10 Ways To Begin Dealing With Your Church Trauma

10 Ways To Begin Dealing With Your Church Trauma August 5, 2015

Church Pulpit with Stained Glass


I’ve been spending a lot of my summer this year sitting by the ocean and reading. My favorite book of the year, by far, has been Reba Riley’s 9781501124037 PTCS final cover
memoir, Post Traumatic Church Syndrome. ‘Cause if there’s one syndrome I have, it’s definitely that one.

The book is ridiculously funny and captivating– a memoir about trying 30 religions before Reba’s 30th birthday in hopes to find healing from her past church trauma. (Psssst… you can get your own copy by clicking on the book cover —->

In a gentle and nonthreatening way, the book has invited me to re-engage my own journey of dealing with past church trauma… trauma that continues to plague my brain during sleepless New England nights, and causes heart palpitations when visiting a new church or hearing something that feels church-y.

While reading this book I began jotting down some of my own thoughts on dealing with Post Traumatic Church Syndrome. Since I know so many of you in internet land have the same diagnosis as Reba and myself, I wanted to pass along my top 10 ways you too, can begin dealing with your church trauma:

10. Give yourself permission to set up healthy boundaries.

This one should be the most obvious, but it’s also the one we’re quick to overlook or feel guilty for doing. However, one cannot heal while they are being actively re-injured. You wouldn’t expect a broken arm to heal if every weekend you did the same activity that fractured your arm in the first place, would you? It’s not only good but necessary to set up healthy boundaries between yourself and the people who continue to injure you. (And don’t forget, sometimes “unfriend” and “block” can be a really healthy choice.)

9. Invest in a season of counseling.

I am convinced that everyone needs a counselor. You’re going to need a season of processing everything that happened, so settle into the office of a good therapist and stay as long as you need in order to work through some of this stuff. Once you do, you might wonder why you waited so long– if you embrace therapy there’s a great deal of freedom to be found.

8. Be honest with yourself about what happened.

Most cases of church trauma are legitimate cases of trauma, injustice and the like. However, there are also cases where churches did the right thing– confronting bullies, holding people accountable for abandoning their families, etc. If your trauma isn’t so much trauma as it is a story of how others tried to stop you from being a bully, or held you accountable for causing harm to others, own it and learn from it.

7. Own your crap about “before.”

If you go through the process of individual therapy, you’re going to realize that your church trauma actually brought up a lot of crap from “before.” Whether it was your childhood or other past experiences, trauma has the tendency to bring up a lot of junk from the past. Part of healing is owning that crap, and asserting your power over it instead of its power over you. Until you acknowledge it and own it however, your junk may be driving the car and you might just be a passenger.

6. Find something healthy that pours into you, and do it.

Dealing with church trauma is a marathon, not a sprint. More than that, most people begin this journey already depleted, feeling beat up, and with little gas in the tank. If you’re going to make it to the other side (and I believe you can!) you’ve gotta find a way to put gas in your tank. Just make sure this life-giving thing you do isn’t actually self-destructive and merely disguised as life-giving.

5. Daily practice the release of anger, bitterness, and any other emotion that’s eating you alive (or has the potential to).

This isn’t to say the anger, bitterness or whatever else you’re feeling is wrong or less than totally legitimate… it’s just that holding onto those emotions only hurt one person– ourselves. As justified as these emotions may be, they are corrosive in nature and dangerous to keep around for an extended period. The only way to beat them is to practice, practice, practice setting them aside and letting them go.

4. Stop listening to those old tapes in your head.

Bad church experiences end up becoming tapes with messages about ourselves that replay in our minds in the most unhelpful ways. This is because church trauma usually send us very specific messages about worth and identity that we internalize: you are bad, you will never measure up, God is angry with you, you are not good enough to be one of us, you will never be accepted, etc. These harmful messages end up replaying in our minds in new situations, and can keep driving the point home for a lifetime. We must learn to recognize when this record plays, and make the conscious decision to reject the message it is broadcasting.

3. Remember that those who harmed you are really broken people too.

This isn’t to give a free pass to abusers, and it doesn’t mean we reconcile with those who would again harm us or re-abandon us, but it is important to remember they are broken people too– even if they can’t see it, acknowledge it, or will never deal with it. They have old tapes that play in their mind too, and sometimes it’s helpful for us to remember that.

2. Work at believing that those who harmed you didn’t speak for Jesus and weren’t acting on his behalf.

Too often we actually make a strange idol out of people who have harmed us in church. This happens when we functionally allow their words and actions towards us hold more weight than what Jesus said or what Jesus did. We must remember that Jesus speaks for Jesus, and they are not his mouthpiece.

1. Take a chance in new relationships.

This last one is the most difficult, but the most important of all. As scary as it may be, here’s why you need to take a risk: since our trauma happened in the context of relationships, the only way we will find ultimate healing and freedom is in the context of relationships. It’s hard and risky, I know– I’m there too. But I also have discovered the only things that have truly begun to put balm over my church wounds, have been in the context of new relationships.

Church trauma sucks, there’s no way around that. My hope and prayer– both for myself and for those of you out there– is that church trauma will come to simply mark one of the stops on our journey, instead of marking our final landing place.

(But wait– how do you define Post Traumatic Church Syndrome, you ask? Here’s Reba in her own words:)

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  • Je’ Czaja

    Good stuff, as always. As a retired mental health professional, I do NOT agree you need a therapist unless you’re really messed up. Therapists acts as (paid) friends-unpaid friends can do the same, if they have a lick of sense. The church’s hiring counselors with “credentials” is amusing. Jesus, the Wonderful Counselor, would be unqualified.

  • Good, but can you offer how to deal with ‘Current Church Trauma’? LOL

    The point about ‘before’ is good. I was accused of rape by a former girlfriend many years ago. Wondering how many within that church or my wider circle of friends knew about it led to an ongoing paranoia that I might be accused of things I’m innocent of.

    Or is that just a common feeling in all churches?

  • Good stuff. I feel like I’ve come to similar conclusions over the course of my journey. Lots of trial and error along the way, but we’re getting there…

  • Stuart Blessman

    I’m coming to terms with the fact that a lot of the resources and websites that helped me out of fundamentalism are also what keep my religious PTSD recurring. So, sites like Formerly Fundie or IFB…they fire me up and get me so very angry at my past and make me want to mock and spit and rage at those ideas. And that’s not the type of person I want to be, nor will be.

    Yet it still seems I need the reminder at times that I’m not crazy and am doing the right thing walking away from the fundygelical world.

  • JenellYB

    I don’t know if that’s just a common feeling in all churches, but I do know at least in some churches, it can be a well founded paranoia. I have experienced having things in my past, brought up into common gossip in church communities, and even some things about me presently, turned into something other than it is, something ugly, when viewed through a lens of things in may past. That is has happened to me so many times, not only in church congregations, but among judgmental minded religious among my own family, has been a major factor in religious/church community traumas, to a degree I’d say it is probably THE #1 reason I’ve remained unchurched for many years. Decades, actually. Several attempts to attend churches regularly ended badly for it.

    I think the underlying problem lies in #1, abusive people find many (most?) church environments easy hunting grounds for potential victims. Lots of wounded people. Abusive people have a kind of “radar” for homing in on people’s sensitive spots. And

    #2, many churches enable abusive people, by their aversion to actually calling them out, confronting them. It is often couched as avoiding conflict. Refraining from “judging or blaming’ in matters of ‘personality clashes’ among members of the congregation. Anything to avoid disturbing the peace or making anybody mad.

  • louismoreaugottschalk

    take good care of yourself!
    love you brother!

  • louismoreaugottschalk

    I know that feeling so well!
    I go back and forth
    ‘is it me or is it them is it me or is it them is it me or is it them…?!’

  • paganheart

    Another book to add to my reading list (so many books, so little time…) Lots of things here I needed to remind myself of today. Thank you Ben.

  • Ok, this looks awesome! This might have to become my 2nd most referred book (not incl. the Bible) to people in our church…2nd only to ‘Boundaries.’ I think they’ll compliment each other nicely :)

  • ccws

    I love this book so much, I bought the treeware AND ebook versions! I recommend it to everyone.

  • ccws

    My “terrorist,” as I refer to her affectionately, is a clergy abuse survivor. One of her long-term goals is to develop a program to help churches recognize, deal effectively with, and prevent such abuse.

  • Herm

    If you learn and practice the rudiments of love as applied to the Lord your God, your neighbor who shows you mercy, yourself as a child of God and forgive your enemy who knows not what they do you’ll inherit an eternity of trial and error to get there. There truly is less error when in everything we do to others as we would have others do to us. Love you Lindsey, thanks for supporting Ben’s conclusions for us!

  • Herm

    I agree, I’ve found it healthiest to begin each repeated query with “me” (as in your example) as the first potential suspect having screwed things up … just after I reacted in anger at the first scapegoat for being placed in such an uncomfortable position … that, damn it, I now have to do something about. I am most responsible for fixing me to be productive and constructive over the long haul and much less for making my neighbor and enemy maintain my tranquility. Thanks Louis!

  • Herm

    Ben, I appreciate this list so much, not because it is the fix all, but because each action suggested is something we can each do to promote our own health and welfare. None on the list requires that we first must make someone else do something before we can master our trauma. Thank you!

  • louismoreaugottschalk

    I think one can determine whether one is already evicted where systemic violence is being directed and deployed against a marginalized person.
    so often I’ve gone unequipped into a hostile environment of predetermined outcome.
    being profiled is not my paranoia or mental illness.
    the principles and powers that be and wickedness in high places, tho
    not flesh and blood work w agents who have human faces.
    forgive them father for they know not what they do
    nevertheless the train wrecks bc it’s on a collision course!

  • Herm

    Any effort we can determined as a coordination of many is from a spirit not of flesh and blood. Too often it requires research and reflection to determine the source of the spirit. Too often the sole instigating self-indulgent spirit does have a human face. Too often we blame the influence of Satan when it is really from the influence of our ignorant own.

    It is prophesied, no matter how we might know to read it, that mankind is on a collision course and the train of “father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life” will once and for all remaining time become a total wreck.

    I have gone into many a hostile environment that only God could have possibly predetermined the outcome. I have freedom of choice and am but a child so that many of those times I was ill equipped and added to the ensuing destruction rather than led the survivors to healing. Many times I have been trained just the day before to be a first responder specialized in that one wreck to facilitate the most survivors that healed and became stronger. Left to my own devices I’m only an inept child with good intentions.

    After experience, knowing all of this first hand as truth and still able to reflect free from senile dementia I really have no paranoia or mental illness to worry about dictated by others. I am nurtured with an actual sense of security, peace and continuous joy knowing I am a loved little child having fun in this adventure of carnal and spiritual life. I sense my spirit is in order with my God’s Spirit.

    Does any of this musing make sense?

  • Veleda_k

    I have to disagree. Therapy isn’t right for everyone, but it can be a huge boon for many people, including those who aren’t “really messed up.” In fact, insisting that the only people who need therapy are those who are really messed up adds to the stigma and further pathologizes those who seek help. According to this narrative, therapy becomes a shameful secret. If one admits to it, everyone will know what a mess one is. That is, to say the least, not a healthy model. We should be lessening the stigma surrounding mental health care, not adding to it.

    A therapist can offer many benefits that a friend can’t.

    1. A therapist is a professional. A really good therapist should have a proper degree and stay up to date in their field. (Yes, credentials matter. A doctor for one’s physical health should be properly educated. So should a doctor for one’s mental health.) They are going to know things about mental health issues and coping mechanisms that your friends can’t be expected to know.

    2. It’s all about you. Imagine if every time you met with a friend, you did nothing but talk about yourself. Pretty rotten friendship, huh? But with a therapist, you are paying them to listen. It’s okay for it to be all about you. You don’t need to worry about your balancing their needs with your own. That’s not your responsibility.

    3. Your therapist is (hopefully) objective. Ideally, your therapist will be able to see you and your problems with more detachment than your friends and family members, who are caught up in your life. This may give your therapist a less clouded view of your options.

    My therapist is not my friend. They are my therapist. And they’re pretty great at being that.

  • Realist1234

    I wonder if the advice to go into therapy is peculiarly American? Few in the UK seek therapy, unless their ‘issues’ are really affecting their life. I wonder also if its appropriate for a Christian to, as it were, air ones dirty laundry to a non-Christian? Does that not give Christians a bad name?

  • Apologies for the VERY late response to this. The email remained at the bottom of an unread heap!

    Since this comment of mine about ‘current church trauma’ I have actually decided to move on from my church to a new one! Parting as amicable and I have the greatest respect for the pastor there who was a dedicated and caring soul, but I needed to grow, chiefly, AND I hoped to get away from petty squabbles and little groups battling each other, though I truly believed I would not find a church without that.

    However, we decided to attend a church our son has been attending for over two years now. We had visited and always liked it. We found no in-fighting or cliques and just thought ‘early days!’ but our son reports that he has witnessed none of this forming in all his time there! The church is what I have been looking for; still evangelical, reaching out to the community in both practical ways AND with the message of Christ, but most importantly, the preaching is never directed at the world outside and all the ‘terrible sin’ we should be terrified of, but AT believers who need to know and learn how to simply serve, and follow Jesus more closely; it’s about how we go deeper into the love of Christ and this enables us to become better followers – deeper teaching. JUST what I’d been blogging about myself for years. The pastor makes it clear that he is human and fallible and that there are many other churches in our city that can accommodate you if you don;t feel you ‘fit in’ at ours.

    My conclusion: the ‘old’ churches that believe in shouting at the world about sin (the stereotypical fundamentalist) tend to be more ‘aware’ of sins in others and fall into the trap of judging too easily. This creates a culture of ‘standing for the truth’ that allows individuals to create a climate in which the tiniest flaw in someone may well be a case for investigation to see if it matches up with scripture. Much of the preaching is ‘don’t touch, don’t listen, don’t watch’ (Col. 2:20-22) and I recall my old pastor saying often “we keep a higher standard!” meaning other churches that are not as pious. Faults and kooky personalities really seem to be accepted more in my new church. My belief is that this IS the way new churches are heading (and growing), and the old ‘holier than thou’ ones are haemorrhaging numbers fast. I pray that I’m right.