Support our siblings affected by disaster, hunger and oppression through One Great Hour of Sharing.

‘A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast’ looks to help people who have been burned by religion

Matthias Roberts, who wrote ‘Holy Runaways,” is the podcast’s most recent guest

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Matthias Roberts

LOUISVILLE — A queer psychotherapist who wrote a recent book about how people can rediscover their faith after a harmful church experience was the guest last week on “A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast.” Listen to the 35-minute conversation that hosts Simon Doong and the Rev. Lee Catoe had with Matthias Roberts, author of “Holy Runaways: Rediscovering Faith After Being Burned by Religion,” by going here.

Roberts was asked if it’s possible for other faith communities to help a person harmed by a particular church experience to help get the person back in touch with their religion.

“In many ways, I think the answer is, ‘It depends,” Roberts said. “It depends on the person, and it depends on what happened.”

“For many folks, I don’t know that prescribing ‘Just go find another church or a different [faith] community’ is necessarily going to work,” he said. “Every person has their own needs for healing.”

Iin the book, Roberts said he borrows from theorists including Abby Wong-Heffter to talk about three categories of attachment: attunement, containment and repair, which he said “need to be present in order for healing to take place.”

Attunement is “this knowledge that other people are actually paying attention and reading what is going on in the situation,” Roberts said. Containment is “creating a space that is safe enough where even if strong emotions come into the picture, there is a sense of stability, that this space is being contained.” Repair is “when those things break down, using attunement and containment, we can start to fix what’s going wrong. We have to attune to what’s gone wrong in order to be able to contain and repair it. We have to. Otherwise, it’s not a true apology. It’s not a true step toward healing.”

There are “some forms of harm … that are so significant that people do need to step away,” Roberts said. “If we’re part of those communities and we see folks stepping away, can we trust that person may know what’s best for them, and can we honor those decisions even if we don’t understand why or we feel the community should still be safe for them? Do we have enough respect, enough ability to honor people’s choices when that happens?”

Following completion of his undergraduate work, Roberts found an affirming church he was excited to attend. “I thought I had found my new church home,” he said, but during that initial worship service, “I noticed I was getting more and more uncomfortable. I left as quickly as I could.”

“It didn’t have anything to do with that church. They were doing everything well,” Roberts said. “It was the fact that I wasn’t ready yet … I think that’s one of the complexities of this healing process. Time is a huge component of it.”

Catoe asked how people can “take the things [about a faith community] that give us life and get rid of the things that don’t?”

“I think for so many folks, the ‘all or nothing’ is what we have been taught,” Roberts said. “You’re either in or you’re out. There’s no in-between … There’s no such thing as a gray area. It’s all black and white.”

It can be important to work on our understanding of faith, Roberts said. “Is faith certainty? Is it all or nothing? Is it a system we have to ascribe to or plug everything into in ways that feel airtight and complete, or is faith this expansive thing that we’re in the process of discovering?”

“Can [faith] be individual in the sense of figuring out what works well for us, that may not be the same for other people? Is God big enough for that to be true? Can we trust God to hold us in these processes? Working with that helped me to sift through in ways that felt more life-giving and peaceful,” Roberts said.

It can be easy for faith communities to fall into systems of who’s in and who’s out, Roberts said, adding, “I deeply believe that Jesus shows us a different way grounded far more in love than who’s in and who’s out.”

“What do we actually believe about human worthiness?” Roberts said. “Where do we get our definitions? Is it from belief, or from this idea that we are loved by God?”

“A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” with the Rev. Lee Catoe and Simon Doong drops each Thursday.

Asked about what he’s hearing in his work as a psychotherapist, Roberts said it’s that many people “are searching for places where they can feel like they belong. So much church hurt comes from this sense that ‘I don’t actually belong here.’” That’s “not the only church hurt out there, but it’s a major part of what we’re dealing with.”

One way people “can feel like they belong is feeling like they’re being heard, being listened to,” he said. “They can have an impact on the [faith] community the same way the community can have an impact on them. Another word for that is ‘mutuality.’”

“People are searching for this sense of mutual community,” Roberts said. “When people find that, I think it can do wonders for those hurt parts of our souls.”

Roberts said the book emerged from “sitting in this place of what do I do with the faith I still have? The book is for folks asking similar questions. Maybe they’re at the beginning of that process, or are much further along, as I was, trying to figure out, what do I do with all these pieces? It’s for folks who haven’t stepped away entirely.”

“It’s my attempt to bring forth a theology about God that feels really good to me. It’s not the only one, but I’m proposing a way to think about these things that hopefully feels expansive and hopefully allows people to step into these questions more honestly,” Roberts said. “It doesn’t give answers, but I hope it feels like a companion for folks.”

New episodes of “A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” drop every Thursday. Listen to previous editions here.

Creative_Commons-BYNCNDYou may freely reuse and distribute this article in its entirety for non-commercial purposes in any medium. Please include author attribution, photography credits, and a link to the original article. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDeratives 4.0 International License.

  • Subscribe to the PC(USA) News

  • Interested in receiving either of the PC(USA) newsletters in your inbox?

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.