Today’s podcast episode is all about church hurt. A church is a family—at its best it’s a place to learn about God, a place to heal, and a place to give & receive in community. But just like any family, when leadership turns toxic the results are devastating.
You have so many questions for me about the pain that comes at the hands of a church family. I enter into today’s episode with a spirit of reverence and a prayer for all who have been hurt in this way. Here's what we cover:
1. What is church hurt?
2. The problem with the term church hurt
3. Why anyone with power (pastors, leaders, parents, and yes, even therapists!) hold great responsibility.
4. Examples of church hurt
5. 3 Red Flags for toxic church cultures
6. The problem with groupthink
7. How do I heal from church hurt?
God doesn't force, control, or manipulate you. God meets you where you are tenderly, and He wants to restore the goodness in your life that was taken away from you by an abusive leader.
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While Dr. Cook is a counselor, the content of this podcast and any of the products provided by Dr. Cook are not specific counseling advice nor are they a substitute for individual counseling. The content and products provided on this podcast are for informational purposes only.
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Episode Seventeen: Psychology Buzzwords The Best of You Podcast 23rd August 2022
Listeners' Choice Edition With Dr. Alison Cook
Alison: Hey everyone. I'm Dr. Alison, and I'm so glad you're here to discover what brings out the best of you. This podcast is all about breaking free from painful patterns, mending the past, and discovering our true selves in God. I can't wait to get started, as we learn together how to become the best version of who we are with God's help.
Hey everyone. Welcome back to The Best of You Podcast. Where we are in round two of a series called Psychology Buzzwords. This is a Listeners' Choice Edition, so you voted on these words. These were the words you were most interested in hearing about from me. And I want to pause here to just encourage you to pick up a copy of my new book, The Best of You.
In the book, I unpack a lot of misconstrued church messages, and what I do is I try to weave in wisdom from psychology. With what I believe is the true wisdom behind a whole bunch of these messages that have come out of the Bible. That have been misapplied, misinterpreted, and misconstrued to keep people stuck in toxic relationships and in toxic patterns of behavior.
So if you're someone who's been hurt by some of these messages. If you've been taught to deny yourself to the point of you don't even have a self anymore, you feel like a doormat. Or you've been taught that your emotions are bad, so you don't know how to relate in a healthy way to your emotions. Or if you've been taught not to trust yourself, and that's led you down the road of really unhealthy relationships with other people. Or you've been taught to turn the other cheek, in instances, where that verse was misapplied and misconstrued to teach you to put up with abuse.
Or if you were taught to honor parents in a really narrow way that doesn't honor the reality of what that verse actually means. You're going to want to pick up a copy of this book. I go into so much detail about how psychology comes together with the wisdom of Scripture. To help us become the whole, beautiful people, God made us and wants us to become.
It's available now for pre-order anywhere books are sold. You can go pre-order and when you pre-order, it comes out September 13th so we're just a few weeks away. When you pre-order, you will still get, up until September 13th, access to so many freebies. Such as my webinar, Five Toxic Behaviors and How to Protect Yourself in a biblical way.
My Boundaries for Women Course. I have a whole- Claim Your Yes bundle, which includes a video teaching on three steps to calm your emotions, that's based on my first book. You get the first three chapters of the book now and a special devotional just for you.
So head over and order the book anywhere books are sold. Then go to my website, it's dralisoncook.com/book and claim all those free gifts. Those are going to be there for you through September 13th, when you'll actually get the hard copy book into your hands.
So let's get started with the topic for today of church hurt. So, first of all, what do we mean by church hurt?
There are a lot of people who don't like this term. They think it really minimizes the damage that can be caused by church. I'm using it here because it is sort of the buzzword. It's the word that we see, and, so, I want to unpack that. And what I would say is church hurt, this idea of church hurt, covers a broad range. There's a spectrum of toxicity, of hurt, within a church community.
On one end of that spectrum is abuse, it is spiritual abuse. It is spiritual trauma. And this is when these really clear cases where someone in authority abuses their position and their power, to take advantage of either a person or of a whole parish and create a toxic environment.
There are degrees of that. There are some churches where it's just pervasive. The leadership is so toxic. There are other churches that there are some health and there is some toxicity. And then there are those churches where they're mostly healthy, but we still get hurt. And it's really important to understand that large umbrella, no church is perfect.
You're going to get hurt when you go to church. But church hurt, this term really gets at those wounds that are created as a result. And I talk a lot about a spectrum of toxicity, where there's more toxicity than there is health. And, so, because there's more toxicity, you're really getting hurt more than you're getting goodness.
What we want to strive for, no church is perfect, what we want to strive for in a church is that at the minimum, "Do no harm". It's the Hippocratic Oath that we have in medicine, that we have as therapists, and I think it applies to church communities. Let's, at the minimum, try to "Do no harm" or if we do harm to take ownership for it and I'll get into that.
But church hurt is. It is a little bit of a nebulous term because we're really not talking about just, "Man, that hurt. That person at church hurt me today." That's a little bit of a different thing. We're really talking about something more toxic, something that really creates a wound, all right.
So church families are such important places to grow, to give, and receive care, to learn about God. We need faith communities. They're such important places to learn and to grow. But just like a family where there's an absentee or an abusive parent. When church leadership turns toxic, and I'm going to talk to you about how that happens, the results are damaging to hearts, souls, and minds.
So church leadership holds a lot of power. But that power includes a lot of responsibility, then if someone misuses their power we're going to define the result of that as abuse. And all abuse means when we look to the dictionary is, "A bad effect." Or "For a bad purpose".
It means misusing one's power for a bad effect or a bad purpose. And church hurts stem from experiencing someone else abusing their power.
A church has the power to gather, encourage, and heal God's people. Church communities can help you encourage yourself and others. Give thanks and marvel at God's wonders. Grow in humble, honest, self-awareness. Pray with other people, grow in wisdom and the knowledge of God. Care for those who are most vulnerable. These are all ways that church communities are so important.
But when a church leader abuses his or her power, it has the opposite effect. Such as causing discouragement and disappointment in yourself and others. Feelings of anger, shame, confusion, and bitterness toward God. Toxic movement toward rigid self-denial and self-hatred. Bypassing or denying the painful emotions versus bringing them to God, honestly.
False ideas about God versus the God Jesus embodied, and further wounds to the ones, the vulnerable ones who've already been hurt the most. So here are some examples, a woman whose church disappears after she gets a divorce from her abusive husband, they shun her. They don't support her, and here she is, on her own, trying to raise these kids. Having gone through a traumatic event and that church has abandoned her. That's a wound. That's a wound that's created.
A young child is taught that he will burn in hell, if he makes friends with the wrong kinds of people. That's not a message that a child can stomach. And I've worked with people, over and over, and over, who are taught these really graphic awful things as children and it's become a trauma.
There's like a terror about doing the wrong thing or stepping outside of the line. And they're taught this message in a way that it's just that it hurts the soul. It doesn't bring the soul into the safety of a loving God. A young couple is forced to leave a church after they speak up about the misbehavior of a narcissistic pastor. They might even be shunned by that community.
Lastly, maybe, you open up your vulnerable with a pastor. With someone in leadership at your church about your depression. You trust them and you are told that your depression is your fault and that it's because you lack faith. This creates a wound. This creates distance between you and a loving God.
This creates a wound to your soul that doesn't need to be there and that is wrong, and this hurt is not of God. It's a hurt that was created by humans who are taking on the authority of God, especially, if they're in leadership, and, so, it hurts. It has that impact, that weight of authority, and, so, you're confused.
You're like, "Man, is this my fault?" You feel shame?
"I can't get over this depression, this anxiety. I'm in the pain of this divorce, and I'm being told that it's my fault."
"That I'm the one that's wrong, that I'm sinning, and that I have to fix this to get right with God."
And it creates a wound that's toxic to the soul and it's not your fault, and this is what we mean by church hurt. This is what we mean if we really want to call it, what it really is by spiritual trauma. This is a wound to the soul, at the hands of people who are supposed to be representing a loving God.
Now, listen, I have so many friends who are pastors who are on the front lines of church ministry, and you might be listening to this podcast. And I want you to hear me say, no church is perfect. No pastor is perfect. One of the key signs of healthy church leadership is humility. Is the humility to say, "I don't know, I'm going to get it wrong."
We're not after perfection, listen, we therapists get it wrong. We could do a whole episode on therapist hurt. We hurt people too. This profession hurts people. I'm not here to go after pastors, but churches are like a family. There's something sacred about a church community. It's a family, God set it up this way. It's the body of Christ, and churches, like families, are comprised of wounded people. But it also has the power of a family. We trust our church communities, our faith communities, like we trust our families.
We think our families are supposed to be safe, are supposed to be for us. And we think our churches are supposed to be safe, are supposed to be for us. And, so, when they betray us, it hurts. It creates a wound. In many cases, it creates a trauma or a complex trauma, as we discussed in the episode on CPTSD. A bunch of paper cuts add up to a big response.
Now hear me say this, the presence of wounds, in a family or in a church, does not mean a church is toxic. We all have wounds. Every family is wounded. Every church is wounded. It's how we face our wounds. It's how we own our wounds. It's how we honor our wounds, honestly, with humility and transparency with one another and, most of all, before God, that's what makes the difference.
In a healthy family, each family member manages and works to take responsibility for their own struggles. This is right out of Galatians 6:2 that we are to take responsibility for our own burdens, for our own selves, which means self-awareness.
It means knowing here are my blind spots. Here's where I'm not going to get it right, whether you're a parent, or a pastor, or a ministry leader, or a church parishioner, or an elder. Whatever position of responsibility you have, I have as a therapist, and say, "Man, this is my blind spot. This is where I know I'm going to get it wrong, first and foremost, inside myself I know that, and before God I know that. And with a few safe people I know that."
So healthy families, healthy church families, commit to a process of becoming aware of where they have blind spots. Of where they're still healing, of where they fall short.
Unhealthy church families take a different path. Take a different path toward becoming toxic or abusive toxic church environments. Like a toxic family environment that has gone so far down the path where it's become toxic. It's more toxic than it is healthy, again, it's a spectrum, but it's moving far away from that healthy church culture.
It's all about the inability to come humbly before God with our own brokenness, from the leadership down. It starts in a family. It starts with the parents and in the church, it starts with the leadership. We need communities. We are healed by communities, but we are also wounded in communities.
So I'm not here to say we don't need faith communities. We do. We need them to be healthy. And we need to all do our part in that, me too, I just want to say, I feel so much humility in this episode because I get it wrong too. I get it wrong too.
We all are going to get it wrong. It's not that we're not going to get it wrong. It's how we are humble about that. It's how we come before each other in that. It's wise to guard your heart when entering into any kind of relationship, even a relationship with a church family.
So in today's episode, I want to equip you, how do I identify church families that are healthier versus those that are more toxic. So that you can be wise in how you relate to that community. That is so important for your spiritual and emotional health.
So here are three red flags for what could become church hurt. So these are three red flags to look for. Number one, a disrespect for your personal boundaries. Just because you join a church family doesn't mean you get to check yourself at the door. You get to show up as a whole person, just as you do in your own family.
A family, if we apply Family Systems Theory, from psychology, bringing in family systems. It's a system of a bunch of different people and it functions in a healthy way, when there's a role for each person. When each person gets to function, optimally, within that system.
There's not one person that's taking over and then other people are getting shoved aside, every person, we work in a healthy family to create rules, where every person gets a chance to shine. Every person gets a chance to come to the table with their gifts, and that requires that dance, that I talked about in last week's episode on attachment. That dance of togetherness and apartness, "I want to be with you and I want to show up as my true self." It's both.
"I want to be part of the family and I get to bring my individual gifts to the table."
And, so, if you're a part of a church family, and they're not honoring your boundaries. They're not honoring your personal autonomy, that's a red flag. And here are some examples of how that might show up.
Number one, be aware of rushed or forced vulnerability. Trust is built over time. That's true of any relationship, including a relationship with your church. So if you're walking in the door and you're being asked to share every, sort of, detail of your life, on day two, that's a red flag. Trust is earned, and are they going to honor your boundaries?
Let's say you're in a conversation. Maybe you're meeting with a pastor and he's saying, "Tell me your life's story?" And you've been hurt, and maybe you've got a tender story, and you say, "I want to open up to you. But what I just want you to know, for now, is that I'm divorced and I'm looking for a new church."
Can they honor that? Can they say, "Thank you so much for being here. I look forward to getting to know you."
Or do they immediately jump in wanting to know every detail. Starting in with judgment. Starting in to tell you who, what, when, where, and how it should be for you, and they don't even know you. That's a red flag. Trust is earned over time. Forced vulnerability isn't healthy vulnerability, it's manipulation, and you want to watch out for that because we see that in certain church cultures.
Now I'm going to just say it right here, it's true for your therapist too. If your therapist is stigmatizing you or shaming you because you want to pace yourself in how you open up about your past, that's a red flag there too. So we're not off the hook on this. But any kind of situation in which you're being forced to tell details that just don't feel like they're honoring, you get to pace yourself in how you open up to people.[00:19:11] < Music >
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Number two, an oversimplification of hurt, of what it means that we hurt. This oversimplification of, "You're a sinner." That's it. That's the only thing you need to know. We need to talk about sin in churches. Yes.
We miss the mark, we need to understand that. We also need to understand that sin is complicated, and I'm going to do a whole, I promise you, I keep promising you, I'm going to do a whole episode on this. But there's a lot to sin and a lot of times those people who are acting out the most, have been hurt the most. And we need to understand there needs to be a posture of compassion.
Yes, there needs to be a posture of truth, but there needs to be a posture of compassion. And, most of all, we need to not sense shame. If there is shame from the pulpit, if you're being shame, now, sometimes we can feel shame. But if you're being shamed, that's a problem, I'd watch out for that. That's a red flag.
Instead, look for a church that is willing to tackle heart issues. That is willing to talk about things like depression, doubt, loneliness, anger, with nuance, without shaming you.
Can the pastor talk about these subjects, honestly, maybe, even with humility? "I don't understand this, but I do know if you're experiencing this, that you're not alone." Are you hearing about these topics in a non-shaming way?
Do people talk openly about feelings like being lonely, or being angry, or being sad?
Is there a space for you to show up authentically?
Notice how people treat others who are struggling. A healthy church encourages an environment of compassion. We see it in how members talk about other members.
Are they gossiping?
Are they stigmatizing?
Are they judging?
Are they shaming?
Or is there for the most part, again, no one is perfect, a posture of humility, of compassion, of openness.
I'll never forget an experience I had, in my twenties, of being part of a church group, and the pastor would preach these amazing sermons. I still remember some of them to this day, but there was a culture in this community of just hatred, vitriol, behind closed doors. It wasn't the pastor, necessarily. I never, necessarily, heard him, but this was the environment that he was fostering, so I don't know what was going on.
And I was like, "How am I in this environment? Where I'm hearing these messages from the pulpit and I'm hearing the people listening to these message saying hateful, cruel things about God's beloved children?" And that tore me up.
That experience right there and I wasn't even the direct target of it, and it tore me up. If you're hearing that pay attention, that's a red flag.
How are people treating each other and how are they talking about people, maybe that aren't even around?
How are they talking about other people? And I'm not talking about theological differences, I'm talking about basic human kindness here.
How are we treating other people? That's a red flag.
Number three, a lack of humility and openness. Wise, church leaders enable space for a diversity of perspectives. Now that's not to say that a pastor may not have conviction about certain church topics, I think they should.
But healthy church leaders can say that, "Hey, this is where I stand on this, I want to be transparent about that.
If you would disagree with me, I'm open to that. Man, I want to have that conversation with you. You're welcome here. I just want to be clear this is where I stand, but you're welcome here. You don't have to agree with me on everything."
Controlling church leaders expect group think, what psychologists call group think. And that means that every member has to tow the party line or risk being kicked out. If you disagree you're out. This kind of control can take the form of rigid expectations and demands, with little room for nuance or healthy dialogue. Especially about minor issues but even about major issues, there's room for dialogue.
Unhealthy church leadership can take the form of celebrity worship. Where everyone is expected to adore the leadership, the leader, the pastor. And if you are to be like, "I'm not sure, I agree with them on this." You're out. That's what I mean by this group think, you have to be a part and you have to think the same way as everybody else, or ooh you're out. That's not healthy. It's not healthy in families, it's not healthy in churches.
In any family environment, whether it's a family, or a church, or a country, or a nation, these are all systems of people. There is got to be room for healthy disagreement. There has to be room for dialogue. That doesn't mean we don't have convictions. It means, we say, "This is what I believe. This is what I believe to be true. I'm curious about why you disagree and what you think. Can we honor each other, and listen to each other, and maybe disagree at the end of that conversation, and still respect each other as humans made in the image of God." That's it.
We have to have a posture of curiosity about each other and that's modeled by the leadership. That's modeled by parents, in a family, and that's modeled by church leaders in a church community. If a church won't create space for people to engage topics, honestly, how are they helping you grow? How are they helping you bring your real questions, your authentic questions to the table?
Whether it's in a small group, or in a Sunday school class, or in some sort of group setting where you're saying, "Man, I heard this sermon but I don't know if I agree with this, help me understand?"
How are you growing? If you can't engage your questions, honestly. People heal as they are invited into healthy, honest dialogue, through healthy relationships.
Remember even the best of churches will let you down from time to time. They are comprised, we are all comprised of unhealthy people. You're going to bump in to some toxic people, even at church, and that doesn't mean the whole church is toxic. And you can use your behaviors, that I teach in the webinar, maybe you love your church, and, man, there's just someone there that's really tough. We all have to deal with this. You can use your strategies to protect yourself with that person. That doesn't mean that whole church community is toxic.
But what I'm trying to describe here are systemic issues that come from the leadership down. Manipulation, criticism, shame, controlling tactics that pervade the community, cruelty. These things become pervasive in the community, that's not healthy. That's not a healthy environment.
Instead look for church communities, church leadership, that respect boundaries, that care for those who are hurting. That show a posture of kindness and compassion even when there's conviction about certain issues, there can still be a posture of kindness and compassion, and there's humility.
There's room for differences of opinions. You get to raise your questions. This is the place where you can find healing and where you can find spiritual growth in community with other people. A church family should be focused on supporting its members to grow in learning how to love and receive love in return. So that you can love God, love others, and honor yourself. Just as Jesus taught, "Love the God, with all your heart, soul strength, and mind." That's what we're learning about in church, how to do that.
How to care for others as we also care for ourselves, all of those three are important in church communities. There are plenty of healthy church families out there. I promise you they're out there, so don't give up on your search. But be wise, especially, if you've been hurt before and if you have been hurt before, get the healing you need.
So that leads us to the last section of this episode. How do I heal from church hurt?
The process of healing isn't always easy. It can be hard to face the pain that we've experienced in this environment we wanted to be safe and we thought would be safe, so we made ourselves vulnerable. And then this environment betrayed us, man, that is painful, and I want to honor that and validate that pain. It can be really hard to disentangle God from the misrepresentation of God by unhealthy church communities.
So, understandably, a lot of folks get angry. They get angry at God, but other folks aren't angry at God at all, they're just angry at the church community. Some folks decide to leave church to maintain their relationship with God for a season. So we have to be really clear about when we're angry. What are we angry with God?
Are we angry with the church community?
Is it a little bit of both? And both are okay, God can handle both.
But if you're struggling with the pain of church hurt. If you're noticing that it's hard for you to be a part of a faith community, that you, kind of, have to grit your teeth, or that you experience anxiety, or that you don't trust yourself, or you don't trust the community, please know that you're not alone. And that as you heal yourself you will learn how to enter into a faith community with wisdom.
Knowing that there are going to be folks with blind spots. Knowing that any faith community is going to have its share of ups and downs, and there's going to be nicks and bruises, just as there is in any relationship.
But as you heal yourself, and empower, and equip yourself, you can navigate a healthy faith community in really beautiful ways. And you can become a part of co-creating a healthy community with the other members.
So it starts with healing yourself because you take yourself into that church family. You don't have to be at the whim of the church. As you heal yourself, you gain skills so that you walk into that church door equipped to know how to protect yourself in a healthy way.
So the first step toward healing, as we discussed already in part one, is to name that church hurt as an abuse, as a wound from which you've got to heal. You've got to name it to yourself, "Man, that pastor attacked me where I was the most vulnerable." That was an abuse of power.
"Man, they taught me that I wasn't worthy of God's love. That was an abuse of power."
"They told my secrets to other people. That was an abuse of power, that hurt me."
"They told me my abusive husband's behavior was my fault. That was an abuse of power."
"They told me my depression was evidence that I lacked faith. That was an abuse of power."
And the purpose of this step is not to harbor resentment, it's to name what's true. The initial process of healing hinges upon you naming what happened that was wrong, and that you need to heal from.
Number two, separate the church hurt from God's character. Some aspects of God's character are crystal clear throughout the Bible. If you feel busted up or beaten on by a church community, it's so important to take a step back for a moment, if you're able, and to remind yourself who God is apart from the hurtful actions.
I'm going to give you some examples. "God loves justice, mercy, and humility." Micah 6:8.
"God is for the poor and spirit, the grief stricken, the humble, the brokenhearted, and the peacemaker." Matthew 5:1-12.
"God stands against the proud, and He is for the humble." James 4:6.
"God is love." 1 John 4-7.
"And God's presence shows up as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control." Galatians 5:22-23.
And if this has not been your experience of a church community, that's not the spirit of God.
You might also look to the life of Jesus and notice how He interacted with various types of people. Jesus had His harshest words for the abusers of power. To the religious leaders who judged, criticized, oppressed, and hurt others.
He was harsh with these folks, guys, and this is fear and trembling here, we don't want to be these people. From Matthew 23.
Mark 9:38:42 [00:35:29.00] (not sure) and Luke 11:43-44, Jesus doesn't have kind words for those who abuse power to hurt others.
Jesus drew close to people who were hurting, wounded, sick, and suffering. He didn't blame them for their suffering nor did He marginalize them. He encouraged them. He helped them in practical ways in many times, and He treated them with respect.
See Luke 17:12-16 and John 9:6-7
And then there's the marginalized, those who were shoved aside to the margins of society. Those who came from the wrong side of the tracks. Jesus purposefully intervened for those folks. You can see so many stories of Jesus siding with those who've been shoved aside and oppressed in Mark 2:15-16, Luke 7:36-39 and John 4:25 and 26.
Now, listen, if you've been hurt by Scripture, go slowly, it's okay, I want to paint that picture for you. That I do not believe that God of the Bible is a God who creates these toxic, shaming, cruel, painful, controlling, environments.
But if it's hard for you, if the Bible's been used to hurt you. I just want to paint that picture for you, but pace yourself in your journey of healing.
Finally, step three, if you've experienced church hurt, it can cause you to feel helpless and alone. And you're going to need to set boundaries with those who have caused the pain, and that's a hard process in and of itself. But you do need to heal and you may need to seek help outside of the church. Whether from another church, maybe, you just go to another place for a season where you experience a little bit of a safety.
Maybe you go to a counselor who understands spiritual abuse and spiritual trauma, where you can get the healing you need. Maybe you find a small group of trusted advisors, people who can help you process what happened to you, where you get someone to witness. We need to heal in healthy environments where people witness, what happened to us.
It's wise to enlist the help of other people, and then over time you can reclaim your spiritual practices. But give yourself a chance to heal, especially, if the Bibles been used against you. If prayer has been used to manipulate you.
If sermons have been used to try to control you. It may take you a minute to learn to trust again, and that's okay, give yourself time. And it's normal to feel that wound, kind of, bruised in some of these settings where spiritual practices are taught and that can be confusing and painful. So be gentle with yourself, God is gentle with you. God can understand it. God can meet you in those tender places and provide the healing you need.
God doesn't force, control, or manipulate you. God meets you where you are tenderly, and He wants to restore the goodness in your life that was taken away from you by an abusive leader.[00:39:08] < Music >
Thank you for joining me for this episode of The Best of You. Be sure to check out the show notes for any resources and links mentioned in the show. You can find those on my website at dralisoncook.com. That's Alison with one L- cook.com.
Before you forget, I hope you'll follow the show now so that you don't miss an episode. And I'd love it, if you'd go ahead and leave a review, it helps so much to get the word out. I look forward to seeing you back here next Thursday. And remember, as you become the best of who you are, you honor God, you heal others, and you stay true to your God-given self.[00:39:46] < Outro >