Church Trauma

Church trauma is a largely uncharted area of investigation that is just beginning to attract the attention of researchers. It might be a phrase one has not even come across.  Hence the question must be posted: “What even is church trauma?” Due to the unfamiliarity of the term, we will begin with a short discussion on trauma within a church setting, followed by a few different aspects of church trauma:  1) when trauma comes from father figures; 2) when trauma comes by means of forced termination; 3) when trauma victims “can’t talk” and struggle with cognitive dissonance; and 4) the effects of church trauma on the family.

Because church trauma is so new to the table, researchers are still trying to settle on a name for it.  It has been called spiritual abuse, religious abuse syndrome, spiritual trauma, post-traumatic church syndrome, abuse of religious authority, church hurt, and many other terms.  For clarity in this article, it will simply be called “church trauma.” It has been defined in several ways. Corey described it as “a condition of serious spiritual injury that occurs as a result of religion/faith; and the vile, noxious, and icky aftermath of intense spiritual injury” (2013).  Bilsky defined it as “individuals suffering from psychological distress as a result of religious trauma” (2013).

Church trauma ought to be of great concern to religious leaders because of the effect it has on individuals who suffer from church trauma and how that affects activity and worship.  The pain, struggle, and damage are real, potentially affecting all involved—not just the individuals but families, marriages, and congregations. Further, research has begun to show that church trauma affects individuals psychologically, socially, and physically (Abu-Raiya, Paragment, & Krause, 2015).  This is especially true as one considers the research on religious coping. When one finds that their spiritual support network has been uprooted, there are detrimental and unique psychological consequences. This is important to understand as religious support has been shown to contribute to posttraumatic growth while religious strain is positively linked to posttraumatic symptoms (Bassett, Carrier, Charleson, Pak, Schwingel, Majors, Pitre, Stroller, Bloser, 2016).  Indeed, religious/spiritual struggles have been linked to greater anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, poorer physical health, and even higher mortality rates (Abu-Raiya, Paragment, & Krause, 2015).

Because the concept of church trauma is so new, it has been an uphill climb for researchers particularly because most churches do not want to admit that church can be a place that hurts more than it helps (Speight & Speight, 2017).  Thus, many churches are unwilling to work with researchers. However, thankfully, headway is starting to be made. Many aspects and conflicts are beginning to be considered. Some are discussed below:

When trauma is intentional, it is a blow to the whole psychological system.  Victims of unintentional trauma (natural disaster) show a much greater likelihood of experiencing a decrease in symptoms over time whereas those who are victims of intentional trauma (something inflicted on purpose or means of unrighteous dominion) tend to show an increase in symptoms over time (Brew, 2017).  One of those great trauma-imposers seems to be when it comes from authoritarian figureheads. Perhaps the hardship of this type of trauma comes from what Sigmund Freud observed as “a common illusion of a father surrogate that loves all of the individuals in the group equally” (as cited in Northcut & Kienow, 2014).  In a church setting, for example, a minister is often considered a father figure who supposedly loves all in his congregation equally. To add to the conflict, members of church groups, believing the “surrogate father illusion,” will often call into question the trustworthiness of the victim, and, in support of the minister, quickly diminishes the reports of the individual, leaving the person without a sense of their own personal worth and identity (North & Kienow, 2014).  

Indeed, religious abuse is often perpetuated by church members who may witness the effects of the trauma.  Rather than helping the abused, they often will believe that the abuser is justified in his action as he is viewed as the religious authority with rights to possess governing and decision-making power.  Additionally and sadly, too often both the perpetrator and the abused individual will believe that the abusive behavior is necessary and beneficial for spiritual purification (Bilsky, 2013).

Additionally, church-goers—even the trauma victims—often look to elders and ministers in their churches as father figures.  Trauma from this source can be particularly harmful as many members feel their church leaders are closer to God than all others.  Hence, this can be particularly distressing when people are abused by clergy or other adults within the church as there may be additional ramifications because they have been violated by individuals who allegedly represent forgiveness, love, and trust at its best (Cook, 2005).

Individuals who experience authoritarian abuse report a variety of negative outcomes including emotional strain caused by cognitive dissonance; difficulty engaging in religious practices and spiritual practices; loss of faith, meaning, a critical source of valued social support; difficulty trusting others; intense negative emotions and confusion; and episodic self-blame and poor self-image (Bilsky, 2013).  In addition, traumatic reminders of the actual event may occur by just attending church or even seeing congregation members that echo the trauma, causing retraumatization (Northcut & Kienow, 2014). Thus, such violations generate immense emotional and spiritual distress not only for victims and their families, but can also cause great harm for everyone associated with the church (Cook, 2005).

It is important to understand that not just members of church congregations can be the victims of church trauma.  Church trauma can also occur to those leading church groups and organizations (auxiliary leaders, for example). Indeed, another demeaning and psychologically distressing experience that has received little attention and research is forced termination of leaders due to mobbing (Tanner, Wherry, and Zvonkovic, 2012).  Mobbing “involves hostile and unethical communication, which is directed in a systemic way by one or a few individuals mainly toward one who, due to mobbing, is pushed into a helpless and defenseless position, being held there by means of continuing mobbing activities” (Tanner et al, 2012).  Mobbing increases risk factors for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms, leading to severe health consequences with more than half of those sampled receiving medical treatment (Tanner et al, 2012). The greatest shown cause of mobbing is a refusal for established congregations to welcome and accept new leaders (Tanner et al, 2012).

In “new member” situations, the mobbing largely has nothing to do with error or competency but bigotry, gossip, jealousy, and prejudice.  When a new leader is not favored by a few established members within the church, the effects of mobbing are shown to be highly contagious as previously passive members become convinced that the new leader is a threat to them, thus increasing the number of mob supporter, hence inflicting psychological, emotional, social, and spiritual abuse upon the mobbed victim (Tanner et al, 2012).  Situations can be complicated further as ministers in such circumstances often find themselves completely depleted of self-compassion, which is a unique predictor of burnout in church leaders (Brodar, Crosskey, Thompson, 2015). Thus, as a result of mobbing-related hatred and confusion, compounded with their own feelings of worthlessness, ten to twenty percent of church-mobbing victims developed a serious illness or committed suicide as a result of being mobbed (Tanner et al, 2012).

There are a variety of unique struggles in dealing with church trauma that are not found in normal post-traumatic circumstances.  One of the more prevalent is the powerful unspoken rule in church systems requiring or expecting members to only speak positively of their leaders and church.  Bilsky describes it as the “can’t talk” rule, requiring members to remain silent about problems or inconsistencies within their church system (2013). Frequently, if a church member identifies or draws attention to a flaw in the church or in a leader, that individual is too often labeled as the source and cause of the problem and is thus blamed for any negative consequences.  The “can’t talk” rule is also an example of a broad deficiency in clear avenues for healing from church trauma. In fact, church members are likely to interpret any confusion or disequilibrium as a sign of the traumatized individual’s personal spiritual deficiency, rather than as a mark of the church’s possible abusive dynamics (Bilsky, 2013).

       When it comes to church, too often religious organizations and its leaders are deemed incapable of inflicting suffering or engaging in any real egregious wrongdoing or abuse.  When abuse does occur, severe cognitive dissonance will often arise within the victim as he or she struggles between the horror of the abuse and the perceptions of the clergy’s divine authority (Bilsky, 2013).  Attempts to resolve this dissonance often involve the victim blaming himself or herself, which can be reinforced by the perpetrator’s affirmative statements. Thus, too often, in an attempt to meet the need for “community” and attachment to God, the victim will internalize the abuse.  The victim will sadly often adopt the belief that he or she is sinful, thus allowing himself or herself to retain the belief that the perpetrator is “good,” thus avoiding the shattering of his or her religious worldview (Bilsky, 2013). However, by using this method of resolving cognitive dissonance, the victim pays a large price through the adoption of self-criticism and self-loathing for circumstances that are beyond his or her control.  

Church trauma is a very complex matter than needs thoughtful consideration for all who are deeply concerned about religion and the wellbeing of church attenders. Researchers need to be supported in their efforts to bring awareness and understanding to this real and challenging struggle. Churches should seriously consider implementing training for all those in leadership.  Training should include how to recognize and appropriately deal with psychological abuse (Tanner et al, 2012).

Likewise, the effects of church trauma on families ought to be of great interest and importance if we are truly seeking to improve the mental and spiritual health and wellbeing of our congregations. The effects of church trauma can be deeply wounding and long-lasting, affecting generations. It can take something beautiful and turn it into something ugly. Being wounded in a place that should be safe is one of the most traumatic experiences a person can go through. Deep compassion and continuing efforts to share knowledge about this important issue with leaders, sufferers, and congregations is an absolute necessity.