Religious Abuse,  Religious Trauma

The Worst Thing to Happen to Me

Church is the worst thing that ever happened to me.

Every single traumatic event experienced throughout my life – losing my community, being bullied, losing thousands of dollars to financial abuse and outright theft, sexual assault and rape, an abusive marriage and divorce by age 26, becoming a widow at age 29 – all of it was either caused directly by the church or made exponentially worse by it.

There is no question about it – church is the worse thing to ever happen to me.

For me, growing up in the church was being in a constant state of vigilant performance and pleasing hundreds of people who could never be pleased. I couldn’t win, but I had to. My worth, safety and acceptance depended on it.

The high stakes were known by a young age – the message loud and clear:

“Feeling frustrated? Sin! You must always be patient and kind.”

“Short on money? Sin! Your selfishness and greed foiled wise financial planning. God blesses the prudent.”

“Attracted to someone? Sin! Carnal desires draw you away from God!”

“Got a speeding ticket? Sin! We must obey the governing authorities God has established.”

“Don’t feel like smiling? Sin! We must always showcase the joy of the Lord. How else will people know we are Christians?”

“Exhausted? Sin! You lack responsibility and maturity, so you stay up too late.”

“Misplaced your car keys? Sin! Your lack of organizational skills prevent you from giving God your best.”

“Missed your alarm? Sin! Laziness and sloth are the devil’s playground.”

“Got a B in Math? Sin! We must do everything to the glory of God. Is that really your best?”

“Feeling a little down? Sin! A cheerful heart is good medicine.”

“Running late? Sin! Would you be late if you were meeting Jesus? You must do everything as if you’re doing it for the Lord!”

“Made an innocent mistake? Spilled your drink, burned the dinner, broke a vase? Sin! Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Sometimes these messages were said overtly and sometimes it was more manipulative and pervasive than that. The church knows how to make you feel what they want you to feel without saying so out loud. It keeps them from needing to take responsibility, while still maintaining control.

Living every second of every day this way for my entire formative years left a permanent mark. There is no coming back from that, not completely. There is only learning how to navigate my now hyper-alert nervous system, training myself in self-soothing and grounding techniques, and seeking out positive and safe experiences to rewrite as much of the first two-and-a-half decades of my life as possible.

Religious trauma destroyed me. I never knew when I was going to make the next mistake. It would always happen when you least expected it. The slightest misstep and your world could come crashing down at any moment. And mine did. Multiple times.

I was told regularly how bad I was. But I wanted so much to be good. Not just good; I wanted to be the best – the best Christian I could be, the best daughter, the best friend, the best student, the best employee, and eventually… the best pastor I could possibly be. I climbed the Christian ladder; studied theology, preached sermons, earned credentials, gave money, changed lives. But it was never enough.

The system sets you up to fail.

One day I would inadvertently bring the wrong flavor of ice cream to a ministry house and cause a huge scene. Apparently non-alcoholic amaretto flavoring in a “dry house” was a no-go.

On a typical Tuesday I would nonchalantly put on a pair of long shorts to go to work, only to have a disapproving Christian boss point out a new dress code. I was out of compliance – by one inch.. ‘Jokes’ and snide comments would be made for months.

Someday I would date a person who made me feel safe. But he used a rainbow filter on his profile picture and it caught the attention of the top-dog ministry director. I was on thin ice.

One Sunday I would wear my hair in two braids and be chided for looking immature and childish – what will people think?! But when I started wearing more makeup and fashionable clothes, now I was drawing too much attention. It seemed my sin was existing.

This performance culture would be the reason that at 27 years old I would wear yoga pants in public for the first time in my entire life. I was so excited for an acrobatics class I had always wanted to take – only for unexpected tears to come streaming down my face while I ran red-faced from my car to the class with a long sweater tied tightly around my waist; shame choking me so I couldn’t breathe.

This insane emphasis on reputation is why, after 7 years of proving my character in ministry and giving it my all, I almost got fired and lost everything just for letting someone crash on the floor in my house when they needed a place to stay. All because he was the “wrong” gender.

Christian perfectionism is why, now in my early thirties, if my husband is feeling grumpy I cringe, wondering what I did wrong. If he asks a simple question I snap back defensively, thinking he’s slyly criticizing me. I’m often nervous to drive with friends in the car, gripping the wheel in anticipation of the critiques that are sure to come at every turn. I’ll hit the brakes too hard or not hard enough, I’ll go too fast or too slow. I need to take the most direct route but also avoid the traffic; if I can’t do both it’s because I messed up. I should have used the parking brake, or maybe it’s silly that I did.

Going to church is the worst thing that ever happened to me.

I didn’t get the privilege of choosing my own religion. What I would believe was decided for me when I was innocent and impressionable. That’s not how beliefs are supposed to work. I didn’t get the chance to have a healthy brain or a normal development. I grew up always watching my back, reading into every word people say, watching and listening for cues and warning signs.

I might have been able to pass it off as a fluke, just one bad church out of millions. But then my college ministry job, which at first came across as so accepting and communal, forbade me from dating or drinking even when off the clock. A speaker at one of their conferences made cutting remarks about “girls who wear yoga pants” right before making an altar call. The area director made demeaning comments about the students I dearly loved, only because their school was known as “progressive”. A male speaker at a conference told us that even though we were an egalitarian ministry, women still needed to take 10 years off from the ministry jobs they loved when they became mothers. Our ministry’s founder hinted at being severely disappointed in any community members who weren’t outraged at the legalization of gay marriage. (Even though in a community of over 500 people, there are bound to be multiple members of the LGBT community among us and even more who dearly love someone who is.) He expressed surprise at “how many of us were deceived”. A lesbian ministry staff member was forced to forego any chance of a relationship if she wanted to keep her job, and people would often talk about her “situation”, as if she was an interesting case study and not a person. A trans student was forced to live in a ministry house with people who shared their sex-assigned-at-birth, not their gender identity. My best friend was held back in her credentials training program and forced to repeat an entire year because she had a bubbly personality and guys might “get the wrong idea”, while a man who had sexually harassed her never had his behavior called into question. Her supervisor even admitted the decision was made based more on what the higher-ups would think, than on any problematic behavior from my friend. Another close friend was forced to cut off contact with someone she deeply cared about, because the leadership found out she had a crush on him.

Even with all this I might have been able to chalk it up to really bad luck, two-for-two, but then the church I was required to attend on Sundays to fill my internship obligations, used me for free labor and volunteer hours even after my long 80-hour ministry work weeks. They had no regard for my need for rest or being ministered to for once. Frequently I would show up exhausted, almost in tears, hoping to pray with someone or just talk and let it out, only to be immediately asked at the door to cover teaching Sunday School last minute. I would linger after services, hoping to be asked how I was doing or invited to spend some unstructured time together, but no one ever did. One week, I bravely opened up about my deep spiritual wounds and the pastor’s spouse told me that “all good Christians walk with a limp” and if I didn’t get hurt I wasn’t engaging enough in the battle.

Even my “progressive” church years later, ostracized my partner because he wasn’t as engaged in activism and being “woke” as they thought he should be. He was the greatest person I had ever known and is solely responsible for saving my life and supporting me through my darkest moments. But apparently that didn’t matter to them as much as labels.

Christians from my distant past continued to stalk and harass me online for an entire decade after leaving their church. My fiance’s devout Christian family stole tens of thousands of dollars from me after he passed away, saying they thought I wasn’t “Christian enough” and wasn’t a “real widow”. Ministry friends I had considered like family, my closest companions I lived with for years, ignored my plea for support in the aftermath of my grief. Yet they still wanted all the juicy details about “where I was at spiritually”.

Fuck them all. This isn’t a specific church problem. This is a Christian problem, widespread across multiple generations, regions and denominations.

Church is the worst thing that ever happened to me.

And they still wonder why I left.

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