Hurt by the church, and always looking over your shoulder

December 18, 2007 by · 4 Comments
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.)

Fear and the Visitor/New Member

March 13, 2007 by · 9 Comments
Filed under: Church New Member Process, Religion 

When we held the Reconnecting with Faith retreat this past January, one of the questions that we asked the group was “What is keeping you from getting involved/more involved in a faith community?”

The word “fear” came up multiple times.  I’ll try to describe the different sides of that fear, in the hope that by understanding it, those responsible for working with visitors and new members can help reduce its effects.

One important caveat:  The visitor or new member has both a fragile faith and fragile sense of self within the church.  I am purposely avoiding any judgment of those visitors.  The time for judgment of the appropriateness of a person’s attitude or beliefs is when they are being considered for membership or higher office, not when they first come in the door.

Fear of Acceptance/Rejection

Here’s a situation that may or may not have happened to you personally.  I’m sure that you have enough relevant experience to understand the emotions.

Let’s say that you are 13 years old.  You’ve just moved to a new town (possibly in a different part of the country).  It’s your first day of school.  You’ve managed to survive the morning classes, and maybe you’ve made a friend or two.  Most of the people around you are strangers, and they may or may not see you as strange.  It’s lunchtime.   You’ve gotten your lunch, and you’re standing at the side of the cafeteria looking for someplace to sit and eat.  Do you find a table by yourself?  Do you hope that somebody will invite you to join them?  Do you dare to ask to join a table where others are already seated and talking?  Will you be called a freak?

That’s what going to a new church feels like to a visitor who is looking for a church or considering the possibility of going to church.  A 30-something man or woman (or couple, maybe with kids) is reduced in an instant to a gawky 13-year-old in a new school.  Do you take a seat in the back pew to hide?  Will someone invite you to sit with them?  You may remember the service from the church you grew up in (or attended last week), but there are creeds in the bulletin that you don’t have memorized – that you’ve never heard of.  Do you stand or sit during the 2nd hymn?  Oh my, it’s Communion Sunday and there are no trays up front.  How do I take Communion?  Do they even want me to take Communion?

(This leaves out one of my personal fears – what happens when they hear how badly I sing?  Ha.)

Once the service ends, will someone talk to me?  Do I want them to?  Should I go to coffee hour?

In my search for a church to return to, I experienced all of these fears.  In some churches I was ignored (notably in the church that I ultimately joined – they had a bad day).  In some churches I was smothered with attention.  At least once I got a dirty look for daring to inhabit the chosen pew of a family.

In some churches I was treated well.  I was welcomed, people asked about me and why I came.  People talked to me during coffee hour.  I felt at home.

It’s tough wondering if you will be accepted.

Fear of Commitment

The lack of a church experience in your life often leaves a hole.  For some its a big hole.  For others its a little hole.   Something (or someone – like your child) is pushing you to look into joining (or rejoining) a church.  Maybe it’s God.  Maybe it’s just you.  Maybe you don’t know.

At the same time, you have a routine.  Your Sunday mornings have been free (and often free from the need to get up early).  Your checkbook has not felt the pinch of a weekly donation.  Your Sunday evening, Tuesday morning, Wednesday evening, etc are free from church committee meetings, bible studies, youth group, etc.

At some time, you will be called upon to make a commitment to God (and Christ if you choose a Christian church).  That commitment is one of money, time and talents.  You’ll sacrifice some free time and some personal resources.  You may be prepared to do so.

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“What will they expect of me?”  “What am I getting myself into?” – I’ve said both of those through the course of my return to the church. (I’m pretty sure I said at least one of those this past weekend.)

During the Reconnecting with Faith retreats, we heard complaints about expectations around personal resources.  We heard of one church where financial contributions (including supporting the church school) were essentially mandatory.  In one case, a woman who was young and had done youth work, and who also plays guitar, related her experience visiting a church.  The pastor talked to her after church, and as he learned of her particular abilities was obviously mentally putting her on committees.  “Oh, you can help with the youth group.”  “You play guitar, we can sure use your help with the contemporary service.”  This woman was scared off by the demands placed on the first day visitor.

What will they demand of me? – this is the question.

One extra note here – “We’d love to see you next week” sounds coercive to some.  “We’d love to see you again” is a better choice.

Fear of Special Circumstances

In our retreats, we had a few people who had different reasons to be worried about being judged.  We had someone who is gay.  We had at least one person going through a divorce.  We had several who had been away from the church for a long time (like me).

The church (in my opinion, to its detriment) is very good at making snap judgments of people based on their traits and/or personal situations.  Homosexuality, divorce, age, marital status, even time away from the church are all things that can cause church people to “look down their noses”.  I’ve experienced it with my long-time absence from the church (though that came more from church people in my own family).

Remember what I wrote above about fear of acceptance or rejection.  Add these special factors and what do you get?  A 13-year-old who is nervous about a new situation, but who also feels (rightly or wrongly) that they are wearing a target on their shirt.  It’s like there’s a scarlet letter on your shirt – G for gay, D for divorced, I for inactive, O for old.

The good news here is that a church that is intentional in its welcome to visitors can get past these fears.  Sometimes it means broadcasting your acceptance (and in some cases, the boundary of what you will accept) – in the website, in the bulletin.  Sometimes it just means listening to each person’s special circumstances and being clear on the church’s position while loving the person.  “We’d love to have you come back again” sends a strong message to someone who has laid their cards on the table.  “We’re glad that you visited, but our church has problems with {homosexuality, divorce}” is better than letting someone attend on a regular basis and run into that particular wall should they choose to pursue membership.

Fear of “What Happened Before”

In the retreats nearly 1/2 (or possibly more than 1/2) of the participants were able to point to one or more specific incidents that caused them to leave the church or consider leaving the church.  These incidents cover the entire spectrum of church activity.  Some mentioned a specific theological concept (or more than one) where they differed from the church (that they belong/belonged to).  Some mentioned “people behaving badly” in church – rude, insensitive, political behavior or even in one case physical abuse.  Others mentioned a focus on money and donations to the exclusion of theology.

Each of those people is experiencing or has experienced pain at the hands of the church.  Some of that might be considered self-inflicted.  Some is just “one of those things” (like a theological split from their church).

The key is to recognize that pain, and help the person get it out of their system.  This is what we do at the Reconnecting with Faith retreat (among other things).  It is not appropriate to fish for this in a visitor, but when it does come out the church and particularly those involved with visitors and new members should be prepared to handle it.


People walking in the door for the first time are usually nervous.  The church generates fear in them to some degree.  A church is most successful at attracting and retaining visitors when it can help visitors get past that fear.