This is Father Jared Cramer from St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven, Michigan, here with today’s edition of Christian Mythbusters, a regular segment I offer to counter some common misconceptions about the Christian faith.
For the first couple weeks of May, our church, St. John’s Episcopal here in Grand Haven, ran a targeted Facebook ad with a survey aimed at people who are not connected to a faith community. We wanted to know what things would be important to them, were they to want to be a part of a faith community. We also wanted to know what kept them away from church and also what they might say to a church trying to do a better job of listening.
The responses were excellent, giving us some helpful insight into people who don’t find a home in church right now. But one thread ran through several responses: the experience of spiritual abuse or religious trauma. So, this week I’d like to break the myth that church is always a safe space… because sometimes it is not.
The Churches’ Child Protection Advisory Service (CCPAS), which is a safeguarding charity in the United Kingdom, defines spiritual abuse as “coercion and control, manipulation and pressuring of individuals, control through the misuse of religious texts and scripture and providing a ‘divine’ rationale for behavior.” In a study that CCPAS did, they found that two-thirds of those who responded had been spiritually abused at some point in their life.
Religious trauma is a term which increasing numbers of psychotherapists and counselors use to describe the experience of someone who has been to a church, or religious community, that weaponized Scripture and religion in such a way that it damaged the person’s psyche and emotional well-being. An article in the New York Times on the issue noted that scientific research has indicated some people can “suffer for decades from post-traumatic stress disorder-type symptoms, including anxiety, self-doubt and feelings of social inadequacy.”
If you’re listening to me right now and you are thinking that either of those terms describes your own experience, I want you to know how sorry I am for the pain you have experienced… and the pain you still carry. I hope you’ll know that there are pastors and priests like me, and congregations I hope like mine, that would repudiate that sort of twisted experience of religion that has hurt you so badly.
And I’d also want you know there is hope for moving past it. That same New York Times article shares how Duke University did a study in 2014 on something they called “religious cognitive therapy.” This is an approach that focused on Scriptures about forgiveness, God’s love, and mercy, and used those Scriptures to challenge the dysfunctional thoughts that maintain and perpetuate trauma. Clinical trials run by Duke showed that people who experience this sort of therapy had lower rates of depression and were more likely to feel positive emotions like gratitude or optimism.
In short, Dr. Harold Koenig, the psychotherapist who ran the study at Duke said, “The best cure for religious trauma may be a deeper dive into the spiritual core of religious teachings.”
So, a few things. If you are a faith leader or just someone who is active in your church, be attentive. If the message of your church is leaving people feeling wounded and inadequate, I have a hunch it’s not really the Gospel of Jesus Christ. If religious language is used in your community to coerce or manipulate people, if it’s being used to justify behavior or actions you would otherwise reject, these are all red flags of possible religious trauma inflicting behavior. Raise concerns, if you can. And leave any toxic faith community you’re in, if you must.
If you’re someone who still struggles with the wounds and aftereffects of religious trauma and spiritual abuse, I’d encourage you to find ways to explore more fully the real mercy and goodness of God. Sometimes that means finding a therapist who can help you undo and let go of some of the dysfunctional thinking that was drilled into your mind by misguided faith leaders. Sometimes it means finding a faith community that can offer a different perspective, one that nourishes and empowers you to be the person you know God created you to be instead of pushing you to fit into some pre-defined mold.
And if you just cannot bring yourself to do it, to be vulnerable and risk further trauma in another faith community, please know that it’s OK. God’s love holds you whether you are in church or out of church. God’s love holds you. And that love can eventually bring you the healing God so deeply desires for you. God can find a way… and I pray God will find a way.
Thanks for being with me. To find out more about my parish, you can go to sjegh.com. Until next time, remember, protest like Jesus, love recklessly, and live your faith out in a community that accepts you but also challenges you to be better tomorrow than you are today.