Seven years after leaving an abusive church environment, I’m still very much in the process of understanding why it happened and how I can protect myself from it ever happening again.
While I’m sure I’ll never fully understand why I was abused in the church, I have learned a lot reading the stories of other survivors in the past several years.
We are wired for connection. When we experience rejection from others our brains receive it as a traumatic event. It’s just in our DNA to belong.
If you grew up like I did not feeling like you ever really belonged with your family, that longing is that much stronger.
I’ve never been to a church that didn’t promote itself as being a family. This was definitely a big draw to me when I started to attend church. It wasn’t long before the church felt like the family I never had.
Since I didn’t know what a healthy family was like, I grabbed hold of every bit of a sense of belonging that I received from others in the church. When the pastor started to pay me attention, it felt like I’d hit the jackpot.
I read recently that one of the reasons why people who suffer with complex ptsd have a deep sense of shame is their longing for connection that resulted in abuse.
As a child I grew up with a sexually abusive father. It was totally normal for me as his daughter to want to have a connection with him. But when the only connection that happened was abuse, I was faced with a dilemma. Was the man who was supposed to take care of my needs a bad man or was there something wrong with me? It is normal for children to feel like they are bad when they are abused, because if it’s something we believe that we are doing wrong then there is something we think we can do to change it. But what happens when we try to stop it and it doesn’t stop. We feel powerless and even more ashamed.
When the pastor let me know he saw, heard and was interested, I felt like a person who’d wandered in the desert for days without water finally getting a drink. Initially, my conversations with him felt like they would bring healing, but then his toxicity was revealed. It became clear he was interested in more than just being my spiritual father.
Like the little girl who blamed herself for her father’s sexual abuse my default mode was to blame myself for the pastor’s toxic desires. I still remember the day he told me that he was attracted to me in ways that were forbidden and asked me to keep it a secret. The weight of heavy shame suffocated me. Rather than run, I froze. I submitted to him and told myself that this was just the way things were. My abusive father told me when I was a child every one does this but no one tells. Accepting this lie as the truth, helped me to cope.
Ironically, being a part of a family of believers with him made it easier to accept the lies that my relationship with him was “normal. ” I used to believe that being a part of the church had been the only good thing about the years of abuse, but now I am beginning to see things differently. Finally, after seven years I am beginning to understand how the church was an enabler in keeping me unhealthy.
Last week another member in a support group for those deconstructing, mentioned that he was concerned I was struggling with shame and codependency, because I was overconcerned about upsetting someone else. His comment allowed me to see that I was indeed trying to belong rather than be true to myself. I appreciated his honesty, and have spent some time this past week reading about codependency. As I read, it became more clear that being in the church had enabled an environment where I had continued to be stuck in codependent behaviors.
Sunday after Sunday, the teaching I received in church was rooted in being sinners in need of grace. If we agreed with God about our condition, we could be forgiven. When we took communion and accepted the body and blood of Jesus we would be washed clean.
Please understand that I am not disagreeing with what the Bible says. I am not a theologian, nor do I claim to be. But what I am saying is how this doctrine being applied superficially to my life kept me in unhealthy patterns.
As long as I mentioned struggling with sin in church or a Bible study, others were compassionate towards me. I was accepted on the basis of saying what others expected me to. I was the good girl in the family who knew how to behave in such a way that kept my family happy.
Just as in an unhealthy family, when I disagreed about something was when the problems started. When I realized I was being abused, and told leaders in the church I felt like what became the black sheep.
Initially, I saw the pastor’s abuse as consensual sin. It was the only thing that made sense. Two sinners in need of grace who kept messing up without understanding the root cause. And the sovereignty of God tied it all up with a nice bow. Everything happens for a reason. Everything will work together for our good and his glory. Our sin makes us humble and gives us sympathy for other’s who are suffering in similar ways.
Again, I am not throwing out the baby and the bathwater of my Christian beliefs, but what I am doing is examining both to determine what is good and what is not.
I have come to an understanding in my own story that what the Bible teaches is not the problem. How people apply what is taught in the Bible is. The church I was a part of was led by a pastor who was abusive. There were patterns in his life that required much more than the band-aid of confession and repentance. Of course what he taught every week was impacted. After he “sinned,” was when I heard the best sermons from him. They were emotionally charged, and I remember walking away from church feeling so much better, because I was just a sinner who was forgiven just like everyone else. It was the same lie my abusive father told me. Everyone does this, but no one talks about it. It was just understood that we all struggled with secret sins.
I have learned more about the nature of God outside of the church than I ever did in it. While I am thankful for the education I received about the Bible in church, which gave me a foundation to build upon, I am not thankful for the way I was taught how to think about my relationship with God.
I have concluded that God is a lot bigger and not confined to the doctrinal boxes each church has to fit Him in. As long as we keep God small inside what makes us comfortable, we are limiting our ability to truly know Him. It works the same with codependency. If we continue to keep ourselves locked inside boxes of others expectations of us, we will never truly know ourselves.
Jesus said that the truth would set us free. He also said a relationship with him was about lifting burdens and not giving more. What He taught was not intended to keep us locked in unhealthy patterns. His desire for us is for healing and wholeness, and there is a lot more work required than a band-aid of just confession and repentance. He is the good physician. He cuts deep into our souls.
Trauma informed care and therapy has taught me more about the heart of God than church doctrine ever could. Understanding and processing what has brought us harm and having compassion for ourselves in the healing process is where God is actively working in our lives.
If you have suffered in similar patterns of codependency in a religious environment, know that you are not alone. Jesus walks beside you and you set the pace. If you need support through this process, feel free to reach out via email.
Submission: the action or fact of accepting or yielding to a superior force or to the will or authority of another person.
As a survivor of spiritual abuse, even the thought of submitting to another can be terrifying. Because many church teachings focus on submission, this is one of the reasons attending church is still extremely difficult for me.
It is common for survivors of any kind of abuse, especially from someone in an authority position, to struggle around submitting to other authorities.
Even reading these verses, I find within myself a deep sense of sadness and confusion.
Submit yourselves therefore to God…James 4:7
Submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. Ephesians 5:21
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account…Hebrews 13:17
Recently, during a podcast, I listened to a church member refer to his submission to a pastor as “sitting under him.” I had to turn the podcast off, because I found myself getting so angry.
Many years ago, I submitted to my pastor wholeheartedly. I believed he was acting on behalf of God to protect and care for my soul. Then I realized he wasn’t acting on behalf of God at all, but rather out of his own desires.
Three words in this podcast brought this memory to the forefront of my mind again.
What happens when we submit to spiritual authority and discover we have submitted to an abuser?
Depending on how much support we receive after we suffer this kind of trauma, sometimes losing faith in people and God happens.
Thankfully, I was able to receive counseling after I experienced spiritual abuse. My counselor walked alongside of me for almost five years. While I still struggle in many ways as a result of this trauma, I know that without her presence I most likely would not have survived. She was a true Godsend, who kept me from drowning in a tsunami of emotional pain.
However, even as much as she cared about me, I struggled at times to trust her enough to “submit” to her and take her advice. I’m sure I must have frustrated her many times, but she never stopped being there for me. Even today, I know if I reached out she would still be there without expecting anything in return.
Many churches have clearly missed the mark on teachings concerning submission. Sometimes submission is taught as a blind leap of faith under the authority of someone who has a higher position than us. Then when we follow those who we are told we should submit to and discover that they are not the people we thought they were, sometimes we are told that we made this leader an idol or expected too much of him. One must look to Jesus and not man, I have been told by well meaning Christians.
While the last statement is true, it is crucial that those who are in positions of spiritual leadership look at the problems of abuse and narcissism in the church. Too much of it is happening. When Narcissism Comes to the Church by Chuck Degroat is an excellent resource. Redeeming Power: Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church by Diane Langberg is another important resource.
These people are blemishes at your love feasts, eating with you without the slightest qualm—shepherds who feed only themselves. They are clouds without rain, blown along by the wind; autumn trees, without fruit and uprooted—twice dead. They are wild waves of the sea, foaming up their shame; wandering stars, for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever. Jude 1:12,13
Survivors of spiritual abuse have been consumed by the person who was intended to feed their souls.
We waited for the rain to come from a dark cloud that hid the bright light of the Son and blew our souls around with every wind of destructive doctrine.
The saltwater that flooded our souls with their shame has left us washed up and dying of thirst on the shore.
It is never the will of Jesus for this to happen. He warned us, because He wanted to protect us from it happening, because that is what a good Shepherd does.
While I love so much about Jesus, I still struggle with my faith. I struggle to pray. I struggle to read my Bible. I struggle to trust God. I struggle especially to submit to even Him.
While this might not sound like much of a victorious Christian life, I can assure you that the fact that I am still here is a testimony that God is very much the Savior of our souls.
Sometimes submission means we trust God enough just to get through another day without giving up.
Sometimes victory means we honor our struggles, our doubts and fear and learn to have compassion for ourselves.
If you are a survivor of spiritual abuse, please know that you are not alone. If you need support, please feel free to reach out via email. As a trauma recovery coach and a survivor of spiritual abuse, I am here to offer peer support and a listening ear. I am currently offering free 30 minute discovery calls and probono coaching services. Donations are appreciated, but not expected.
Be merciful to those who doubt; save others by snatching them from the fire; to others show mercy, mixed with fear—hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh.
To him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy— to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen. Jude 1:22-25
“Most of our operative images of God come primarily from our early experiences of authority in family and culture, but we use teachings from the Tradition and Scriptures to validate them!” The Importance of Experience Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation
My earliest memories of religion involved sitting in an elementary age Sunday School class. My most vivid memories of that time include a teacher placing felt Biblical characters around on a green board and telling us a story from the Bible. Another memory, is of a minister bringing a strange papery looking wafer around and placing it on our tongues. I would wonder later about this strange practice while I played on the brightly colored playground equipment behind the church.
My parents didn’t regularly attend church. A neighborhood Sunday school teacher sometimes picked me up and took me to church. I remember a few times sitting in big church with my family, but not enough for it to make a significant impression on me.
Most of my understanding of God came from the television preachers I watched when I got up before my parents on Sunday mornings. Because there were only four networks that our TV could receive at the time, my options were limited. Since I got up early, I sometimes watched three or four preachers back to back. What I learned from the TV preachers early on was that God wasn’t very consistent.
In one show, I remember being told that God cared about the holidays we celebrated. He wasn’t happy with us if we celebrated Easter or Christmas, because these holidays had pagan histories. He wanted us to celebrate the Old Testament holidays only.
In another show, I learned if we wanted to be healed by God we needed to have enough faith to walk to the front of the church and allow the sweaty preacher to place a hand on our forehead and shout,”Be healed!”
In another show, a man who had memorized large sections of the Bible quoted these passages quickly while flashing the modern day news on the screen. God wanted us to know that the world was going to end soon, and we better be ready.
One show was a church service where the pastor read and taught the Bible. He emphasized the importance of knowing the truth, so that we would not be deceived by the lies in the world. I learned a lot about the Bible from his teaching. I am still thankful for this foundation.
Sometimes, I joined my mother in watching a pastor who cried and begged us for money so that his ministry could continue. He promised blessings when viewers complied, thus the reason my mom mailed checks to them even when there wasn’t much money to spare.
Growing up with an alcoholic father and a mother who struggled to hold our family together, I longed to believe that there was a God who would save me from the pain and fear of life.
One Sunday I listened to a sermon by a TV preacher (I don’t recall which one) who talked about how to get the key to Heaven. He said if we confessed all of our sins and asked Jesus into our hearts we would receive the key to the gates of Heaven.
I turned off the TV and went to my bedroom kneeling at the foot of my bed. I began whispering all of my sins and begging God to forgive me. I still remember how ashamed I felt.
Sadly, many children who grow up in abusive homes often blame themselves for the bad things that have happened to them. A memory comes to mind of my father stopping at a liquor store on the way home. He asked me to stay in the car. While I waited for him, I can still remember wondering what I did wrong to cause him to want to drink. It was easy to believe that God was not pleased with me either.
When I sat in front of the TV as a little girl, I longed to hear a message of hope about God, but most of the time I felt more confused than hopeful. But I didn’t stop looking.
One day as a desperate adult I walked into the office of a pastor and believed I had finally met the man who revealed the true character of God, only to discover that he wasn’t any different from the father who raised me. I wondered if it wasn’t all my fault. I found myself once again face down on the floor begging God to please forgive me.
Father’s Day is a difficult holiday for me. I have learned on this day that the best I can do is get through it and be honest about what I am feeling.
The heavy feeling that comes behind my eyes is what lets me know that I am not in a good place. Even as I write this, I am still experiencing it. The question I find myself asking is where is this pain coming from? The first word that comes to my mind is fear. Fear that I am doing it wrong. Fear that God is displeased. Fear that something bad will happen, because I can’t do anything right.
This was the message I received from my father in the way that he treated me. This was the message I received from the TV preachers who kept telling me if I just did this or that I would please God and He would bless me. This is the message I received from a toxic pastor for almost a decade.
My final conclusion as I write all of this is, if God is good and God promises to ultimately wipe away every tear from our eyes, He is not at all like the authority figures in our lives who used and abused us.
This is where our real hope lies.
The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing. Zephaniah 3:17
He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever. Revelation 21:4
A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling. Psalm 68:5
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Hebrews 13:8
For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? Romans 8:24
If you are struggling as a result of religious trauma, The Religious Trauma Institute is a great resource.
Seven years ago, my relationship with the church changed.
There was a time when I considered it my home, my identity, and the most important part of my life.
Then I realized it was not at all what I thought it was, and so much about what I had once believed to be true about it became untrue.
It has taken at least 6 of the 7 years for me to finally start to accept that it is OK that I have not been able to call a church my home again.
For the longest time, it felt so strange not attending. Gradually, other things began to fill the time and not being there became more normal.
Because I live in the South, I believed for the longest time that I was in the minority not attending church. Then the pandemic happened, and I realized that not attending had become the new norm.
Recent statistics reveal that those of us who do not attend church are now actually in the majority. Over half of Americans do not attend church. So at least I’m not alone.
My deconstruction process started seven years ago with a phone call to a counselor in another state. I called her from a Sunday school classroom in the back of the church where I worked as an administrative assistant. I sat on the floor leaned against an old sofa, cell phone pressed against my ear.
The first question the counselor asked me was what was going on in my life that I had made the decision to reach out to her. The secret I’d been holding in for almost a decade spilled out of my mouth before I even realized what I was saying.
I believed I was confessing all of my sins to this stranger on the phone. I believed telling the truth would bring relief and healing to my life.
But then she spoke the words I will never forget. “I believe your pastor is a predator, and he groomed you to be abused. “
At first I wanted to defend him, but deep down inside I knew she had spoken the truth my mind had not wanted to comprehend.
I was 19 years old when I attended church for the first time. One of the first Sundays I attended, I helped my husband, who was an elder at the time, prepare communion for the service.
Even though I was dressed in a new dress, I felt like I fell short of what I should be. It took months for me to finally start to believe I was good enough to attend.
I had spent most of my life surviving a traumatic home life, escaping my current circumstances in movies, books and stories that I wrote.
I will never forget the day I sat down with a pen and a blank piece of paper and said to myself that I was not stuck, I could write myself anywhere I wanted to go, and I did.
I think in a lot of ways attending church was like writing myself out of all the things that I did not like about my life. When I walked through the doors of the church Sunday after Sunday, I convinced myself that I could be someone better than I felt deep down that I was. On the outside, in my Sunday best, I was another sparkling saint washed clean in the blood of the Lamb. But on the inside, I carried a deep disgust for almost everything about myself.
Based on my experiences in the church, it would be easy to throw out my faith in Jesus just as I have church attendance. But thankfully somewhere in all of the mess between who I pretended to be and who I really was, I had an encounter with the real Jesus and He told me He knew everything about my life, that He had never left my side, and that He loved me more than I could possibly comprehend. This experience has been an anchor for my heart and soul, that has prevented my faith from being completely shipwrecked. So much of what I have believed has been shaken, sifted and burned in the fires of deception and doubt, but this experience is the gold that remains; a treasure worth everything.
In my deconstruction process, I have ripped down all the walls built with doctrines that convinced me if I believed the right things I would be saved. While I have no doubt that Jesus is the source of our salvation, I also believe that doctrinal beliefs alone cannot give us the love we need that saves us from self-destruction.
Even the demons believe and tremble.
A toxic relationship with a pastor taught me that doctrine can be twisted to justify anything.
Doctrines without love, revealed through our actions and not in word only, are a loud, clanging cymbal filling our ears with an irritating sound that block out the sound of His gentle whisper to our hearts.
Almost every day I read another story about another person in ministry involved in abusing or covering up abuse in the church. So many of these stories involve a perpetrator or someone justifying or excusing the perpetrators actions using biblical doctrines. I wish they would just shut up!
In my own story the doctrine of grace was grossly misused and abused to keep me trapped in an abusive relationship.
While I still believe in God’s grace and forgiveness, I do not believe they were ever intended to keep us from doing the work on our part to end our own destructive patterns. I believe whenever we ask for grace and forgiveness, we are given a tremendous opportunity to see the things in our lives that need healing. When we let this opportunity pass over and over again, grace and forgiveness doctrines just enable us to bring further harm.
If the grace of God in your life enables you to continue in the same destructive patterns that bring harm to yourself and others, it might be time to put down your Bible and make an appointment with a counselor.
I confess in my deconstruction process, there has been more torn down than there has been built up.
But these three things remain:
And the greatest of these is love.
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. – John 13:34-35
I want to add that while much of this post has been about deconstructing my relationship with the church, I am not in anyway implying that there are not churches that are attempting to live out what they believe. I will always be thankful for the true believers who have loved me and helped me to heal.
If you are in the process of deconstructing your faith, I’d love to hear about it. Feel free to comment below or email.
While I am a certified trauma recovery coach, this post is not written to solicit services from you. If you are in need of support through coaching, you can reach out through email to schedule a free 30 minute discovery session. I work on a sliding fee scale, so you will not be charged more than what you can afford.
This morning I read a post by Jen Hatmaker that hit home with me on Facebook. As I am writing this, Jen’s post has been liked, loved and cared for by over 40,000 people. While I have been unable to read all six thousand comments, it is clear from what I have read that many relate to her post. Here is my comment in response:
Thank you for sharing. Your post and so many comments from others are a healing balm. I am amazed and encouraged by the vulnerability of so many. This post is church! I love that you say Jesus is there in the new broken places. My experiences with Him have taught me that my wounds are the cracks where His light gets through. My relationship with the church was shattered several years ago, and ever since that time I have been haunted by ghosts from the church. I have learned that in many ways church had become like an abusive dysfunctional family. Most children who grow up being abused do not realize that what is happening to them is abnormal. It’s all they know. Every child wants to believe the good about their parents. When we recognize the damage that has been done, the truth can be almost too much bear. I will never forget the day my counselor spoke the words and cast a bright light into the darkness of my understanding. I was in another abusive, dysfunctional family in the church. When we haven’t done work around our childhood trauma, we will return to what we know. Ever since the day my eyes were opened to the truth, I have tried to go back to church, but the traumatic reminders have been too much for me. I really did try to move past it. I reached out to others in the church who continued to tell me that I needed to be in church to heal. Thankfully, I had a few friends who didn’t tell me this and have continued to be “the church” for me even when I don’t go. They are the hands and feet of Jesus. I still miss the structure and the community of attending church, but I do not miss the feelings of guilt for struggling with my mental health, nor do I miss others trying to fix my thinking. I miss the friends I could call on to pray, the meals we shared together, and the feeling of working together as a family. I do not miss the judgments, the advice to just do this or that. There is much that needs to be deconstructed in church environments if we want to truly minister to the hurting. There is a huge need for churches to do this. Insanity is doing the same things over and over again expecting a different result. We need to look at the cycle, and see what we need to change. Even after all I have experienced, I still want to believe that we can do church in better way. Yes, we are messy, but can we continue to look at our messes and allow God to do a deep cleaning that’s more than a five minute altar call? Healing is a process. Grace,mercy, and forgiveness are part of the process, but not the end of it. Can we start to listen rather than fix? Can we allow Jesus to come in with His whip and run out the abusive people from taking advantage of the vulnerable? Can we tell the truth to one another? May God give you all much grace and peace. Again, thank you for sharing. 💛
Jen’s Facebook post:
For those of you with a complicated relationship with church right now:
I was a Church Baby from the womb. I came up through the youth group, church camp, See You At The Pole, purity culture, Acquire the Fire, DC Talk, rededicate your life to God subculture. I went to a Baptist college and got married at 19 because sex and young adulthood only belonged to marriage.
I was a pastor’s wife through several iterations of church: conservative pull-entirely-out-of-the-evil-world church, cool church with SNL clips on Sunday mornings, missional church that was entirely outward facing (I started that one with Brandon). I’ve spoken and taught at every type of church, denomination, ideological space, and power structure.
I haven’t virtually attended church in six months, maybe longer.
To be immediately clear: I love my weird little church that has evolved into something with much more depth and courage. It is a trustworthy space with beloved people. It is a good neighbor to our city.
But I started that church with a partner, so now I feel a strange disorientation, a founder whose life veered shockingly off course, alone with the ghosts of the sanctuary. And as it has become clear the last five years, most of what I was taught as gospel standards turned out to be entirely optional, able to be abandoned for power, or greed, or lies. To put it succinctly: church confuses me. I am adrift inside it for the first real time in my life.
I remain stubbornly attached to Jesus, devil be damned. Something inside that connection stays tender and gentle and true. He is the center that holds for me. But even that relationship is different.
My therapist Carissa told me Friday: “You are now able to be known by Jesus in entirely new ways. You have never experienced his love for you in these broken places, because they have never been broken before.” So that is new. That is a new side of Jesus I am figuring out, the one who loves me in shattered places, the one who understands the sanctuary ghosts and lets me watch CBS Sunday Morning instead of church without shame.
Church to me right now feels like my best friends, my porch bed, my children and parents and siblings. It feels like meditation and all these leaves on my 12 pecan trees. It feels like Ben Rector on repeat. It feels like my kitchen, and my table, and my porch. It feels like Jesus who never asked me to meet him anywhere but in my heart.
I guess I am holding space this morning for anyone for whom church feels complicated; struggling with your own ghosts. Jesus is near and good and dear wherever you are, however you are. Outside the sanctuary but also inside it too, because he will be found by those who are looking. Wherever you meet Jesus, and his people, and his love for the world, and his ways, and his healing work, it is good.
It is good.
You are good.
Jesus is good.
This is all I know for now.
Let us learn how to love one another better ❤. Please feel free to share your story.
I found a helpful resource recently about church trauma that was helpful if anyone else is suffering with trauma as a result of church:
Also, this organization has many helpful resources for others who may have experienced similar trauma.
Dr. Perry: And I would say that if we better understand how this pain—this trauma—is passed from generation to generation, we have a better chance of intentionally and effectively stopping it. This comes back to transmissibility—emotional contagion. The word transmissible is used to describe the ability of a trait (or skill, belief, etc.) to be passed on from one person to another.
What Happened to You? By Bruce D. Perry and Oprah Winfrey
For over a year now, most of us have been focused on how to protect ourselves from COVID-19. Initially, when the virus first began to spread, we were told that the virus could live on surfaces for as long as 14 days and that it was not airborne. As a result, I began the routine of disinfecting every part of my home and car that I regularly touched. I washed my hands and used hand sanitizer so much that they were cracking and bleeding. Obviously, I was not the only one. Disinfectants and hand sanitizers sold out. Prices of Lysol skyrocketed, I know because I paid more for two bottles off of eBay than I ever dreamed I would! But then we learned the virus was most likely passed through the air, and masks began to sell out. Thankfully, as a result of learning how the virus was transferred we have been able to minimize our chances of transmitting it to another. Now with more and more people being vaccinated, we have a real line of defense on preventing the virus from being passed on.
This morning reading What Happened to You?, I l was encouraged to read more about the ways that trauma is passed down from one generation to the next. Because I do not want my children or grandchildren to suffer in the same ways that I have, I believe it is incredibly important to be proactive in preventing further spread.
For a long time, I was confused about how trauma was passed down. I believed protecting my children from being harmed meant doing the right things; things communicated to me largely by the culture I grew up in. For example, I believed if I took my children to church and taught them about God they would be guaranteed a better life. I believed since I was not raised in church this was why I had suffered so much.
If one spends much time reading the news these days, it is easy to see that churches are not always an environment that guarantee the protection of our family. After having experienced spiritual abuse personally, I have learned that attending church in no way guarantees that our children will not inherit our traumas.
Working two years as an administrative assistant in a residential treatment center for teenagers, began the process of opening my eyes to the truth about how trauma is transmitted. The diversity of the children who entered into this program revealed a lot to me about how financial status or religious beliefs did not prevent trauma from being passed down, and sometimes even perpetuated the trauma. Some children came from rich and religious families. Some from poor, religious families. Some from families with no beliefs at all. Some parents were absent. Some parents were overinvolved. Some kids were adopted. Some had been orphans and had never known a real family. I also saw how trauma manifested itself in many different ways. Some were addicted. Others harmed themselves or others. Some acted out by fighting, biting, or screaming. Many no longer wanted to live. It was the most difficult environment I have ever worked in, but it also taught me more than any other environment. The most important thing I learned is that while trauma is transmitted from one generation to the next, it has little to do with how much money we have or what church we attend. Prevention of the transmission of trauma begins when we understand our core needs as human beings for love, safety, connection, and belonging.
Prevention of the transmission of trauma begins when we understand our core needs as human beings for love, safety, connection, and belonging.
When I was a child, I did not know what I needed. Most of the time, I had no awareness that there were even deficiencies in my life. I did what I needed to do to survive , and to try to keep myself out of harm’s way. Based on what I learned from my experiences and my environment, all I really needed was keep other’s happy me with me. I discovered that one can survive for a long time operating this way, especially in the South. However, as I have talked about in previous blog posts, I was unable to heal until I had an understanding of how trauma had effected me.
Today, as I reflect back on my life, I see many opportunities where there could have been healing rather than further harm. Oprah Winfrey talks about the wisdom she gained from having experienced childhood trauma in a recent interview with Bruce Perry and Brene’ Brown. She called it posttraumatic wisdom which resulted when she was able to give others what she wished she had received as a child. As a result, she is making a difference and has brought about lasting changes that will impact future generations.
Humankind, more than any other species, can take the accumulated, distilled experiences of previous generations and pass these inventions, beliefs, and skills to the next generation. This is sociocultural evolution. We learn from our elders, and we invent, and we pass what we’ve learned and invented to the next generations. And the organ that allows this is the human brain—specifically, the cortex. As we’ve said before, the cortex is the most uniquely human part of our body, and, no surprise, it gives rise to the most uniquely human capabilities: speech, language, abstract thinking, reflecting on the past, planning for the future. Our hopes, dreams, and a major part of our worldview are mediated by our cortex.
Winfrey, Oprah; Perry, Bruce D.. What Happened to You? (pp. 130-131). Flatiron Books. Kindle Edition.
Now more than ever we have the resources available to help us understand how trauma is transmitted from one generation to the next. When we learn and teach others, real change is possible.
Dr. Perry: And I would say that if we better understand how this pain—this trauma—is passed from generation to generation, we have a better chance of intentionally and effectively stopping it.
Tell your children about it, and let your children tell their children, and their children the next generation. Joel 1:3
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.
Context: the situation within which something exists or happens, and that can help explain it.
GRACE is a non-profit organization that works with Christian organizations to recognize, prevent and respond to abuse in these environments. I have benefitted greatly from the educational materials they provide. If you or someone you know has been impacted by abuse in a Christian environment, I encourage you to reach out to GRACE. I believe every church should take advantage of the free educational resources they provide. Every Christian should work diligently to recognize, prevent and respond to abuse. There are no excuses.
This morning I watched a video posted by GRACE titled The Spiritual Impact of Abuse. The video is a conversation between host Pete Singer and Victor Vieth, former child abuse prosecutor and Director of Education with Zero Abuse Project. I stopped the video after only a few minutes in when Victor quoted Viktor Frankyl and said, “It’s not suffering that’s unbearable, it’s suffering without meaning.” The host responded by talking about the role of context in PTSD. He said one of the major symptoms of PTSD is intrusive memories that cannot be controlled. He said we get these intrusive memories, because events occur without context. When we don’t understand the context, the memories keep coming back trying to find a context. He went on to say how the role of spirituality in abuse destroys context.
His words hit home with me. Those of us who suffer with PTSD understand what it feels like for our brains to get stuck in painful memories and the questions of why we suffered. The answer to the why question often determines what we think this means for the rest of our lives.
One of the reasons it has been so difficult to return to church is there are so many reminders of past trauma in these type of environments. I realized after listening to Pete talk about the role of context in PTSD, that the reminders of abuse do not bring the most pain, rather it is the meaning I make of the memories that bring the most suffering.
The last time I visited a church the conversation in a small group was around why we suffer. Before I was abused in a Christian environment, I had had this conversation many times without getting upset. However after having experienced abuse, I left this particular evening overwhelmed, confused and hurting and I haven’t been able to put into words until now why.
When I experienced abuse in a spiritual environment, the sovereignty of God played a big role in explaining and excusing why the abuse happened. Sin makes us humble and more empathetic to others who sin I was told. God is sovereign and does not waste anything that happens in our lives. Because of this, we can ask forgiveness, move on and learn from it all without accountability. After all, God works everything together for our good and His glory.
Recently, I read an article in the New York Times concerning the negativity around news media in reporting Covid cases around the world. The article stated that negative posts are more frequently shared on social media than positive ones. The article made a profound statement. They were careful to report that the negative articles were not reporting falsehoods. Rather, the problem was in what facts they were choosing to emphasize.
The rationalizion that kept me in an abusive environment for almost a decade was not based on falsehoods. The statements made were founded on truths in scripture that were emphasized.
Unwinding the truth from the lies in the huge tangled ball of yarn of spiritual abuse has been overwhelmingly difficult. I have spent several years in therapy to help me do this. The lack of understanding in the church surrounding trauma and abuse has made it even more difficult. This is why I am so very thankful for organizations like GRACE who are working diligently to change this. For every abuse survivor, there is a lot of work required of us to be able to become functioning members of society again. We do this best with safe support. Who better to provide this than a faith community?
The real context of why I was abused is I went to a spiritual leader and asked for help. He took advantage of his position and my vulnerability and abused me. I make this statement not as an attempt to judge or condemn. I make this statement only because it is of utmost importance to my healing that I understand the why the abuse happened. Because when I understand the why, then I can understand what it means for me.
What is God’s plan for my life?
What role has suffering played in this plan?
Abuse is never a part of God’s plan. God’s plan involves lifting burdens, restoring our souls, bringing beauty from the ashes left behind by our suffering. He sees, hears, and knows our pain. He values our tears so much He stores them in His bottle. God’s ultimate motivation and nature is always based on love. And love does not ever abuse.
If you have suffered as a result of spiritual abuse, it is important that you understand the why, too. The why is not you. The why is someone chose to abuse you. Once we understand this, we can better understand what this really means for our lives.
I admit that I still experience the painful sense at times that my suffering was without meaning, especially on the days when I forget the why. On the days when the pressures of life and my lack of control feel suffocating. I probably always will. This is where self-compassion and loving, safe support comes in. But there are also other days when I can see the blue sky, the trees, the birds and a family who mean so much, and I find all the courage I need to keep moving forward.
It’s not anyone else’s place to tell us what our suffering means. This is a journey of discovery we must find ourselves. However, we can come alongside one another and listen, support, love and ask good questions.
As a trauma recovery coach, this is what I am honored to provide. If you would like to take advantage of a free zoom session with me to determine if coaching is right for you, please reach out via email: email@example.com.
What do you believe about God?
When did you first start to believe this?
How does this belief cause you to feel about yourself and God?
Teresa Pasquale is a licensed therapist and author of the book Sacred Wounds, A Path to Healing From Spiritual Trauma. In a podcast I listened to yesterday, I heard Teresa say something I have been thinking about ever since. She said what we believe about our spirituality is the most important thing in our lives, and so many times we allow others to dictate to us what we believe. Her words brought up a moment of deep grief over all that I had lost in my relationship with God, because I had allowed others to cause me to doubt what I had experienced and believed concerning God.
As a trauma survivor and codependent, I have in recent months come to understand that one of the ways my nervous system responds to threats is by fawning. Fawning defined by Pete Walker in his book Complex PTSD, From Surviving to Thriving is:
A fourth type of triggered response (which) can be seen in many codependents.(Codependency is defined here as the inability to express rights, needs and boundaries in relationship; it is a disorder of assertiveness that causes the individual to attract and accept exploitation, abuse and/or neglect.)I have named it the fawn response…the fourth ‘f’ in the fight/flight/ freeze/fawn repertoire of instinctive responses to trauma. Fawn, according to Webster’s, means: “to act servilely; cringe and flatter”, and I believe it is this response that is at the core of many codependents’ behavior.
When I think I am in danger of being harmed by another person one of my first responses to protect myself is to fawn. It feels painful and humiliating to admit that I given others what they want in order to survive. We have all most likely done this at some point in our lives. Our boss calls us into his office and tells us if we don’t redo a project up to his standards, we might lose our job. It would be easy to apologize for falling short of his expectations, even when we knew we had done exactly what he’d asked. When our livelihood is at risk, sometimes we sacrifice our own voices in an effort to save ourselves. While there may be certain times in our lives that this type of behavior seems necessary, a lifetime of these patterns of behavior results in a person losing sight of who they really are, which is the case for many of us who grew up with childhood trauma.
In my own story, the only way I was able to survive in my home with an alcoholic father was to give him what he wanted. Because when he did not get what he wanted, there would be hell to pay. One example was when I spilled a whole gallon of sweet tea on the kitchen table. We had just sat down to eat, and the syrupy liquid spread across the table running down onto the floor. His first response was to raise his voice and scream at me for being so stupid. I immediately began to apologize and clean up the mess. Even while I was cleaning up, he continued to fuss and shame me. I told myself I had to learn how to be more careful, so I would never do something so stupid again.
What does all of this have to do with what I believe about God?
Sadly, many of my beliefs about my Creator were of an angry God who expected perfection from me. He was the voice inside my head telling me I was bad, stupid, and would never amount to anything when I made a mistake. I learned in the trauma coaching class I recently completed that these types of beliefs about oneself are called The Lying Triad and it’s Dark Guard. It is not uncommon for children who have grown up with abuse and trauma to believe about themselves:
They are to blame for their abuse
They are bad and unworthy of good things
They are shameful
They are powerless
Sadly, we begin to believe because people treat us badly that we are bad.
I had projected onto God what I had experienced from my earthly father. I lived a large part of my life in fear that I was going to mess up and spill the tea, and thinking that God was going to make me pay. Every bad thing that happened in life caused me to wonder what I had done wrong.
I believe it has always been God’s desire for me to know the truth about Him and myself. Thankfully, as an adult kinder people entered into my life who treated me with care. One such person was a doctor that I worked for. After he prescribed me some anti-anxiety medication, not long after my father had passed away, this doctor told me that God was a loving father. Because he was a person who modeled this to me, I was able to consider that maybe God was not who I thought He was. He encouraged me to read a few Bible verses. As a result of reading these passages, I understood that God loved me and was nothing like my abusive father. I share more about this experience in this post.
However, even after this experience with God it didn’t take me long to forget what I had learned when another abusive person entered into my life. This time it was a religious leader. I had no idea of the unprocessed trauma in my life when I asked him for help, and became entangled in a toxic relationship with him for the next several years. Sadly, it is not uncommon for abuse victims to be abused again. I heard someone say recently that trauma that is not transformed is transferred. I have found this statement to be very true in my own life. However, the opposite is true as well. Trauma that is processed with a safe person is transformed and not transferred. Abusive cycles stop and true transformation can happen impacting future generations in a positive way for years to come. I believe this is God’s ultimate plan.
What do you believe about God?
When did you first start to believe this?
How does this belief cause you to feel about yourself and God?
But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people. John 2:24
I can still almost feel the heat of the sun on my bare stomach from one of the days when my cousin and I were sitting in the low beach chairs next to an old bauxite mine filled with brilliant blue water turned that color from the minerals used to make aluminum in the dirt below it. We munched on Golden Flake BBQ potato chips and sipped Pepsi-Cola from a can. It was one of those days I wished would never end.
My mind has drifted back to this memory several times over the course of my life. It was a good day when I felt safe, accepted and with few cares in the world.
Sometimes I forget that I am still that same girl who was able to enjoy the present moment and soak up the sun. Sometimes I forget that it is OK to give myself permission just to be present.
I think this moment stands out so profoundly in my mind, because throughout my childhood there were many moments I did not feel it was safe to be present for. The pain was just too much.
It is not uncommon for survivors of childhood abuse to cope with the pain of abuse by dissociating from the present.
Teresa Pasquale defines dissociation in her book Sacred Wounds.
The primary coping mechanism for those who have experienced trauma and couldn’t physically leave their circumstances may have been to numb out. This can mean shutting down feelings, but it can also involve completely removing oneself from the situation. When mind and spirit exit an experience entirely, it is called dissociation. Dissociation can be the floating above yourself and seeing what is happening experience, often experienced by those who have survived sexual trauma or extensive physical abuse.
I learned in counseling a few years ago that I am someone who has been dissociating as a way to cope for most of my life. Many of my childhood memories are foggy bits and pieces of traumatic events mixed in with a deep sense of shame that somehow these bad things were my fault. Today, as an adult it is still difficult for me to remain in the present moment especially the difficult ones. I recognize it is because my brain learned a long time ago it was safer to escape.
A big part of my healing journey has been learning how to practice self-compassion. I acknowledge that dissociation was the only resource I had as a child when bad things happened. On the worst nights with my adopted father, my vivid imagination gave me the ability to be somewhere else. On his bedroom wall there was a newspaper copy in a frame of the Footprints poem. I loved the beach. The thought of the waves rocking me back and forth like a mother would her baby soothed my soul. When the darkness came, I learned how to imagine the beach. It was so real, I could almost feel my body rocking back and forth on calm ocean waters. Dissociation felt like a gift from God then.
However, as an adult dissociation has not served me well. When we cope by escaping, we miss the things that are bringing us harm without even knowing it. When I was abused as an adult by a religious leader, dissociation kept me in a toxic relationship for almost a decade. It was only when I began to process this abuse with my therapist, that I could begin to understand that my mind was removing me from the present moments in an effort to escape suffering and shame. Her compassionate care helped me to see that his abuse was not my fault. When she was present with me in my suffering, I learned that it was OK for me to be present as well.
It takes work for most of us to stay in the present in our world full of distractions. Sometimes we need an escape. Television feels like a warm blanket wrapped around my throbbing mind at the end of a stressful day. It is OK to be kind to ourselves and soothe ourselves with a good show. A psychologist once told my husband that a certain amount of denial is even good, otherwise we might not get in the car and drive down the road. It’s all about balance. Those of us who have experienced trauma struggle with this balance. Our brains default mode is survival rather than homeostasis. I have learned that balance is not natural for me. It feels unnatural for me to be still and allow myself to notice my breathing and my feet on the floor. Sometimes it feels like a waste of time to open up this blog and begin to write. I am learning that healthy brains like healthy bodies take work. Sometimes I reap the benefits of making better choices. Sometimes I put on a few extra pounds. This is about balance, too and learning to be kind to oneself in the process. Because the more we learn to love ourselves, the more we are able to be present with ourselves.
Healing takes time. One step at a time. One day at a time. One moment at a time sometimes 5 minutes at a time. Especially when it’s hard. Keep moving forward. Even when you fall behind. Find safe beings who will love you unconditionally in moments of intense pain.
Grounding, mindfulness, and guided relaxation practices can help teach the brain and body to stay present and focused in peaceful moments so it can access those resources also in distress. For more severe dissociation, therapy with a trained trauma therapist is necessary to learn ways to contain stress and find safe space in the mind, body, and physical world. Once the brain-body system can integrate a sense of safety, it will begin staying present rather than exiting when stressed. Teresa Pasquale, Sacred Wounds