Spiritual abuse is in the headlines again with ABC News covering a case in Oregon where a blogger, her family, and a few friends are being sued for half a million dollars by their former pastor. I can certainly relate to Julie Anne, who had already contacted me a while back to ask if she could link to this blog after finding it via Wartburg Watch. My question now: "Just when will abusive pastors finally learn that they cannot bully members into silence over legitimate concerns?" Blech.
Anyway, I was thinking this morning about all I have read and experienced about recovering from a negative religious experience such as authoritarian abuse with a church, other Christian organization/movement or even a family, I'm including a bunch of links below about what other people have observed, but first a few things that helped me transition out of a less-than-ideal-for-me church situation.
First, I took the time (actually a few years) to think through what was really bothering me, to try to evaluate it according to what I knew from more than 30 years of studying the Bible, to read as much as I could from a wide variety of trusted sources to confirm what I was thinking, and to get advice from wise friends and counselors. A professional Christian counselor, Roger Shepherd of Florida Counseling Foundation, has been extremely helpful even since before we left our last church. He has had personal experience with abusive Christian organizations and families and has counseled other people in my kind of situation. (One of the key things he told me is that forgiving someone does not mean that you need to ever trust them again. Trust is earned back over time or maybe even not at all. It should not be granted automatically.) Since that time, I have continued to research about spiritual abuse and recovery, as well as explore what it is that I really believe about grace, the nature of the Christian life, authority, family dynamics, social issues, and more. I still talk to supportive friends, many of whom have been in my shoes in some way.
Next, since I highly value being in a church setting and didn't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater by rejecting "organized religion", I spent the time to research what I wanted in a new church. (I was the one in my family to do this, since I was the most motivated and the most computer savvy, but I communicated regularly with my husband about what I was finding.) Over a period of months before we moved on, I asked around, surfed the web, and listened to sermons on-line. I made a short list of churches that our family might consider and talked to my husband and children about the options. We had to think about priorities. For example, mode of baptism was not as important as the polity (church government) and the leadership atmosphere. A smaller size was more important to one of my teens than a super fancy youth ministry. A genuine warm welcome (not "love bombing") was more important to me than whether the church owned its own building. When I found a potential church that looked especially good, I called a friend who had attended there for a few years and grilled her for about an hour. :-) It took us a few more months after that to visit our mellow little PCA church the first time, but we've been there for a year and a half. The pastors, elders and other members have been extremely supportive in light of our prior church experience. It has been a safe place where I can breathe and recover.
I have attempted to stay on good terms with our friends and pastors from our former church. Yes, this has been a little bit of a challenge because of what I have written on this blog and my main blog, but I am pleased to say that only a few people told me to bug off, and those who were truly my friends are still my friends. I know some folks have been shunned by members of their former churches, but that really hasn't been an issue for us. (Maybe because so many people left at the same time, it was harder to write all of us off at once, especially since many who left had been there over 20 years and were "pillars of the church.") I also stopped to think (and write about) what I appreciated about our former church, and to be thankful for the good things I learned and experienced there for eight years.
Another key thing has been giving myself permission to handle this transition at my own pace without expecting too much. It certainly wasn't over the minute we stepped into our new church, and frankly, not all of my issues were even caused by our old church in the first place. From what I've read on web sites about spiritual abuse, these kinds of situations can trigger PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), with the associated depression, anxiety, anger, apathy, disillusionment, distrust, relational conflict, and spiritual doubt. I have experienced all of these, every single one of them. It can be a complicated tangle that takes time to sort out. Some people never want to set foot in church again. Some leave the faith entirely. That is not my case, but there are some phrases, songs, subconscious impressions, and even Bible passages that give me a spiritually allergic sensation and make me recoil. I ask myself, "Why am I reacting like this?" and try not to let negative associations ruin otherwise good things. It is especially comforting to know that God is big enough and loving enough to handle my angst. (I certainly relate to David's angsty laments in the Psalms!) I find that I am much less "put together" than I thought I was before, but I've also learned to be OK with that. I have the freedom to live outside the box of other people's expectations of what it looks like to be godly, like home schooling every single one of my kids. I give myself credit that I haven't bolted from the Christian faith, and even if I don't always know which end is which or what I want to be when I grow up, at least I'm still here!
Journaling is also important to me. Writing it out clarifies some of the issues, and helps me to go back later and reconsider what I had been thinking before. Sometimes I see a little bit of progress from then until now, and other times I have to go back and reclaim some of that progress that seems to have slipped. For me, journaling is a private matter. No one has permission to read them. It has to be a safe place to let it all out without the fear of having to explain it to someone who might misinterpret what I'm saying. I also journal as I read the Bible, summarizing what I read and how it applies to me at the moment, right where I am. Psalms, the Gospels and other narratives, and the book of Ephesians have all been very refreshing to my soul. Journaling is also a form of prayer for now. Extended prayer during my "quiet time" is still a hard thing for me. Other than writing, it is more stream of consciousness prayer for now, thinking Godward as I go through the day. Often it is just "Lord, have mercy" or "Sweet Jesus, help me." Blogging is obviously more public than my journaling, but it is a huge help, too. I have always said, "I write to stay sane" and that is more true than ever. :-) Most of my blogging is not about spiritual abuse but observations about daily life. Take a peek at www.VirginiaKnowles.blogspot.com and www.ComeWearyMoms.blogspot.com. You might especially like to read Knowing She Hath Wings.
One more restorative gift is appreciating the beauty of nature that reminds me that God is a Magnificent Creator. Clouds, flowers, tree trunks, sunrises -- all powerful for building trust in the goodness and power of God!
What about you? What has helped you recover? What didn't?
This list of links can also be found on my Links page, along with a bunch of others on specific organizations, family abuse, patriarchy, and home schooling. Please note that I do not endorse everything you will find at these sites. I trust you will use your own God-given discernment.
Spiritual Abuse Recovery Resources http://www.spiritualabuse.com/ This site by Jeff VanVonderen (author of The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse and Soul Repair) is full of articles and links to other sites.
Spiritual Issues in Recovery http://www.geftakysassembly.com/Reflections/Recovery.htm (this site addresses the implosion of the Geftaky Assemblies, but has a lot of valuable information for spiritual abuse recognition and recovery)