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Today in the Mission Yearbook

Is your church the right place to heal from religious trauma?


The unique aspects of religious trauma can make for a difficult healing process

July 5, 2024

In medieval times, red doors were signs of sanctuary. If you could reach the door of a church, you could expect physical and spiritual protection. (Photo by Brenna Klemm via Unsplash)

Religious trauma is becoming quite a buzzword. Therapists are writing books about it. Mainstream news networks are substantially covering it. Faith communities (like Harbor, the online community I help lead) have formed to help people heal from it. The downside of buzzwords is that we hear about them so often that we eventually become desensitized to them. After enough time, or enough buzzing of the words in a short time, we may even get a little annoyed and begin to roll our eyes.

The church can’t afford to become irritated, blasé or condescending about church trauma. As the phrase indicates, this phenomenon is the result of harms perpetrated in and by the church. We need to take religious trauma very, very seriously.

There are some unique (and thorny) aspects of religious trauma that make addressing it a little different from other types of healing we want to foster in our communities. At Harbor, much of our life together is shaped by our shared church trauma and our desire to heal from it.

This affects everything we are and do, from our leadership structure (a non-hierarchical team of three pastors) to our language around prayer (phrases like “if you’re a praying person” or “a contemplation exercise”). In addition to these concrete policies and practices, several important and less tangible lessons have emerged in our work. To share these ideas, I want to tell you the story of “Adam.”

Perhaps the overarching principle that surfaced in the story that follows, which should be obvious but runs against all our pastoral impulses, is this: Church is often not the right place for someone to heal from church trauma.

At Harbor, most people who arrive in our Zoom boxes with religious trauma have left, or are in the process of leaving, conservative evangelical or other fundamentalist contexts. But when Adam joined us, almost the first words out of his mouth were an announcement that he was a former PC(USA) pastor. And that he carries significant religious trauma.

The Rev. Jon Mathieu

I will pause now to mention another principle: Harms that result in trauma aren’t just things that happen over there, far away in Southern Baptist or Roman Catholic churches. They happen here. In our churches and our traditions.

Adam was part of Harbor only briefly, but in that short time, he seemed like a perfect fit. He read the same nerdy books I ramble on about. He watched the same TV comedies we laugh about in the “after-party” conversations that follow our main weekly gathering. More to the point, he entered into our vulnerable dialogues about faith, healing and community.

It came as a bitter surprise when Adam told one of our pastors that Harbor just wasn’t the right fit. We were too churchy.

Now, this was the first and probably will be the last time anyone tells us we are too churchy. We have no sanctuary, no hymns or worship songs, no sermon, no offering basket. When I heard Adam’s feedback, my knee-jerk reaction was to get defensive. “Too churchy?! We’re like the anti-church church!”

But trauma is trauma. And Harbor is a church, try as we might to feel otherwise. Something about our Scripture readings and dialogues triggered Adam’s church trauma. It’s OK; it doesn’t mean we did anything wrong. It just means that while we are trauma-informed, we are not trauma-proof. Accepting that we’re not the right place for him to heal was an invitation into a vulnerable space for us as a leadership team. When it comes to Harbor people’s journeys, my defensiveness is the enemy of their healing. Church leaders cannot become defensive about people’s wounds, nor can churches afford to become desensitized to religious trauma. We can honor each other’s journeys and embrace the vulnerability it takes to find healing together, at whatever time and in whatever context. Rather than striving to keep people in our doors (or Zoom boxes), we can practice grace in our comings and our goings.

The Rev. Jon Mathieu is the founding pastor of Harbor Online Community and the community engagement editor for The Christian Century, where he writes the free weekly Editors’ Picks newsletter.

Today’s Focus: Healing from religious trauma

Let us join in prayer for:

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Christine Long, Church Consultant, Tacoma, WA, Board of Pensions 
Patricia Longfellow, Senior Administrative Assistant, Presbyterian Women  

Let us pray

Holy and loving God, we thank you for journeying with your church through times of learning, joy, change and sorrow. Please bless all your people with the ability to be bold in sharing the good news and in loving you, themselves and their neighbors. Amen.