Sunday, April 13, 2014

Moving on from Broken - My Church and Life Transition Story


This article is an update of one I did two years ago.  It has been cross-posted on the No Longer Quivering web site this evening as part of their series on recovering from spiritual abuse. Please note that many people who post and comment there have chosen to leave the Christian faith because of abuse. I ask you to be sensitive to that as you read and interact.

Four years ago, our family left a church organization which was and is facing major issues with legalism and abuse. It wasn’t easy to be there at the end. It wasn’t easy to leave. It still isn’t easy to navigate what I believe and how I relate to people. Despite my deep disappointment and disillusionment, I have continued to rebuild my own spiritual life. I have also looked back on several things that helped me transition out of more than one less-than-ideal-for-me situations. I’d like to share these with you.

Before we left, I started reading widely and deeply about the subject of abuse of authority in churches, organizations, the full quiver / home schooling movement, and families. I continue with that research nearly every day. Since then, I have been grieved by how many iconic celebrity religious leaders have bit the dust in a big way, and more importantly, how much damage they have done to others in the name of God. It makes me really wonder why I trusted what they were telling me about how to “do the Christian life right” when they were leading double lives with desperately dark sides. I am no longer shocked when I hear such news. It just seems inevitable because the legalism they espouse does not transform lives. 

As I started contemplating potential changes in my life, I took a lot of time to think through what was bothering me, evaluate it according to what I already knew, read as much as I could from a variety of trusted sources, and seek advice from wise friends and counselors. One Christian counselor, extremely knowledgeable about spiritual abuse from both personal and professional experience, helped me to think through leaving our church, as well as deal with some other very troubling situations. My current Christian counselor (who found funding to pay for our sessions) has helped me deal with even more issues, such as grieving the death of my mother and re-entering the work force. One counselor was a total fail in our only appointment. I can laugh a little now, but at the time his insensitivity was seriously triggering to me. I understand that many others have had similar experiences with those who identify themselves as “Biblical” or nouthetic counselors.

I spent a few months researching what I wanted in a new church. I asked around, surfed the web, listened to sermons on-line, made a short list of possible churches, and talked to my family about the options. 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. The pastors, elders and other members there 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, which was challenging because of what I have written about the church’s parent organization. (Note: Fortunately, the congregation chose to leave that group in late 2014, after this article was written.) I am pleased to say that 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. I have taken the opportunity to communicate clearly with some of the pastors what my issues were with the church. They took the time to interact with me, they have expressed authentic sorrow, and I believe they have taken my words into consideration as they plan for the future.

I have given myself permission to handle this transition at my own pace without expecting too much. It certainly wasn't over the minute we left our old church, and frankly, they didn’t cause all of my issues 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 every single one of them.  It can be a complicated tangle that takes time to sort out. 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 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 now have the freedom to live outside the box of other people's expectations of what it looks like to be a “godly woman” particularly in the area of marriage and motherhood. After years and years in strongly complementarian settings and mindset, I have steadily edged toward evangelical egalitarianism. I have also rethought my views on parenting and education. I am a mother of 10, ages 8 to 26, and I taught them at home for over 20 years. I was a die-hard full quiver home school mom, publishing three books and 16 years of e-magazines and blogs about it. I had nightmares about the thought of sending my children to public school. Yet some of my own children have thrived there in the past few years. I have been criticized and questioned by a few who are bewildered by our choice, but the fact that most of my kids are in public school is not the most pressing issue in my life at the moment. I no longer feel the need to justify my educational decisions. I just do what needs to be done each year.

Journaling and blogging are 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 write out personal thoughts, Bible notes, life management and inspirational book notes, prayers, and plans for the future.  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. I blog about spiritual abuse and recovery at www.WatchTheShepherd.blogspot.com, observations about daily life at www.VirginiaKnowles.blogspot.comand motherhood at www.thismomsgrowsup.blogspot.com.   

Another way that I use writing in recovery is creating poetry. Three that touch on these issues are:


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!  In 2013, I started a new “Strength in Hymn” series that couples vintage hymn texts with nature photography and encouragement for the disillusioned Christian. I love finding beauty through my camera lens!

What about you? What has helped you recover? What didn't?

Peace to you and yours,
Virginia Knowles

3 comments:

  1. Virginia, thank you for sharing your thoughts on these things. I would homeschool again in a heart beat but I have learned that some of the things somehow connected with homeschooling don't hold the water we thought that it did.

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  2. "I write to stay sane." - Hear, hear! I know that feeling well, when finding the path away from abusive authority. Sometimes all we can do is stay on top of the chaos in our lives, hearts, and minds, and try to ride out the wave, hoping it will all settle down eventually. And it always does, although perhaps not according to our timing.

    I applaud your honesty and courage in standing up to the corruption in our churches and religious leaders. May your voice and proof of path lend strength to one who is still seeking and bewildered.

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  3. I think it is great that you are sticking with the church even when they have hurt you in the past. Not all churches are the same--that's for sure! I pray you are able to see and experience God for who He truly is, not who He may have been portrayed to be.

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