Shepherds Please Think, “Protect Well.” Please Stop Saying, “Suffer Well.”
Author: Bob Kellemen
A Twitter Question
On Twitter, domestic abuse biblical counselor, Chris Moles, asked:
“What was it that woke you up to the prevalence of #DomesticAbuse ? An experience? A resource?”
I hesitated to respond with my experience—feeling false shame even half-a-century later. But then, for the first time, even as a sixty-two-year-old author-pastor-counselor, I put it into writing publicly. Here’s my Twitter reply to Pastor Moles…and to the world:
“Growing up in a home in the 60s and 70s where I experienced and witnessed domestic abuse from an abusive, alcoholic father. Then, as an adult and a pastor/counselor, committing to assure that victims had the support of the Christian community and the legal system.”
Bobby’s Story: Being Shamed Into “Suffering Well”
I was nine. My three older brothers and I had to try to wrestle my abusive, drunk dad off of my mom.
Our two younger sisters watched in horror.
In that moment, one of us, I’m not sure which one, did something we had never done before.
One of us called the police.
It was 1968, so someone picked the phone off the hook on the wall and likely dialed the operator. I have no clue what was said.
But soon a patrol car with two police officers pulled up into our driveway. I don’t recall much of what happened next. I do recall they left. My dad stayed. It was, after all, 1968.
What Shame Does
The next day we did what the Kellemens often did after the horrors of such a terrifying evening. The eight of us packed ourselves into our station wagon and we drove from Gary, Indiana to Michigan City, Indiana to visit the Washington Park Zoo. This was my dad’s way of “apologizing” for terrorizing us and for beating our mom…
Mom wore make-up to hide the bruises.
We all hid.
We all pretended.
I remember telling my neighborhood friends, “Oh, that police car? Those were friends of my dad from the paint store Dad owns. They stopped by to say, ‘hi.’”
I don’t know if my friends believed me or not. But that’s how I responded to the shame I felt of our having to try to wrestle Dad off of Mom and calling the cops…
But something was different this time. My mom had finally had enough. She secretly saw a lawyer and filed for divorce.
But apparently it was not secretive enough. For I have a vivid image of a female Catholic neighbor, we’ll call her “Mrs. Smith,” marching across the street to confront my mom.
“Christians don’t divorce! Shame on you for trying to divorce your husband! Stop it!”
I remember thinking when “Mrs. Smith” said that, that “We’re not a Christian family.”
At that point in my life, I may have been to church once. This wasn’t an “ecclesiastical issue” for me. This was an “existential issue” for our family. (Even if I would have had no idea what “existential” meant when I was nine.) I would have known or felt or experienced that this was a “survival issue.”
Mrs. Smith didn’t come over with a casserole, offering support for my mom and protection for our family. Mrs. Smith came over with caustic words shaming my mom.
Mrs. Smith didn’t come over saying, “It’s not your fault.” She came over saying, “It is your fault…for not ‘suffering well.’”
Mom back down.
Mom tore up the divorce papers.
We endured five more years of constant terror.
Shame worked so well that even as I type this at 5:00 AM, fifty years later, I fear that my ninety-one-year-old mom might read this blog post and feel shame—false shame.
If Mom does read this—Mom, if you are reading this—It’s not your fault.
Sorrow Upon Sorrow
Five years later, when I was fourteen, Mom went through with the divorce.
In a “twist of fate,” a year after that, “Mrs. Smith” divorced her husband after his picture made the front page of the Gary Post Tribune. He was caught in a “police sting” for what the Tribune described back then in 1974 as “having illegally paid a prostitute.” I don’t share this to shame Mrs. Smith. I feel sorrow for Mrs. Smith.
But Mrs. Smith also caused sorrow to my mom and our family. She marched over to our house as an outsider who knew nothing of Calvary love. She marched over confronting my mom before ever entering Mom’s soul.
Our Good Shepherd’s Story: “I Lay Down My Life for My Sheep”
In my Bible, the heading for John 10 reads, “The Good Shepherd and His Sheep.”
How does Christ our Good Shepherd respond to His abused sheep?
He leads with “Protect well!”
Jesus paints a clear contrast between how false shepherds treat sheep and how the Good Shepherd and all godly under-shepherds treat sheep.
False shepherds protect themselves.
Good shepherds lay down their lives for their sheep.
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep (John 10:10-14).
There’s the old Bob Newhart video clip where he plays the role of a counselor, whose counsel to a fearful woman is, “Stop it!”
I’d like to turn that counsel on it’s head, turn it upside down, and direct it toward us as pastors, counselors, and shepherds. And I’d like to shout it in caps so we all hear it.
STOP IT! STOP SAYING, “SUFFER WELL!”
When we say, “Suffer well,” to an abuse victim, they hear, “It’s your fault. If you would only handle this better, then God would stop your suffering.”
When we say, “Suffer well,” to a domestic violence victim, they hear, “Your protection is secondary. Your safety is secondary. Protecting the image of the church is primary. Suffer well so that our congregation is not shamed.”
Pastors, counselors, and shepherds, when we see the wolf—the abuser coming—do we abandon our sheep and run away? Do we allow the wolf to attack and abuse our sheep—Christ’s sheep? Do we run away because we are a hired hand and we care nothing for the sheep?
Or, do we lay down our life for our sheep—for the Good Shepherd’s sheep?
Shepherd, “Protect Well by Confronting Well”—Confronting the Abuser
How does the Good Shepherd respond when His vulnerable sheep are being abused?
If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come! (Matthew 18:6-7).
Jesus confronts the abuser by protecting well.
We tend to confront the abuse victim by shaming them into “suffering well.”
And what does Jesus have to say to pastors-counselors-shepherds who don’t protect His sheep?
But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them…. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel (Matthew 23:3-4, 23-23).
Shepherd, Empathize Deeply, Richly
“Suffer well” lacks all empathy.
“Suffer well” is Mrs. Smith marching over to Mom without a shred of empathy, without walking in Mom’s shoes, without entering Mom’s soul.
“Suffer well” is NOT “knowing the sheep. “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me” (John 10:14).
Shepherds, pastors, biblical counselors:
STOP IT! STOP PROTECTING THE ABUSER. STOP PROTECTING “THE IMAGE OF THE CHURCH.” START EMPATHIZING WITH THE ABUSED. START PROTECHING CHRIST’S SHEEP.
Please, protect the Good Shepherd’s sheep—like my mom, and like nine-year-old Bobby pictured in the featured image in today’s blog post…
If you would like additional resources on ministering to the suffering and the abused, you may find this follow-up post to be helpful.
If you would like additional resources specifically related to counseling and domestic abuse, you may find this follow-up post to be helpful.
Now Available in Spanish
A friend of mine, Esther St. John, graciously asked if she could translate this post into Spanish. I’m grateful to announce that you can find the Spanish version of this blog post as a Word document at this link: Pastores, por favor piensen: “Protejan bien.” Por favor, deja de decir: “Sufre Bien.”
Now Available in Portuguese
I asked another friend, Lucas Sabatier, if he could assist me in having this resource translated into Portuguese. I’m grateful to announce that you can now find the Portuguese version of this blog post at this link to the Campinas Baptist Theological Seminary site: PASTORES, POR FAVOR, PENSEM: “PROTEJAM BEM”. POR FAVOR, PAREM DE DIZER: “SOFRA BEM”.
Posted on January 29, 2024