“Dear Church, … Sincerely, a Religious Trauma Survivor”
You say everyone is welcome. You say you want to reach the world and you brainstorm strategies to reach the next “demographic”. You claim that love is at the center of your faith. But you have a blind spot and people are falling through the cracks. I was one of them. Religious trauma survivors make up a significant demographic of people. In fact, they are one of the least churched demographics. If you claim to care about reaching the world with Christ’s love, you should certainly care about this people group, but too often instead you throw accusations, hurl insults and shut down our voices. You say everyone is welcome, but we feel ostracized, misrepresented and silenced. This letter is what we want to say to you.
When we survivors share our stories, you churches often act like you need to immediately defend whichever churches and pastors caused our pain without even knowing the full story. You’re afraid if you admit that a church actually made a mistake, it will lead people further from God. In fact, its just the opposite. Your arrogance and defensiveness and refusal to hear us proves that something is desperately wrong in American Evangelicalism and it pushes us further away.
Survivors are often accused of being “wayward” or “going astray” or even as being outright rebellious and disobedient. We are described as giving into temptation, taking the easier road, letting our flame grow cold, but let me tell you – survivors usually don’t want to leave the church. The church is our family, our community, our passion, our sense of purpose… When we are brave enough to speak up and share our story with you, we are desperately pleading for a listening ear, a humble response, a teachable attitude. We are begging you to learn from us and to change something so we can stay. But you rarely do and so, heartbroken, we eventually do the last thing we ever wanted to – we walk away.
You churches need to take responsibility that even if you are not the ones who caused the trauma, you are often the ones who mimic it, maintain it and defend it. Even if you have good intentions, you need to own up to it when your impact is negative.
As Christians you are taught you are morally superior to outsiders – you believe you know the one true way and the rest of the world is lost, confused and downright wrong. As a result, if someone has an aversion to church you immediately toss them in the “lost” category – no matter how badly they want to be able to belong with church community, no matter how important God is in their life, no matter how painful their story is.
You assume, perhaps subconsciously, that anyone who isn’t “all in” the same way you are – anyone who has reservations about church, concerns about the structure or the leadership or the doctrines – is therefore morally inferior to you, so you don’t listen to them. You don’t word it that way, but that’s what’s happening. You don’t listen because they don’t know what they’re talking about or they could be a dangerous influence or they could “pull you down”. You stubbornly believe you are the one who is “mature in your faith”, so it’s easy to slip into arrogantly ranking people on some kind of credibility scale and blowing off anyone who says something different from what you’re used to.
Instead of listening, you try to “reach them for Christ” and “pray their hearts will be softened” – in other words, you try to teach survivors and change them while being completely shut down to any learning or changing you could do yourself.
Church, you have set up an ironclad power dynamic where the churched person is always above the unchurched person. You don’t consider if the questioning person has anything of value to offer you. You firmly believe the teaching can only go in one direction. This makes it impossible to have real relationship. The survivor becomes subhuman to you – a project, a potential convert maybe, but not a person just like you with equally valid experiences and perspectives.
If this is ever going to change, Church, you need to start out knowing that religious trauma is an injury – not a choice! Trauma has been officially classified as a disability – and in the cases of religious trauma, that disability is caused by something *you* did. It is not possible for a church trauma survivor to simply “choose” to submit to the church’s leading any more than it is possible for a person confined to a wheelchair to choose to get up and walk.
The only exception would be those religious trauma survivors who dive headfirst into the church as a survival mechanism, to blend in and stay under the radar and hopefully avoid being further traumatized. Unfortunately, most of the time those survivors unwittingly develop more complex trauma as they internalize guilt and shame and come to believe their trauma is their fault – if they had just been a better Christian, they wouldn’t have been reprimanded, judged, or torn apart in those gossipy prayer circles.
Church, you need to realize that just as it would be ridiculous to tell someone in a wheelchair “If you really loved God enough you’d find a way to get into a church that has only stairs”, its just as preposterous to tell a trauma survivor that if they really loved God and submitted to the Spirit, they would overcome their mental disability and stay or get involved in church. But you do that to religious trauma survivors All. The. Time.
Now imagine if you as the church physically injured the person in the first example, leaving them in that wheelchair. How horrific would it be if you then expected that person with a disability to come up the impossible stairs to join you – the ones who took away their ability to climb stairs in the first place. Furthermore how mind-boggling would it be if you called that person at the bottom of the stairs a heathen or a rebel or even just “immature” or “searching” because they can’t or don’t have the energy to figure out how to get in, or if they simply don’t want to spend time with the people that took so much away from them. That would be unthinkable. But you, Church, do that very same thing to religious trauma survivors All. The. Time.
A common reaction trauma survivors get in your churches is debate. You try to trap us and trick us and use coy conversation tactics to back us into a corner and try to prove you are right. Many times I have been taunted “So what do *you* think the solution is, then?” to huge existential questions that don’t have a concise answer or a quick fix. If the survivor who is being put on the spot doesn’t immediately have a flawless framework for some of life’s biggest challenges, you see it as proof that you are right and they are wrong.
Church, I need you to know that it should not be my job to come up with a comprehensive universal plan on how to make all churches across the nation or globe work in a perfect way. My ability or inability to do so has no bearing on the validity of my claims. As a trauma survivor, if I’m saying that there’s a problem, it’s your job to listen and fix it. Victims should not have to undertake the labor to repair the broken systems that damaged us. That’s your job. As leaders and influencers and power-holders in a system its up to you to respond to the alarm bells when something is malfunctioning. Those alarm bells are the voices of survivors! And they’ve been ringing for a while now.
A physically disabled person might voice their difficulties with accessibility issues and not be expected to come up with a plan for implementing ADA accommodations in every building across America. But somehow with religious trauma, survivors are expected to come up with foolproof strategy to fix all of American Evangelicalism and then we have to defend it to the very people who caused our trauma or are copying it by putting us on trial and cross-examining us, poking holes in our ideas and calling us less godly if they don’t like our ideas. You caused the problem, you fix it – not your victims. This is victim blaming to the core. And yes, it’s abuse.
If the ideas and requests that trauma survivors have for you, Church, do not work with your current structure and theology, then instead of discounting those ideas, you actually might need to be reconsidering those very structures and theologies that sparked the conversation, because they could very well be inherently harmful.
Don’t interrogate us survivors about our stories, asking for some proof that what happened was bad enough. Oftentimes we can’t put our experience into words because our verbal processing center shut down when we are triggered and also because our brain makes the memories harder to access so that we don’t get overwhelmed by them. Not being able to speak articulately about our trauma is proof that we’re in survival mode and it actually *is* “bad enough”.
Church trauma victims usually develop Complex PTSD (c-PTSD) instead of the more commonly understood Shock PTSD, because the trauma happens many times over a longer time period with many different incidents instead of one event with a clear beginning and end. Because of this we won’t necessarily have one or two concise stories to share with you in a neat and pretty little package that you can take and fix and hand back to us.
More times than I can count, Christians have sighed or rolled their eyes at me for courageously opening up, saying things like, “Really?! PTSD?? From church? What on earth happened to you? It’s not like you were beaten or starved!” Or “He’s a great pastor, you just have to give him a chance!” Or “you need to humble yourself and submit in obedience to the Spirit”, Or my (least) favorite “You’ll find healing when you want it badly enough. When you’re ready to leave your baggage at the cross and give it to Jesus. Stop lugging it around and looking back at the past and embrace freedom in Christ!” (and yes, a pastor actually told me this word for word!) If only you knew the countless hours I have cried and begged Jesus to heal me, to fix the broken church and make it a safe place for me so I could continue to serve God and grow in my faith there. If only you could read my heartbreaking diary pages as I’m searching my soul for anything wrong I might have done and asking God to refine me and make me more holy.
Just because we as survivors might see things differently than the traditional church does not mean we are wrong or arrogant or disobedient or less Christlike. Often we’ve been forced to reflect, repent, search our hearts and face our demons more than any of you. Survival demanded it.
Church, if you want to be a positive and healthy space where all are welcome, there absolutely *has* to be freedom for the trauma survivor (or any individual) to land in a different place theologically than you. That’s the only way for us to feel safe. That’s the only way for us to actually *be* safe. Not having that freedom is what creates victims in the first place. If that freedom doesn’t exist, your community is inherently controlling and manipulative, and yes, abusive.
As survivors, we want to help current victims heal but also a huge part of this is not creating more victims! To do this we are begging churches to follow Jesus’ example of radical inclusivity. People who have different theologies can still be in community together. They can still serve in leadership. It works well when a diverse community commits to the same values and goals such as fostering an environment of safety and acceptance and open dialogue and faith exploration. Believe me, I’ve done it. If members can facilitate a healthy spiritual discussion and encourage growth – it shouldn’t matter if personal beliefs in the group vary a bit. If we’re being honest with ourselves, even in the strictest of churches, every person there has at least a slightly different theology from each other anyway – if you dig deep enough. Complete homogeneity isn’t natural; it’s brainwashing.
Christians need to understand that believing certain doctrines is a *privilege*, not a requirement, not a mark of spiritual maturity, not a sign of obedience. Being able to believe in eternal hell, or in the subjugation of women, or in stringent sexual restrictions under purity culture, or believing that queer orientations are sinful – those beliefs are a privilege only afforded to those who haven’t been profoundly injured by those ideas. Embracing something that has damaged you to the core of your being is quite impossible for most of us – unless you’re inclined toward self-harm. It’s not a sign of a hardened heart or an unwillingness to “submit to God”. Rather it’s survival and self-love.
You, Church, think we always have a choice over what we believe. You think we have made a conscious choice not to believe, and you think that choice was wrong and will be punished. You think you freely chose your own beliefs and that you will be rewarded for making the right choice. But what if I told you that our beliefs aren’t always a choice?
Belief comes from experience and how your brain processes those experiences, which you cannot totally control. Belief is the map your brain constructs of the fabric of reality based on the input it receives and catalogs from everything that happens to you and from how it happens to you and when it happens and what mood you were in when it happened and how you reacted to everything leading up to what happened and who you were with when it happened and why it happened. This big messy complex soup of happenings turns into beliefs. Our brains try to make sense of the world to keep us safe, so we build beliefs based on our experiences: this thing happened, so therefore this is true. This church community has been a positive experience, so therefore the doctrines they teach me are true. My parents taught me this perspective from a young age, so therefore it feels right to me. I found comfort and stability in my faith so therefore it is the only way. But belief is as complex and unique as each of our individual lives and as innate and involuntary as our personalities and our interests and our preferences. We get to choose much less than we think we do. Often you churches accuse us survivors of deconstructing “just because we had a bad experience”, but we could say the same to you – that you have faith just because you had a good experience. While a little reductive, to some extent both are true.
Beliefs tell a story and most of us would never have chosen the painful stories that have shaped our beliefs. Therefore salvation cannot be tied up merely in what we believe if God is truly good and just. It is inherently unloving and damaging to tell us that we will be tortured eternally for things that have happened to us against our wills that are the reason behind what we believe to be true.
Furthermore, you seem to think that we can always choose our healing, too. Church, it’s high time we stop holding people accountable for the healing that God is supposed to be doing. If you expect some sort of immediate healing miracle and it’s not happening – that’s something you need to take up with God, not with the trauma survivor. Outside of rare miracles, trauma healing takes years and the survivor may be permanently different because of their trauma. Our brains have been rewired and physically changed; consequently there may be certain beliefs that are permanently inaccessible to us. Which again means that you might have to rethink a salvation that is based merely on beliefs. If you think it should work differently than that, again, take that up with God and science. It’s not the survivor’s fault if healing takes longer or looks different than you expect.
Just as your own brain is wired to like or dislike certain foods and you can’t just decide to change your mind about what you enjoy or don’t enjoy eating – in the same way certain beliefs are inaccessible to trauma survivors because of the way our brains are wired. We need to stop equating beliefs with morality and maturity. “Choosing” to believe something is a privilege and sometimes its actually cognitive dissonance.
Church, if you care at all about helping trauma survivors heal, you need to know that toxic positivity is a huge problem for you. There are countless times survivors hear “Jesus heals!” “The Spirit restores all things!” “Take it to God!” “Trust God!” “Rely on Him!” “Have the joy of the Lord!” While these things might be true and resonate as more true for some than others, it only takes talking to a small handful of people to learn that God doesn’t fix everything all the time, not even most the time. These answers are unhelpful at best and profoundly damaging at worst. For example, my depression and anxiety went untreated for far too long because we aren’t really “allowed” to be depressed or anxious. If we’re anxious we clearly aren’t trusting in Jesus’ peace – that, or we have an unconfessed sin. If we’re depressed then we aren’t embracing the joy of the Lord, or maybe we are losing sight of the hope we have in Him. Oftentimes, such as in my case, the anxiety and depression are symptoms of an injury / disability and not a lack of trust in God. (Side note – what does it even mean to trust in God or “give it all to Him”, in tangible terms? Survivors are criticized for not doing these things well enough but nobody has a helpful explanation on what that would look like practically. Its all criticism and no concrete steps to take. Some of us have desperately wanted to do take it to God and tried but ended up being ripped apart by the church anyway.)
When you’re experiencing the most intense terror of your life, being told that Jesus is the answer is about the most patronizing and reductive answer you can receive. And then on top of that, then having more shame and guilt and fear loaded on you because experiencing mental health symptoms (or admitting to them) is a sign of being immature or ungodly – its just all too much to bear. No wonder people walk away.
We need to normalize wrestling with why a good God would allow bad things to happen. We need to normalize someone being mad at God for allowing their brain to be damaged from trauma and thus changing everything about the way they experience the world for the rest of their life. We need to normalize rethinking what we are taught when what we’re promised turns up empty. We need to normalize losing trust in church leaders when their actions don’t match their words. It’s important not to try to dissuade someone from being angry; it’s important not to try to fix everything with happy answers and hopeful mantras. Sometimes the most important thing is to mourn and grieve and cry with someone and to encourage them that it’s okay to be angry at what happened. It’s okay to hate God and the church. Sometimes that’s the only possible reaction. There are not always answers and recognizing this is more supportive than trying to make everything make sense. Forbidding anger or questioning or doubt or spiritual exploration won’t make it go away; it’ll just make survivors feel guilty for it or pull away from the church more.
In order to be a healthy church, people *must* to be allowed to freely experience everything they’re feeling whether it is aligns with the church’s ideals or not. In order to move the energy out of our bodies we have to be able to feel it first. If somebody is angry or sad or hopeless or confused the only way to get past that is to fully feel it and sit with it and only then are we able to move past it. This doesn’t happen in a specific timeline, either. It could take years. Christians frequently feel a lot of pressure to have all the right answers but we need to remember that we aren’t the ones with the answers. It’s okay not to have a good answer. In fact most of the time it’s more appropriate to not have an answer when somebody’s struggling with huge existential issues like trauma. Even though I’ve experienced this firsthand it still took me a long time to get past the indoctrinated urge to try to fix somebody’s situation with godly advice when they told me a distressing story.
Perhaps one of the most important things I can tell you, Church, is that triggers need to be taken seriously – they actually physically harm our bodies. The higher levels of cortisol and adrenaline cause measurable damage to our bodies over time. Stress hormones aren’t meant to be present at those high levels longer than it takes to run away or punch a bad guy. But with PTSD we live in a fight or flight space for hours, days, weeks, months or even years at a time. Every time I’m triggered it wears down my body a little bit more. It floods my body with even MORE stress hormones. That’s why, from 2011 until I started a medication in 2021, I suffered from chronic health problems such as dehydration, unpredictable and unsustainable metabolism rates, extremely low blood pressure, unstable blood sugar and glucose sensitivity, skin issues, extreme back pain from pelvic dysfunction and random muscle pains throughout my body. My adrenal system that normally regulates these functions is damaged and out of balance from being in fight or flight. This is actually a pretty common experience for most trauma survivors but it’s only coming out in studies in the last few years. Most doctors still don’t understand the connection between trauma and seemingly random groupings of physical symptoms, so seeking medical assistance is often frustrating at best and retraumatizing at worse. Being told over and over that nothing is wrong with you and your tests are normal, when you KNOW you are in physical pain and something isn’t right, is like experiencing gaslighting all over again. Being talked down to by doctors as if you don’t know your own body, coupled with already not trusting yourself as a result of trauma, makes you want to scream and escape your body because it is hurting you and making you feel crazy. Church, when you tell us that our trauma is no big deal, these are the kinds of things you are downplaying. When you require or pressure traumatized individuals to do things they aren’t comfortable with, these are the kinds of symptoms you are inflicting on us.
Triggers and personal boundaries need to be respected, plain and simple. Nobody blames a person who avoids things that would obviously physically harm them such as a food allergy, but survivors are blamed for “running and escaping our problems” when we are just trying to avoid triggers that physically damage our bodies much like an allergy would.
Church, you absolutely need to believe people when they say something is good or bad for them, even if it doesn’t fit your worldview. If somebody says it is bad for them to read the Bible or attend church or small group or worship practice, we need to believe them, even if it goes against what you personally value. If somebody says it is good for them to be in a live-in partnership, or leave their marriage, or listen to secular music, or smoke pot, we need to believe them. People know themselves and what is good for them, 99% of the time. It’s perhaps the most basic human function – knowing what’s good and what’s bad for us. That’s how humans survive. It’s a gut instinct written into our DNA, much like leaping out of the way of a venomous snake. You don’t have to be highly educated or articulate to known why the snake is bad, but instead you leap as far from it as you can. Your body just knows. But you, Church, teach us not to trust ourselves and to ignore our most elementary instincts. Telling somebody that they don’t really know what is good for them is one of the first ways we start to traumatize them and destroy their ability to trust their own intuition. This puts people into extremely dangerous situations. Later when they might be in an abusive relationship they won’t trust themselves when they sense they need to get out of it. Or if they are in an abusive community they won’t trust themselves to know they need to speak up or leave. They are more likely to be sexually assaulted because they won’t know if they can trust the “I don’t like this” feeling. All of this has happened to me and many people I know.
People know themselves better than you do, and just because they might disagree with you on what they need, that doesn’t mean they’re wrong or crazy. Even when I was in an unhealthy relationship, I wasn’t crazy; it was good for me in some ways. That relationship is how I escaped the abusive church I grew up in. That relationship gave me the only safe space I had at the time to explore my theology. That relationship provided the only outlet to experience all the normal young adult developmental experiences that were important to me growing into myself. When the time was right I got out on my own, because the relationship had served it’s purpose and I no longer needed it for those things. I was strong enough to get there on my own. But I probably could have moved on sooner if the church hadn’t abused me into not trusting myself. I could have moved on sooner if I hadn’t been pressured by the church into marrying him. I might not have been there in the first place if the church hadn’t created those needs in me. This all could have been avoided if Christians had just let me trust my own instincts of what was good and bad for me. Then it would have been safer to ask advice or get help when I wasn’t sure.
It’s high time that Christians put people’s lives before their theology. When it comes down to it no one can really know for sure which theology is correct, but we can absolutely know for sure that people being safe and able to thrive is crucial. I would even argue that it’s impossible to believe some theologies while still loving people. Certain doctrines force you to choose ideas over people’s lives, such as non-affirming beliefs. Hundreds of thousands of people die by suicide each year because of theology that tells them that they were created in a way that is somehow unacceptable to God. Being preached at to fight against their very nature their entire lives, being taught they don’t deserve their the most basic human needs met such as love and partnership, leads to self-hate and depression and suicide. All the while being told this by people who currently are enjoying love and marriage and aren’t affected by what they preach. I know multiple women who have considered suicide and have entered dangerous relationships because they were trained to believe they were less worthy than men. And it doesn’t have to be said outright either. The culture of female submission says it loud and clear. Church, when will you choose love and life over law?
In order for the church to move forward around issues of religious trauma they are going to have to get their priorities straight and put people’s safety before any beliefs. We need to get rid of this idea of different levels of maturity based on which beliefs we hold; a variety of beliefs within communities is normal (outside of strict fundamentalism) and beliefs are based on experience. Each of our experiences are going to be different; our beliefs will be too. Once we can develop a tolerance for differences within faith communities we can actually start to move forward on addressing trauma and putting a stop to creating more trauma victims.
Church trauma will never stop as long as you, Church, feel you have the right to control people’s beliefs and behavior. The only way to avoid causing trauma and allow healing for survivors is for people to own themselves and have true freedom to act and believe however feels authentic to them. As long as certain ways of being human are off limits, people will end up traumatized. It is still possible to talk about your values and what you think the Bible is saying without forcing others to take the same interpretation as you. It is still possible help others have a powerful encounter with God and to facilitate the environment for those experiences, again without those people having the exact same beliefs as you. Shouldn’t facilitating encounters with God be our main goal? Not policing behavior? Isn’t it God’s job to lead our hearts? If God really feels the same way as you do about something, that’ll be made known in time to the person encountering God. If God isn’t convicting them the same way as you’d expect, maybe it’s because God doesn’t want to. Your job is to create a safe and accepting environment where people can meet with God and respond to that as they will, and the rest of it is in God’s hands and none of your business.
Please hear me when I say that if a trauma survivor speaks up about a risk they see in the church, a potentially dangerous situation, such as “it’s not good for one leader in the church to have so much power” or “it’s dangerous for men to be speaking on women’s issues” etc, we don’t always mean that the particular leader in question is doing only bad things or that they don’t mean well or that they don’t have a good effect on some people’s lives. We just mean – this a risk, it could go badly, it’s set up for the perfect storm; this exact situation has gone badly many, many times before – I have seen it with my own eyes, I carry the scars from it in my body. So don’t get defensive or have a narrow vision – “oh he’s a great pastor, you’d love him if you got to know him” – rather realize it’s not a vendetta against that one person. It’s about a risk that would be dangerous regardless of who it involved. We are trying to help people and invest in the community by speaking up. We know first-hand what could happen – listen to us! Even if it means changing how the church does things on a foundational level.
Finally Church, if you hear nothing else, hear this – listen to religious trauma survivors! Listen to the people who have walked away from you. Listen when people speak up about concerns or stories of mistreatment and abuse. There are so many ways to pay attention – ask questions and be open-minded toward those who share. Read books and listen to podcasts from people who identify as exvangelicals – seek out stories from both progressive Christians and secular folks. Even if you disagree with where they landed spiritually, it’s important to learn about what brought them there. Maybe you’ll learn something that will bless you or others in your church. Remember that while survivors are often painted to be heathens who hate God, most of us actually experienced the trauma as our beloved family (the church we deeply loved) betraying us. We didn’t want to leave – you made it so there was no other option. You took so much from us – our health, our relationships, our mental stability. The least you can do is listen and learn why that happened and what you could do differently next time. Listen!
a Religious Trauma Survivor
This is a letter I wrote to process my religious trauma, but I decided that wasn’t enough. So I’m actually printing it out and mailing it anonymously to several churches I’ve been mistreated by. Hopefully something will get through to them, but either way I’m speaking my truth to those who kept me silent for years. And to me, that’s a win!