This post is part of the Patheos conversation around the topic of recovery from traumatic church experiences in conjunction with Reba Riley’s just-released memoir, Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome: A Memoir Of Humor & Healing. I’m a survivor of spiritual abuse and a veteran of a few churches with epic levels of dysfunction breeding like a supervirus just under their shiny surface. I’ve written a lot about this topic in this space (here, here, and here, for starters). It would have been easier to walk away after the hurt, but like Riley, I’m still here, a part of the Bride.
That isn’t to say I’m here in the same way I once was. The negative experiences have left me with battle scars and some hard-won wisdom. I have four boundary markers in place where I once had wide-open trusting innocence when it came to church life. Those boundaries include:
No more church “membership” – I have no intention of ever again going through a formal membership process in order to join an individual church. In the past, my husband and I have been official members of a couple of different congregations. These covenants have benefitted and protected the organization while giving me nothing in return. In addition, they create a two-tier culture within a church. Those who are members have access to leadership roles and ministry opportunities. Those who are non-members get to exercise their gift of ushering. The New Testament certainly doesn’t describe the church in these terms. Belonging was based on love, belief and relationship – period.
No more guilt as a motivator to “serve” – When a church leader talks constantly about bringing the whole tithe into the storehouse or tells a congregation that it’s our duty to help staff children’s ministry (while never taking a turn in the nursery themselves!), their antics set off my BS detector. There are certainly theological questions related to the way some leaders present tithing as a mandate to the church, but my resistance to the way in which a leader calls me to action has more to do with filtering his or her ambitions from the ask. An ambitious church leader looking to build his or her little empire may use the right Christian-y words, but there will be a needy, demanding spin on them. It’s one thing to call members to sacrificial giving and service. It’s another thing to guilt them into it.
No more shutting off my brain – or any other part of myself – I’ve done a lot of theological reading and now have 40+ years of experience in a wide variety of churches. Honoring what God has given me means I maintain my critical thinking when I listen to a sermon or participate in a worship service. I want to be found in Christ, but I do not believe this means losing myself in the process. In fact, losing yourself is what happens when you join a cult, right? Author Reba Riley explained why the way in which she’d been taught to find her identity in Christ stripped her of her personhood:
“Placing your identity in Christ” is lingo for church-approved codependence: you allow your church’s brand of Jesus to dictate what you do or don’t wear, eat, read, discuss, watch, and listen to. You let your church’s Jesus pick out your lipstick and your friends, run your bank accounts, and prescribe your wardrobe. Having my identity in Christ was the problem, the entire reason I fell apart when I could no longer believe. When I left my faith, I didn’t have anything of my own.
Though I never lost my faith in my Messiah as a result of some crappy experiences, I realized that I’d sometimes traded who God had made me to be for the “privilege” of being a part of a church. This meant silencing doubts, dialing down my personality (usually unsuccessfully), and playing nice in order to get along. Dying to myself as I follow Jesus does not mean becoming a clone.
No more looking for validation in all the wrong places – Gender roles and spiritual gifts play a part in this boundary marker, as I’ve been a part of strict complementarian and/or cessationist congregations while never buying their silly/fearful theological party line. However, this is a bigger issue than either of those things. I learned the hard way my vocation and gifts didn’t always fit neatly on some church’s org chart – and that org chart was almost never in any way related to the way in which God designed his body to work. I don’t wait for someone’s permission to offer my gifts to another believer or group.
How about you? If you’ve survived a traumatic church experience or three, what boundary markers do you now have that allow you to continue to be a part of the big “C” church and/or a local congregation?
Image via Creative Commons 2.0