Religious Trauma

by Michael Garner, M.A., LMFT

When most people think of ‘religious trauma,’ they often think of church hurt. What can be so harmful with the church is that it is not supposed to be this way, which makes the hurt even more painful. I have been raised in the church myself and have experienced various levels of church hurt. What I can share is that the church is often not a reflection of who/what I think the church was originally supposed to be. I love the church; I know the church is so much bigger than a building, but rather a group of people. So many churches today are more like a ‘country club’ instead of a reflection of (what I think it was designed to be) a ‘hospital’ to help heal broken people. What happens is when a church is trying to be a country club, we forget the people who attend and even lead or on ‘staff’ are all broken themselves. After all, we are all broken. We have all heard the terminology ‘hurt people, hurt people,’ and this is very much what is happening in the church today. In the past year and a half, I have reflected a little more on the idea of a trauma-informed church. That sounds like a really neat concept, but I know all too well how difficult it would be to make this happen. This is another conversation for another day. When we see clients who have experienced any level of church hurt, I think it is important to just be there and listen without any level of shame or judgment. Something we should already be doing. It might be easy to say ‘stop going’ or find a different church. But for many, this was/is their ‘family.’ Maybe they have had other positive experiences, and they are just trying to make sense of how these positive and negative experiences can co-exist simultaneously in the same environment. When I listen to my clients who have experienced the church hurt, I often feel they are torn between these two very different worlds. If we are not careful, it is at this very crossroads where our own bias can jump in and ‘encourage’ a client to move in one direction or another. I think it is important to stay in the place where their two worlds are likely crashing in on each other without giving input but rather offer reflection and hope. I would consider what the client would’ve hoped to have happened. How they can learn/grow from this. Even, where was God in this moment. Maybe even imagine with the client if Jesus himself (or fill in the blank with the more appropriate religious leader) was there, how he would have been feeling. My guess is Jesus himself would be sick to his stomach to see his ‘hospital’ being run more like a ‘country club.’ Maybe this is the very reason why so many churches are struggling today. Again, this is another topic for another day!

Michael Garner MA, LMFT

is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) as well as a Distance Credentialed Counselor (DCC). Read Full Bio

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