Research That Matters (January 17 - 20, 2008)

Regency Ballroom Wings (Omni Shoreham)

Compatibility of Social Work with Clergy Perspectives and Practices regarding Partner Violence

Jacqueline Dyer, MSW, Boston College.

Background and Purpose

The purpose of this research is to understand whether the perspectives of African American clergy concerning their responses to intimate partner violence in their churches, are compatible with the tenets of best practice in the field of social work. Many religious individuals seek help for issues of domestic violence primarily or only from their pastors (Taylor et al, 2000). Increased understanding of the strategies used by clergy regarding partner violence will in turn increase the opportunity to build effective community partnerships to the benefit of the couple needing intervention. The questions explored by this research are: What are the experiences of clergy with partner violence; what are their perspectives about the dynamics unfolding when the relationship of a religious couple deteriorates into violence; and what strategies do clergy employ in addressing partner violence in churches?


This pilot study used a single semi-structured interview, with one follow-up meeting to review accuracy of transcription and to clarify points if needed. The time of the interview varied from approximately forty-five to ninety minutes. The sample of 8 clergy was developed though a snowball process of asking interviewed clergy if they knew of anyone who would sit for an interview or people in the acquaintance of this researcher if they could recommend a possible contact. A conventional content analysis was used to create a description of themes and issues presented in the interviews.


This research demonstrates that some clergy can be hesitant in seeking and accepting support from social service providers that either do not respect or enfold similar religious beliefs. However, their primary concern for maintenance and support of healthy marriages drives their interest for participating in effective community partnerships. Additionally, clergy a) have consistent ways of understanding the religious and secular roots of partner violence, and b) are knowledgeable about how African American church culture contributes to and mitigates partner violence. Their theological formulations about what is transpiring with the couple both fit and diverge from clinical best practices. Notably, concern for breaking trust or connection with their congregants, parallel to the concept of maintaining therapeutic alliance, is a factor in how partner violence is addressed from the pulpit.

Implications for future research

African American clergy have an interest in participating in training so as to better understand the issues they encounter when addressing partner violence in churches. They also would prefer collaborations respectful of their world views. There are ways in which practice in the religious and social work fields generates divergent and sometimes conflicting agendas. We need to explore how to partner with the African American Protestant Christian community in our efforts to target the harmful issues without hurting the spiritual, and thus mental, health of the individual. We know the power of symbols. It would be beneficial to explore what faith-based symbols are available resources for social work practice, and how to appropriately employ them for better therapeutic interventions with religious individuals entangled by partner violence.