Trauma comes into our lives in a variety of ways. It could be a car wreck, witnessing domestic violence, or even getting lost as a child. These situations leave our brains scarred and our emotions out of whack. They often require processing and therapy later in life. With the right actions taken, we can overcome trauma and make healthy decisions for our lives in the future — and, indeed, we should.
Religious trauma is no different. Some Christian women have experienced the trauma of spiritual abuse, causing them to leave church and not look back. But it doesn’t have to be this way, and it isn’t healthy for them to live with such untended pain in their hearts.
Church attendance in the U.S. has been on the decline for decades, but for women that exodus has been swifter than ever before. Church hurt, often described as a traumatic or adverse experience within a particular faith setting, is one of several culprits identified as a reason for leaving more recently.
There are many authentic and valid examples of how church leadership has hurt people, but the ways in which one can overcome these harms are less discussed. The truth is, we must always view these experiences through a psychological lens, in an effort to heal and grow.
I was fascinated when I learned about the following concept from a psychotherapist friend of mine. It is the notion of schema. Simply put, “a schema is a cognitive framework or concept that helps organize and interpret information.” Although this can be a great mental tool because it helps people shortcut through a massive amount of brain data, it can be harmful when it comes to traumatic events. That’s why it’s so important to identify when it’s at play.
Mental frameworks used as shortcuts easily exclude new and important information. Because we rely so heavily on schemas, it is extremely difficult to retain new information about subjects we are familiar with, those things that don’t conform to what we think we know. Thus, we can naturally revert to focusing on preexisting realities and beliefs even if they are no longer present or relevant.
As you can imagine, this can play a huge role in how we think about church when negative experiences from the past bloom easily in our minds. For those hurt within church walls or by faith-based messaging, it can also be extremely difficult to redirect negative thinking patterns. One negative memory linked to a faith experience can wholly taint one’s perspective of faith and church.
Consider it this way: A woman physically abused by her father may be fearful that all men are violent. In turn, she may spurn all males and refuse to commit to a relationship because, in her mind, all men are bad and abusive.
That kind of thinking can emerge in any circumstance where something negative has occurred. If someone experienced unbiblical judgment or undeserved shame from a church in the past, they can come to believe that every church will treat them that way. Whether it’s being rejected because of divorce or scorned for one’s addiction issues, the experience stings. Often, such treatment has come from one or two individuals, but a schema hard at work will ultimately live up to the American Psychological Association’s definition that it “endures despite objective reality.”
One Woman’s Experience in an Abusive Church
That’s what happened to my friend Leah after growing up in a spiritually abusive church. This meant that women were denigrated as “lesser” than men, and she was regularly told God was unhappy with her. From a young age, Leah was told that women don’t matter, that they only exist to serve men and have babies. She grew up in a strict, religious home and in a church birthed by the leaders of a Christian fundamentalist sect she today classifies as a cult. It wasn’t until years into adulthood that she heard someone say, “God loves you.”
Between high school and adulthood, Leah came to question what she’d been taught about God her entire life, finally recognizing the sickness embedded in her religious background. “When you’re in a cult, they don’t tell you that you’re in a cult,” she deadpanned, speaking to me over the phone. “I never wanted to abandon my faith, but I couldn’t tolerate the way I was being treated anymore.”
Her faith crumbled for years when she first entered adulthood. Her schema was working overtime to protect her from another harmful religious experience.
But the seed of God’s truth was planted deep inside her heart, eventually leading her to a faith community she could trust. It wasn’t easy. Ultimately, she chose to attend church with a friend one day. She was skeptical and unsure of what she was walking into and whether it was a good idea.
Finding a New Church
The church was a traditional Christian congregation, but the tone and teaching were strikingly different from what she’d known as a child. A woman was part of the worship team — something that never would have happened in the cult she grew up in — and that was enough to keep her interest. Still, fears from the past loomed, and anything that felt condemning quickly raised red flags in her mind.
She soon emailed the church leadership to ask some follow-up questions. It was in a meeting with the leaders, after she’d briefly disclosed her past, that a pastor gently informed her that she had suffered spiritual abuse as a child. He told her that they wanted to walk with her to pick up the pieces. And he wasn’t just saying it — the church helped pay for Leah to get healthy spiritual and mental therapy to overcome her childhood trauma. It would take years of counseling, identifying triggers, and changing old thinking patterns before she fully trusted her new church, but eventually, she felt safe. She overcame the powerful schema that had steered her in the past.
“As a woman, I had never been treated with kindness and respect in church before,” she said. “And here these people were treating me like a real person.” Today Leah is an active member of her church and a resource to those who have been through similar circumstances.
Psychologists work with patients regularly to rewire their schemas and approaches to various situations, helping them relate to their trauma with a renewed perspective.
In the example of an abused woman and in Leah’s case, a therapist might work with her to help her see that not all men or all churches are abusive and, in fact, most are not. It would be a tragedy for someone who was abused to give up on all relationships or churches because her schema distorted reality.
As with other damaging or oppressive life experiences, we must work to overcome, find healing, and do better for ourselves and the next generation.
This excerpt was adapted from “Reason to Return: Why Women Need the Church & the Church Needs Women.”