Read the first post of this series: On Church Trauma. This post is coming from an ex-youth pastor's wife, an ex-church staffer, an ex-church leader, a wounded-healer, who loves Jesus a whole lot.
These are the raw experiences I walk through every time someone asks me "What happened?" regarding our transition out of vocational ministry. I wonder if more people encounter these experiences when asked about their church trauma, their hurt.
It's been well over a year since we kissed church-career goodbye; it feels like yesterday and also it feels as though it was a lifetime away. It feels like we said goodbye to so much more than a "job" or "career." Because it was so much more.
Are we in a relationship with those we were hurt by? No. Do we believe we need to be in order to fully forgive and reach reconciliation? No. Do I think far too many people leave churches when they should probably stay and really work through things with people? Yes. Do I think some circumstances warrant leaving, that spiritual abuse is not something to tolerate? Yes.
I have been grappling with grief, wrestling with worry.
I wrestle with furthering the [often too true] stigma that The Church is entirely messed up, it only adds hurt to people's already pain-filled life.
But I'm tired of being held back from honesty, of not sharing purely out of fear. I'm weary of not processing in ways that bring me healing. I'm exhausted from hearing countless stories of people hurt in absolutely unnecessary ways from church leadership, only to carry the unnecessary weight of being hidden without a voice, out of fear and shame and anxiety. There is little permission to speak out and share unfair tragedy done at the hands of The Church.
I wrestle with what parts to share and withhold, with whether or not to share anything more than: "It was an unhealthy environment." Or, "It wasn't where we needed to be." Or, "We never wanted to stay there for more than 5 years."
..Do I share how it felt as though every single "meeting" we had was to address how prideful I was, though I felt I was constantly in a place of being humbled in humiliating ways? How it felt like every time we were invited to bring an honest critique to the table, the table was somehow turned and suddenly it was our fault? We felt there were no boundaries, relationships were expected to be not just our "boss" but considered as family, friend, pastor, even parent. We felt unfair pressure was placed on us, "If you leave this community, I will be ruined." It felt that we were to blame: if only we knew hearts better, if only we spent more time with so-and-so, then everything would be find and perfect? It felt like distancing ourselves was the only thing to do to protect our hearts from constantly being questioned.
..Do I share how we felt constantly confused: "You have free reign in your ministry area and I trust you with every detail" ongoingly met with, "Why didn't you ask me to do this? Send weekly reports of everything you did all day every day. Report to me every detail of who came, what you did, what you taught, etc" micro-mis-management.
..Do I share how we felt every time we brought a personal hurt to the table, we were told it was our choice to be offended; it was our fault we were hurt. I felt a twistedness of unrealistic expectations and pressure to balance one million church-title hats while also being told that I do not corner the market of busy-ness, that I only have to pursue the parts of ministry that feel natural to me.
..It hurt deeply when I was asked to pray over babies and young children weeks after I miscarried, and wasn't currently on staff; I felt it was inappropriate and agenda-based. I felt as though my leaders were always trying to do the job of the Holy Spirit in humbling me. I was afraid to reach out to the one trust-worthy elder-in-training, to share our hurts and ask questions and bring to the surface things we disagreed with or felt were inappropriate, for fear that we would have another sit down that felt like everything was our fault, once again?
These are the things I felt and experienced.
I wrestle with how to share honestly and transparently, with dignity and integrity.
But I believe keeping truth hidden perpetuates shame. Truth hidden gives power to evil and destruction. Truth hidden validates the lies that everything was our fault, our choice, our problem.
While in the thick of grappling with whether or not we were a part of something unhealthy and detrimental, I felt crazy. I started counseling six months before the end of our vocational-career and every week brought tears and ulcers and the unending, ever pressing questions: Am I the crazy one? Does this pain really make me un-Christlike? Is this really all my fault? Is it really my decision to be hurt from this? Is my hurt valid? Do I really just need to suck it up, forgive, and move on?
As I've gone through weeks turned months turned years of counseling, I recognize the absolute necessity of giving loss a voice. Our transition out of ministry as a career was a life-altering, gut-wrenching, world shaking loss. It wasn't just a career change, but a loss of really deep friendships. Loss of a real sense of community and honesty.
Many have walked through and are walking through these losses on one end of the spectrum or another and each encounter of loss is valid. Each loss is irrevocable in its own way. Each loss is pain filled and adds heavy baggage to our stories. Some have remained in vocational ministry, others haven't. Some are currently on staff or part of a leadership team that is currently abusive or unhealthy, this is for you too. I hope to give the gift to someone of going second.
Many people experience loss, trauma, hurt, and pain while a part of a leadership team of The Church.
Your unfair hurt, trauma, and pain is just as valid and worthy of a voice as any other loss. It's worthy of space and honesty. The Church is imperfect and it isn't your job to pretend it's something it isn't.
Deciding to unpack why shame and fear ruled my life when the idea of Church-Leadership came up was uncomfortable. It was scary. But in doing so, in unpacking why shame and fear were so prevalent, it became clear these were birthed entirely out of fear of humans. But our stories are so much bigger. Bigger than fear and shame, bigger than hurt feelings: our stories uncover how entirely broken our world is and how entirely present He is.
My story and your story represents The Cross on many levels.
How can that be so? Because the worst events in human history, the darkest and most pain-filled realities, brought us the greatest good: the suffering and death of Jesus brought us the ongoing opportunity for freedom and joy, wholeness.
But in my experience, we cannot access full freedom and all-encompassing joy, wholeness, until we walk through the darkest, most pain-filled parts of our story. Even when it reveals the ugliness of not only mankind, but of The Church. The entity that should be known for its good deeds and services, but is often known instead for its tragic hurt of others.
I couldn't begin to actually forgive those who have hurt us and find reconciliation in the deepest parts of me until I gave the pain the voice it demanded. It isn't enough to just feel the pain; we need to be conscious of it, to face it, to wear it, to claim it as ours.
Forgiving quickly, in my experience, is often superficial forgiveness. Fast forgiveness is a way to avoid pain. Fast forgiveness is a way around the suffering. Forgiveness happens in layers. Layers run deep, on top of the other, take time to uncover. Sometimes a new layer pops up unexpectedly.
Fast forgiveness is a part of Christian Culture I want to help change and transform.
Join me on this journey of transforming fast and superficial forgiveness into life-changing, Jesus-like forgiveness? The kind that demands time and suffering in the process? The kind that means we acknowledge the fault of others, the unfair pain brought upon us that wasn't our fault?
Forgiveness is for our healing and wholeness, forgiveness is what launches us into our wholeness. But we cannot find that freedom and joy until we truly walk through the dark parts of suffering and pain; we cannot skip the night to arrive to the morning. Joy comes in the morning, but the morning comes after the dark night.
Don't miss a post as we walk this pain-filled, rocky journey towards joy and freedom. The road is rocky and we will be walking it barefoot, demanding us to cry out to Him when all the pointy-rocks hurt.
Recently listened to podcast #260 on The BadChristian Podcast with Jen Smidt, a once-Mars Hill staffer. I encourage you to give it a listen. It feels extreme, because it is, but it is all too many people's experience.