For the past decade or so, I’ve been struggling to understand and move on from several conflicts that I’ve had in church. It’s been tough trying to find others who’ve gone through similar experiences who would be able to empathize and understand. A few years ago, when I attended an Episcopal Church, I inquired if there was any group that I could attend for people struggling to overcome painful church conflicts, but they didn’t have any. I recently met some people in Facebook who have had some painful church conflicts and I learned about a new term: Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome.
Post-Traumatic Church is the result of a traumatic event that occurs to a person in a church. It could be a conflict, abuse, bullying, or some other event that causes a disconnect in a person’s mind between the way that person thinks the church should be and the failure of the church to live up to that. Each person may have a different story, but they all were hurt in some way by the culture or politics of their church. Reba Riley wrote a wonderful blog called It’s Called Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome and Yes, It’s Real where she describes her own experiences. She wrote:
Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome …presents as a severe, negative — almost allergic — reaction to inflexible doctrine, outright abuse of spiritual power, dogma and (often) praise bands and preachers. Internal symptoms include but are not limited to: withdrawal from all things religious, failure to believe in anything, depression, anxiety, anger, grief, loss of identity, despair, moral confusion, and, most notably, the loss of desire/inability to darken the door of a place of worship….
There are degrees of PTCS — maybe you can still walk into a church, maybe you can’t, maybe you take the long way on the highway to avoid the sight of a steeple, maybe you’re even standing in the pulpit. But the one thing we all have in common is that we crash into religion when we go looking for God. And the crashing has left us with spiritual whiplash, broken bones, bruises, welts and lacerations. It has left us feeling alone and scared and suffering.
I don’t have an aversion to praise bands, but I understand a lot of the things that Riley describes. I’ve developed a love/hate relationship of Christianity, based on the good and bad experiences that I’ve had. Overall, I think there are more good things about Christianity than bad, but the dark side that I’ve seen in Christianity makes me very wary. Paul Joseph wrote a blog called Everything Changes: Post Traumatic Church Disorder that describes a particular experience that I understand well. He wrote:
When we think of a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder we often think of war and terrorism. But in recent years it has been concluded that prolonged stress of certain kinds (bullying) can have a cumulative effect and impact you as much as one life and death threat in wartime. In other words, it is possible for a church goer to suffer Post Traumatic Church Disorder or PTCD.
Bullying can be thrust upon you by the denominational leadership, church board, leading members involved in power struggles, your mate, fellow pastors, or you, yourself, can bring this pressure on others if you are in authority in some manner.
Legalistic churches and cults are famous for bullying followers as a method of control. When this happens, an entire culture that is unhealthy develops, sometimes on a worldwide basis if the denomination is large enough. Both leaders and lay-members become wounded in such churches.
For so many of us who have been abused in this manner (bullying), rejection is how our heart reads it. The great irony is, Christianity is the one true religion that should underscore unconditional love from a caring deity. Yet, the church, itself, can be one of the most destructive organizations to the human spirit.
One of the things that I’ve been wary of is the tendency of groupthink that I found myself in at an Evangelical Church during the 1990s. After a while, I got sick of a group of people telling me what to think, who to date, what friends to have, etc…. I became afraid of speaking my opinions. At a certain point, I just had to leave. Someone suggested that I look up “religious addiction” in the internet and I found a good blog by Paschal Baute called Symptoms of Religious Addiction that I can relate to. Baute wrote a list of these symptoms:
Inability to think, doubt, or question religious information and/or authority
Black-and-white, good/bad, either/or simplistic thinking: one way or the other
Magical thinking that God will fix you/ do it all, without serious work on your part
Scrupulosity: rigid obsessive adherence to rules, codes of ethics, or guidelines
Uncompromising judgmental attitudes: readiness to find fault or evil out there
Compulsive or obsessive praying, going to church or crusades, quoting scripture
Unrealistic financial contributions
Believing that sex is dirty; believing our bodies or physical pleasures are evil
Shame-based belief that you aren’t good enough or you aren’t doing it right
Compulsive overeating and/or excessive fasting
Conflict and argumentation with science, medicine, and education
Progressive detachment from the real work, isolation and breakdown of relationships
Psychosomatic illness: back pains, sleeplessness, headaches, hypertension
Manipulating scripture or texts, feeling specially chosen, claiming to receive special messages from God
Maintaining a religious “high”, trance-like state, keeping a happy face (or the belief that one should…)
Attitude of righteousness or superiority: “we versus the world,” including the denial of one’s human-ness.
Confusion, great doubts, mental, physical or emotional breakdown, cries for help
During my time blogging at Everyday Citizen, I’ve written some blogs and cartoons based on my experiences, especially here, here, and here. I’ve had two bad church conflicts that really affected me: one at an Evangelical Church in the 1990s, and more recently at an Episcopal Church. I attended an Evangelical Church in the 1990s for eight years. The first five years were wonderful. The last two and a half, three years were a real nightmare for me. I began to realize how much I had compromised of my beliefs to fit in with an Evangelical community. It was painful to break with people who had developed into close friends. The people in the Evangelical church I attended were some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. But I learned that a belief in a literal interpretation of the Bible can make very nice people do not very things to individuals who do not conform to their views of a Biblically based Christian life. Here is a cartoon I did of that experience.
I left that church in 2002 and did not attend any sort of church for six years. Then in 2008 I felt this urge to go back to church. From my Catholic childhood, church has always been important to me, even if I didn’t always live up to being a good Christian. For a few months, I visited different churches, then settled in an Episcopal Church. I decided to attend specifically because it has a reputation as being a liberal church. The first three years were great. Then in the fourth year, I must’ve done something to tick a group of people off, because I got started getting hassled by a few people. I tried talking privately to the individuals to try to resolve things. When things didn’t change, I tried asking the pastors for help to resolve whatever the issues were. Nothing worked. I didn’t blame the pastor for any of this, and most of the people in the congregation were very kind to me. But a small group of people were doing what they could to make it uncomfortable for me to stay. This was a painful conflict, but it involved individuals whom I really didn’t know very well. Here is a cartoon I did of that experience. I was hurt, but also baffled. I left the church thinking to myself, “What the heck happened?”
These past two years, I’ve been visiting various churches but with a sense of wariness. I still feel an attraction to Christianity. I’m grateful to it for what it’s taught me about God, Jesus, social justice, and family. Most of my heroes are progressive Christians: Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez, Bayard Rustin…
But the church conflicts that I experienced have left me with a deep anger and a deep sadness that I’ve never been able to shake. When I found others who have gone through painful church conflicts and I discovered these articles on Post Traumatic Church Syndrome, I felt a sense of relief.
I’m not perfect. I do not love my enemies. I struggle with forgiveness. I’ve probably hurt several people in my life that I didn’t mean to. I’m flawed. But everyone has weaknesses that they struggle with. That’s just part of being human. After having a group try to impose and bully their views on Christianity to me, I just want to find a liberal Christianity that fits me. That should be true for all people who are on a spiritual search. Each person has a right to follow whatever spiritual path that they want, whether it goes to a particular religion, or agnosticism or atheism. For me, personally, there is still something about Jesus that I find appealing. It was instilled during my Catholic youth and it’s never left me.