I did not grow up in church. My family took me to church a few times when I was in elementary school, but I did not attend enough to consider it an important part of my life.
I started attending a small church when I was 19 years old with the man who I would marry (and am still married to) the following year. Church then became a regular part of my every week. The pastor of the church at this time was someone who I looked up to and trusted to give me wisdom about how to live my life, secure my future, and keep God happy with me. When I attended church, I had the sense that this was a healthy part of my life that was doing me good. When my adopted father was dying of cancer, the pastor of our church visited him in the hospital and read the 23rd Psalm. His reading brought tears to my adopted father’s eyes, and hope to me that he would one day rest in the arms of God when he left from this life into the next. What was most important to me at this time was that everyone learned how to trust in Jesus for their salvation before it was too late, even the man who had caused me more pain than anyone else.
As I look back on that time, I realize church gave me a sense of stability that had been sorely lacking in my life. Attending church weekly, our services were much the same. We sang songs, read creeds, listened to a sermon, and took communion. I knew what to expect when I attended church unlike the rest of my week. Others who attended the same church with me became like family. Even though I didn’t know a lot about many of the people I sat near every week, their consistent smiles, hugs, and handshakes made them feel like family who loved and accepted me. It was a consistency that I needed in my life. However, the beliefs I had about my role in maintaining this stability and consistency were not healthy or realistic. As someone who had learned how to survive by keeping others happy in my circles, my responses to people in church were much the same. I knew if I missed a church service, people would ask me what was wrong. So I made sure I went unless I had a legitimate excuse. Later, when we attended a church that met three times a week, I didn’t feel good about myself unless I attended every time. When I gave up choir, because I did not want to stay until 9 pm during the middle of the week, I felt guilty for months after. Until the past couple of years, a part of me has believed that if I did not attend church God was not happy with me. I had learned to associate guilt and shame only with the voice of God, because this is what I had learned early on through some church teachings. If I didn’t feel right, it meant I wasn’t right, and I needed to ask God what was wrong, and when He showed me, I could repent and feel better. In many ways, God was like my earthly father who was not happy unless I was doing everything right. This process, though painful, gave me a sense of control and stability. For over a decade, this was the rhythm of my life, until the lives of others I was close to in the church became chaotic and affected the stability of the church. Since my default mode was believing if I kept people happy with me I could fix most things, I tried too hard to fix others by doing and saying the right things. Of course, I had no control over other’s choices, and the more I tried to make things better the worse they got for me, because I was carrying responsibility that I was never intended to carry. When things did not improve and our family finally left the church, I believed that somehow it was my fault. It was easy to believe this since others who I had been in relationships with in the church were looking for someone to blame to relieve themselves of their own responsibilities. Once again, I played the role of scapegoat in an unhealthy, codependent system.
I now recognize that the overwhelming responsibility I was taking for other’s behavior was a result of what I had learned how to do as a child. If I did everything right, maybe Daddy would not get upset and scream. If I pretended like I was asleep, maybe he would not abuse me. Because this did not work as a child, I felt like I was doing something wrong, and that therefore there must be something wrong with me. Since I viewed the church as the only stable family I had, when they were unhappy with me, I thought God was unhappy with me, too.Then I believed that I was a bad person. I stayed stuck in the same shame cycle, I had been in my whole life. These were the beliefs I had when I walked into my next church “family” where I was abused by the pastor. You can read My Story here.
I read a post on Twitter recently that compared their church experience with a trauma bond. This article provides a good definition of a trauma bond.
This emotional attachment, known as a trauma bond, develops out of a repeated cycle of abuse, devaluation, and positive reinforcement.
I can also compare my own relationship with the church as a trauma bond experience. As a result of growing up with childhood abuse and a lack of healthy attachments in my life, it was easy to latch on and develop an emotional attachment to an abusive pastor and an abusive church system. These were the only kind of attachments I had ever experienced in my life.
Recently, I have been reading What Happened to You by Dr. Bruce Perry and Oprah Winfrey. This book has been so helpful in reminding me about the processes of how our brains develop and how they work. Dr. Perry talks about how our brains develop based on our experiences. For example, if we grow up in an abusive home, we learn as our brains develop to expect abuse from those in our lives who are supposed to care. Abuse is what is familiar to us. We live in a constant state of high alert expecting harm to come and looking for whatever control we have to stop it. However, when we grow up experiencing nurture and healthy love, our brains develop expecting love and care. We can experience healthy relationships, because we are more easily able to let our guards down and trust.
When I think about my church experiences today, I recognize that the abusive culture in church felt so much like home, because this was the only kind of home I had ever known. It took an incredible amount of pain, for me to finally get to the place where I learned how to ask for help. Thankfully, this time when I went to a licensed counselor for help, she was a safe person who was able to help me start the process of healing and see God and church in a healthier way.
I spent five years in therapy unlearning the faulty definition of love I had that a lifetime of abuse taught me. I never would have learned it without others in my life who showed me what real love is.
Today, I have come to believe that God is more concerned about how we treat one another more than what we actually believe about doctrine, who we vote for, or what sexual relationships others are having. I think the most important issue facing the church right now is how we are treating one another. Jesus told us to love one another as He loves us. Love does no harm to others. Abuse has no place inside or outside of the church.