post-traumatic church syndrome is Real (and worthy of a capital letter)

post traumatic church syndrome

there’s a new book coming out later this year by reba riley called “post-traumatic church syndrome: a humorous memoir of healing, hope, and 30 religions before 30”. i don’t know much about the book yet, but i am really looking forward to reading it. i do know that the facebook group called “post-traumatic church syndrome” has over 1,800 members & growing.

that’s because church trauma is real.

Real (and worthy of a capital letter here).

i love her term and think it’s so accurate.

since i’ve been blogging, i have been talking about church PTSD realities in all kinds of ways. it’s a big part of our walking wounded class & definitely a part of faith shift, but i like her term much better and am hoping it really takes hold. i am also so glad that more attention is being drawn to this important reality for so many former faithful & dedicated christians.

what once was a place of belonging is now a place of trauma and angst.

i know a lot of people who suffer from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) for different reasons–abuse, trauma, the military, etc.  here is a general summary of the symptoms of regular PSTD:

  • avoiding activities, places, thoughts, or feelings that remind us of the trauma
  • loss of interest in activities and life in general
  • feeling detached from others and emotionally numb
  • anger & irritability
  • guilt, shame or self-blame
  • hypervigilance, on constant “red alert”, feeling jumpy and easily startled
  • feelings of mistrust and betrayal
  • feeling alienated and alone
  • depression

any of these feel familiar related to church?

a lot of you have experienced some kind of church trauma–giving your hearts for years and finding yourself on the outs, never fitting in or being valued properly, run-ins with leadership related to theology or practice or beliefs, inequality, firings & shunnings & asked-to-leaves, neglect, spiritual abuse, slipping out of favor once you started saying no, or just a slow drift that no one seemed to care about (yep, that’s traumatic, too).  there are so many potential reasons.

i’d also specifically add these potential church-related symptoms:

  • strong allergic reaction to certain words, phrases, songs, or scriptures
  • anxiety at the thought of walking through the doors of a church
  • complete panic at the thought of sitting through a service
  • bursts of anger & rage at the thought of having another conversation about your views on equality, homosexuality, same-sex-marriage, or “biblical” anything.
  • if you had a run-in with leadership, re-playing of particular conversations over and over like a movie
  • feelings of deep sadness and loss that are hard to articulate
  • a sense of no moorings related to all-things-faith that leave us feeling aimless, lost, and confused.

you’ve probably got some you’d add, too.

church PTSD is so real!

i am 8 years out from my huge church trauma & drama, and it still rears its head sometimes. plus, even though i’ve been “out”, i have also been “in” because i am still a pastor of a little crazy church. because of that role, in different ways, i am sometimes in conversations that have felt like defending my faith because of my leanings-to-the-left. and often even when the conversation doesn’t go that way, i am sure it might and am already on the defense. honestly, it feels nuts. and although i can recognize it and bounce back a lot more quickly, it’s still there.

and i’m really trying to keep healing so i can feel more free & comfortable engaging without it tripping a crazy wire inside.

every easter week, i also always remember how hard it is for a lot of people i know. and easter hope feels a lot more like easter hope-less. some friends who are loosely connected to the refuge in some way just stay away during this time of year because it’s too triggering and weird. i know i can feel a little cringe-y when i hear certain things, too. and for so many others across the map, this time of year just feels lonely and weird to not be connected to the places and people that used to be so fun at easter-time.

and while there’s a lot of tough stuff floating around, i also know many others who used to have an extra hard time around easter but are now are finding themselves free-er and free-er every year. i am so glad for that. it’s also one of the huge bonuses i get from blogging & connecting with church-burnouts all these years–i really see movement through the pain into new places.

if you don’t have church PTSD and don’t understand it and are annoyed by it, please know this: it’s not exaggerated emotions or rebellion or a hardened heart or a lack of faith or loyalty.  there are no simple fixes for the crazy stuff that happens over the course of our faith journey that can mess with our heads and hearts.

it’s real.

it deserves respect.

and if you have post-traumatic-church syndrome and its symptoms are rearing its head right now, i just wanted to say out loud–you’re not crazy, you’re not alone.

may healing continue to come…

peace and hope from colorado, kathy

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar co-pastors at The Refuge, a Christian community and mission center in North Denver and is the author of Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.

49 Comments

  • Kathy, the most debilitating thing of all is that all these tend to seep into our very relationship with God. It has taken me years to untangle God from church. Now I know I can be in a relationship with God without the structure of Church, yet I very much miss the community of fellow believers. The internet and people like you bring that sense of community to me. So, I say “thank you” to all those who allow me into their world of spiritual dialog through Blogs, Podcast and Facebook.

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    • thanks for taking time to share, beverly. the loneliness can be one of the hardest things, and i am so glad that even though online community can’t take the full place of real-life, it does help. peace to you.

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  • Wonderfully said. Thank you. Praise and worship music is often a trigger for me. It can make me sad and anxious.

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  • I confess I have felt this way. And I know the exact moment in time when it happened. It was when a member of the church made a negative comment about my son as we sat behind her. He was in the front of the church and we were supposed to be celebrating his (and other seniors) graduations. It was at that moment that the disconnect began for me. I’m a very faith-filled person and I love worship and the church community but I don’t believe going to church automatically makes one a good person and I definitely do not believe it gives one the right to sit in judgment of others… And too often it does. Since that moment in time I’ve felt enormous anxiety in a church setting. I practice my beliefs in my daily life, but it’s hard to get me into a church.

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  • Hi Kathy, Just so you know that there is an opposite viewpoint: I am 61 years old, and have had a most positive experience with the Christian Church (within Lutheranism). It has been a place of beauty, grace, strength, peace, forgiveness, salvation, and as an introduction to eternal life. I will remember your blog about PTCS. I believe everything you wrote. I pray you will also believe that this post of mine is true for me. Yes, some church people drive me crazy too at times. I am probably driving someone crazy myself! But, the distress is only about 5 % of the time for me. Use the internet to see how the Lutheran Social Services is feeding, clothing, and housing quite a bit of the nation! God bless you.

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  • Deep gratitude to you Kathy for continuing to have a compassionate (“to suffer with”) presence for PTSD/PTCS folks. Your list of specific church-related symptoms is spot on, and comforts me as I *still* revisit, ad nauseum, the replaying in my mind of conversations and events that occurred a few years ago. As the leader of a faith-based non-profit who has taken more than a few personal attacks for my faith shifts over the past ten or so years, as you say, leanings-to-the-left, I have developed anxiety/panic/heart palpitations over answering the phone, or wondering who might walk into my office, or send an email, etc. I feel crazy much of the time, for example, receiving an invite to a ‘church mission board meeting’ to answer questions before I speak causes such distress, it feels like I can barely breathe. I always await the next attack – and it is *very* real – or rather, Real. Yet, I still move forward in my mission, because I know there are those (not unlike me) needing hope from the margins. Again, thanks so much. Your words are a salve to remind me that there is life in the midst of the crazy.

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    • thanks donna, you are in the trenches on the reality of what these shifts can mean and oh, i know that feeling where the question is coming and where things can end up. i am glad you are bravely carrying on and thankful to be connected to you out here in blog and facebook land.

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  • Kathy, I have experienced resistance to churchgoing for a number of years, but I never attributed it to “trauma” per se — although reading your description, I now recognize the cumulative effects of various negative experiences over time. Thank you for putting this phenomenon into words and helping me to realize that I am not simply being “difficult” or “hard to please” or “picky” about whom I choose to trust my spirituality with.

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  • Thank you for this. I just sat thinking today “I miss when this Easter weekend was fun.”…I smiled when I came upon this blog.

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  • I need this. I need help understanding these feelings and this anxiety I’ve been experiencing in relationship with the church. It’s such a hard time. I need to know I’m not alone.

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  • Thank you for writing about this, Kathy. this is my first time stopping by your blog and I really appreciated this post. As someone who has PTSD and lost of church crap, too, I really feel like it’s all the same sort of thing. Not identical but pretty darn close. They’re both isolating, but when someone has trouble with church it can be challenging to even talk about it because everyone assumes church is helpful and good. They imagine cutesy Jesus coloring pages and a religious themed stack; how bad could it be? And, as a result, it feels like saying “church was hurtful” doesn’t explain it, and sometimes I don’t feel like opening up at the level required in order to help someone even begin to understand. =/

    Church PTSD is officially called Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS). You might find this article interesting. I found it very helpful just to know I wasn’t alone.

    http://awaypoint.wordpress.com/2013/03/26/religious-trauma-syndrome-is-it-real/

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  • Kathy,

    On reading your blog, there were a number of what I call God moments for me, do you ever get those – sense of peace, connection and OH YES!? Thank you for your post.

    I’ve been on the PTSC site and was a moderator for a while there, but Reba and I agreed that after a while that it be better I go forward and avail my talents elsewhere. I take my hat off to anyone who works with any of us who are traumatised (it’s not an easy job) and feel for anyone of us who is going through the ringer with this.

    For me, this kind of thing was more intense in the military than anything I have experienced with church, which doesn’t mean that someone in church can’t experience it as bad. What I learned in the healing process was that it was important that anything that was a trigger for any of the kind of symptoms you talk of Kathy was something I took ownership of, that I had self-awareness and recognised what was appropriate in any given situation. I guess now I am talking about this in past tense has been an indication of healing! I would say I am convalescing now, have been worn out by what I have experienced but other than that have pretty much found freedom and it it is a beautiful thing. I would encourage anyone to keep going, get the help you need, treasure those around you who will walk the road with you and hang in there – it’s worth it!

    The “God moments” for me on reading what you mentioned Kathy, was recently talking with a friend when I was feeling lost and things were going crazy, to make sure it wasn’t me that was crazy. I used exactly the same words to describe it. So I chose a friend to talk to about a particular situation. They felt similarly about it, so I knew I wasn’t alone, and I knew I wasn’t going crazy. If I tried to be a lone ranger in this, or go along with the herd, I woudn’t have experienced this. I love it! So different to my last church experience where I confided in a leader and rather than acknowledge an issue, they treated me as if there was something wrong with how I perceived what was going on, claiming that they were prophesying and doing what God does. They were misguided and it was insulting and damaging. Therefor I identify with what you say about moving through pain into new places. And when things come up now it seems I am more healed as I don’t have so much of a “crazy wire”.

    It is so easy to fall into retribution either towards those that have been hurtful (including myself when I have been so) or worse towards people for things that others have done because of a perceived wrong and that’s how it feels. Retribution is stupid, abusive and only compounds a problem. Forgiveness is healing and freeing and prevents us from others having power over us.

    And yes it is true that it often is the case that this kind of thing happens to folks who are faithful and dedicated. The kind which if were free to do so would permeate really community. Sadly, it often is that case that the ones in power don’t do what is conducive to such community either through being misguided liking the position, status being called a “leader” etc rather than using the position to serve, or perhaps have their own issues and through trying to help others end up causing damage.

    Anyway, pleasure to read your blog entry Kathy, and see so much of it is resonating with me.

    God bless and keep fighting the good fight!

    Adam

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  • I just had to explain to someone that I don’t go to church just now.. Just about every christian I know goes. I know all about this.. It was really difficult leaving and not because of the people but because of the pressure asking me to return… I hardly got contacted while I was attending and went through a marriage break down and divorce… I felt so alone there.. I kept myself on the seat so many times but wanted to run out far far away… I have a stronger relationship with God now but its hard because ever since I was a baby.. Almost all my life I’ve been there every week faithfully with five kids… And when you leave its like you die… Internet, face book communities of Christians the ones who meet here help me feel I belong here… In spirit.. But I have no desire to go back at any point.. A friend is asking me she has been my closest friend through all my life difficulties.. So I would possibly attend for her maybe its just not natural to me anymore.. I just find it so fake… Its so real here at home even online cause I’m free and no conformity… But yes like others you miss the community feel… I don’t know that I ever for a long time felt that though in the building.. I know people still don’t understand why I don’t go… Thank you for addressing a very real and often unspoken of issue… God is everywhere and he’s not worried about where I am on Sunday only people…

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  • Read with a great deal of interest as I have been a follower of yours for a long time. Religion is a strange beast and you have helped me learn so much. Thanks for your post WaynO

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  • This is so true and so needed. My trauma and church issues resulted from a megachurch that repeatedly lied, manipulated, and then fired me, and I’ve been able to find a very small church that is so different from that environment, and so similar to the church I grew up attending that it has helped to heal and lessen a lot of this. But it’s still there. I’m so on guard in any “big” church setting – loud worship band, elevated screens, etc. There’s a certain cadence of preaching too, that seems to be used by EVERY PREACHER in the church where I worked, that sets me on edge too. And anyone who reminds me of my previous narcissistic boss makes me uneasy. Like you said, I go back to our conversations over and over and over… even now, four years later, things will hit me as being ridiculously rude and inappropriate.

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    • thanks, sarah. oh, you’re not crazy and you’re not alone. those that come from a mega-church experience like ours have a unique wound that’s sometimes hard to explain to those who have different kinds. they’re like, fog machines, really? and things programmed to the minute and a whole behind-the-curtain thing going on that is often scary.

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  • ya~ and well on top of all the past trauma you never got healed of IN the church~ the ‘place’ of healing. . has been my testimony~ however with the new wave of ‘inner healing’ programs I learned a handful of things that has helped me heal from my past traumas and the ones I received by the Body… but it is all Bible. . .the Bride will be persecuted by the church. . it is part of her awakening and transformation that will cover her in times of judgment.. . .There is HOPE~ the true church will arise with healing in her wings. . . . xoxo

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    • thanks, carol. i love that passage in malachi and it brought me great hope when i was doing some personal healing work years ago.

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  • This is so wonderfully written, from a place of knowing and honesty. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. You’ve put words to the thoughts & feelings I couldn’t quite articulate. I have been wondering and dismissing that I’ve been crazy because I’ve had a physical reaction to certain “christian’ words. I joked that I have ptsd! Glad to know I am not crazy, but also saddened that so many can relate to this.

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  • Kathy, thanks for sharing this. Every Sunday I feel guilty about not going to church and so, I sometimes go, hoping that I will be and feel included and connected. Nope! Gratefully what I do feel is my God and honestly, that’s all that matters. I also find this a difficult place to be in when you know you are called by God to do and be more and believe that includes more seminary training. The challenge is that you need references from church leaders in order to be considered a candidate for any program. I am having to trust God in teaching me what He wants me to know and be without further formal education. When I think about it, it is much sweeter since I don’t have to write papers based on someone else’s knowledge, experience and journey. Maybe life without church for a while is good!

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    • thanks for sharing, monica. yeah, the whole seminary thing can be very confusing. we have this fun idea to host a monthly learning community called “beyond seminary” for those that want to learn together. kind of the stuff you don’t learn in seminary that you really need to know 🙂

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  • I am going to be honest here. .. I am soo sick and tired of people in leadership deciding who can/can’t go to that church but when I experienced that few years ago and I am hearing pastors or someone in the leadership position I am going to say this and I will say it again and again and again and again and again if u cannot practice what u ‘preach’ … isn’t that being a hypocrite? I am not saying I am perfect and I never will be… I am just saying it what or how I see things. .. I will never apologize for being me or when I will no longer sit there and let anyone decide I don’t belong there or I am not a great fit fot their church.. talk about being unsafe… where in the bible did god say pastors or people in the leadership position decide anyone can or can’t come to HIS church? Hmmm there. .. I said my peice ! Namaste

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  • The other day I came across someone in the dating world that was so harsh and reminiscent of those intense days.. And the twitching hasn’t stopped? I really do miss those days of a spiritual injection, when you just had to last as long as getting to a “quiet time” or retreat or sermon or conference or Beth Moore devotional. Ew, I heard it too.
    I really do have an emptiness that nags me sometimes in my soul, but an awareness that treatment for spiritual PTSD is not unlike that of trauma induced PTSD. Showing up in safe places, remembering in order to heal, honesty, being gentle with yourself, and staying the h*** away from triggering similar reminders as best you can. Someone needs to write a book including how to re-engage, how to find hope again, and how to come out on the other side. #ohwait #comingthisfall

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  • Kathy, Thank you for posting this. I am thankful as well for the person who stood up as saying that church has been a positive experience for them. I have met many who have just that reaction to talk of church and I honour their joy and connection.
    However, religion has been a big factor in a long term depression in my life that can check off all the items in your PTSD. It was not the only factor but with a dad as pastor and an x-husband as pastor I find myself jittery just trying to talk about some of the past experiences with church.
    But it is different with God. The best thing that happened to me was 27 years ago when I reached the point of suicidal depression and the awareness that I needed to choose the relational God over doctrines. The journey from there has not been an easy one and has had its down turns. I continued to attend churches up to about a year after my divorce but then it got to much.
    About 6 years ago I began seeking a community again. Because I believe from having been open enough about my own struggles, that there are others who come to church hoping to find connection, I felt that the church needs to have those who understand this struggle and are aware enough to offer a hand of caring to others.
    It has not been an easy road. I have left many churches when it became apparent that they had developed structures that didn’t really give my places to direct people for other inclusive supports. I attended a church 2 years ago that offered inclusiveness in their worship but did not balance that with openness in conversations to strangers.
    And yet, their worship was the one that spoke the greatest inclusiveness with God. It was a message I could feel good inviting others to hear. It will take time. I still get a clinching inside at the idea of church but I go to that place because each time I am invited to share a table for those “whether you have much faith or little, have tried to follow or afraid you failed. Come, because it is his will that those who want to meet him might meet him here.” Slowly, I am beginning to build relationships there that match that message.

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    • thank you so much for sharing a bit of your journey, and i, too, am always glad to hear good stories, too, and i know they exist! you are very brave. i love the thought of “whether you have much faith or little, have tried to follow or afraid you failed, come….”

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  • Kathy, I knew I’d probably start crying as soon as I saw the title of this post from a friend on Twitter. I wasn’t wrong.

    Thank you. Thank you for helping to give both space and voice to those of us who are not just angry or rebellious or hard-hearted or bored, but who are hurt, broken, and traumatized. Those of us who sometimes feel utterly lost without the mooring of that which was our anchor for so long, but which we had to sever when it began to pull us under. Thank you for telling us that our experiences matter, that they are Real, and that we are not alone.

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  • Any ptcs from church, comes from the preacher teaching his own word and not the truth of Gods.

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  • Ever wonder if its God that your alergic to by accepting the preachers words as truth instead of believing in Jesus’s words?

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  • Let me start out by saying that I don’t discount that there are people who have been hurt by others who call themselves Christians, or church leaders, Pastors, and Priests. I will never discount or the hurt that the person may feel and struggle with. Yes there are pastors, preachers, teachers, and lay people in the church building that cause hurt, teach false beliefs, and are involved in the church organizations for their own personal gain.

    With all that being said, what I do believe is that we cannot, and must now continue to hold onto the hurt, pain, shame, guilt, or whatever negative feelings you may have against the church body. There is a difference between the church building and the church body. The building is where people gather, and we must realize that everyone who comes through the doors of the building are not always a part of the body of believers. We all make mistakes, do wrong things but just as God forgives us, should we not forgive those who trespass against us. Forgiving is not always about forgetting, but about learning to loose the negative that can keep us bound up. I don’t forget how I injured myself so that I don’t do it again, but I do let go of the pain and fear in order to move forward and accomplish the goal that I set out doing at the time I got hurt.

    Jesus, who was without sin, died for our sins (even those of the ones who were crucifying him, and nailing him to the cross) and all he said was, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”

    All I am saying is don’t blame us all, and lump us all into one group and say that the church is bad because of the actions of a few bad people. Remember Jesus’s words, “Not everyone that saith Lord, Lord…..”

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  • Wow, Kathy! After reading your post and most of the 43 comments and replies, it’s hard to know what to say…. But I’ve managed a couple thoughts 🙂 ! First, it’s obvious you are doing what you’ve been called, equipped and led to do. (I say that as a Process guy, whose vision of God as “personal” is a bit different than most traditional Xns.) And clearly your “parish” is much wider than just those who come to your on-site meetings.

    I’m already well familiar with the great work of Valerie Tarico (Away Point, and books, articles beyond) and Marlene Winell and others working on healing of religion-related wounds, etc. Those two are not working from within a church… and that is a difference of significance relative to you. Both roles or “locations” are needed. “The Church” is both very important in some situations and for some people and not very important in another sense and for other people.

    In super-summary, my own path led me eventually out of all churches but then back into a much more open, free and different-theology place. In my case, the movement centered around thinking/theological development more than any people or organizational issues… but then I’m a learning junkie and tend to remain semi-attached (certainly not emotionally enmeshed) in relationships. (Not always ideal, I realize, but HAS spared me lots of emotional turmoil and helped me be a stability point for others.)

    Anyway, for quite a few years, with a lot of psychology/human development and a lot of theology in my “resume”, I’ve been trying to distill patterns of various types in the PT Church Syndrome and related phenomena. Sometimes my musings and insights get up on my blog or into a spiritual growth ebook I wrote; others I’m still working on. Lest this comment get overly long, I’ll just say this much now: Theology is often a significant part of the problem! More precisely, our (almost universal) low-level of understanding of how our own minds/hearts work in relation to theory-creation sets us up for problems. I mean across the education spectrum from little formal education, including on the Bible and Christianity/religion to college-educated, seminary-trained.

    When I say theory-creation, in this context I mean one’s personal theology… both conscious and subconscious… sometimes the subconscious overpowers a “good” conscious theology. And we all have a personal theology, regardless how little we may have read or heard about theology or the Bible. My plug for the cognitive/theological side of development and personal healing is this: Look for the best, most genuine sources (books, audio, video, etc.) that speak about the things of your interest and need and that may sometimes be a bit of a mental challenge to follow or digest. To NOT develop one’s “theory/theology” or “cognitive” side can limit the level of overall growth one can achieve! And I’m not talking about becoming an “academic” or an intellectual… just a reader/listener/thinker. (Hey… I think some of this I’ve never written on my own blog: new self-assignment!). Thanks again for sharing your heart AND mind, Kathy!

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  • Thanks for writing this! I left my church of 20 years about a year and a half ago. It has been so hard to heal. Still struggling from the abuse I took from not just one member but several. I have a feeling that I still have a long road ahead of me.

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  • Hi Kathy. Wonderful insights! I’m not sure how to contact you personally–don’t see an email. I’d love to have you or anyone else to contact me, however. You can find me through my own site that was inspired 5 years after I wrote my first book related to this topic, back in 1993, after my husband and I both lost our beloved careers for which we had spent many years preparing–all because we insisted the Southern Baptist Convention’s Foreign Mission Board deal with a colleague after widespread sexual abuse of minors and colleagues. Collusion was of Penn State proportions.
    One of my friends, a Unitarian, once declared that I had learned to make lemon meringue pie out of lemons. However, despite a host of many friends made since, the PTSD still keeps us both in a love-hate relationship with the church. It’s something, I’ve decided, that we can see as a “chronic illness” or a strong dose of life-changing enlightenment and increased sensitivity. Actually, IT’s BOTH–and I don’t believe it’s possible to find ways to use the “illness” as a tool in unique ways, just as you obviously have. My plan is to do much more related to injustice that’s done “all in the name of Jesus.” See http://www.takecourage.org

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