Post Traumatic Church Disorder.

An appropriate term for those of us who have been spiritually abused . . . The abuse I experienced is best defined by David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen in their book, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse:

“The individual is left bearing a weight of guilt, judgment or condemnation, and confusion about their worth and standing as a Christian.”

That message was conveyed to me repeatedly through a variety of incidents in which I was told I could not serve, could not attend, could not provide treats, could not participate, etc., and when I reached out for help from the senior pastor, I was ignored, avoided, and he even told me that he was unaware of why people would make those decisions even though they had told me that he was part of the decision-making process.

PTCD doesn’t just happen over night, though.  In the early years, I was able to speak with the pastor (this was before the church grew into a mega church).  Even though I had come from an abusive church situation, I could talk to him briefly and, while it was stressful, it was “do-able.”

But, once I began to experience the shame of being told I ‘could not,’ and that the senior pastor was involved in those decrees, he made himself less and less available to me.  I would email and ask what was going on, why this was being allowed, and I would not receive a response.  More than once, I expressed to him that his lack of response was a response and he solidified that position by again not responding.

It was his lack of response and the continued messages of “you can’t” that contributed to my downward spiral into believing that I was inherently flawed – so much so that neither the church nor God had any interest in me.  I concluded that they were only allowing me to attend services because God doesn’t outright reject anyone.  The church leaders and God were obligated to put up with my presence.

I would sit in church Sunday after Sunday for years and I would weep at the senior pastor’s sermons about grace and forgiveness.  It was obvious that what he was saying was true to everyone else, but his own actions demonstrated that there was no grace or forgiveness for me. And even though he could see that I was in tears, never once did he approach me and ask if I was “okay.”  It was as though I didn’t even exist.

Neither he nor anyone else would tell me what I had done to deserve the ostracism and condemnation that I was facing.  And I was living in a fog – not being able to reconcile what I was hearing from the pulpit with the way that I was being treated.

And while the pastor had denied any involvement, it confused me that he was unwilling to take any steps at all to help me – to get to the bottom of what was happening and why, to help me move toward reconciliation and restoration.

As the years passed, I became more and more fearful of all of the staff, leadership, and especially the senior pastor.  I continued to beg for help, for answers, for whatever it would take to move forward, with no meaningful response.  I would send emails asking for help and even if he saw me in the hallway of the church later that same day, he wouldn’t come over to speak to me.  It was as though my questions didn’t exist.

And so, my fear grew.  And the stress.  And the anxiety.  And the woundedness.   And the belief that I was exactly how I was being treated: unworthy, unwelcome, unforgiven, unwanted, undesirable, unclean . . .

I would avoid staff. I would avoid the senior pastor.  My world became my lap or the floor:  “Keep your head down and your mouth shut, Ellen, they are happier with you that way.”  Every Sunday when I walked through the doors, I felt like a dark cloud hovered over me and it didn’t lift until I would drive away.

Email became the only safe means of communication between me and the senior pastor.  Over time I could barely speak to any of the other leadership or staff, but I emailed the senior pastor many times, still asking and pointing out when his sermons didn’t agree with the way that I was being treated.  But, underneath it all, I didn’t want to accept that just because he preached about grace and forgiveness, that didn’t necessarily mean that he had the integrity to live it.

In my mind, I so wanted to stand up to those who had told me I couldn’t participate, couldn’t attend a class, couldn’t do anything, but one of my fears was that if I challenged them, my plight would get even worse.  So I allowed it to continue and continue and continue – for more than ten years.

I shared my experience with only a couple of people other than my husband, and whenever I would talk about it, I would weep.  I spent many car rides home from church in tears.  Many visits to my friend 5 hours away in tears.  Many car rides to and from work (a 40-minute drive) in tears just thinking about it.

It never occurred to me that I should get counseling.  Until my husband and I sent an email once again asking for answers regarding information that we had become aware of regarding a possible explanation for what had happened to me. An explanation that would have exonerated the senior pastor.  He responded stating that we were to never email him again and that he wanted a meeting with us and several other staff and leaders.  The tone of his email sent me into a tailspin like I had never experienced before.  I was crying and shaking and panicky and found it hard to breathe.  That’s when I said to my husband, “I think I need counseling.  Look at me.  I can’t even think about what has happened to me all of these years without breaking down and now, just the thought of having a meeting – it’s like I’m having a panic attack.”

I went to my first counseling session about a year ago.  The counselor began by assuring me that whatever I was going through, others had been through it as well and that I was not alone.  And then I told my story.  Shaking.  Crying.  Shame flowing out of me as I explained to the counselor that I wasn’t wanted by my own church, that my  own pastor wouldn’t help me or meet with me or explain it to me.

When I got done, she looked at me and said, “That’s just bizarre.”

  1. It’s a familiar story.
    I’m just trying to look at it through their eyes, to try and understand how it appears to them.
    The problem is that when you are being abused, you start to react in a dysfunctional manner. They don’t recognise their own abusive behaviour, but they note your dysfunctionality, and then you are labelled as a “problem person”.
    They see all your emails, and you are then labelled as “demanding”.
    There is no easy way out that I have found! There is one particular chapter in my book, I think it’s chapter 13, that I would recommend you to read. However it’s a tough message.

    • Ellen says:

      Thanks, Norm, for your comments. I have perused your site briefly – I will get back to it when I have more time. I believe I was labeled a problem for pointing out the problems. It all became clear when we left – these are just some crumbs from my journey out and into healing.

      I am working on completing my story. Hopefully I will have the page up this week or on the weekend at the latest. Thanks for reading.

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