Religious Trauma

Saying No to a “Spiritual Authority”

I was just getting used to the fact that living in a new and progressive town a few hours away from my conservative upbringing meant that I truly had my own life now. I had spent hours going through my Facebook account and unfriending hundreds of church people from my past; those I never had any real connection to, but who would harass me online or spread gossip about what they could see of my new life. I had quit working for the ministry organization I was a pastor with – a job I was good at and dearly loved – over their stance on queer people and many other issues. As I got to know God better over time I saw a glaring conflict over what I was expected to preach and what God would have me do, so I gave up everything and left. For the first time in seven years – basically my entire adult life at that point – I was not officially in any kind of ministry leadership and I no longer had a crowd of conservative Christians watching my every move. For the first time in my life, I could make decisions based on what I felt was right – what I needed and wanted and nothing and no one else. There were no negative consequences to my normal and healthy choices. I couldn’t get fired or lose community. There were no whispers on the street or passive aggressive comments. I didn’t have to hide or monitor what I said about my life. I could relax and just be myself! It felt too good to be true. I had to keep reminding myself that there was no longer a large audience to appease. My life was my own.

It was during this time – a few years ago now – right as I started getting comfortable, that a pastor I used to work under in the ministry organization reached out and asked if we could meet up for coffee. It was a bit jarring and triggering to say the least – a rude reminder that I was never truly out of reach. Something as simple as a text message could infiltrate my walled city without warning, leaving me feeling defenseless.

For many reasons, I was uncomfortable seeing this pastor again; one of which being that he was contacting me shortly after I was fairly certain news had reached him of some of my healing life decisions that he would disagree with.

My mind raced, wondering how I would keep myself safe and not traumatized throughout the interaction. I dreaded trying to defend my new beliefs and lifestyle choices to deaf ears and a heart that was hardened to my journey. I wondered how I could explain my powerful connection with God that differed from his, and how I could face the criticism and manipulation that was sure to come.

A thought crossed my mind, “You could say no”. Immediately, I dismissed it. Saying no to a “spiritual authority” was not an option. Saying no was considered defiant. It would raise suspicions. I would surely be accused of hiding something or having a guilty conscience. Gossip could spread. It always does.

But wait, that was then. I’ve built a different life for myself now. I’ve done the hard work of setting boundaries and building up my confidence and self-worth. My real community is safe. Here, I am not judged or slandered for putting my health first and taking care of myself. I can say no and no one gives a second thought. It’s normal. It’s healthy. Let him gossip! He can’t take anything from me anymore. I don’t have to interact with anyone I don’t want to. I have free will. Duh.

So I did it. I said NO, damn it.

How is it that I made it to almost 30 years old without ever saying no to a “spiritual authority” before? Every single time, throughout my entire life, I was subject to the whims of people who were considered my leaders. Their opinions, their thoughts, their emotions ruled my life.

This is an epiphany of just how incredibly manipulative and abusive some of my past religious communities actually were. I’m taken aback by how long I had to exist in a space where I never got the chance to decide how I actually felt about something. I had to respond to decisions based on what was expected of me. The development of my personal discernment and gut instincts was ignored, discouraged, and repressed. My feelings and intuitions were evil and dangerous. Growing up in that environment created a host of problems; a lack of awareness around my own needs, being unacquainted with my opinions and preferences, a weak sense of self, struggling with passivity and indecision, vulnerability to abusive relationships, sexual assault, manipulative friendships, and even having no concept of consent. And the list goes on. But I am safe now. I said no, maybe for the first time, to someone who “officially” had spiritual authority over me at one point.

It’s still hard to say no. A lifetime of indoctrination and mental conditioning isn’t overcome with just one victory. But I said no once, and I won’t let it be the last time.

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