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updated: October 2, 2007
By Annette Spence
'I COULDN'T BELIEVE ANYONE WOULD TREAT ME THAT WAY '
She is attractive. Some would say she’s aloof, others would say strong and confident. She is a clergywoman who tells her story with relatively little emotion – except when she speaks of her children, which makes her cry, or when she remembers the clock.
Remembering the clock seems to make her nervous. The sound of it triggers memories.
“I’m OK today, but if I hear a clock chime, it can bring it all back,” she says.
The clock was in the house where she lived for six months. It was the
house she left in the middle of the night, in fear for her life, never
to return or to speak to her husband again.
The clock chimed the hours of her abuse.
Elaine* wants to share her story so that others can be saved
from domestic violence. (Please see our resources, below.) She requests
anonymity because of the nature of the details, but believes that God
is using her experience to help others.
“This is definitely a time when I can see that everything in my life was pointing to where I am today,” she says, on a busy weekday morning in her church office. “My story has a happy ending. My church helped me get back on my feet with furniture and household goods to help me with a new start ... They had not only read Matthew 25:35-36, but were living it.”
Elaine was in her early 40s, recently divorced, when she met the man she would date for years before marrying him.
He was charismatic and charming. “He could talk the birds out of the trees. He could get you to like him in two minutes.”
He was also a preacher, whose skills greatly impressed a woman who had just left a long marriage with low self-esteem.
“He was a powerful preacher, good on his feet,” Elaine remembers. “He was a master at pulling people in.”
During their engagement, she didn’t notice anything that would give her pause in marrying him.
“I had seen patterns of behavior that were disturbing, but I was
in love,” she said. “I had seen his anger, and I knew he drank some,
but I had never experienced alcoholism in my life.”
Elaine sold all that she had, married the preacher and moved
with him to a new town, into the parsonage with her children. “I gave
up a great job at another church, so obviously I loved him dearly.”
Within a few weeks, the newlyweds were attending an out-of-town
conference when Elaine saw a horrifying side of her new husband. He
woke her in the middle of the night, throwing objects at the bed,
accusing her of infidelity, screaming obscenities and threatening her
The incident was “completely out of the blue,” Elaine says. The
next day, the preacher was fine, but his wife was not. She was
“devastated,” contemplating that she had made a colossal mistake.
“It was the first time I had ever considered suicide,”
says the now 50ish mother. “I honestly think, if I hadn’t had my kids,
I would have found a way to kill myself.”
Elaine stumbled through her depression, until two weeks later,
her husband exhibited his violent temper during a cookout with clergy
friends. Her friends expressed fear and concern, while Elaine tried to
rationalize that her husband was under stress in his new appointment.
More time went by, with her husband waking her in terror almost
every night. He threw things at her and “ranted and raved,” but he
didn’t hit her ... until the night that her young son had a friend stay
Elaine’s eyes grow wet with the memory. “He finally found a
friend,” she says, referring to her son and his overnight guest. On
that night, her husband lined up five glasses of scotch and announced
that he was going to get drunk. Weeks later, Elaine would discover
empty bottles of liquor and prescription medications. She came to
accept that her husband had substance abuse and mental issues, but on
that night, she did not fully realize the danger at hand.
Her husband became drunk and abusive, so she steered him to the
outdoor deck to keep the children from hearing. When he threw a glass
of scotch and ice cubes in her face, she tried to make her way to the
“I couldn’t believe anyone would treat me that way. I didn’t come from an abusive home, so this was a shock to me.”
The preacher followed her to the bedroom, his fury escalating.
He slammed the closet door on Elaine’s hand, leaving a gouge and a scar
that exists today.
When he slapped and punched her in the face and head, the children heard it all.
“He could have hit me all day without doing that,” Elaine says tearfully.
Days later, her son, who had become severely depressed, asked to live with his father. “My heart absolutely broke over that,” she says. “I said, ‘You go ahead. I won’t be far behind.’”
Elaine panicked and searched for a way out. (“I had uprooted everything
to be with him. What was I going to do?”) She worried that no one would
believe her abuse, because her husband was a pastor. Although he
constantly accused her of infidelity, Elaine didn’t understand why,
because all she wanted was to be happily married to him. She drove by a
mental hospital one day and fantasized about checking herself in, so
she could get a good night’s sleep.
One night, her husband cornered her in the bathroom and spat in
her face 15 times. “I remember, because all I could do to keep from
killing him was to count the number of times.”
The clock chimed.
On her last night in the parsonage, the couple had watched a
movie together and Elaine was on her way to bed, when her husband
suddenly blocked her way.
“You’re shaking like a yellow dog,” he said, before punching her in the face.
Elaine barricaded herself in the guest bedroom, while her
husband angrily went to get an axe. He tried to chop and pry open the
Then he did something that made Elaine leave him forever. He opened the door to her daughter’s bedroom.
When Elaine heard him scream at her daughter, she flew out of the bedroom and pushed past him.
She swept up her terrified child and ran to the car.
They fled to the home of friends from the church, where they lived and recuperated for several weeks.
Elaine would return to her old job, where she was
embraced by the church community. Money showed up unexpectedly in
envelopes. Furniture was bought. At church one day, a friend said, “I
have a pink twin-sized bed frame for your daughter, but I don’t have a
mattress.” Not five minutes later, another friend said, “I don’t have a
bed frame for it, but I have a twin mattress that you can have.”
Elaine and her children still suffered, of course. Beside losing
40 pounds and suffering from stress-related ailments, Elaine continued
to live in “paralyzing fear.”
“I was forever looking over my shoulder, afraid that one day my
husband would find me and hurt me or hurt my children,” she said. “I
read myself to sleep at night so I wouldn’t have to think. I always had
to face the door in a restaurant so I could see who came and went.”
The bishop in residence and her clergy friends were very
supportive. Her husband also received support and counseling, although
the couple eventually divorced, and he lost his ministerial credentials.
At times during her crisis, Elaine wondered if God had left her.
“In fact, God had gone ahead of me and paved the way for a new life,”
she says now.
Elaine believes that she was healed one day during a reflective
time, as she sat on a bench outside her church. She sensed that God
said to her, “At the end of your life, it’s only going to be you and
me. This is the only relationship that you’re going to be involved in.”
Suddenly, “it didn’t matter where I was, who I was with, or what
happened to me,” Elaine says. “Even if I’m out on the street, I’ll be
OK. It was a moment of total surrender, and my fear left me.”
Elaine sits back in her office chair, and the composed pastor
that most people see in her busy congregation has returned. In the
years since her marriage, Elaine’s experience and compassion have
quietly led to ministries that help many people in crisis.
However, most people will never know of the pain that preceded the miracle.
Resources: What Does Domestic Violence Have to Do With Me?
Bishop James Swanson’s mother died following an act of domestic
violence. He has vowed to save others from experiencing the same. “I
believe the Holy Spirit calls us to address this tragedy with prayer,
education, intervention, and training for our clergy and
congregations,” Swanson has said. “I also believe we should advocate in
ways that will help and empower communities to redeem the lives of
those affected by domestic violence now and in the future.”
* In June 2007, the Holston Annual Conference adopted a resolution establishing a domestic violence ministry. A task force is now working to provide related clergy training in 2008.
* The Social Principles of the United Methodist Church affirm the family as “the basic human community through which persons are nurtured and sustained in mutual love, responsibility, respect, and fidelity.” According to Linda Bales of the General Board of Church and Society, “Violence and abuse cannot be tolerated within such an understanding.”
* In Virginia, approximately 108 victims contact a crisis hotline
everday, according to Virginias Against Domestic Violence. Fifty-two
percent of domestic violence victims were spouses of the perpertrator
and 29 percent cohabited.
* In Tennessee, domestic violence organizations provided shelter to 3,294 women, 2,703 children, and 11 men during 2003-2004, according to a Tennessee Department of Finance report. Due to limited funding, 2,609 women, 1,028 children, and 192 men were unable to be sheltered.
* Tennessee is home to more than 160,000 immigrants, experiencing one of the fastest growing rates of immigrant populations in the U.S. over the last 10 years. “The state currently lacks the resources and services necessary to meet the many domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking needs of its immigrant populations,” according to the Tennessee Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.
* In Georgia, 107 people died as a result of domestic violence homicide in 2004. Domestic violence and sexual assault are leading causes of injuries for girls and women between the ages of 15 and 44 in the state, according to Georgia Coalition Information.
For online resources visit:
Faith Trust Institute at www.faithtrustinstitute.org
National Coalition Against Domestic Violence at www.ncadv.org
If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship and wants help, contact:
• Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance
Hotline at 1-800-838-8328
• Tennessee Statewide Domestic Violence and Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-356-6767
• Georgia Statewide Domestic Violence Hotline at
• National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE
• National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE
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