When Church Hurts and How To Go About It
“Whoever prays for those who hurt him lays the demons low; but he who opposes his affronter is bound to the demons.”
-Saint Mark the Ascetic
I laid wide awake staring at my ceiling replaying the conversation from earlier that day in my head. Slowly, I slid out of bed not to wake the rest of my family as I grabbed my car keys and made my way out the door. In silence I drove the 12 miles to my church as the warm breeze of a Michigan summer night passed through the car windows. I turned my lights off as I approached the parking lot so not to startle the family living in the parsonage. Steadily I turned the key to the church while leaving my car door open so not to make a sound. I was there to grab my things. I had resolved it would be my last time using that key to enter that church. After loading up my guitars, amps, bibles and books I made my way to the church's office. It was hot and stuffy since the AC was turned off when the building was not in use. With a sigh and a cocktail of courage and cowardice I placed my key on the mailboxes and left.
Have you ever been hurt in church? I'm sure you have. Me too.
I was training to be a pastor while in my early 20's when I first experienced spiritual abuse. I had taken classes at the local Assemblies of God district and had ended an internship just prior. Like any 24 year old I was brimming with optimism and was eager to prove myself. I had not only obtained the certificates apply to be a "Reverend" but, I also had a degree from one of the local universities. In total transparency, I decided not to turn in the final papers to obtain a credentialing interview. It turned out to be a great decision for what was about to happen.
Our youth pastor and my good friend and mentor had put me in charge of the young adults ministry. Some people really did not like that. I was seen as a rogue person at times and to be honest I was. It all started to unravel not because of my doing though which is why it hurts the most. A man in the young adults group started dating one of the women. This was 100% ok and actually a breath of fresh air until they broke up. Her mother had assumed that I told him to do it since I was discipling him at the time and decided I needed to go. It wasn't an up front conversation. Of course it wouldn't be done in Christian charity. Instead I started getting dirty looks from the women around the church. I got told off in a ministry planning meeting by suggesting marketing our events by the secretary. It even got so overt at one point that I was shoulder checked during the shaking of hands to open service. Yes, one of the mom's shoulder checked me. It was insane.
After a little while I finally decided enough was enough and told a pastor. He said that the woman would never do that and she was too kind. I was assured that it was a misunderstanding. I accepted that until slowly it intensified and even became verbal insults. I finally told my mentor and he said he saw it going on but, when I pleaded to get involved he couldn't. I made it clear to either handle it or I would leave the church. I had already handled 6 months of it and couldn't take any more. As you read in the beginning of this story you know it wasn't handled. To be clear I don't hold anything against him. There are a lot of power structures at play and sometimes intervention can cost people their jobs and livelihoods. It's a very delicate situation when one congregant begins to harm another and it's not always clear how to navigate. Sadly, without the needed action taking place it continued even after I left but towards her next victim.
When I parted from that community I was completely ostracized. My social media profiles lost friends and my name became a joke. Within weeks after leaving my father passed away with no emotional support. My brother got married five days later and all of those people were there. Nobody said a word to me. I was a ghost. I realized I was dead to them. I heard rumors that I was no longer a Christian because I left our church. It wasn't true but I did feel in a very terrible way that Christ was being withheld from me. I fell into a depression that resulted in 2 weeks off of work and I'm still working through it all on top of even more recent hurts. In spite of this, I have had time to reflect and seek wholeness.
Church hurt is a very taboo subject. Many Christians like to believe that the sovereignty of God will resolve all disagreements. I think that in the long term that's a great hope to have however, here and now it's not functionally helpful. It seems that especially in spiritual matters hurt sticks the hardest. Why is that? I believe that since spirituality and specifically faith communities aim to be as open and transparent as possible. This openness we have with each other is our greatest asset to find truth but, in the hands of broken people it can be used for harm. I don't say any of this to deter people from engaging in the church or being authentic. Here are some things I've learned that I could have done better when I was hurt:
1. Leaving Your Church Shouldn't Be Your First Option.
There is a feeling of betrayal when people hurt you. This is especially true in a church setting. It's normal and it's something that's worth investigating. Go to the person who hurt you and ask if their intentions were from a place of harm. Sometimes people simply need to be given the opportunity to repent and the relationship to be restored. Give your best attempt to love that person. Pray for them and ask the Holy Ghost to give you wisdom and discernment of the situation. I've found that a majority of my smaller hurts were able to be resolved by being upfront about them. Fight or flight is a powerful trait that humanity has to protect ourselves. Sometimes we don't have to fight and leaving would only harm you personally.
2. Leave But Don't Immediately Go Somewhere Else Right Away.
In the cases where there is sexual, physical and mental abuse you have every right to flee immediately. For your safety please do so. For everyone else, if you've tried to restore the situation leave on good terms with yourself and your healthy relationships. Maintain the relationships that are life giving and set out on your own. Don't immediately go to another church. Take the time to process and embrace your emotions. It's hard to leave. You need to rest and just be you for a period of time. Breaking up with your church is not at all different than ending a long term relationship. If you're like me then you left relationships of over 10 years. Healing takes time and entering another community too soon can make your relationship hungry self not grab onto healthy people. I can say from experience that I started going to another church too soon and ended up getting hurt even worse.
3. Forgive Them And Forgive Yourself.
After experiencing church hurt you will replay every detail in your head. There will be times even years later that you will cringe at how you handled the situation. Did you leave to soon? Did you stay too long? Was the offense something that could have been resolved? Will God give them their due punishment? These are natural things that will come up. If you stayed in a toxic situation too long then forgive yourself. You might not have known it was too long at the time. It's ok to tell yourself your sorry for what you didn't know. Hindsight is great but, you can't change the past. Speaking of hindsight, you have to forgive the other people; If not for their sake then for your sake. Bitterness is easily spawned from hurtful situations. Don't let it corrupt your heart. Welcome the thoughts of the offender being restored because you never know when you're the one to need restoration. A clean slate is a good place to start building something new.
4. God Did Not Cause This.
When things happen in the church we tend to raise our fists and act as if God is the perpetrator. I can assure you that God is broken over your hurt as well. A human body in conflict is not healthy and is distressing to the individual. This same distress goes for Christ and his body. You were hurt by people. Broken people. Sometimes straight up asshole people. These people are members of the body of Christ but, like a disease the greater body feels it. Don't abandon God over people since your healing helps heal the complete body of Christ. Your hurt can prevent hurt in others.
My hope is that we would reflect on the times that we have been hurt in church and move towards wholeness. It may take a week and it may take a lifetime but, we owe it to ourselves to be complete people. Wholeness is at the heart of Christ and so are we when we hurt.