The annual Clergy Gathering was transformed into a domestic violence training session on Tuesday, Oct. 13, at Colonial Heights United Methodist Church in Kingsport, Tenn. About 350 clergy from 12 districts gathered for a dose of education with fellowship time over lunch.
Some presenters shared painful, personal experiences. Bishop James Swanson said he was 18 when his mother died at the hands of her husband. "We've got to deal with a sickness that's loose in our communities -- something that seeks to kill rather than heal," he said.
Deban Yeomans, Johnson City District lay leader and a staff attorney at Legal Aid of East Tennessee, shared her story of abuse by her father.
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Other presenters at the "Breaking the Silence" themed gathering included the Rev. Robin Kimbrough, attorney for the Tennessee Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence; Gayle Crabtree, founder of Hope for Healing in Jefferson City, Tenn.; and other members of the Holston Conference Domestic Violence Task Force.
Clergy reactions varied. Some said they realize pastors are often on the front lines when domestic violence victims begin to seek help.
"Clergy are often the first person contacted in the many levels of domestic abuse -- initiation to divorce, death, or resolution," said one Kingsport District clergy member. "The pastor has the power to frame what is happening theologically and should be very careful to not further victimize the abused."
"We need to live in the communities where we're sent, establish relationships with law enforcement, and have materials and information for that rare occurrence when a victim of domestic violence approaches us," said one Morristown District pastor.
"We just have to remember that we can't fix it -- we have to find help," said an Abingdon District pastor.
A Chattanooga District pastor noted:
"To effectively deal with an issue such as this, we need to have programs in district clusters, facilitated by professionals in the field, that will give us the opportunity to ask questions and have one-on-one dialog with local resources that we can turn to for help ... The logistics and size of the gathering in Kingsport are not conducive to a program of such importance."
At least two pastors sat in the audience with personal histories of domestic violence. A Wytheville District pastor, whose sister was killed by her husband, was surprised to learn of Swanson's loss: "I have a renewed fire for helping those affected by domestic violence," he said.
A female clergy member and domestic violence survivor said she was disappointed when colleagues "didn't take the topic seriously" or seemed to "deeply reject" parts of the presentations.
Some preachers said the event was too long (from 10 a.m. to almost 5 p.m. with worship) or that it failed the original fellowship-oriented, "day apart" spirit of Clergy Gathering. Conference staff members noted that the long hours were necessary in order to offer .4 continuing education units (CEUs) for full participation.
Of 348 total participants, 62 were "walk-ins" who did not pre-register. "We almost ran out of food again," said one conference staff member. Thirty-eight clergy members registered but did not attend.
For more information about domestic violence, e-mail Gaye King, associate director of connectional ministries, or call her toll-free at (866) 690-4080.
The following resources from Clergy Gathering are available: