Pastors, What You Need to Know About Traumatized Members

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So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.
1 Peter 5:1-4

I am an adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse.

I am also a survivor of clergy abuse.

I have suffered long and hard, and I desperately need help.

You, dear pastor, are in a position to make a tremendous difference in the life of someone like me just by providing a safe, stable environment where I can learn to trust.

But don’t make the same mistake my former  pastor did and assume that you can help me without educating yourself on what trauma does to the brain.

Also, please don’t assume that just because I come across as together, functioning normally and intelligent that I don’t need help. Diane Langberg says in her book Suffering and the Heart of God, Trauma has its most pervasive impact when it occurs in childhood or adolescence. Make no mistake, the abuse I suffered as a child has damaged me greatly.

I went to my pastor for counseling a little over ten years ago.   I was hurt, confused, full of self-hate and shame.  Somehow on the outside I was able to look just like everyone else, but the truth was I’d learned to compartmentalize my pain.  It’s what I’d learned well to do as a child, because I couldn’t have survived otherwise.  This is called dissociation, and I had no idea at the time I was even doing it.

Diane Langberg explains this process:

In dissociation, information is not integrated and traumatic experiences are relegated to separate aspects of consciousness. Trauma cannot be effectively catalogued in the brain; labeled or understood. Trauma defies normal categories. There are essentially no files in the brain of a child where the whole of their abusive experience can be put and understood. Think about it—you are a five-year-old girl and you live in a house where you are chronically neglected, beaten, and raped. To absorb the memory—the sensations (voice, smells, pain), the visual, the cognitive twisting, and the emotional aspects—of all that at once would likely lead to insanity. If you cannot escape physically, then one possible coping mechanism is to divide the parts of the experience and store them separately in your mind, even to the point of rendering them inaccessible—hence amnesia. So the abuse from certain ages, the abuse in certain places, the emotional responses, etc. are all filed separately in the computer of the brain.

The day I walked into my former pastor’s  office I was looking for a hero,  someone stronger than me who’d love and accept me, and tell me that things were going to be ok.

To be chronically mistreated and abused as a child leads to recurring victimization, inability to trust, or in a minority of victims, victimizing of others. They are unable to feel intimate with others. These clients have no model for healthy relationships and so cannot make good and wise judgments. They miss warning signs and so are re-victimized. Or they see the warning signs and feel helpless to deal with them or immediately dissociate, rendering themselves helpless. These struggles will impact the therapy relationship as they struggle to trust and may respond aggressively to the therapist, be overly dependent, or feel victimized in treatment. They feel significantly isolated from others and often live in a withdrawn fashion. They may present as perennially looking for a rescuer and if so, you can be sure they hope you are the one.    Diane Langberg

I wasn’t aware of the reasons my life felt like it was falling apart. I just knew I wanted answers and for it to stop. I also didn’t know how crucial boundaries were for my protection.  I wasn’t aware that my biggest need was for someone who’d keep me safe and from harming myself more.

I was not looking for a soul mate or an affair. I had a big hole in my heart where a loving father was supposed to be.  I thought I needed my former pastor to fill this emptiness and be the father I never had. I was mistaken in this, too. What I really needed was for my former pastor to teach me to rely on my Heavenly Father and tell me about His love.  I didn’t know how to deal with difficulties in life.  A normal problem in my life often looked like a catastrophe.  I didn’t need for my pastor to fix it and cause me to develop a dependency on him. I needed only for him to listen, understand, offer encouragement and pray.

I didn’t need the door of his office shut. I didn’t need physical contact in a room alone. I didn’t need more secrets.  I didn’t need for my help to just come from a single man who believed he had all the answers.  Narcissism almost destroyed me. I needed  professional help and community. I needed for my former pastor to direct me to them.

I also needed a pastor who was getting his needs met through God and by  confessing and being accountable to other leaders or friends in the body of Christ.  I certainly didn’t need to be told I was his soul mate.

Alcoholics Anonymous says we are only as sick as our secrets.  I told my former pastor my secrets and he asked me to keep more.  I became sicker and sought relief through self-destructive behavior with him.  Beth Moore calls this kind of relationship an emotional toxic cocktail.

I grew up in a stronghold of fear. I longed to find a safe place to hide.
I desperately wanted someone to take care of me.

But from the realm of my own painful experience, let me alert you to a toxic emotional cocktail:
a relationship made up of someone who has an unhealthy need to be taken care of, and someone
who has an unhealthy need to caretake.

This relationship will end up extorting God-given liberties and will prove fraudulent. Any place we have to hide is not safe. In Christ, we find the freedom to be safely exposed! If only we could understand that God’s authority does not imprison us. It sets us free!

Beth Moore
Breaking Free Day by Day

Dear pastor, I know you have a lot on your plate.  But this is too important, because in a world where one in every four women are sexually abused and one in every six men there are others suffering from trauma in your church.

Below are some resources that I believe every church should have.  Please take the time to listen and read.  Doing so will provide you with the tools to make a real difference in the lives of those  in your congregation who have been traumatized.

2 thoughts on “Pastors, What You Need to Know About Traumatized Members

    1. Hi Heather. Thanks for your kindness and encouragement! I have been helped greatly by The Wounded Heart. My counselor highly recommended it. I have linked it at the bottom of my blog. Reading Dan has helped me to understand so much about trauma. I credit his book for opening my eyes to the fact that I was in an abusive relationship with my pastor. You are right. This definitely needs to be discussed more in church. God bless!


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