Chapter 4: Four Consequences of Church Trauma

Consequences of Church Trauma

Now that we have discussed many of the causal factors of church trauma (see chapters two and three) within the Mormon Church, it is important to also look at the consequences of traumatic situations found there.  Although the focus will be on consequences of trauma in the Mormon faith, it is important to note that these consequences can be found within most sufferers of church trauma, regardless of the religion. Indeed, because of church trauma, we see many serious side effects, including the following: cognitive dissonance, church exodus, dissociation, abuser loyalty, loss of identity, mental disorders, family dysfunction, and shame.  Each will be discussed below: (Added note: Due to the length, the last four consequences listed will be in the next chapter.)

Cognitive Dissonance

When it comes to church, too often religious organizations and its leaders are deemed incapable of inflicting any kind of suffering or engaging in any real wrongdoing or abuse.  So when abuse does occur, severe cognitive dissonance will often arise within the victims as they struggle 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 victims blaming themselves, which can be reinforced by perpetrator’s affirmative statements. Thus, too often, in an attempt to meet the need for “community” or attachment to God, victims will internalize the abuse.  Victims will sadly often adopt the belief that they are sinful, thus allowing themselves to retain the belief that the perpetrators are “good,” hence avoiding the shattering of their religious worldviews (Bilsky, 2013). However, by using this method of resolving cognitive dissonance, victims pay a large price through the adoption of fear, confusion, self-criticism, and self-loathing for circumstances that are beyond their control.  

Cognitive dissonance can be particularly frustrating in Mormonism as it is doctrinally feared and discouraged.  Mormons are taught that “contention is of the devil” (3 Nephi 11:29) so any emotion that does not evoke peace and love can be hard to know how to handle for fear the devil is gaining control (Dustin, 2017), which only increases feelings of confusion and alarm.  Further, many fundamental teachings of the “restored gospel” are unambiguous.  For example, in the Book of Mormon, the prophet Nephi is ordered to slay the idolatrous Laban in order to obtain scriptural records (1 Nephi 4:5-18).  This order, believed to be from God himself, is contrary to God’s instructions found in the Bible: “Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20:13).  Teachings of this nature can cause members great concern, as they find it hard to know for sure if they are being led by God or Satan when unordinary thoughts come to them.

Further, 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).

For example, women in the Church often find themselves struggling with desires to “find their purpose in life” through an education and gaining skills in the workforce (Holmes, 2017), while dealing with the doctrinal and cultural expectations to stay home, have several children, hold Church positions, maintain a perfect appearance, and put the Lord first (Hafen, 1990).  Such dissonance can cause one to feel weak and dependent on the religious system, as they feel unable to think and fully trust their own wishes and intuition.  Devotion to God is taught as the highest and only true call as they learn to “lean not unto thine own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5).  The very thought of doing otherwise can create a complete internal upheaval (Tarico, 2015). 

If cognitive dissonance comes through the means of spiritual abuse, feelings of embarrassment, personal failure, hopelessness, purposelessness, etc. will ensue. Such individuals fear they are going crazy as they try to decipher what is real and true and who to trust (Gallacher & Gallacher, 2018), while receiving little support and acknowledgment to help them navigate the darkness (Giambalvo, 2019).  When they finally realize they have been abused, they will often immediately start blaming themselves: “How could I have let this happen to me?”, “Why didn’t I fight harder?”, “Why didn’t I see it sooner?” (Miscellanea, 2018).    This self-blame is frequently reinforced by a cultural system that also seeks to blame the victim. 

Abused individuals also experience difficulty trusting others or engaging in religious and spiritual practices; loss of faith, meaning, and a critical source of valued social support; intense negative emotional and confusion; and episodic self-blame and poor self-image (Bilsky, 2013).  Additionally, there may be further internal ramifications because they have been confused and abused by individuals who allegedly represent forgiveness, love, and trust at its best.  Such violations create great emotional and spiritual distress not only for victims and their families but potentially also for anyone associated with that church (Cook, 2005). 

Church Exodus

After experiencing church trauma, many find that they lack feelings of safety at church.  Rather than church being a hospital, a place of healing (Holland, 1998), it becomes a place of trauma—a place that causes an emotional uproar just to enter (Hartline, 2018c).  This exit phenomenon is becoming a global trend and the Mormon Church is definitely not exempt.  In fact, a 2017 study showed that approximately one-third of Mormons leave the Church (Riess).  Very often these people have had all the discouragement, depression, and hurt they can take in relation to Mormonism.  And so for the sake of their mental, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing, they walk away.  As Benjamin Corey stated, sometimes dissenters appear to walk away from God entirely—“which only encourages people to ‘lovingly’ point out all over again that they suck at being a Christian (which those of us who embrace authenticity, already know)” (2013).

However, it is true that some former Mormons “walk away from God entirely” (Corey, 2013).  Indeed, according to a 2012 survey on post Mormons, 47% of those who leave Mormonism become agnostic, atheist, or humanist. Only about 27% remain Christian (Dehlin).  This Christian group, though still followers of Christ, merely walked away from the organization that harmed and betrayed them. They were simply tired of being spiritually bruised and lied to that they give up on the religion altogether (Riley, 2015).

Regardless of religious choice after leaving, people who have walked away because of church trauma will often externally appear resentful or even hostile toward anything that feels to “religious” to them, while many internally still long for spirituality or to connect with a higher power in deeper and more meaningful ways (Corey, 2013).  And although feeling that a bomb has gone off inside or feeling haunted that one’s childhood religion has literally been robbed from them (Bokma, 2019), leaving a religion can actually be a blessing in disguise if one is pushed to a more authentic personal faith (Schiffman, 2019).  Thus, church exodus—after the monumental chips have settled—is seen as a gift of freedom and transformation to many post Mormons.

Many who walk away from Mormomism are highly educated; in fact, most transitioning and post-Mormons are in the 99th percentile education-wise and socio-economically (Dehlin, 2018) and have done their own research.  They are appalled by what they find, feeling deeply betrayed by a religion that feels anything but honest.  In fact, in 2016, it is estimated that about 90,000 members resigned (Kimball, 2018).  The Church has felt a loss as the overall Church growth in the United States has slowed in recent years to less than 2% annually (Ostler, 2018).  Of the recent concerns over church exodus, a Mormon scholar stated: “Not since Kirtland [Ohio], have we seen such an exodus of the Church’s best and brightest leaders” (Christensen, 2013).

Despite the large number exiting, leaving Mormonism is anything but easy.  No one who once truly believed leaves frivolously; in fact, departing from a cultural religion can be the biggest crisis one ever faces (Bokma, 2019).  Religious teachings are often so ingrained that severe cognitive dissonance is repeatedly the result when one tries to step out (Bilsky, 2013).  Fear of being in the hands of Satan and losing all eternal blessings often habitually flood the mind.  Departing a religious fold adds enormous stress as an individual struggles with what amounts to leaving one world for another.  This usually involves significant and sudden loss of social support while facing the task of reconstructing one’s life.  People leaving are often ill-prepared to deal with this, both because they have been sheltered and taught to fear the secular world and because their personal skills for self-reliance and independent thinking are underdeveloped (Winell, 2017).  The difficulty of leaving seems to be greater if a person was born and raised in the religion rather than having joined as an adult.  Further, people who were “true believers” feel more anger, depression, guilt, feelings of inadequacy, and grief than those who simply went to church on Sunday (Tarico, 2015, Giambalvo, 2019).   

Such a daunting task as church exodus is something not all can take and in their attempts to leave, many will initially “give church another try,” returning in an effort to try to make the fears of departure dissipate.  But the health concerns that caused the departure do not leave upon returning to the place of trauma.  Thus, if one leaves for good, a difficult transition will often follow as deepest fears are faced.  Serious departers begin to realize that to passively tolerate abuse means to become a part of that system, which enables abusive behaviors to infect the climate of emotional contagion, which acts insidiously to shape traumatic responses (Krupa, 2018). Expecting a trauma victim to return to church week after week is like asking a soldier to return to their terrorizing foxholes week after week.  It does not work for long and in the end, one must choose which battle is greater—staying or departing.

Dissociation

Another consequence of church trauma is dissociation.  The dissociative side effect of trauma may sound the same as church exodus—and it can be—but because of the teachings found in the Mormon Church, many feel leaving the organization is not an option.  The Church offers no viable, legitimate reason for leaving (Reel, 2016).  And so in an attempt to cope, trauma victims often will dissociate, not just with others but with themselves as well. They will tell themselves: “This isn’t real; this isn’t really happening; I’m not really here.”  This response is a form of mental flight when physical flight is not deemed possible.  And although dissociation mentally removes oneself from a painful experience, it can undermine one’s functioning when it develops into a habitual way of coping with stress or anxiety (Allen, 2004). 

After feeling unsuccessful in attempts to find attachment, traumatized members may experience a spiritual vacuum or disengagement.  Consequently, they develop a sense of spiritual alienation and disillusionment (Bilsky 2013).  Such alienated followers are often critical and independent in their thinking but passive in responding and carrying out their church roles.  Somehow, sometime, something within the church’s organization turned them off.  As cynical members, they tend to sink gradually into disgruntled acquiescence, seldom opening up or trusting of the leader’s lead (Kelley, 1988).

Many who suffer from dissociation at church find themselves in a trance-like or dream-like state.  Dissociative detachment can be contrasted with alert consciousness, being flexibly aware of what’s going on outside of oneself as well as inside of them (Allen, 2004).  These problematic dissociative detachments involve feelings of unreality.  Such individuals often feel a loss of meaning in life; this is because spiritual identity appears to be a critical building block for many individuals’ construction of meaning.  Lacking spiritual resolution can be especially problematic for dissociative individuals who were once deeply involved religiously because the sacred is such an integral part of their values, emotions, and life structure (Bilsky, 2013).  Due to this unresolved spiritual tangle, it can be further damaging because many trauma victims want to stay away from the very thing they feel they need—religion.  They want to close off from anyone or anything that triggers trauma; and yet, in so many instances, they feel they must stay, which only deepens the effects of trauma on victims week after week (Hartline, 2018c).

This “leave or stay” predicament puts traumatized members in a quandary and needs examination.  What factors differentiate those who leave from those who stay? As noted, becoming disaffected by the Mormon Church and leaving the Church can be two different decisions.  Indeed, many traumatized members remain highly active.  Why? The root of the trauma makes a large difference.  If one is still a believer, for example, s/he is more likely to stick it out because the doctrine teaches one must not leave (Hartline, 2018d).  For those who no longer believe, the years of activity in the Church seem to be the largest factor in why one chooses to stay.  Other important factors include education (the higher the education, the more likely one will remain active); status in the Church (the more leadership callings one has had, the more likely one will continue), marital status (married individuals are more likely to stick it out), and gender (males who lose belief are 8% more likely to stay active than females) (Dehlin, 2012).

However, just because one is struggling in the Church, problems can be worsened by active members’ responses to the traumatized. Active members often have no understanding of what is happening or why the individual is not fully functioning or acting the same at church as they once were.  Because of the lack of trauma-informed care among leaders and members, many active members will distance themselves—the traumatized are not the only ones dissociating!  Those who were once friends and confidantes can unwittingly deepen the trauma by dissociating with the traumatized themselves (Hartline, 2018d).  Through ignorance and fear, people that were once trusted for support will often start to distance themselves from the traumatized, avoiding them, pitying them, judging them, and criticizing their character and their choices (Bagley, 2017).  In fact, over 50% of people who are in a faith crisis, report experiencing a “social excommunication” from their Mormon family and friends (Christensen, 2013).  This can have a long lasting effect on all involved since social relationships are an important part of religion (Aten, O’Grady, & Worthington, 2012).  Problems can become so severe that the avoidance, silence, and mobbing through gossip and intimidation can cause a larger scale of problems, such as reduced standings in the church, calling removals, church discipline, and even personal physical dysfunction (Tanner, 2015; Bushman, 2013; Merritt, 2015).         

Abuser Loyalty

As may be noticed, abuser loyalty is the stark opposite of dissociation.  That is because everyone responds to trauma differently.  Some people do not want to “make waves,” so many try to just “get along.”  The abuser loyalty voice says to “just do better, to be better.”  It’s the “I’m not good enough, so I’ll just fake it until I make it” or the “it’s all my fault” voice.  So the traumatized sidle up to their abusers—they just want to fit in—to act like, serve like, be like their abusers—to pretend that all is “well in Zion.”  So they serve a little harder; smile a little bigger, and butter up just a little bit more (Hartline, 2018c).  Abuser loyalty has also been referred to as “fawning,” which teaches trauma victims to just stay under the radar by pleasing others in an effort to avoid being attacked or experiencing “narcissistic rage” (Oliver, 2018).

For some, it may seem puzzling why someone would choose this submissive route but when one looks at the doctrine of Mormonism, it becomes less puzzling.  The emphasis is on obedience rather than freedom and self-discovery of truth.  The Church is believed to be the path one must follow in order to achieve salvation (Joines, 2019).  Many who hold onto the Church longer than those who walk away do so because they try to push down or even deny their doubts (Tarico, 2015).  Often these trauma victims become “alienated followers,” thought to be passive and uncritical, lacking in initiative and a sense of responsibility—at first glance, they just follow their leaders as “faithful” members are told to do (Kelley, 1988). 

Trauma victims are particularly prone to not believing their reality has changed.  In their efforts to hold on to what was instead of what is, they will often make themselves believe that upsetting past experiences and situations—their traumas—were actually pleasant or good for them (Bilsky, 2013).  They often employ defense mechanisms such as abuser loyalty, or fawning, pretending they are quite content and satisfied with their abuse.  They believe that everything is really fine; they just need to try a little harder, work a little more—if there is a problem, it can be managed (Bartczak & Bokus, 2016).

There is also a tendency to cling to the belief that things will get better, even though they are not.  This is a state of denial that many stay in because it is often easier to accept wishful-thinking tactics than it is it to face the reality of true internal turmoil.  Thus, justification becomes a great friend.   

Attachment theory can also help us understand why someone would cling to a religion that is injurious and even not believed in.   Fear prompts us to seek attachments: the more frightened one is the tighter one will cling.  If someone is afraid and has no other source of support but the Church, that is where the clinging—and possible abuse—will appear the most (Allen, 2004).  It is this conflict between need and fear that leads to disorganized attachment.  

While abuser loyalty can stem from fear, as noted, it is often out of devotion as well.  The loyal-to-the-faith are often people for whom ethics, integrity, and compassion matter a great deal (Tarico, 2015).  As long as they believe it to be true, they will hold onto it until the bitter end. Organizational and cultural behaviors, as well as the doctrine, are seen intensely at play with steadfast, albeit traumatized, believers.

Safety is also a big issue.  In domestic violence situations where spiritual abuse is present as the result of the patriarchal structure, victims are frequently pressured and coerced to obey the dominant spouse and stay with the abuser to avoid breaking up the family (Thomson, 2017).  Standing up for one’s self can ruin not only family networks but rupture employment, financial status, and social networks as well (Winell, 2017).  The necessity of survival is deeply rooted in the trauma brain.  The trauma brain knows the chances of being “free” from the nightmare are minimal.  It knows that everything will be lost—belongings, identity, social capital, roles.  Thus, the trauma brain does not allow these calculations to rise to the level of consciousness until the scales are forced to shift (Miscellanea, 2018). 

Thus, to the traumatized, the only answer appears to be to generate an atmosphere of loyalty, even if it is misplaced. Dedication to the abusive leader, spouse, or group thus becomes synonymous with loyalty to one’s faith, religion, or the divine.  The leader ensures members’ loyalty by instructing them that leaving or disobeying directives is spiritually—and perhaps eternally—dangerous (Bilsky, 2013).  Victims who exhibit physical illness, emotional distress, or reluctance to behave as directed, are often labeled as spiritually weak, in rebellion, or under the influence of Satan.  Rather than taking this risk, abuser loyalty is often deemed a much better, safer, happier route.

–Thanks for reading. Check back next week to learn about more harmful side of effects including loss of identity, mental disorders, family dysfunction, and shame.

2 thoughts on “Chapter 4: Four Consequences of Church Trauma

  1. Sara Quinton says:

    I feel better now about how long this is taking me to heal. It helps me understand and have compassion for “me.” I look forward to reading the last four side effects.

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