Church PTSD: It’s a Real Thing

Some church leaders want to belittle or diminish those who have left the congregation, or abandoned the faith altogether. Unless you have experienced the full weight of church trauma, you may want to re-think this position.

About 10 months ago, the nightmares finally stopped. As did the anxiety about driving close to the street where it all happened. Or the stomach-turning fear of running into former members of the “board.”

It seemed I was finally moving past the long-term hangover of the dysfunctional leadership of a church.

Then it happened.

Out of nowhere comes another dream, and I am suddenly transported back into the nightmare.

Suddenly I am struggling to breathe through the disingenuous, passive aggressive, and dishonest behavior of church “leaders.” Rebranded images of the utter disrespect, arrogance, and self-righteousness heaped on my family. This includes my immediate and my church family—the very people I was helpless to pastor when they needed it most.

If you do not think church trauma is a real thing, then perhaps you have avoided it in its most severe forms. I am glad for you. Yet, trust me when I tell you that the wounds of extreme church trauma are deep, and the scars remain for a long time. Maybe forever.

As one of my students has said, there may not be any hurt quite like “church hurt.” And the Post-traumatic Stress Disorder of it is real. Church PTSD may not be a clinical diagnosis exactly, but rest assured that it happens.

My return nightmare is not the only, or even the primary, reason for bringing this up. I notice some regular criticism of Christians (or former Christians) who are “deconstructing” or outright leaving the faith. These are formerly avid church goers who stepped away and are stripping down the damaging baggage from their formative faith years.

Outside of the criticism and belittling of those who departed, the talk centers on how to get these people to come back to church. This may be a legitimate concern for the well being of those who left, or perhaps it is a concerned for the bottom line numbers—particularly in the post-COVID (kind of) era.

I do not fully understand deconstructing or all the reasons for it. But I do comprehend the reasons for it, particularly among victims of church trauma. Church PTSD is more than enough to cause people to question their faith—and possibly move away from it.

Among the critics are some pastors, evangelical musicians, and so-called Christian scholars. Evangelicals are taught that attracting people to the faith is essential. If people leave and share their reasons, it potentially damages the overall purpose of evangelical-leaning congregations.

The critics, however, are missing some key understanding. A lot of people attend or participate in church in semi-active ways. They go to services, serve as greeters, or maybe assist the Events Team. But they never get a look at the inside—and they don’t want to because they are justifiably afraid of what they might find.

And with good reason. Becoming a deacon, team lead, advisory council member, etc. carries a whole different weight. As does being a pastor, associate pastor, or pastor’s wife. When people experience the weight of such positions and see the inner workings of the church, it can raise a lot of questions about the nature of faith/church.

Some of us experienced a particularly ugly, debilitating side of church that many do not know. Church leaders seem reluctant to acknowledge it. But it is far too real for many who are leaving the faith.

I still feel physically ill when I think about re-joining a church in any kind of official format. That feeling gets worse when the idea of being asked to serve on a committee or lead a ministry effort for more than occasional stand-in duty. Oh, I’ve considered doing those things on multiple occasions, but it always comes with a sense that I should more than a sense of “want to.”

Some will deconstruct and never return. Others eventually reconstructed and DID return, although they chose a much different style of church/theology on their second round. That was not our path, and we have returned to church on a (fairly) regular basis.

But I understand why people leave. I get why the hurt is too much and the reality of some church experience pushes them too far to ever return. However, the church can play a significant role for those experiencing the trauma, by thinking outside the goal of getting people to return.

Quite often, people need a lot of time, space, and grace–and some people willing to hear their story. It also helps to actively work to not repeat that painful story for anyone else.

I am beyond fortunate that I found a place to return in good conscience (Pelham Rd. to be exact) and I did so without a full deconstructing-type of process. But that search is not nearly so easy for others.

Toxic leadership, sexual abuse, cover-ups, lack of transparency, controlling or abusive pastors, arrogant/dismissive leaders, or even just really bad deeply ingrained theology all do real damage to people. Their fear may bubble up at the most unexpected moments. Rather than criticizing those who battle these fears, the church can choose to EMBRACE them.

The foundation of Christian faith is GRACE, and those who left the church need a lot of it (as we all do). Perhaps they witnessed episodes that are far more traumatic than those that my wife and I did. Rather than heaping anger and criticism, the church needs to find that gracious response to their PTSD.

For starters, you can create intentional space for those who are trying to return. Not every visitor needs to join right away. Not everyone is ready to be on a committee. Not everyone is ready to tell their full story. Leave folks room to breathe and turn down the pressure to “get involved” right away.

A lot of churches hear the stories of those who leave and deconstruct and think, “Oh, but OUR church isn’t like that!”

Are you sure?

One way to help people reconstruct and/or reconnect is to deal with your own toxic elements. This is certainly not to say that every church has severely toxic elements. But what does it hurt to take some introspection on a regular basis to find out?

A little self-awareness goes a long way, and it will help people to reconnect. It may also force you to look at some toxic theology/practice that will bring the entire congregation closer to a Christ-centered view.

One of the most damaging elements, particularly for those who did not grow up in church, is the “Pie in the Sky” approach that drew them to certain churches. Perhaps they were sold on the idea that this church/pastor/theological approach is far and away the best thing out there.

Suddenly something happens and they discover the truth. We are all just flawed, sinful human beings who gather regularly in the hope of forgiveness  and redemption. But because churches do not portray that on the front end, people grow disheartened when the reality becomes obvious. One way or another, it always does.

This is why all church communities need to be honest about who they are–with others and themselves. At the heart of it, we (including pastors and staff ministers) are struggling human beings, trying to put ourselves aside in order to live in a Christ-centered community. By presenting the church as an imperfect search for the perfected Christ, you give an honest impression from the beginning. And you avoid the idol worship or cult of personality that sometimes draws large (and spiritually vulnerable) throngs of people.

Will these steps bring these hurting folks back to the church? Maybe not—but maybe that should never be the goal. Church trauma is grueling and gut-wrenching. Perhaps those experiencing it need patience and grace above anything else the church may offer.

As Christians, our default mode is to want to save people and help them, to talk about our faith and how great our church is. As human beings, our default mode is to get defensive when people share harsh realities about groups or institutions that we invest in and love.

Such modes are not the path to healing, or to avoiding further damage to those who are already hurting. Giving much-needed grace–without belittling or critiquing–is much more likely to create such a path. Maybe Christians and church leaders can also stop to ask why, and learn how to do better in the future.

Rather than denying or denigrating the pain of Church PTSD, let us lean into it and seek ways to get better and do better. Perhaps even walk with people through it, however they need it. The process could prove long and rocky, but the road less traveled may be the best path towards healing.

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