Tips for recovering from a spiritually abusive church

We had an interesting little discussion on my Facebook page yesterday. I’ve been thinking about the journey of recovery and how it is a winding road fraught with detours, tangents, dead-ends, mistakes. And that is OK!

It’s easy to get caught up in false ideas about “closure.” There is no “closure” in the sense that life can go on in the same way it always has. When you experience trauma–physical, emotional OR spiritual–the wounds might heal up. But the scars remain. It’s a new normal, a new reality. I’ve found that recovering from a spiritually abusive church happens in cycles. I revisit the same pain but in different ways. Each painful experience exposes a new layer of hurt that needs healing.

The key for me has been in finding language to express the pain and thereby expunge it. When you can name the shadow, it has less power over you. Your journey may be less word-centered. But whatever journey you’re on, just know that it’s OK to be You’re not “on the clock.” There’s no timetable or deadline for recovery. Sometimes you’ll deal with things more intensely (this happens for me when another child dies from religious “child-training”) and sometimes you’ll walk away from it all to explore other areas. It’s all OK!

Here are some other tips from our Facebook discussion with my comments in brackets:

  1. Naomi suggests learning to grow beyond absolutes. Recognize there are gray areas and learn how to live in the gray. Work on balancing community needs with individual needs [survivors of spiritual abuse often put others' needs WAY above their own--to their own detriment]. Learn when to dig in and when to let go.
  2. Stitching Seams shares that she needed to step away from Bible reading. “When I read the Bible, I hear the voices of every preacher, Sunday school teacher, high school teacher, BJU professor, etc. who ever spoke about the passage – I don’t hear God. So for the past year or so I’ve stopped reading daily, and when I do read, I read aloud so it’s my own voice I hear. I put different inflections on the verses, and read a different translation, praying that God will allow me to hear His voice, and no one else’s.”
  3. Joanna says it’s important to surround yourself with people who speak love and grace into your life. “Until you can silence the inner voice [of condemnation] you need voices around you repeating and repeating love and grace and hope into your life. [You need] people who will give you room to be angry and wander off a bit and come to your new conclusions on your own time.”
  4. Sarah says reading different Bible translations is helpful. “The Message, as cheesy and paraphrased as it is, does help me read the Bible as a whole without getting caught up on the proof texts that were used to beat others down.”
  5. Frances offers encouragement for following your personal/professional goals and gifts. By doing so, “you get affirmation from the world that you are a valuable, smart, awesome person. Use your talent in a way that is appreciated.”
  6. Katherine urges restraint in throwing yourself into a new church. “If I could have changed one thing, I would not have thrown myself back into church after leaving the ICC [newly emerged survivors are very susceptible to joining another similarly abusive environment because even though it's harmful and dysfunctional, it feels normal]. Visited church, yes. Wholeheartedly joined, no. It was my choice (sort of, I thought I would go to hell if I wasn’t in church) and people at all the churches I attended were kind, but I didn’t really start dealing with my crap until I left church.”

Do you have any further thoughts, ideas, tips to share?

Do you have questions? This is a safe place. Feel free to share.

  • Joi Weaver

    One thing is to learn what triggers strong emotional responses and deal with them. For me, many praise and worship choruses create a very strong fight-or-flight response: I can’t hear them without thinking of the dysfunctional churches I grew up in. But now that I’ve identified that as a trigger, I understand what’s going on when I hear that music and feel angry or sad. It doesn’t make the feelings go away, but it does make it easier for me to deal with them.

  • Aaron

    Thanks, Elizabeth. I identify with every sentence on this page. I’ve joined a new church, but as it’s a so-called liberal mainline Protestant denomination, there’s little chance of falling into #6 issues above. Also, I’ve held back from becoming “involved” in it. My wife, on the other hand, has no desire whatsoever to participate in “membership” in the foreseen future. And that’s ok.

  • KatR

    I should clarify that the churches I attended post the abusive one were not abusive. There was benefit, especially at first, in going to a different church and realizing that I wasn’t going to get hit by lightening, killed in a car accident, etc, etc (there always seemed to be a story in my old church of someone leaving and then getting a brain tumor).

    But what I really needed was a religious detox so I could start getting in touch with what happened and the anger associated with it. That didn’t happen until I was several years out. The paradox was although it would have been better for me to be out of church, I wasn’t ready to not be in church.

  • Kelly

    Having been in an abusive marriage as well as an abusive church, I would say that I needed to learn to pay attention to the “voices in my head”, and remember that while the words may belong to my abusers, the voice is my own, and as such, I have control over it.  I can shut it down.

    Learning to “take captive every thought and make it obedient to Jesus” has been so important.  It is not just about frowning, finger-wagging sinful thoughts, but  about healthy, loving kindness to myself, not to allow those words to run through my mind.  It takes a lot of work, and God is helping me develop discipline in this area. 

    Having done the difficult work of separating myself from the authors of those hateful words, it is pure cruelty to then continue taunting myself with them.  I counter them w/the truth about my self from Jesus’ perspective.

    I have also noticed that some situations tend to bring on the torrent of abusive thoughts -when I am overly tired or not feeling well, when I am experiencing difficult emotions for other reasons,  or when I have had contact w/someone who has been abusive, or who treats me in a way that reminds me of the abuse.  I am learning to recognize the signs and shut down the dark thoughts right away, because the thought train is a lot harder to stop once it gets going!

  • Guest Q

    Anonymously I’d like to hear what comments people have on “not-quite-abuse” situations.

    That is, emotionally I resonate with the descriptions of abusive situations (in terms of full disclosure I seem to be a growing empath, so my mom would describe this as me “borrowing pain.”), but I’ve not lived through something this *blatant*.

    I am highly sensitive, and gifted and verbal, which seems to be treated as “unnessisary” at best.  But no one actively tells me to sit down and shut up, so I’ve been trying to watch how men like me are treated, to see if it’s really my female-ness that is unwelcome or just my “disruptive” nature.

    So far it seems 50/50.

    In terms of high-sensitivity, what if I *am* just fixating on stuff that doesn’t really matter? How would I know?

  • Anonymous

    Agreed. We attended Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa for several years after leaving our abusive church. CCCM wasn’t abusive and there was benefit. It was sorta like triage. It helped us heal…to a point. And then our journey led us away from CCCM–which was also necessary. It’s all OK.

    And dude, I had the WORST nightmares about getting killed/struck my lightning/killed in a freak car accident as a result of leaving our church! Yep. Been there.

  • Derrick Vanmeter

    I’d like to echo many of the sentiments on this page. One that especially resonates with me is the one about listening to the “voices in your head” when they tell you something is wrong. My wife and I were children’s pastors at our abusive church, and within two months of beginning the job I knew it was wrong. My wife convinced me to stay, then the music minister convinced me to stay, then I convinced myself to stay. We started out on the periphery of the abuse, but once it came to us, it hit hard. We quit that church and stopped attending all together about 1.5 years ago. I’ve just begun to return to a church and I’m really enjoying it. I grew up pentecostal (C.O.G) and now I’m going to an episcopal church. They have been some of the most loving people I’ve ever known.  

  • Shanna Wright

    Thank you for validating my belief that we never heal in the sense that life goes back to what it was…we have scars and we should never be ashamed of those scars or make apologies for them.

    My husband was a pastor in a small Lutheran Synod. We ended up in a small church that was the center of a small town in Nebraska. The church was toxic–it ate up and spit out its pastors. It wasn’t personal, I mean–it was, but they did it to most of their pastors before us and we were just the next in line.

    The gossip was ridiculous. It was mean and hurtful. Most of it was just plain made up. There was no way to protect myself or my family…it was horrible. The church had a very small school & the principal joined in on the gossip to help himself fit in. All the gossip went to the District President (a Nebraska native & apparently that is a big deal?) and so when we went for help, he was  no help at all. In fact he was accusatory and cruel. I felt like the world was upside down.

    We had an out though. My husband worked hard to get a second Masters and we were able to leave the church behind. We also left that Lutheran denomination & moved to a larger Lutheran denomination that ended up being a better fit for us.

    Still, I couldn’t go to church. Being in church caused horrible panic attacks as it symbolized 4 years of abuse. I have since come around….it takes time, but things do ease up a bit…but like you said, “closure” never really comes. Our open wounds do heal into scars, but those scars never go away. I do think we jumped into a new church too soon…just like Katherine mentioned. I wish we had taken it slower, that was a good lesson learned.  We were blessed with patient pastors who gave me room to breathe…room to heal without judgment of any kind. My husband was also beyond amazing–he gave me room to find myself and heal. I love him all the more for giving that to me.

    The one thing that kept me going is that the “visible church” is just that….the denominations/churches we see. They are filled with sinful people who will do sinful things…but they are not the definition of “The Church.” The Holy Christian Church is bigger than what we see as only God can see the heart. The knowledge that the shitty little church we were stuck in wasn’t the definition of the Body of Christ made a world of difference for me.

    When it’s all said & done, I wouldn’t undo what happened. I am thankful we went through what we went through. I have no high horses to stand on because of that experience. I understand why some people flee from the church and I can have true empathy for them. There are people in my life telling me to “get over it”….but I don’t want to “get over it.” The knowledge gained was worth it…and I can honestly say that now after 4 years of freedom.

    Now with that said, I never want to go through that again…and I won’t. That is another lesson learned. I don’t have to take crap from anyone.  Pastor’s wife or not. :)

  • KatR

    All of my nightmares (which I will still have occasionally) are about being back at that church, except this time I know its bad news, and I’m trying to get away. Hiding in a closet. Climbing out a window.

  • Leah

    It’s so hard to feel like you’re regressing when you just want things to get better!  But I agree.. healing & recovery is not linear.

  • Handsfull

    I totally agree with your take on healing from abusive churches… that you do heal, but the scars remain.  It’s like that for any kind of pain.  I also think that there’s the same variety of reaction to spiritual scars as there are to physical ones – some people are ashamed of them and try to hide them and hope nobody notices them, others are very matter-of-fact about it (that’s the way it is, I was in an abusive situation, but I’m more than that).
    I came from a church where women wore scarves on their heads whenever they were out of the home (the super-spiritual even wore them at home), and I still cannot bear to wear any form of scarf on my head… or let my daughter!  It’s been 14yrs since I left, and I feel like I’ve moved on with my life, but that hang-up is still there.

  • Julie

    My aunt told me she would grip the steering well and cry the whole time she would be driving the interstate to work after she left the abusive church.

    I still have this niggling feeling in the back of my mind that if I show I am too happy God is going to slap me down…and I’ve been out going on four years…

    Whoever made the comment that healing is not linear was so, so right.

  • KatR

    Hi Guest,

    The situation you are in may or may not be “abusive”, but being somewhere where who you are is treated as “unnecessary” is unhealthy, to say the very least.

  • Dixibehr

    \I revisit the same pain but in different ways. Each painful experience exposes a new layer of hurt that needs healing.

    My sentiments exactly. Forgiveness is like an onion. You peel and peel and cry and cry–and then there’s another layer.

    And about scars, I was discussing this issue with my confessor. He said that while the scars presently remain, they will disappear at the Resurrection.

  • theresaEH

    I found reading these books VERY helpful, along with a lot of prayer…..
    Toxic Faith by Stephen Arterburn and Jack Felton
    Healing the scars of emotional abuse by Gregory L Jantz PHD

  • Stephanie

    I read this and thought, there is a great plan of the enemy to take the very words of God and twist them to deceive his people. He did it in the garden and continues that work today-I thought, the Word of God is active and alive- and maybe you could write down the lies your church told you when they used scripture out of context and used it to abuse you, and with your husband or someone else safe, who doesn’t have that slant read the scripture and take it back for the correct context (maybe even get a new version like the other lady suggested) and its like saying you can’t steal from me the truth of God words! You had years stolen from you, and there can be a righteous anger when its time for your heart that stands and says- no more. I don’t suggest this lightly as a quick fix.

  • Sisterlisa

    I agree about reading The Message. The twisted scriptures from the past is like having a spell cast on you. So even when one verse is spoken or read, the mind goes back to what it was previously conditioned to. So ditching the version of the bible that was used to hurt you can be a doorway to gleaning enlightenment from the scriptures as they were intended to…as we read it from a different angle. I also recommend Darin Hufford’s book, The Misunderstood God as a way to reconnect with God as a loving Father.

  • Sisterlisa

    Elizabeth, Have you ever been to Rick Warren’s church?