“Church hurt” is becoming a more and more common phrase to describe religious trauma. Church hurt stems from a church authority abusing their position of power to either actively cause or allow abuse and/or emotional trauma. Long-term, these betrayals of trust in the institutional church foster faith and identity crises as well as lingering sadness.
Naturally, we are inclined to think that church hurt isn’t common because we want to believe that religious trauma is rare. We think of things like a pastor, priest or reverend doing things like showing a young adult pornography or suggesting that a queer child should be sent to conversion therapy.
Unfortunately, the reality is that “smaller” traumas are common, and avoiding the realities of church hurt does not allow one to begin healing from it.
So, how does one begin addressing their own church hurt? Firstly, talk-therapy or counseling should always be considered in the context of trauma. However, counseling isn’t a viable option for every individual.
For teens dealing with church hurt, they may feel they can’t approach their parents to discuss seeing a therapist. For many Americans, therapy isn’t covered by insurance, and not everyone can afford to pay out of pocket. In these cases, and for individuals who want to do more outside of sessions with their therapists, I highly recommend turning to these texts, interviews and podcasts as resources.
Healing Spiritual Wounds by Carol Howard Merritt. In this text, Carol Howard Merritt explores and deconstructs the traditional and conservative church space she grew up in. She analyzes the ways that this space facilitated pain and suffering on others by way of sexism, homophobia and manipulative religious politics.
Howard Merritt reflects on how church hurt inherently means that religious institutions aren’t always safe; much less are they always sacred, holy refuges. With an empathetic and optimistic voice, she provides specific steps one can take to recover from their religious traumas.
Let’s Talk Touchy Subjects Podcast hosted by Erin Billings (Season 2 Episodes 1-9). Erin Billings designed this podcast to create dialogue about what she calls the “proverbial elephants” in the room. With an emphasis on social justice and addressing trauma, she invites panelists, many of which are experts on the episode topic, to tell their thoughts and stories without censorship.
The podcast mission is “not to expose the Church, but to have conversations that will open eyes, open ears, and open hearts toward growth, healing, and unity.” Season two kicks off with an episode called “Connecting the Dots Backwards on the Road to Healing.” Here, Billings opens up about why deconstruction and healing from religious trauma are so important to her.
All of season two’s episodes offer healing opportunities for listeners, but my specific favorites are “Got Church Hurt?” “Healing Trauma: A Journey of Self-Discovery” and “How Trauma Affects the Body.”
A God Who Looks Like Me by Patricia Lynn Reilly. Reverend Sharon Vandegrift, the United Methodist chaplain of Drexel university, reviewed A God Who Looks Like Me, saying the book is,” A wonderfully unique resource for women who are continually searching for new insights in woman-affirming faith and worship.” In this book, Patricia Lynn Reilly tells stories of numerous women, from personal perspectives to women of Hebrew and Christian scriptures.
These stories create a collective of meditations, poetry, narrative and worship practices that guide women readers to creating their own spaces to the dissonance caused by sexism and gender-politics in the church. All of these aspects come to focus on Eve, Lilith and Mary through childhood, motherhood, the female body, feminine sexuality, vulnerability and divine femininity itself.
Before You Lose Your Faith edited by Ivan Mega. Before You Lose Your Faith makes the argument for participating in the church to confront doubt. While honoring the myriad of reasons people leave the church, this book uplifts the idea that church hurt and deconstruction do not have to result in a lack of faith.
Overall, this text suggests that mature faith comes from doubt. What makes Before You Lose Your Faith particularly interesting is the fact that it is written by multiple writers. Trevin Wax, Claude Atcho, Rachel Gilson, Karen Swallow Prior and Jared C. Wilson are among the contributors.
We Can Do Hard Things Podcast hosted by Glennon Doyle (Episode 9). Glennon Doyle released her book, Untamed, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Repeatedly, she found that her audience came back to one line in that text: “We can do hard things.”
Realizing the impact this phrase carried, Doyle teamed up with Cadence13 studios to create the We Can Do Hard Things podcast. In it, she, her wife and her sister honestly and vulnerably discuss the hardships of life with guests and experts.
In episode nine, the podcast focuses on queer freedom. Abby, Glennon’s wife, shares the negativity that her church hurt fosters internally and how realizing that God and religion were not the same helped her begin to heal.
Glennon herself discusses a letter she received from a reader the day she came out as well as how “loving the sinner, not the sin” statements make her feel. Additionally, the group explores how to set boundaries—not only with individuals, but with institutions like churches.
Forgiving What You Can’t Forget by Lisa Terkeurst. “You deserve to stop suffering because of what other people have done to you” is one of the most impactful quotes from Terkeurst’s book.
Lisa Terkeurst approaches her audience as both a therapist and a theologian. Her aim in writing this text was providing individuals with strategies for lasting pain and resentment.
Namely, she wants readers to learn how to walk away when someone refuses to apologize and change their behavior, how to free themselves from the past when trying to live through the present, and how to identify triggers and sources of trust issues. All these strategies are offered through the lens of the Bible as Terkeurst cites scripture throughout this book.
Building a Bridge by Father James Martin. Approaching church hurt as a queer Catholic individual myself, I would be remiss if I did not include this book by Father James Martin.
Fr. James comes from a Jesuit background, and he set out to foster a more loving relationship between the LGBTQIA+ community and the Catholic Church following the 2016 shooting in Orlando’s Pulse Nightclub. Since the publication of this text, he has gone on to work with Pope Francis as a secretariat of communications consultant for the Vatican and advocate for improved pastoral care of LGBTQIA+ Catholics.
In this text, he calls for the Catholic Church to act with tolerance, acceptance and support. Additionally, he provides guidance for LGBTQIA+ Catholics and Catholics who find themselves opposed to the queer community to unite under God.
Repeatedly, he emphasizes respect, compassion and sensitivity. While this book is LGBTQIA+ specific, it offers healing for the many queer people of faith who carry church hurt with them.
The Weight Podcast from the Oxford University United Methodist Church (Navigating Trauma with Mickenzie Vought). Mickenzie Vought is the editorial and community director of Onsite, an emotional wellness company that offers retreats, intensives, trauma care and digital resources. While not a therapist, she offers specific advice and resources for a broad audience of individuals seeking to improve their mental health.
If you have been hurt by the church, consider adding these resources as part of your journey towards healing and recovery.
A Good Faith Media Ernest C. Hynds Jr. intern for summer 2023, Fimmano is a student at Belmont University in Nashville, majoring in faith and social justice as well as rhetorical writing, and minoring in fashion studies and Italian.