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Healing from Church-related Trauma

April 30, 2014

Have you noticed the exponential explosion of talk about being wounded in church settings? There are serious and professional books out on the subject, many blogs largely devoted to it, plus many more blog articles by folks with complicated relationships to formal religion… who may or may not currently be “churched”.  

The problems now being discussed are certainly not new, but I know of no time when they were so frequently and openly discussed as now.  Of course we can’t really know what all was being discussed a hundred or more years ago except through the partial lens of books and other publications.  But from some historical reading I’ve done, it seems people, even critics (who certainly existed) weren’t yet thinking about things surrounding religion such as “psychological effects” (they didn’t have that term prior to about a century ago, for one thing).  So this recent development is exciting to me as a student of psychology as well as theology and an observer of religion and spirituality in American life and culture.

It’s a few days old now, but there is a great article by Kathy Escobar here on the subject of healing from church trauma specifically.  “Church trauma” refers to a number of things that may have happened to a person through involvement with a church or churches… things not typically included in the category of “trauma” which may also happen in a church context, such as sexual abuse or actual excommunication against a person’s desire.  I posted a comment there which had enough substance I decided to post it here as well, with just minor modifications:

I am well familiar with the great work of Valerie Tarico ( blog, and her great book, Trusting Doubt and various articles) and Marlene Winell (Recovery from Religion and book, Leaving the Fold) and others working on healing of religion-related wounds, etc.  Those two, both psychologists, are not working from within a church… and that is a difference of significance relative to pastors or others working within churches.  Both roles or “locations” are needed.  “The Church” is both very important in some situations and for some people and not very important in another sense and for other people.

Note: Above I am assuming a healing-from-religious-wounding role to generally be tied to churches with a flexible and significantly open and/or “progressive” theology (though sometimes still called “evangelical”, with an alternate meaning). I am not including churches that orient themselves around traditional creeds or doctrinal statements in an attempt to be strictly “biblical”.  (Is it not highly presumptuous to think one can define “biblical” over against others’ views of that, or that the Bible is superior to all other resources?)….  These are mostly the kinds of churches people are hurting from being involved with, though “progressive” ones can injure as well.

In super-summary, my own path led me eventually out of all churches but then back into a much more open, free and different-theology place, and to participation in Progressive churches and gatherings (such as TransFORM 2014 in San Diego).  In my case, my movement centered around thinking/theological development more than any people or organizational issues….  But then I’m a learning junkie and tend to remain semi-attached (certainly not emotionally enmeshed) in relationships. (Not always ideal, I realize, but it has spared me lots of emotional turmoil and helped me be a stability point for others.)

Anyway, for quite a few years, with a lot of psychology/human development and a lot of theology in my “resume”, I’ve been trying to distill patterns of various types in the “Post Traumatic Church Syndrome” and related phenomena.  Sometimes my musings and insights get up on my blog or into a spiritual growth ebook I wrote; others I’m still working on. Lest this comment get overly long, I’ll just say this much now: Theology is often a significant part of the problem! More precisely, our (almost universal) low-level of understanding of how our own minds/hearts work in relation to theory-creation sets us up for problems.  I mean across the education spectrum from little formal education, including on the Bible and Christianity/religion to college-educated, seminary-trained.

When I say theory-creation, in this context I mean one’s personal theology… both conscious and subconscious… sometimes the subconscious overpowers a “good” conscious theology.  And we all have a personal theology, regardless how little we may have read or heard about theology or the Bible.  My plug for the cognitive/ theological side of development and personal healing is this: Look for the best, most genuine sources (books, audio, video, etc.) that speak about the things of your interest and need and that may sometimes be a bit of a mental challenge to follow or digest.  To NOT develop one’s “theory/theology” or “cognitive” side can limit the level of overall growth one can achieve!  And I’m not talking about becoming an “academic” or an intellectual… just a reader/listener/thinker.

Do you have an experience you consider to have been abusive or wounding from involvement with a church? How have you been able to deal with it? If the story is told elsewhere, feel free to link to it in a comment rather than re-hash it in depth here.  

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