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Recovering from Religious Abuse

Updated on October 10, 2012

When you've been hurt at church

Chrissy (not her real name) hung around the foyer of the church, watching all the people chatting about anything from their cats to their kids, their kitchens to their curtains. Secretly she wanted to join in the conversation, even though what she really wanted to talk about was this God they seemed to be worshiping in the next room.

But she had tried approaching them before, and she had been made to feel like an intruder.

"What's wrong with me?" she thought. "What - am I using the wrong deodorant or something?"

Mark (not his real name) was painfully shy, but he had decided to try to get out of his comfort zone and interact with the members of his church. He was a recovering alcoholic, who had attended for years and covered his drinking by eating breath mints. But God had reached into his life and delivered him. Now he was trying to push past the shame and make an effort to connect.

He was mingling in among the folks in the hallway one Sunday morning after the service, when an older man in a three-piece suit approached him and shook his hand. Mark's eyes grew wide as the man leaned in and whispered in his ear, "You sure could use a breath mint."

After that, Mark just went to his car after the service and went home. People wondered why he was so stand-offish ... if they thought of him at all.

Religious abusers often use gossiping and backbiting as a means of control.
Religious abusers often use gossiping and backbiting as a means of control. | Source

The Church's 'Dirty Little Secret'

A visiting speaker came to our church one time and did a conference on inner healing. He asked for a show of hands from people who had been victimized by someone at work. About a quarter of the people had. Then he asked for a show of hands from those who had been hurt by someone at church, whether from the pulpit or from the pew, whether by being criticized, ostracized, or ridiculed. Two-thirds of the people in the congregation put their hands up. Then he asked for another show of hands. This time it was for people to admit that they had either hurt someone or said nothing when someone else was hurting another church member or tearing another Christian down behind his or her back. Nearly half the people were honest enough to admit that they participated in or condoned in this kind of behavior.

Religious abuse. It happens when one person or one group of people in a religious organization decides that another person or another group of people under that same umbrella does not meet a certain standard, usually one that is arbitrary and not based upon the teachings of the organization as a whole. In the church, this is doubly damaging: first, because the mark of the Christian is love, and the world sees that this is NOT love - so they write us off, and second, because we are part of the family of God, and we expect to be loved and accepted by our fellow-Christians. So, the group that decides something is unacceptable exerts social pressure on the member or members that are exhibiting that behavior: pressure to conform or suffer the consequences: anything from social exclusion to ejection of the offending party from the church (whether that person is a member or a pastor.)

In some congregations, it is so rampant that not only do some leaders flail their flock from the pulpit, but the sheep thank them for it on the way out the door. I've been at services where the minister has literally reamed the church members out, used guilt, shame and yes, even intimidation to get his point across, and the people lapped it up like it was warm milk and called it a "challenge" to their spirits.

I've seen - over and over again - someone parachute into the church from outside, suck up to the leadership and gain a position of influence, trampling upon those people who have faithfully been serving and asking for opportunities to do more. But the faithful ones are ignored and taken for granted.

I've seen a group of people whose little empire of influence and position was being undermined by the pastor's audacity to preach that people be "real," combine their forces and use politico-religious clout with the church elders/board to get that pastor voted out of a job.

I've watched as someone who was honestly serving God with a pure heart was used as a pawn to achieve the self-serving goals of another group of members bent on control, and then discarded by those people when she saw through their power games and limited access to the talented member they wanted to exploit: her husband, who was ill and needed to pace himself. When my friend left the church and went to another (followed soon after by her husband, who was tired of having his multiple talents used by these people as if they owned them - and without giving a thought to his health) it never crossed anyone's mind that it was because both of these wonderful people felt used, spent and manipulated ... all in the name of Jesus.

I've seen prayer chains turn into nothing more than gossip chains. "Oh really? I didn't know about that. That's just horrible! Tell me more so I can pray better." Seriously? Doesn't God already know what the person's problem is? Why do you need to know it?

Is there something wrong with this picture?

Dreading going to church

I know several people who dread Sundays because they know they're going to a place that is not safe, and yet they feel trapped into going because, well, we're not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together, right? Yet every time they go, they end up leaving the place feeling worse than when they went in. Why? Two words: "should" and "sposta" (okay, I know the second isn't really a word.) You should be giving more, you're sposta tithe not just ten but thirty per cent. After all, God loves a cheerful giver. (Point of order: God loves everyone!) You should be going on a missions trip. To a women's conference. To a retreat weekend. To a prayer meeting. If you don't, there's something wrong with your walk with God.

Hm. The underlying message is, "You're not doing enough." "You're not good enough."

If I want to be beaten over the head with that kind of message, I'll call my mother.

What a horrible way to feel about a group of people that calls itself a "family." Yet I and many like me only go because of Hebrews 11:25. Church is way too often an ordeal to be endured rather than what it was intended to be: a recharging, rejuvenating station for believers to feel support and bring their needs to the group - not to be slapped down, but to be built up.

I wish I could find a place like that ... one that doesn't applaud me for how much I do and judge me if I do too little. One where I feel welcomed, accepted, loved. Not excluded.

You know what Jesus said about people who were focused on doing this and that and the other thing for Him? Here they are at the last judgment, boasting about all the things they did. "Leave Me, you wicked people, into everlasting fire. I never knew you." Did He mean that God doesn't know everything about everyone? Of course not! He meant that these people never allowed God to know them, to know them intimately. Relationship; intimacy is what matters to God; not all those impressive deeds or rules and regulations everyone says are so important.

And all the while, folks are trying to climb over each other in an effort to get noticed by God or by the minister, or to fit in or keep from being sliced and diced, or to make sure that this one or that one toes the line.

All that doesn't matter.

He matters.

Ever felt afraid to voice your opinion because of what "they'd" think?
Ever felt afraid to voice your opinion because of what "they'd" think?

Have you ever been the victim of religious abuse?

See results

Healing from religious abuse

Recovering from religious abuse takes time. The longer it's been going on, the longer it will take. And it won't be easy. But you'll have help - of the Best Kind. Jesus will be with you and walk you through it, one step at a time. "You chart the path ahead of me, and tell me where to stop and rest. Every moment You know where I am." - - Ps. 139: 3, NLT

Here are some things to say to yourself on a daily basis. You can say it to the person (or child, if you will) inside of you that has been wounded by the expectations and condemnation of others.

  1. I am God's child. He loves me the way I am. And if He wants me to change, He'll let me know.
  2. No person in this world needs to take the place of God in my life. I answer to Him, not to them.
  3. Jesus is my best friend. Nobody and no group of people can compare to Him.
  4. The Holy Spirit is at work inside of me. Nobody else has the right to be Him.
  5. I can pray that God will make me willing to forgive the ones who have hurt me. And I can trust that He will do that. Not only that, He will empower me to do it; I can't do it on my own.
  6. I can say, "No," and not feel guilty or ashamed. My priorities are God (which is not the same as church), then my spouse, then my family and THEN church.
  7. I can keep my focus on my Audience of One: God Himself. The opinions of others can and will mean less and less to me.

And that - is the beginning.


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    • CMCastro profile image

      Christina M. Castro 5 years ago from Baltimore,MD USA

      Hi Judy, I hope that through our writing experiences we can support one another and build hope to those who are also struggling with this. And it is also a clear sign that bullying is in every place in life, including the religious congregations. We are the church, and every member has to assist each of its members, regardless where their roof top is. I am glad to have met you here.

    • Judy G Gillis profile image

      Judy G Gillis 5 years ago from Charlottetown, PEI, Canada

      Thank you! I'm new to this community of writers and it's nice to be encouraged. I am so sorry that you experienced that kind of behavior from the the type of shepherd who - instead of using the staff on the sheep and the rod on the wolves - just pull the sheep close with the staff so they can beat them with the rod. It's unfortunate, too. I grew up in the church, have been in ministry since I was sixteen - over 35 years - and I had to go OUTSIDE the church to find any acceptance. I might write about that too - someday. :)

    • CMCastro profile image

      Christina M. Castro 5 years ago from Baltimore,MD USA

      Hi Judy. I am a victim of religious abuse. When a large ministry has too many pastoral staff members who want to police the congregation for their personal behavior, it really tears down the validity of their Christ like image that they are supposed to portray. I want to write a hub about my actual experience, because it had a large impact on my life. What you have blessed me with is a springboard to gather my thoughts and the courage to speak up about how one church ministry became choosy about who they wanted to be in their congregation. Good hub and I give you a thumbs up.