Many individual seek counseling as they are recovering from church hurt. “Church hurt” is a relatively new term for me, but as someone who grew up attending church, the concept isn’t new. Here is an example.
A friend of mine will not attend church. He grew up attending church and was very involved until he was in his twenties. At that point, he had a very negative experience in which someone he trusted deceived him and cheated him out of money. He also learned that this person he trusted had a secret life and pattern of unethical behavior. He hasn’t been back to church for over 10 years and continues to be pained by memories of this experience. I hope you will read this blog post to the end, where I’ll refer to my friend again.
Church hurt is the pain we feel when our experience at church has been negative. This pain is deep for many people, perhaps similar to the betrayal a spouse feels when discovering an unfaithful marriage partner. Why is church hurt so painful? Is recovery possible?
Relationships are an enigma. Research tells us that the healthiest and happiest people have quality relationships. Close relationships are the place where we share life’s happiest moments. Close relationships are where we turn for strength when we need support. Yet, relationships are hard. All close relationships eventually involve painful emotions.
People are imperfect beings. At times, we hurt those close to us out of ignorance or out of a mistake. People also do wrong things. Some times we are selfish and put our needs ahead of the needs of our loved ones. The people who can hurt us the most are the people we care for the most. These are difficult truths, but self-evident. If you haven’t been hurt in a close relationship, you haven’t been it long enough.
Organizations are simply a larger network of relationships that have gathered to accomplish a purpose. Organizations provide the opportunity for more relationships than we would experience on our own, and the satisfaction of working together in accomplishing a goal. This magnification of relationships can be very positive, but also leads to an increased likelihood of hurt. If you are involved in an organization long enough and deeply enough, you will experience hurt. The church is an organization.
We experience painful emotions as a warning system. When someone betrays us, takes advantage of us, or otherwise proves they are not a safe person, we attach emotions such as sadness, envy, angry, or even hatred towards that person. These emotions protect us from being hurt again. In and of themselves, these emotions are a good thing. If we naively stay in a bad relationship, we will be hurt again.
Our bodies and minds don’t cope well when such emotions persist. Stress hormones are released into our bodies when we experience such emotions. These hormones help our bodies better prepare for an emergency in which we would need to fight or run, but they also weaken our bodies’ ability to heal and cope with illness. Our brains are also negatively impacted. Our abilities to be empathetic and to make long term plans are compromised when we under distress.
The Process of Recovery
Recovering from church hurt involves several components. Some aspects of the healing process should be practiced immediately, while others (such as insight into the hurt and forgiveness can take a long time). Although the healing process is unique to each person, there are commonalities.
- Self-Care — You will not be able to heal effectively if you are not taking care of yourself. Proper rest, exercise, nutrition, spiritual health, and social activity are all disciplines you will need to practice with the goal of personal growth and healing. Emotional pain can lead to addictive and unhealthy behaviors, such as substance abuse, overeating, and unhealthy relationships. These destructive behaviors will prolong the healing process. Many people benefit from learning to practice mindfulness. I have written a blog post that explains this practice and how it can be used to cope with negative emotions.
- Insight — What was your experience and how did it hurt you? Can you name your negative emotions? Was there a person or group of people who wronged you in some way? Was it a situation in which it wasn’t a wrong action, but the church did not provide you with the support you needed? Does the church teach something you don’t agree with? Does the worship style cause you to feel uncomfortable? If you are to heal most efficiently and completely, you will need to gain some insight into these issues.
- Forgiveness — Once you have stabilized your health and gotten some insight into what hurt you, it will be important to practice forgiveness. Please see my blog post on forgiveness. Forgiveness does not mean “forgetting” or “excusing” a wrong that was committed against you. Forgiveness doesn’t always mean restored relationship. Forgiveness is a process by which you release negative emotions and memories and your right to get even. This is not an easy process, but forgiveness is necessary for healing. So long as you retain the desire to get even and keep negative emotions inside of you, healing will be very slow and incomplete. Forgiveness is not doing a favor for the offending party, but is necessary for self care.
The Journey Home
Recovering from church hurt can be particularly painful because the church should be a safe place. We expect people to be honorable. Yet, because church’s are comprised of imperfect people (like you and me), hurt is inevitable.
As you work through the process of self-care, insight, and forgiveness, you will benefit from support. It is to your benefit to have trusted people in your life who can encourage you to keep making progress. You may be so hurt that you choose not to attend church, much like my friend.
That is not the only path. Some people find a new church, while others are able to continue their healing journey in the place where they experienced hurt. Ultimately, you will need to make that decision for yourself, but difficult decisions are easier when you have people you trust providing support.
If you are actively involved in your church, there will be many opportunities for you to be hurt, but there are also rewards. Being with a community of people who go through life together, experiencing weddings, funerals, and baby dedications doesn’t happen anywhere else the same way as in a church community. You will not experience church hurt if you don’t attend. You may not experience church hurt if don’t allow your fellow church members to get close to you.
However, you also won’t experience authentic community in which strangers become family. Community in which the truth of the Gospel is experienced in forgiving and being forgiven. In all of its imperfections, there is no place like church community. Take care of yourself and heal. In the process, you may be that supportive person someone else needs who is also recovering from church hurt. My friend needs you and you may be the person who helps welcome him home.