I’ve been binging the “Ask Science Mike” podcast over the last few months and I’m almost caught up. Recently I listened to episode 79 where someone asked about recovering from spiritual abuse. They explained how they suffer from an anxiety disorder and how things associated with Christianity now trigger panic attacks, including the Bible and corporate worship.
I used to think the terms “Spiritual abuse” and “Spiritual PTSD” were pretty silly, now I see how well they fit what I’ve been though. I’ve been at the point this person was at. There was a point when going into a church caused immediate panic and I still don’t feel comfortable inside a church.
When my faith started to evolve I started to lose my community, I had inklings that things weren’t right. I was uncomfortable in my church. I learned that the love of these people, who I saw as family, didn’t work the way I thought it did. They professed God’s unconditional love and claimed to love people in a similar way, but they didn’t. Their love was conditional, and my evolving theology moved me to the outside. I was moving away from fundamentalism and so they began to see me as the other and treat me as the other. I remember the times that people in our church were honest about struggles and were punished for it, removed from their teaching positions, removed from the worship team, taken aside and told to watch out, be careful, your on thin ice for saying those things…. I was good at avoiding being one of those people. I was good about being quiet about my disagreements, becuase that church, and the kids in that church were my life. At that time I still very closely believed what they did, but I had changed my views on the end times, I didn’t believe homosexuality was a sin, and I was leaning towards universalism. I had stopped talking about the end times and hell at all in kid’s church. It didn’t fit with the God of Love I knew. At first it was easy to just avoid the topics I didn’t agree on.
Soon though I couldn’t even stomach the model of church we had. We had an increasing number of outside speakers coming in speaking things that I was astonished my pastor allowed. Things from prosperity gospel to banning openly gay people from the church grounds. How was he not stopping this? Not only was he not stopping it, he approved of it. My heart was shattered. It destroyed me, but not all at once.
I found myself invited to a very small conference for “emergent church” leaders. A fellow student at my Pentecostal bible college had invited me. He had noticed who the rabble rousers were who thought boycotting Pepsi becuase they supported gay marriage was insane. He was starting his own church that looked nothing like a church. Where juggalo kids sang secular songs together, and read poetry, and had dances. I thought it was beautiful, while at the same time I was becoming increasingly disgusted with the church I found myself working in. A church I had helped found. A church in which I had built the entire children’s ministry basically by myself from nothing.
This man invited me to this conference, Ace came with me, as well as one of our closest friends (at the time). We saw what others were doing, and heard their ideas of what church could and should be, and that was it. That was the weekend I knew I had to leave. I couldn’t do it anymore. I hadn’t lost my faith, but I knew my faith wasn’t the same as my churches, it was evolving and it would keep evolving, and I knew I didn’t fit.
My two young close friends and I decided to bring all our grievances to our pastor directly, we really wanted to do this the “right” way. I now know there is no right way to tell a spiritual man you think he’s not doing what God wants, but it was the best idea we had. We even wrote out our main points and read it to him. He was clearly upset during that meeting around his kitchen table, but he held it together. That was the moment I lost my spiritual family. He had called me a daughter many times, but on that day it ended. I wasn’t following his leadership anymore, and he didn’t outright freak out or anything, but I still remember the look in his eyes of anger, hurt, betrayal. I was going to be his prodigy, to get ordained and go out and start the next church. I told him that night that I was going to leave his church after Christmas and that the three of us would soon be starting our own church. I was 24. You don’t start a church at 24 in the Assemblies of God. You are rarely a given a senior pastor position at that age. I had yet to even finish Bible college. I graduated from my Pentecostal Bible college 6 months after I left my Church. I just wasn’t Pentecostal anymore.
Despite the clear negative feelings from the pastor, his wife, and the other church leadership, they did their best to act in grace. They said they would support us, they did a big blessing on our last Sunday. They told us we were all on the same team. It was all show. It was all lies. The worst thing was that I believed them.
One of our best friends choose to stay at that church, he had gone to Assembly of God Churches his whole life, he loved playing on the worship team. He was the obvious choice to take over leadership of the worship team when Ace left. Yet, the Church decided to give it to someone who came in right as we left, when our friend was there from the beginning. That broke our hearts too, but what could we do? Soon we heard worse things, they were praying for us “To get back into the will of God.” Ouch. How was that support?
The following February we started our church, Mosaic. We built it around all the ideas we came up with that weekend months earlier at the conference. We had an open house everyday from noon-midnight. We ate dinner at 5, and did discussion and a few songs at 6. Many of our friends who hadn’t gone to a church in years were excited to come. It grew and slowly we found our groove. We had fantastic discussions, people were venerable, people aired their doubts, atheists came in and challenged us, we responded with love, they thanked us. It was beautiful.
When we would run into members of our old church around town, we would be excited to tell them how Mosaic was going, they had no idea what we were talking about.
We found out that after those couple of prayers for us to “Come back into the will of God” we were essentially erased from the church. Our ministries had been drastically changed to look like typical evangelical ministries. They didn’t care about supporting us, they just didn’t care about us. Our names were not spoken anymore. I had lunch with another friend who had left that church when she moved, she was now going to a satellite campus of a mega church. I was excited to reconnect with her. I was excitedly telling her about what we were doing with Mosaic when she snidely remarked, “Well I’m glad your have fun.” Her voice was so thick with attitude and disrespect I still hear it echoing to this day. That remark hurt deeply.
It didn’t stop there, becuase young adults we knew from other local evangelical churches were coming to Mosaic (mostly high school friends of ours) word was getting around what we were doing; we didn’t believe in hell, we didn’t say the sinner’s prayer with people, we let everyone have a voice, we sang “weird” songs. What we were doing wasn’t that weird in mainstream Christianity, and not strange at all in progressive Christianity, but to evangelicals it was clear, we had started a cult. That was what was going around. Which is hilarious becuase Pentecostalism (basically fundamentalism + speaking in tongues) fits the criteria for a cult much more closely than our little ragtag group that had no single consensus on belief. We were young people, most of whom believed in a Christian God, but didn’t really know much beyond that. We were much better at knowing what we weren’t. We had yet to be fully exposed to all the streams of Christianity and Deism and Mysticism that were out there. We were still pretty darn normal from a mainstream Christian perspective. If only they knew what I thought now!
This experience of leaving my church, losing my community, and having my community who I thought loved me turn against me, was the second hardest experience of my life, the only thing that beats it is loosing my father at 4 years old, these things, still hurt to this day. Losing my church, hurt about as much as my father dying, thats how deep it goes. There are days when I feel like I’ve really made peace with that part of my life. I’ve wrote about it on this blog. You can go read it. But there are times when it still hurts, and discovering all these other people like me though Ask Science Mike and The Liturgists podcasts has me re-experiencing and reexamining these wounds.
I was spiritually abused, both within my church and after I left it. And it messed me up. It messed up every area of my life. I’m finding healing though a few things. First, having my son. Having my son has taught me how to love like nothing else ever has. I thought I loved kids, then I had my own baby. I know we are biologically wired to value our children over ourselves. I know that our DNA wants to continue replicating and the best way to do that is to have kids and protect their lives at all costs so they can have kids of their own. Yet there is still something spiritual about raising a baby. He was not an easy baby, I met the edge of sanity many times, but each time I just learned how to love a little better. I’m still healing and learning how to be a better person though my son.
Secondly, I’m healing though telling my story. I didn’t realize it at first, I picked up that realization when I read “Finding God in the Waves” a few months ago. I’ve told my story so many times to so many friends, I even tried to squeeze the whole story in when I met Mike Mchargue here in Portland back in November. I hadn’t planned on doing that, but when it was our turn to meet him, it just all started coming out. Its part of my larger story of my life, an important part, and I’ll keep telling it.
Finally, and possibly most importantly, I’m finding healing though my new Church home. I had given up on finding a church, and I wasn’t sure if I even believed in God anymore (thats for another post), when I saw a weird sign, “Sellwood Faith Community.” It piqued my interest, and I went home and googled it. I found the pastor’s blog and I read almost the whole thing that night. “Ace she’s like us!” I just kept telling him. I couldn’t believe there were weird people out there like us, who were Christian but welcoming of non-christians, who saw value in a nontraditional gatherings. They, like Mosaic, ate dinner together on Sunday nights and had discussion. I have more to say about that in another post as well, but for now I just want to say that finding a church that accepted us right where we were at has helped me heal in ways I didn’t expect.
Spiritual PTSD is not crazy, its real, and I went though it as well. I’ve been though some extremely difficult times, and so many of them were related to the way I was treated by my Spiritual community. No one should have to experience that and I’m glad so many of our friends left the church before getting to that point. I know there are others from our own community that have felt what we have felt, and to them, and everyone else who has experienced this kind of trauma I say; keep going, there is healing, it might not be in a church, or it might be, follow what feels right, talk to other people, and keep moving forward. It will get better. If that means not going in a church right now, or hiding your bible in closet or even throwing it in the garbage, thats what it means. God and the Church and the Bible will still be there if you ever decide you want them. Take time to rest, take time to read, take time to just be. You will be ok someday, and if you look around enough you can find a spiritual home if you need it. Its ok to not be ok. Its ok to not know what you believe. You are enough.
If you are feeling spiritually homeless or confused I’d highly recommend all the resources I mentioned in this post, The Liturgists podcast, Ask Science Mike podcast, and the book, Finding God in the Waves.