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When church hurts: Spiritual wounds and paths to healing

by Susan Rothenberg | Presbyterians Today

After experiencing abuse at a church conference, Kris Schondelmeyer pushed for policies to protect children, like his son, Alexander. (Photo courtesy Abby Schondelmeyer)

It took many years for the Rev. Kris Schondelmeyer to acknowledge and seek treatment for the sexual assault he suffered as a teenager at the hands of a trusted pastor. He did not imagine that it would also take many years for leaders in his denomination to accept responsibility for what happened to him and take decisive steps to protect children in the church.

“It was like David facing Goliath,” Schondelmeyer says about his early search for accountability among Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) leaders who initially stonewalled his efforts. “It’s never been about money or financial compensation for me. It’s about forcing the church to acknowledge sexual abuse and provide healing for victims.”

While many in his situation might have given up on ministry or walked away from the church, Schondelmeyer dug in to seek justice for himself and for other victims of child sexual abuse.

Schondelmeyer, who serves as pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Deep Run in Perkasie, Pennsylvania, was sexually assaulted when he was 17 by a commissioned lay pastor (what is now referred to as a commissioned ruling elder) who was serving as a chaperone for youth attending a Presbyterian conference. After the assault, Schondelmeyer told no one and put the episode out of his mind. A decade later, shortly before his wedding, Schondelmeyer began having vivid nightmares about the assault. Instead of going on his honeymoon, Schondelmeyer found himself in a psychologist’s office.

Shortly after the nightmares began, Schondelmeyer went online to find out what had happened to the man who assaulted him and learned his attacker had served prison time on child pornography charges prior to becoming a lay pastor. More devastating to Schondelmeyer was learning that church officials knew about the man’s criminal history when they decided, as Schondelmeyer says, “to give him a second chance” and allow him to chaperone the youth conference.

As he pursued his legal case against church officials whose negligence resulted in his injury, Schondelmeyer continued to push for policies that would safeguard minor children throughout the PC(USA).

“I come from generations of Presbyterians. If you cut me, I bleed Presbyterian blue. I decided to stay and claim my voice as a PC(USA) pastor and search for accountability in my denomination,” he said. “For my own health and wholeness, I continue to advocate for compassion and care of victims. We can’t let lawyers decide how we respond to victims of sexual abuse. Church needs to be a safe and sacred space.”

General Assembly acts
At the 222nd General Assembly (2016) in Portland, Oregon, Mary Lou Cox, chair of the General Assembly Procedures Committee, recommended approval of a new policy to protect children, youth and other vulnerable people in the PC(USA). Cox said the committee had voted after hearing from Schondelmeyer, who had been invited to testify before the committee by the Advocacy Committee for Women’s Concerns.

After the new policy was approved, then-Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons stepped to the podium and spoke about Schondelmeyer’s uphill battle to find justice in the PC(USA). “Religious institutions must acknowledge when they do harm in the world. As stated clerk of the General Assembly, I want to offer Kris a public apology for what happened to him,” Parsons said. Parsons said the national church would commit to the safety of all children.

Although Schondelmeyer appreciates the movement within the denomination to provide safe space for children and other vulnerable people, he says the important work of healing the spiritual wounds that have been inflicted is not being done.

“Most people want a nice, neatly wrapped package of a story involving betrayal and reconciliation in the church, and my story isn’t that. Most stories of pain in the church are not that. My story involves multiple instances of betrayal and multiple instances of reconciliation, and the story is still ongoing. At the same time, I’ve also had moments of deep connection to God in the midst of it all.”

Believing in grace

Michelle Snyder, therapist, church consultant and a principal in the organization Soul Shop, which assists churches in suicide prevention, has spent much of her career counseling both pastors and laypeople who have been wounded by the church. She is quick to point out that churches seldom intentionally harm people, but her experience in counseling victims and working in congregations has given her insights as to why church leaders are sometimes slow to respond to accusations of sexual abuse.

“Often, they want to protect the collective whole of the congregation, even at the expense of an individual,” she said. “Admitting someone has been badly hurt is messy, but covering up always makes a bigger mess.”

Snyder refers to clergy sexual abuse as “soul damage.”

“When you are wounded, and perceive God is associated with the woundedness, your sense of safety and rightness in the world is disrupted,” she said. When asked how people who have suffered such abuse recover, Snyder said, “I am not sure I believe in recovery, but I do believe in grace.”

For Snyder, who carries her own scars as a victim of clergy sexual misconduct, finding faith communities who understand her wounds and accept her as she is with no expectations has enabled her to stay engaged with God.

She remembered a recent experience in which God’s grace was palpable to her.

“I was at a conference and the leader of the group told us to raise our hands in the air for prayer. For me, ‘hands in the air’ is a painful reminder of my experiences in a very hurtful Pentecostal church. I was the only one who couldn’t raise my hands, and soon I was on the verge of tears. A colleague noticed my distress and he also kept his hands down during the prayer. When I thanked him later, he said to me, ‘Nobody should have to sit alone.’ It is moments such as these in which I experience God’s love. The scars are still there, but there is also grace.”

While sexual abuse at a church creates the most headlines, the most common types of spiritual wounds are a result of what Snyder calls “toxic theology.” It is most often practiced in faith communities who value conformity and what they consider to be unchanging truths.

“When a community member rejects what is being thrown at them, they can feel like they are bad, particularly if they are the only one questioning the community’s beliefs or what is presented as Biblical authority,” Snyder said. “To reject toxic theology often requires walking away from a faith community that is the center of a person’s life. That is difficult to do.”

A story from Scripture that Snyder finds helpful in thinking about spiritual wounds is the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel and coming away with a limp. She says, “Some wounded people will walk away, but some will keep wrestling with God. Churches who seek to help spiritually wounded people need to first answer the question ‘Will you install a wheelchair ramp for those who limp?’”

Rebuilding faith
Presbyterian pastor and author Carol Howard Merritt experienced toxic theology growing up in a family who attended a rigidly conservative church. Her father physically abused her mother and siblings, justifying his rage with an interpretation of Scripture that claimed that women must submit to men.

When Merritt confided to her pastor about the abuse, he did not believe her; in fact, he reinforced her father’s authority based on a church teaching of male headship. For many years, Merritt struggled with an ingrained connection between abuse and religion, but still loved the spirituality of church.

“For me, a toxic theology conflicts with the Great Commandment: loving God, neighbor and ourselves,” says Merritt. “How can we love an angry, abusive God who tells a 6-year-old girl she’s going to hell? How can we love our neighbor if our theology vilifies specific groups of people as unworthy? How can we love ourselves if our theology tells us to hate the way God made us?”

In her book Healing Spiritual Wounds: Reconnecting with a Loving God After Experiencing a Hurtful Church, Merritt recounts her journey to a healthy faith disentangled from the trappings of a hurtful church.

“Too often in the church, we do a really good job of deconstructing harmful theology, but then we leave people in the rubble and do nothing to help them build something else. What I do in this book is provide tools and spiritual exercises to help people take apart an image of God that is harmful and put it back together in a way that is life-giving and helps them gain some spiritual health. We have the power to wound in the church, but we also have the power to heal,” Merritt said.

Authentic participation
In 2014, the Rev. Bertram Johnson became the first openly gay African-American man ordained as a teaching elder by the PC(USA). Today he serves as minister of justice,
advocacy and change at Riverside Church in New York City.

Johnson graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1996. His increasing awareness of his sexual orientation, however, delayed his pursuit of ordination. “I could not see myself as a pastor,” Johnson says. “Growing up in a very conservative church, I saw pastors as being holy, perfect people. In my mind, pastors were not gay and not me.”

In 2011, when the PC(USA) amended its Book of Order to allow ordination of LGBT candidates, Johnson was encouraged by colleagues and friends to reconsider ordination. Yet, Johnson still maintained, “If God wants me to be ordained, God needs to work that out.”

Using language reminiscent of the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch in the book of Acts, Johnson’s pastor, the Rev. Mark Zimmerly, asked him a pointed question: “What prevents you from being ordained?” Twenty years after graduating from seminary, Johnson felt ready to respond to God’s call with joy.

Johnson’s joy, however, was short-lived. On the night Johnson was examined on the floor of presbytery, a pastor pulled him aside just moments after his approval. The pastor told Johnson that although nobody would object to Johnson’s ordination outright, some churches were considering leaving the denomination over the ordination of LGBT individuals. Johnson remembers that the pastor asked him not to do anything to draw undue attention to his ordination. “Keep it quiet,” the pastor advised. “Don’t make a big deal about it.”

Today, Johnson reflects on the spiritual wounds he has experienced not only as an African-American gay man of faith, but also as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse by his godfather. Johnson credits his church family who loved him, allowing him to hold on to the reality that he was also loved by God.

“They kept me alive through a long period of emotional and physical abuse,” says Johnson. “That firm sense that I am loved by God is what has saved me. I have to be here. Being all I am — black, queer, a survivor of abuse and an ordained Presbyterian minister — reframes the possibility of what it means to be a person of faith.”

Being a healing church
From a young age, the Rev. Shanea Leonard knew she was called to ministry. She can still recall sitting in the pews of her childhood church, drawing pictures of the church she dreamed of leading. It wasn’t until after she had been ordained as a PC(USA) minister that she accepted the fact that she is gay.

“It was a dark time,” Leonard recalls, nearly nine years later. “I spent more than a year after leaving my first call feeling lost. I wondered if I belonged in the church at all.” Leonard eventually found a spiritual home at Community House Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, which became the incubator for a new worshiping community, Judah Fellowship, which Leonard leads.

“Judah Fellowship is the church I imagined as a child when I was doodling in the church pew,” she says. “Judah is a place for people who do not feel comfortable in a traditional church setting, or have suffered from what I call ‘church hurt.’”

Now in its sixth year, Judah Fellowship attracts people who Leonard says are from the “margins.” Most of Judah’s participants are people of color, many are LGBT, but all are seeking God’s peace and love in a welcoming faith community.

Leonard laughs as she talks about Judah’s music director. “She is straight as an arrow, but wanted nothing to do with church until she came to Judah. She always says, ‘You’re the first pastor I’ve met who doesn’t get mad at me or forces me to believe like you do!’”

Leonard’s ministry extends into the community, where she serves as pastor for people who would never set foot in a church. Judah Fellowship also sponsors a biennial conference, “Healing the Hurt,” which addresses the disconnect between faith communities and people who feel shut out from church. The conference features national and local facilitators who share insights, information and wisdom on topics that impact the disconnect.

“So many people are lonely and hurting and looking for community,” Leonard says. “The church should be a community who cares about you, wants the best for you, prays for you and demonstrates the love of God.”

Christianity without church

The Rev. Renee Roederer knew that many people had been hurt by churches, and she had been wondering how to respond.

She was familiar with the categories “Nones” and “Dones.” “Nones” are often atheists, agnostics, secular humanists and others who resist most forms of organized religion. “Dones” are those who left traditional religious organizations but still feel a need for spiritual connections. According to studies by religious sociologists, Nones and Dones continue to grow in number as church membership declines.

While Roederer was shopping in a bustling farmers market in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a thought came to her out of the blue:

“What would happen if Nones and Dones got together? What kind of conversation would they have?”

The notion of reaching out to these groups intrigued Roederer, so she created a new group on inviting local Nones and Dones into conversation. To her great surprise, people responded enthusiastically, and the online group soon held their first in-person gathering in a local coffee shop.

“I was stunned,” Roederer said. “There was an incredible outpouring of stories relating to experiences folks had in traditional congregations. Although the participants did not know each other well, they shared very personal stories about ways in which they were hurt or alienated by the church. It was amazing how many people said, ‘That happened to me, too!’”

Many of the stories that the participants shared were, as Roederer puts it, “really heavy,” but some also had to do with people feeling judged, boxed in, or scapegoated by traditional churches. Others in Roederer’s group were disillusioned by what they perceived as a lack of accountability in religious institutions in which one or only a few people hold all the power.

The group, which calls itself Michigan Nones and Dones, continues to gather for conversations about faith in locations around Ann Arbor. Roederer stresses that the organizing focus is not about doctrine, but about a community gathered for thoughtful spiritual inquiry, sharing questions and experiences in a meaningful way.

The Presbytery of Detroit has commissioned Roederer as a Community Chaplain for Nones and Dones, reflecting recognition of a growing need for ministry to those who have been harmed by the church, or who are hesitant to enter into what seems like judgmental church spaces.

It is a call Roederer relishes. “Some in our group decide to try worship in a traditional way in addition to being part of our group, and that is fantastic.” What participants in Michigan Nones and Dones have in common, Roederer says, is a desire to discover authentic “Christianity without Church-ianity.”

Pathways to healing
For churches seeking to become healing spaces for those who have suffered spiritual wounds, Carol Howard Merritt offers these thoughts: “We have to help people take apart their harmful image of God and reconnect to a loving, beautiful and hope-filled way of faith. We need to make a space and provide the tools to allow people to ask questions and think critically about their faith and listen to their stories.

“Finally, the church has to not be so defensive. Too often, we are overly protective of the church we love and defend the institution instead of the person who has been hurt. We tell the person they must be mistaken or it didn’t happen that way, and in doing so, we diminish them. It’s incredibly hard to do, but when we acknowledge the hurt we have caused and confess when we’ve messed up, our institutions will be stronger. The church has the power to wound, but through the grace of God, we also have the power to heal and to bless.”


The Rev. Susan Rothenberg is an at-large member of Pittsburgh Presbytery. Prior to entering ordained ministry, she worked in marketing, advertising and public relations for companies in Baltimore and Pittsburgh.

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