Hurt by the church, and always looking over your shoulder

December 18, 2007 by
Filed under: Religion 

Many inactives (a percentage nearing 50%, if anecdotal evidence is accurate) have left because they feel (rightly or wrongly) that they have been hurt by the church.  I’m one of them.  (Read my story HERE for more)

I know that this makes it hard to return.  I’m slowly realizing that the perception of abuse creates a barrier to trust.

I find that I’m constantly on the lookout for behaviors that exemplify the reasons that I left.  I’m watching for extremist and exclusionary beliefs.  I’m watching for people using positions of power for their own purposes.  I’m watching for the use of labels (racist, homophobe) to stifle alternative points of view.

For the most part, I’m finding these things nationally.  Presbyterian blogs of late are very partisan and inflammatory.  The impulse to shout down and control the other party is stronger than the impulse to embrace the other party – from both the right and left.  This is no surprise and it is a disappointment.

Locally, I’m not seeing it as much.  Sure, there’s the woman on one committee who states her opinion as if it were held by many others (a majority, even).  Of course there are abrasive personalities.  There is passive/aggressive behavior (and I find myself drawn into it sometimes).  It’s there, but at a lower level than I experienced before I left the church.

Yet, I’m still looking over my shoulder.  I find myself waiting for the straw that breaks the camel’s back.  I think about whether or not the latest minor upset (or major upset in the case of national/Internet Presbyterian politics) is enough to make me break.  So far, not yet.
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When does the mainly positive experience build up to the point where you start feeling safe?  When can you let your guard down?

I’m beginning to think that once you’ve been hurt by the church, that point never comes.  Your sense of safety can increase, but you never reach the threshold of “safe”.  Your innocence is lost.

And still I plod along.

Two other thoughts:  First – this does not hold me back from being honest and open.  A key part of my sense of self is that I MUST be honest and open, and that hiding your thoughts/feelings/ideas for temporary gain is actually a form of dishonesty.  Second – I LOVE working with the youth group in part because they are ALWAYS honest, blunt, and frank.  The combination of being unafraid to say anything combined with the love that our youth show us and each other is precious.  I wish I could get back there again myself.

(Lest anyone think that I consider my experiences on the same level as those who have experienced real abuse – physical, mental or otherwise – please understand that I’m not.  There are parts of my past that get near that line but not to the level of many.  I am both glad that it hasn’t been that bad for me and sad/upset/frustrated that is IS that bad for others.)


4 Comments on Hurt by the church, and always looking over your shoulder

  1. Quotidian Grace on Tue, 18th Dec 2007 6:53 pm
  2. Re: the presbypolity wars waged on the internet and elsewhere. I just finished reading Dallas Willard’s Renovation of the Heart for a class I was facilitating at church. His last chapter really spoke to me on this subject. He points out that both the left and the right of the church (any denomination) are distracted from the main thing they should be concentrating on which is training people to be disciples of Christ. The left errs in its focus on social justice and the right errs in its focus on correct theology.

    Makes a lot of sense to me.

  3. Gannet Girl on Tue, 18th Dec 2007 8:35 pm
  4. This is a great post and gives me lots to think about. I have a group of close friends outside my church — ironically we all met in another church 20 years ago and now I am one of the few still connected in any way to an institutional place of worship. Some of my friends just got bored with church and busy with other things, but others experienced the hurt you describe and yes, it seems to be very long-lasting. I know that as we age, our generation will become increasingly interested in meaning-of-life-and-eternity-issues (assuming we ever get the college tuition loans paid off, which I suppose is unlikely) and one of the things I am starting to think about is how to help older people (yes, that group includes me) find meaning and life in the church — either again or for the first time. I really appreciate all your reflections on your experience. (In which, BTW, I see God at work; cf. your last post!)

  5. jodie on Fri, 21st Dec 2007 12:59 am
  6. As best as I can tell, that is the main reason for the overall drop in church participation in America. It has nothing to do with doctrine or matters of religious faith and everything to do with conflict management and getting hurt. When people let their guard down in church and get hurt, its worse than the day your first love dumped you. They simply walk away.

    The only saving Grace is that you might learn about forgiveness.

  7. Montreat Youth Conference, part 1 : Mark Time on Tue, 17th Feb 2009 10:56 am
  8. […] to my life, though the implications for my church life are pretty obvious.  Back in December, I wrote this about how those once hurt by the church may keep looking over their shoulder for trouble to come […]

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