The Other Side of the Donald Miller Post: Church PTSD

This post is by a friend, and it gets to the heart of the problem many today have with the church; she calls it church PTSD. 

There’s been a lot said recently in the blogosphere about church attendance.  I’ve scoured the various articles looking for a hint of a chance that someone understands my situation.  A few have hinted at something close, but there really has been nothing that explains the depth of torn emotions I have on the subject.  In the end, everyone seems to say the same thing:  “yes, church is broken, yes, it can be hurtful, yes, it’s not at all that it should be… but you have to go because, well, you just need it”.

Something that doesn’t seem to be getting addressed at all is this:  what if I KNOW I need it, but it has become such a painful, scary, uncomfortable place that I am no longer able to even attempt to participate?  What if I WANT the community and the bumping up against different people with different opinions, but I CAN’T, I mean physically CAN’T go?  I have usually discovered in life that if I have a feeling, I’m not the only one.  So it makes me think there must be others out there like me.

What do I mean by “physically unable”?  I shake, I cry uncontrollably, my skin crawls, I am unable to speak.  It’s pretty difficult to be a part of a community, broken or not, with all of that going on.

Of course, it hasn’t always been this way.  I loved church growing up.  It was one of my favorite places to be.  I felt loved and accepted by dozens of “aunts” and “uncles” and surrogate grandparents.  I had hints of not fitting in when attending a Christian college, and when trying to find a small group when my husband and I were newlyweds, but overall I still loved church.

And then my husband became a youth pastor…

We were at our first church for a few years years.  They were definitely eye opening years.  My husband had grown up as a pastor’s son, so he had tried to warn me, but I thought I knew all about church.  After all, my dad had been a deacon and I knew everyone at my church.  I didn’t know anything of the “ugly” side of church.  We mostly had the “normal” church drama until the last two years when everything turned unbelievably ugly.  We left for another church, with me assuming that it was just a one-time situation.  An anomaly.  Less than two years later we were leaving our second church and I was starting to see a pattern.  This was not an anomaly.  This was church.  We stayed out of ministry for two years, but our love for working with youth plus our desire to not live in my in-laws’ basement anymore drove us back to church.

We had some good times at our third church.  With our own children growing up I was able to invest a lot more of my time into helping the youth ministry plus I also worked in the church office.  Sure, there was drama.  When we had only been there a year, the elders made a very unpopular decision and I had people stop me in the grocery store to give me their opinion on it.  But by then, I was used to that kind of drama.

A number of years into our time at our third church my husband was diagnosed with depression.  After carefully letting the elders know, we were pleasantly surprised at their compassion and understanding.  But the church was in the process of hiring a new senior pastor, and a few months later when he was brought on, I witnessed an unbelievable turn of events that still makes me cringe today.  Two years later, I am left with the memory of so many people I thought were friends telling me to “let it go” since this is “what’s best for the church” and all part of  “God’s will”.  I felt as if I had been left beaten and bloody in the street and everyone around me was telling me to stop making such a big thing about it. I wondered if we had literally been burned at the stake if they would still have responded the same way.  Something inside of me says they would have.

I don’t think it’s the details of what I went through that make me scour the recent articles about church, though.  I know lots of people have gone through terrible things at the hands of congregations and church boards.  What I think I’m looking for and not finding is something that will give me hope.  At this point, I won’t be persuaded by guilt or by empty platitudes.  “You just need to do it because it’s what we all need to do” just isn’t cutting it.  Having people tell me that it’s a broken place and I shouldn’t expect anything else from a group of flawed human beings doesn’t make me want to run for the entrance of the nearest church.  What happened to me, what happens to a lot of people, shouldn’t happen.

What I’m trying to say is that there is a culture of acceptance in the church today that allows for people to be treated terribly under the umbrella of it being what is “best for the church”.  I would imagine that if a teacher was abusing children in the toddler department or if there were drunken parties going on at youth group there would be some type of outrage, as there should be.  But somehow just plain being “mean” doesn’t garner any type of outrage.  “It’s not ideal, but we are fallen people, after all, so you can’t expect anything better.”  Church people have half jokingly admitted to “shooting their wounded” for years.  What would it take for people to think there is actually a problem?  It will never be any better if we keep justifying the way it is now.

Honestly, I have something akin to a PTSD (not to take away from anyone who actually has full-blown PTSD) when it comes to church.  When I hear people talking in Christian catch phrases I want to run away.  This is the language of the culture of people who persecuted and bullied my family and me.  If you speak their language, you must be one of them, too.  So I stay away.

Eventually I really hope to return to church.  I miss a lot of the elements of it.  For me personally, though, it would take several meetings with the leadership of a church to see if the concept of loving each other is a nice ideal at their church, or something that they would go to the wall to protect.  Jesus taught us to love each other as he had loved, and he prayed for us to have unity.  I don’t think we should be so flippant about our total and utter disregard of how far from the mark we are on these things.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.


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