call.  He was not expecting to arrive in the direct aftermath of a violence incident.  Got there, oh, I don’t know how long before the fight had been, probably half an hour. She’d gone back to work, he was in the middle of feeling very remorseful…And I just walked in at a time when he was willing to say what had happened…We were up until 2 in the morning before we finally wrapped up.

By now the immediate crisis was over, but Rev. Dunhill assessed the situation as dangerous. Yet intertwined with Robert’s physical and emotional cruelty were spiritual issues. Couldn’t an abusive man who was a believer simply ask for forgiveness and begin life afresh? Didn’t the Scriptures say to forgive seventy times seven?

With more training under his belt and more pastoral experience to his credit, Dennis Dunhill knew now what to say. He was prepared to challenge this man in a way that he was unprepared years before when the couple first approached him about marriage. Rev. Dunhill helped Jill to see that she had options other than remaining with this abusive partner. He helped her to see that she had not broken the marriage covenant. He helped her to understand that her children were at risk. In essence, he helped her leave.

From the pastor’s perspective, Personally I almost think that’s a success solution. No kid got hurt and, and the wife got out without getting beat to pieces…I don’t think that marriage is to be preserved at any cost…God doesn’t call us to be stupid—faithful yes, try it yet, stupid no…A divorce is a failure, but it is not the person who has necessarily failed, it’s, it’s the relationship that has failed.

Pastor Dunhill talks about grieving the relationship that did not work out.  And then he points his finger inward:  in this case that we’ve been talking about, maybe what failed is whoever did the wedding and did the premarital counseling…there’s no way in God’s green earth… [that I should have conducted] that wedding.

It was embarrassing for Dennis Dunhill to stand up in court and admit that he had performed the wedding and that now he was testifying in favour of its dissolution.

But he stood by Jill, offered her spiritual and emotional support, helped her to see the manipulative patterns of her abuser and encouraged her to put the safety of herself and her children as a primary goal. As a pastor, he was present in the aftermath of crisis. As a pastor, he was present in court to testify to the truth of her story. As a pastor, he was available to meet the needs of this hurting woman and her children.

Prepared by:  Nancy Nason-Clark

Questions to Consider:

    1. What do you see as Jill’s greatest needs as she begins life as a single parent with three children?
    2. How did Pastor Dennis begin to win Jill’s confidence?
    3. What might a local congregation offer to a woman in Jill’s situation?
    4. How would you assess Dennis’ intervention with the Smith family?  Would you have responded in a different or similar way?
    5. What would you see as the next step in pastoral care?