Chapter 7: Research Findings on Healing from Trauma

Chapters One through Five included in depth discussions on the research of church trauma and how it is affecting the worth, the faith, the truth, and the ambition of so many within the Mormon Church.  Chapter Six contained an analysis and discussion on how a path of healing might be sought and achieved. 

Chapter Seven will include how the research was obtained and organized.  The hypothesis presented in Chapter One will be examined, along with the research findings.  Conclusions will be drawn as to where the Church is now and where it seems to be heading.  Ideas for future research will be offered.  A complete bibliography of all the chapters can be found at the end of this chapter.

Research Findings

 It can be hard for the religiously traumatized to find help and healing within the Mormon Church.  Mormon leaders are not unlike most leaders in religious organizations, who tend to self-protect and shield themselves from responsibility.  But this form of denial only perpetuates the problem for trauma sufferers as they find their spiritual network has been uprooted by the very group they feel they need and should be able to trust the most.  As social and cultural support are key components of resiliency, such cold or indifferent responses from their religious community can lead to detrimental psychological consequences (Corey, 2017, Abu-Raiya et al, 2015). 

Cold or indifference responses are often due to cultural ignorance (O’Brien, 2017).  Indeed, due to an uninformed trauma-care society at large, the tendency is for people to diminish any kind of trauma that is not combat trauma.  But it needs to be clearly understood that in combat trauma, soldiers go in expectingto face an enemy. They go in trained for battle. Yet, after battle a soldier is often flown back home and received with love, a measure of understanding, and care (Zerach et al, 2013). Allowances are made for these people and they get immediate help. But with church trauma, one is being violated and betrayed by people that are thought and expected to be safe—a priesthood leader, a family member, a friend, a helper, a defender (Shaw, 2000). Yet with church trauma, no one wants to admit and accept it—nothing seriously bad can happen at church, or so many presume.  And the wounds cannot be seen.

To complicate matters, those suffering are often just as confused. And because no one gets it, the hurt and blame often are thrown right back onto the traumatized, causing greater cognitive dissonance such as confusion and fear (Bilsky, 2013). When trauma comes from the hands of those we thought trustworthy and safe, our whole neurological system is thrown into chaos (Shaw, 2000).  In fact, research shows that psychological trauma is more detrimental and has a longer lasting effect than combat trauma (Tanner et al, 2012). Thus, with all of these factors working against the traumatized, how indeed can the hurting within the Mormon Church find help and healing post trauma?

Research-based suggestions follow:

Find your voice.  Often the traumatized feel silenced, shunned, and discarded.  They often experience a social suicide, of sorts, and so instead of speaking up, they hold back (Christensen, 2013).  This can be because they are told to keep quiet or they have tested the water and found it unsafe (Bilsky, 2013).  Yet, in order to heal, one has to be willing to acknowledge and speak the truth of what has happened.  There are wise ways to do this and ways that may deepen the trauma.  Hence, it is important to speak up in safe places first in order to build resiliency.  This often means finding a trauma-informed specialist (Corey, 2015).  Investing in good counseling can save years of confusion and hurt.

Support groups are also very valuable when trying to find one’s voice again (Giambalvo, 2019).  Being with others who also have been hurt by religion can help one understand, define, and label their experiences.  It can increase their ability to speak with clarity and confidence as they see they are not alone.  The traumatized find that they can develop appropriate boundaries to decrease their chances of being further traumatized.  Finding and using one’s voice can help rewire the old tapes concerning worth and identity, while also developing new friendships (Corey, 2015). 

Accept that life is messy. The truth is life is messy. That is true now and it is true historically. Because of Mormon doctrine, Mormons particularly need to be careful of the messages they receive and send concerning conformity and perfection (Pearce, 2010).

In regards to this concept of “fallen” humanity, Mormons need to be better at teaching and accepting that men in leadership positions are not God.  When leaders mess up, the traumatized and the leaders need to understand the necessity of confession.  No one should be expected to “get it right” every time.  Messing up does not make someone evil and members need to simply own up to their imperfections.  This goes for mistakes the Church has made and the humans in it.  The Church needs to own up to the problems in its history (and past and current policies) as well as openly teach the truth about the past (Dehlin, 2012).  No one needs to pretend to be more or less than they truly are.  Men are not God; they are just men.  Understanding this simple principle can go a long way in helping increase psychological flexibility within victims.  Victims particularly need to know it is okay to not be perfect. We can acknowledge errors without shame.  Leaders need to model that.

Leave if Mormonism is hurting you. Religion can be a great means of warding off mental illness—increasing one’s hope and optimism—but if religion is not applied, taught, and internalized correctly, it can have the opposite effect (Aten et al, 2012).  Thus, if a religion is harmful, it might be best to leave. This needs to be explicitly stated because the Mormon Church offers no viable reasons for exodus—ever.  Members need to know they have options.

Realize it does not have to be either/or. After stating that it might be best to leave a religion if it is harmful, there now needs to be a discussion on flexibly considering if it is best to make the religion work.  Those strongly opposed to Mormonism might struggle with this assertion.  But it is important to be aware of the false dichotomies we are usually faced with.  It is often proliferated that “you are either with the Church or you are against it” (Brown, 2017).  But this kind of “us versus them” mentality can be very harmful.  Even the Church teaches that there should be no “—ites” among us (4 Nephi 1).

Answers that have the force of emotion behind them rarely provide strategic and effective solutions to nuanced problems.  Thus, it needs to be noted that many people find a way to stay in Mormonism as “secular participants” even after they have been traumatized (Christensen, 2013).  It is very hard to leave a lifestyle and that is precisely what Mormonism is.  Still, the ability to think past either/or situations requires courage and skills.  It feels easier to pick a side—in or out, draw a line in the sand.  However, such choices often come at very high individual and collective cost.  

Thus, it is important to realize that there are always three options after church trauma: stay (paradigm holding), leave, or adapt (Lappe, 2016).  Many people struggle with adapting because it feels inauthentic and lonely but it can be done.  To do so, master stories (the stories that answer our basic human questions) must be adjusted and woven into a new story that begins to breathe meaning back into life.  As one does so, resiliency will strengthen and increase.  It can take years and it can require going option two (leaving) for a time, until greater vision, opportunities, and skills are discovered.

Realize that God is NOT Mormon. In order to meaningfully redefine or repurpose one’s life, it is important to clearly know that God will not punish one for doing so. Many Mormons are very afraid to navigate outside of their “domain.”  They are often fearful of Satan’s power and being abandoned by God if they even think about going option two or three.  Because many grow up believing that Mormonism has a corner on deity, they believe that God does not want members to leave or redefine their religion because it is “the only true church”—the one true way, as is taught in Mormonism (D&C 23:7).   Members are taught to “follow the prophet; he knows the way” (Children’s Songbook, p. 110) and that he can never lead people astray (Benson, 1980).  Hence, members need to understand that these teachings are simply inaccurate.  Traumatized church members are wise to look around and see God’s love in all walks.  Because God is not partial to Mormonism, it needs to be realized and accepted that if someone has to choose between their soul and their religion, they should always choose their soul—and God will go with them. God is no respecter of persons (Acts 10:34; Romans 2:11).  The Divine loves all walks, all people.  He will not abandon people if they leave the Mormon Church; he will not punish them if they stay. Good people are found on all sides (O’Brien, 2017). 

In short, the traumatized need to find the courage to do what is best for them (practice self-care): Walk away if the Church is hurting; stay if it is helping; adapt if that is the best personal option. God honors all calls so it would be wise for Mormons to learn to do the same.

Understand that what we believe is often what we get.  To become healthy again, the placebo effect—our beliefs about treatment and circumstances—needs to be examined (Crum, 2017).  What is believed about the religion and what is happening as a result of those beliefs? As hard as it may be to grasp and accept—especially for those coming out of religious thinking—the truth of the matter is that circumstances, which are completely out of our control, are not the cause of any of our pain. Sometimes we like to think circumstances are what cause us pain but what causes pain is our rigid, negative thoughts about circumstances (Corey, 2017). In other words, we do not feel pain until we think something about a circumstance.   It is how we interpret an event that causes us pain.  We are not robots—we need to understand that.  We will think; we will feel—we are affected by others and their choices—but it is always our choice of how we respond. And how we respond is determined by our thoughts and feelings about the events.

When we think circumstances must change in order for us to be happy or peaceful, we are forfeiting our emotional power to things outside our control (Gonzalez-Prendes, Brisebois, 2012).  We are surrendering our personal authority.  We tell ourselves, “I’ll be happy when _____” [fill in the blank].  But when never comes or it does not come how we think it should come or how we desired it to come. The truth is the Mormon Church will always have problems, probably major problems.  For true believers, this thought can be hurtful.  But if we allow anything outside of us to control us—like the Church—we will always rollercoaster according to the circumstances around us.  We become puppets to outside institutions or events, which is not mature behavior (Gonzalez-Prendes, Brisebois, 2012).   

Yet, with the help of PTG strategies, we can determine to live and not merely be puppets to events.  By so doing, we see that our lives do not have to be reactive (Brew, 2017). We do not have to keep giving our emotional power away. We can learn to take responsibility for our emotions. We can learn to feel our emotions rather than resist them—this is the hard part because Mormons have been taught to suppress.  But it is imperative to not shove emotions and thoughts off—we must acknowledge and feel them.  It is what we do with those emotions and thoughts that matters (Corey, 2017). We can learn how to manage our thoughts as we study PTG patterns.

As Mormons—the traumatized and otherwise—learn to accept these ideas and begin to understand the reality of church trauma in the Mormon Church, rather than resist it, the hypothesis can be realized; that is, all who are affected by church trauma (i.e. individuals, couples, families, congregations) will be positively impacted and healing as a whole would begin. 

Summary

Mormonism has a unique and difficult history.  What the Church has traditionally taught about its origin often does not align with the dominant, polished narrative.  Yet, due to the doctrine of “continuing revelation” (D&C 42:61), which is taught and believed to come directly from God through the mouthpiece of his latter-day prophet (D&C 1:38), the Church is viewed by believing members as a structure of supreme authority.  Thus, the Church makes very few attempts to confess its mistakes because to do so would be to admit to not being perfectly aligned with God in all things.  Consequently, the organization does little to reign in its “revelatory” power, few attempts to comprehend the damage it does through its power, having almost no institutional safeguards against misuse of supremacy, and instead teaches complete obedience to that power (Miscellanea, 2018).   Furthermore, this doctrine encourages the organization to cover-up any problem that contradicts the bold assertion that it speaks and acts in the name of God.  Yet, the irony holds that this very attempt to cover-up and self-protect is what is causing the greatest church departure (Manson, 2019).  The premise of this repressive and deceptive organizational setup, in addition to the lack of trauma-informed care by Church leaders, puts church trauma victims in a precarious predicament as they try to make sense of their traumatic experiences.  Add this to fact that there is little safety to be found for victims in a hierarchy religion such as Mormonism where abuse is undermined, often unacknowledged, and the traumatized are left without voice, advocate, or professional attention (Thomson, 2017). 

In addition, the Mormon Church has a lack of diversity among leadership, causing inherent blind spots in logic and thinking, which contributes to insensitive and even harmful policies that affect marginalized groups profoundly (Riess, 2017).  Members on the perimeters often feel cast off, discarded, and discounted for circumstances they cannot control. These issues are causes of many people becoming disaffected by the Church (Dehlin, 2012).  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 and further marginalized. Thus, abused individuals experience difficulty trusting leaders or engaging in religious and spiritual practices; experience loss of faith, meaning, and a critical source of valued social support; have intense negative emotional and confusion; and develop episodic self-blame and poor self-image (Bilsky, 2013). 

Trauma can be particularly problematic because it becomes addictive.  In fact, trauma can essentially be defined as addiction.  Many find they cannot get out of the first four stages of dying as they cycle round and round in the trauma tree.  They see or hear of the problems, confirming their pain, and the consequences found in the branches take a stronger hold—dissociation holds on deeper, dysfunction and mental illnesses become more prevalent, identity spirals down at an angry, rapid speed, and on it goes.

Thus, early intervention is needed before trauma becomes chronic.  This is very difficult as church trauma is largely unacknowledged and unrecognized (Corey, 2013).  However, if one is wise, help from trauma-informed therapists is sought early.  This is helpful because one needs to become aware of how religion is affecting them.  Before one can go option two (leave) or option three (adapt), one must be cognizant of what is happening within.  An inner crash—a crisis—of sorts must be recognized and accepted.  This is important not just for the one in the crash but for those around them.  Indeed, it is a truth that if current or former Church members are not careful, they can inflict great harm that can have long-term detrimental effects on other current or former members (Aten et al, 2012). Rigidity (in teaching or in application) can be detrimental for psychological health. Rigid cognitive thinking has been shown to increase depression, suicidality, anxiety, guilt, low self-esteem, and “fears of divine punishment” (Hartz & Everett, 1989). Many of these relationships have been found both for individuals who come from strict religious backgrounds and for individuals who leave the Church as well.  So it is important for traumatized members to take note of how personal actions are affecting others in addition to how they are affecting self.

When recognition, determination, acquired skills, and then action are taken to treat trauma, the results can be incredible.  Healing from church trauma can become a reality; a newness and wholeness can be felt and discovered as never before.  The spiritually shaken can become mighty and strong as they learn to drawn on their internal and external resources.  In doing so, strength, comfort, and solutions can be found through the means of mindfulness, psychological flexibility, resiliency, and posttraumatic growth (Abu-Raiya et al, 2015, Brew, 2017). 

However, it is imperative to understand that as the traumatized begin to heal, PTG cannot be expected to be an “I have arrived” experience.  Time, patience, and regular practice are needed.   As noted, the impact of church trauma is a devastating experience for not only the individual but for all involved in the survivor’s life.  Yet, the victim and those closely associated with them—who often have developed STS themselves—can become thriving survivors (Brew, 2017)!   They may be RATS (Religious Abuse and Trauma Survivors) but they need not be “determined”–each of us can decide our futures!  In doing so, trauma victims can  learn to label and acknowledge their emotions, adapt to their changed world, accept life as it is without judgment, and discover beauty and possibilities that sometimes come through the very depths of their painful and difficult experiences (Gonzalez-Prendes, Brisebois, 2012).  Life can be good.  The future can be bright.  Survivors can reclaim their inner strength.  As deeply painful as church trauma is, each victim can learn to find a path of gratitude for the journey as they move toward PTG.

Conclusion

When the researcher first began this study, she believed that it was the unsustainable history that was causing the Church the greatest harm.  But her conclusions have changed.  As the study developed, it became clearer to her that people can endure a great deal of cover-ups and lies if people’s basic needs are being met—everyone needs to feel loved and nurtured and to know that they are safe (Lappe, 2016).  The bottom line is treatment matters.  The way an organization treats its members is key to their retention and success (Kelley, 1998).  Organizational leaders cannot discard or disregard their members without consequences. 

Further, what often starts as mere questions or concerns about church history or current policy, can quickly turn into a mistreatment issue.  The reverse can also be true: trauma often begins with a mistreatment issue and it can quickly turn into a doctrinal issue (Hartline, 2018c). The way strugglers are treated in the Mormon Church is of crucial importance if retention is truly valued among members of the Mormon community.  It is what is causing the greatest loss and departure (Christensen, 2013).

The researcher has also concluded that the Church is in the bargaining stage of the grieving or dying process.  The organization appears to be currently motivated by self-protection.  It sees the losses and is trying to find ways to retain without owning up to the root problems. With all of the recent policy changes, it appears that the leaders are making efforts to appease their people, attempting to promote peace or settlements, trying to slide in “new information” while ridding unfavorable ones (i.e. adding the Gospel Topic Essays on the official website, removing pictures of Joseph Smith translating with gold plates); yet it is unwilling—at point—to publicly come clean.  This is a Band-Aid approach; the Church seems to be hoping the problems subside, that members will be pacified and even fooled.  Top leaders are going to great effort, trying various angles through gaslighting, to alleviate obvious flaws and discomfort (Gallacher & Gallacher, 2018). 

It is believed by the author that this will work to some measure.  As noted, treatment does matter and there are strides in that area but a great deal of true quality treatment comes down to trust and honesty.  How can that really occur without disclosure and transparency? 

The truth is church trauma in the Mormon Church is a very complex matter than needs thoughtful consideration for all who are deeply concerned about this religion and/or the wellbeing of the church attendees. Researchers need to be supported in their efforts to bring awareness and understanding to this real and challenging struggle within Mormonism. Leaders need to receive professional training.  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 Church leaders are truly seeking to improve the mental and spiritual health and wellbeing of their congregations (Speight & Speight, 2017). The effects of church trauma can be deeply wounding and long-lasting, affecting generations (Monk et al, 2017). 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.

Research Methods and Procedures

 The procedure used for this research was to find as much information on church trauma that could be found.  Since the subject is so new, this was a bit of a challenge but it also felt a doable task.  Many key words were used in search engines such as “church trauma,” “religious trauma,” “religious abuse,” “psychological trauma,” “spiritual abuse,” “religious abuse syndrome,” “spiritual trauma,” “post-traumatic church syndrome,” “abuse of religious authority,” “ecclesiastical abuse,” “religious/spiritual struggles,” and “church hurt.”

Each root and branch of the “church trauma tree” also received focused attention as did posttraumatic growth.  The name of each root and branch was used in searches as well as related words such as “changes in temple policies,” “blacks and the priesthood,” “LGBTQ and Mormons,” “benevolent patriarchy,” “Mormons and patriarchy,” “Mountain Meadow Massacre,” “Mormon finances,” “Joseph Smith and polygamy,” “Adam-God doctrine,” “blood atonement,” “Lowry Nelson,” “groupthink,” “mob mentality,” “Community of Christ,” “Sam Young,” “translation of the Book of Mormon,” “problems with Mormon Church history,” “seer stones,” “the First Vision,” “forced termination,” “mobbing,” “Elizabeth Smart,” “post-traumatic stress disorder,” “trauma on the family,” “Kate Kelly,” “Utah’s suicide rate,” “millennials in the Mormon Church,” “Mormon’s leaving religion,” “secondary traumatic stress,” “perfectionism,” “anxiety,” “scrupulosity,” “Mormonism and mental illness,” and “Mormonism and suicide.”  When searching information on posttraumatic growth key words such as “mindfulness,” “meditation,” “yoga,” “psychological flexibility,” “denial,” “anger,” “bargaining,” “depression,” “acceptance,” “compassion,” “healing from trauma,” and “resiliency” were used.

California Southern University’s library was used a great deal for generalized information on trauma and posttraumatic growth.  For Mormon-specific information, Google, MormonThink, and the Mormon Church’s official website were greatly utilized.  The researcher also probed members of Mormon and post-Mormon Facebook groups for help in retrieving specific articles.  Many trauma-informed colleagues were personally spoken to in an effort to gather sufficient and accurate information.

The number of studies reviewed for this project was well over 300 documents, books, podcasts, and videos.  The number of studies selected for this thesis was 194.

Methodology

To obtain a data-rich description of the phenomenon under study, the study utilized grounded theory data analysis.  The purpose of grounded theory methodology is to construct theories that are rich in detail and firmly “grounded” in the data (Corbin & Strauss, 1990), making this method the most appropriate strategy for data analysis.

The literature was organized thematically, according to the root causes of trauma in the Mormon Church.  The focus then turned to the consequences of trauma and finally on posttraumatic growth.  Many articles thematically overlapped so the literature was coded and carried over as different themes were addressed throughout the study. 

Data Analysis

The researcher, who is pursuing a master’s degree in psychology, analyzed the literature in three phases: 1) open coding, in which the literature was reviewed line-by-line to classify common themes; 2) axial coding, in which the codes generated during open coding were analyzed for more detail (i.e., when, where, why, with what consequences) (Boychuk Duchscher & Morgan, 2004); and 3) selective coding, in which the codes were organized around core groups across literature in a way that reasonably connected the themes in context.

Methodological Assumptions and Limitations

 The current study is limited in that the researcher, who identifies as a disaffected member of the Mormon Church and who suffered under the hands of poor priesthood leadership, gathered the sole analysis of the ground theory data. It is possible that the researcher’s experiences and personal opinions biased the results. 

Further, there are many ideas and opinions concerning the root causes of trauma and only a small sampling was offered.  Some within the Mormon Church find these roots to be what keeps the Church vital and strong while others find them inherently harmful and destructive.  The researcher’s bias is likely manifested in the latter opinion.

There are also many other consequences of trauma that are not addressed in this research.  An example is the physiological side effects of trauma.

The study on posttraumatic growth was also not as exhaustive as desired.  There are many paths to healing that simply could not be addressed within the confines of this paper.  This is partly due to the complexity and broadness of the topic covered; thus, the author had to be selective due to the limitations given in the thesis guidelines. 

 Another limitation is that because of the current influx of changes occurring in the Mormon Church, it is very difficult to stay current on policy. Thus, within a matter of months, many of the statements made could likely be outdated (even before this thesis is completed).  Much effort was made to provide accurate facts on current positions but there could be error.  Statistics also are hard to tie down and some of the numbers given could be unintentionally inaccurate or misleading.

Direction for Future Research

            There is much more work that needs to be done in this area of research.  Some ideas for future research include: (1) How can church leaders better acknowledge, address, and validate those suffering within the Mormon Church? (2) How can church leaders help facilitate the healing of those who have stepped away from the Church due to church trauma? Is that ethically their concern? (3) How can leaders help prevent trauma within the Mormon Church? (5) How can believing, active Church members offer help for those trying to stay in the religion while healing from church trauma?

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Dress Standards Updated for Sister Missionaries (2018 December). Retrieved from https://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/article/dress-standards-updated-for-sister-missionaries

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Missionaries Now Have More Options to Communicate With Families (2019 February). Retrieved from https://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/article/missionaries-family-communication

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Need help? Talk now.  Retrieved from https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/mentalhealth

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Oaks, D.H. (2005). Pornography.  Retrieved from https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2005/04/pornography?lang=eng

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Rosales, A., & Tan, S. (2017). Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT): Empirical evidence and clinical applications from a christian perspective. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 36(1), 76-82. Retrieved from http://proxy1.calsouthern.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.proxy1.calsouthern.edu/docview/1925376826?accountid=35183

Rosenberg, J. (2017).  Emotional mastery: the gifted wisdom of unpleasant feelings .  Retrieved from https://youtu.be/EKy19WzkPxE

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