The Trauma of Spiritual Abuse

Posted: August 26, 2014 in Uncategorized, When Church Hurts
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I was reading recently about the trauma people experience when they leave an abusive church. As I scanned the stages that a person goes through, as well as the list of emotions one might experience, I began to realize that I had actually gone through much of them while I was still in the church. Perhaps that is why I have had a fairly quick “recovery.” For example, a couple of weeks ago I was blatantly shunned by a couple of people who are still deeply involved in the church. I was actually “tickled” by the experience. I didn’t have a feeling of anger or malice toward them. Rather, my response was one of smiling and shrugging (I tried not to roll my eyes since that would be a little too juvenile).

The list of emotions that I read were spot on with my experience over the decade-plus time that I was facing judgment, ostracism, and persecution. Because the leadership would not explain to me the reason for what I suffered though I begged repeatedly, I experienced the process of exiting the abusive situation long before I actually left.

For years, I would cry daily. Sometimes without any apparent reason. I became a “cryer” – which I had never been before. Though others didn’t or couldn’t see it, I suffered from situational depression and, I must be honest in saying that a couple of times, suicide crossed my mind. The sense of loss from being ostracized was at times overwhelming.

I often cried my way through every Sunday service, special service, or any service where grace or forgiveness was even hinted at. Only once did anyone approach me and express any concern for me and she was a woman I had never met before. I was so defeated that I turned down her offer to pray for me.

Though I had some friends before the abuse began, once I faced the humiliation of it, I became very isolated. The people I had counted as “friendly acquaintences” seemed to distance themselves from me – and I could only believe that it was because of the scarlet letter I had been given. I felt alienated from everyone in the church. No one made an attempt to talk with me, greet me, invite me, befriend me. And while that may have been because of my own insecurities, I also had plenty of comments made to me over the years to suggest that this was the situation.

Because the leadership of the church had declared that I could not participate or serve in any way except attending services (but, again, would not give me an explanation as to ‘why’), and coupled with what I was hearing from the pulpit, I had a growing fear that God had completely turned His face from me and that it was highly likely, not that I had lost my salvation (we were Calvinists, after all), but that I had never been “saved” in the first place. I entertained notions that Satan had a grip on me and perhaps I was in the grasp of demonic forces.

Over all, the guilt was debilitating. Though the leadership refused to respond to my questions about what I had done to deserve what was happening to me, I believed that I must have done something very bad – too bad for them to even be able to speak it out loud to me. And, somehow, I was supposed to “just know.” And if I didn’t know, then God wasn’t enlightening me or speaking to me – more evidence that I had incurred His wrath and was not one of the chosen.

So, by the time I finally got out, I had already experienced the stages one can expect when they exit an abusive church situation. For years, I had been in 1) DENIAL: I would repeatedly tell myself, “This can’t be happening.” “Surely it’s not as bad as I think it is.” “Maybe if I just act like it’s not real, I will discover that it has all blown over and everything can go back to normal.”

But then something else would happen that would remind me that it absolutely was real, that it was happening, and that no one was willing to help me in any way that a church should help people who are hurting, struggling, or even under church discipline (though I was never told that I was under church discipline).

2) ANGER: Oh, I had gotten plenty angry several times over the years. How could they do this to me and call themselves Christians? How could they treat me this way when it was so against scripture? How could the pastor preach about grace and forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration, when I was sitting 10 feet away from him with none of those advantages being offered to me by him or his leadership team?

3) DEPRESSION: As I stated earlier, I had bouts of depression. I often cried out to God, “Why are You doing this to me?” “Why don’t you love me?” “I can’t do this anymore!” And as long as the pastor was silent, God was silent. I was convinced that if and when God changed His mind, I would know because the pastor and leadership would start talking to me and treating me differently. Until then, I fought tears daily. I felt as though a dark cloud came over me every time I entered the church. I walked with my head down and couldn’t look people in the eye. I was unworthy and unwanted. I knew that the only thing I could do to make them and God happy would be to never darken the door again. Yet even the thought of leaving brought . . .

4) FEAR: I was so afraid of a life without them. So afraid of losing friends that I didn’t have. So afraid of losing a pastor who wasn’t pastoring me. So afraid that my identity would be lost if I couldn’t say, “That’s my church.” “He’s my pastor.” Even after we left, I clung to the one person who continued to be a friend to me. Though she is a dear, sweet person, in many ways she was one of my ways of staying associated with the church. (Others were to check their website and read the online bulletin. I could not bring myself to listen to the sermons on the radio or online, though.)

5) REASSESSMENT: Realizing that they weren’t that wonderful. This really happened when I went to counseling about a year before we were tossed aside. The counselor, after hearing my story, immediately informed me that the way I was being treated was a blatant indication of the lack of respect that the pastor had for me. I didn’t want to accept her assessment initially. But when she clearly pointed out that if he respected me he would have answered my questions and not allowed his staff and wife to speak to and treat me the way they had over so many years, well, that was a huge turning point for me. Still, I didn’t want to let go. I wanted to “do the right thing” – the thing that hadn’t been done for me: I wanted to offer grace and forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration. So, I stayed.

But I also started telling my story. Because I was no longer ashamed. I knew now that I had nothing to be ashamed of. I was the one who had asked for biblical processes. I was the one who, simply by staying, had constantly extended the hand of grace. I was the one who allowed shame to overtake me. But, once I told my story, shame no longer had a hold on me. Telling my story put the blame squarely where it belonged and the leadership was faced with either dealing with the situation honorably – which meant confessing their mistakes and making retribution (whatever that might look like), or making sure once and for all that I was silenced – at least as far as possible.

So, we were tossed out of the church and by all appearances people have been told to shun us. Damage control was begun immediately. So called friends unfriended me on Facebook, didn’t return my texts, calls, emails – even when my attempts to contact them were in response to their initial attempts to contact me. People who declared that they would continue to be my friend slinked off into the darkened corners.

Church leadership surely must fear that if more people would hear my story they would expect the leadership to be held accountable. One woman declared via email that she didn’t want to be associated with me if I was going to speak negatively about the church. Could there be a more clear indication that she didn’t want to know or deal with the truth – at least not in a Christian, biblical, manner?

And finally,
6) ACCEPTANCE: Though for a few weeks I hoped that there would be a phone call, a knock on my door, some kind of attempt to have a God-honoring conclusion by the pastor and church leadership, or even a few of those whom I considered “friends,” it wasn’t long before I realized that I was blessed to have them out of my life. Because, even if they had “done the right thing” in the end, to go back would have meant that I would still live with the constant fear that it could happen again. One wrong word. One misplaced step. One “she looked at me wrong.”

The years that it would take for them to win my complete trust – the pastor and leadership will be long-since retired before that would happen. And frankly, after stepping away and being able to see more clearly, I could not in good conscience involve myself in a church that is not open about how money is spent, that will not disclose the salaries of the employees, is governed by a very small inner circle of “yes men,” complete with nepotism with the senior pastor’s brother and wife on the staff.

For a short time, I was fearful of running in to people from the church. Now, I enjoy it. Some people are very pleasant. I don’t think they realize that we no longer attend. Some people turn and walk the other way when they see us coming. And we laugh. Because we have the joy of knowing that we are going to love and welcome anyone we meet. Because that’s what Jesus would do. And if they aren’t going to do that, well, they aren’t like Jesus and He isn’t like them.

  1. Scarlett says:

    I see now, they should be the ones shunned. “Have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness”

    • Ellen says:

      True enough, Scarlett. I have thought about that, too. I have turned the other cheek only to have it slapped. I have given not only my cloak but my tunic, as well. And I have heaped burning coals. And on a certain level, I have prayer, “Father, forgive them – though I suspect they know exactly what they are doing.” What I cannot do is give anyone a reason to point at me today and say that I am treating them poorly, that I am proving that I am the problem because of my unforgiving, uncharitable behavior. As I said in my post, I hold no malice nor anger toward anyone in the church. Why should I? They have proven who and what they are and if anything, I pity them. They are blind and deaf and dumb yet believe they have the truth. I’ll leave judgment to God.

  2. Scarlett says:

    I see your point Ellen, and I fully agree. This is obeying the LORD’S commandment to love our enemies and those that despitefully use us. It still hurts.

    Although I left church a long time ago, I now have this going on in with my next door neighbor, who verbally abused me with unspeakable profanity, and hit my adult son. She professes to be a Christian, although her actions betray that high calling. She refuses to even speak to me. After reaching out to her in love, forgiving, praying for her and doing all I could do in my power, I feel the LORD is telling me to let it go; to move on and let Him deal with her, but to have no fellowship with this disturbed woman. She seems to perceive my efforts to turn the other cheek as an admition of guilt on my part although I have done nothing to this woman to cause her to behave this way. It’s very strange, and I feel there are some deep seated mental and spiritual issues she has not taken to the Cross.

    Keep obeying sister. The scriptures say that when we please the LORD, He can cause even our enemies to be at peace with us. I have actually had that happen…not often, but it can. 🙂 He will vindicate us in the long run as we obey. Obedience brings it’s own reward…healing our wounded spirits and peace.

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