Why Churches Generally Don’t Heal Our Trauma

by Karl Forehand

(Adapted from my blog on Patheos)

Before we even get started, let me just say this. I know that many of you might have had good experiences with your church. It’s better than a fundamentalist, evangelical church that you know of and you are more accepting, affirming, and generally more progressive. I get that–there is a church like that across the street. If it didn’t trigger us because of our trauma, we would probably attend there. I hope Pastor Donna is reading.

I am not saying you aren’t having good experiences. I had some good experiences at work today and I’m generally happy to be working there. I get some things out of it including community. But if I am honest, I must admit that this manufacturing plant was designed wrong for healing my trauma. For one thing, there is never enough time. If we are honest, I believe we can admit that the Western Church (and most others) was not designed right for healing our trauma.

1. They schedule over healing time.

I remember the look of horror on her face when I asked her to share her personal life. She was a lifelong Sunday School Teacher in a Baptist church. But, when I led the Experiencing God study and ask her to share details from her personal life, she froze up like my air conditioner earlier this year. It wasn’t common to do this at this particular church, ever. The typical schedule looked like Sunday School, Sunday Service, Wednesday night for the kids, and an occasional guest music group.

Bigger churches have more programming and some even offer small groups. I have been involved in several small groups that were intended to dive deeper, but generally, it turns out like the example above. People are hesitant to share and there’s never anywhere near enough time to do the work.

Most of the church’s energy is geared toward the show on Sunday and running the organization. Healing is a promise of the church that it never really has time to deliver.

2. They are not designed for honest dialog

The typical service in a Western church goes something like this. We are greeted at the door where we are pointed to the sanctuary. It’s a comfortable environment where we might see announcements or chat with the people around us. When the service begins, it is a series of rehearsed movements that are performed at the front of the auditorium. We are invited to sing the songs that are presented, listen and recite certain things together, then listen to a pre-arranged sermon or homily. No doubt, that it can be comforting, exciting, moving, and even inspiring.

But the trauma we arrived with is the trauma we will leave with because there wasn’t time for the things that are necessary for healing. If we went to Sunday School, there was a prearranged lesson and we weren’t even permitted to dialog much with this lesson, much less was it conducive to the kind of dialog needed for healing trauma.

3. They bypass our trauma

It is interesting that religion attracts traumatized people and then doesn’t provide the means for them to find healing. It wants to–it promises it will–but it seldom gets the job done.

One reason for this is spiritual bypassing. Spiritual bypassing is when we use spiritual language or ideas to gloss over or ignore our trauma. We say things like, “God is in control,” “You’ll get through this,” or “God has a purpose,” instead of doing the hard work of being with our wounds. Because we don’t have the space for healing, we move past it quickly even in small groups designed to help.

I know there are contemplative groups having success because I have been involved with one; but, I also know how quickly the organization can take precedence over the more involved healing process and we are prone to bypass hard topics when we are preoccupied with activity.

4. They are organizations

Don’t miss this point. Even though we may call ourselves something different, churches are organizations. On average they spend 70% of their earnings on salaries and buildings. Certainly, there are always programs for people that want healing. The funds are limited and most leaders in church organizations are trained to preach, manage the organization, recruit new members and keep people happy. It is only the rare pastor that is properly trained to counsel people with deep trauma and most don’t have the time.

So just like what happens at my job, hurt people hurt other people and the problem gets worse. Before churches add on the coffee shop to attract new members that will surely have trauma upon arrival, they should staff up with counselors and not theologians. A church that truly heals wouldn’t have to explain much from the pulpit.

I know that two people can help each other heal (especially through processes like focusing), but mainly where I see that working is outside the walls of the church. I was a pastor for 20 years. I saw a lot of trauma but was able to do very little about it within the framework of the church. People were engaged in that system that did not facilitate healing–it only proliferated the system.

5. They don’t allow for open theology

Generally, there is a primary teacher within the organization of the church. All the leaders, board members, etc. have all signed off on the belief statement of that organization. When the teacher teaches, he/she generally does not leave room for question or discussion. It is a very authoritative type of posture. It insinuates, “This is what you need to know and apply to your life.”

Questions and beliefs outside the creedal decisions of the church are not encouraged. Congregants tend to shut down intellectually and listen for solutions to their problems or challenges. Having beliefs outside of the organization’s framework is sometimes permitted, but not openly allowed to be processed (especially not in the main service).

It’s a controlling mechanism and only adds to the trauma a person feels. When I feel like my beliefs are “different,” but they won’t go away, it only adds to my feelings of helplessness. When the message doesn’t address my trauma or help me heal from it, and there are no other options available, all I can do is languish and feel worse.

What I did for 20 years, in the church, was to stuff all of those feelings and that trauma down, until one day it got the better of me and I left the ministry. Because of the trauma I endured and the lack of help, I found in the church, I don’t know if I’ll ever go back.

If your answer to all of this is, “Well, my church is better.” First of all, is it really that much better? Take a good step back and take some time off from the church and see if it was really helping you heal your wounds? Is it really helping you resolve your trauma or is it just covering it up? Second, seek out some good counseling (I would suggest a Jungian analyst or a really good spiritual director that knows focusing) and ask yourself whether you were receiving that healing within the church. Maybe you can do that within the church — maybe you need to take some time off.

Someone encouraged us to take a year off. They challenged us if we couldn’t take a year off, to ask ourselves why? If it really is the place where we are supposed to be, we will realize it. Once we stopped attending church, we started to heal quickly. We spent Sundays on the porch and in our living room doing all kinds of helpful and healing activities. We gained back several hours of our week to do things like focusing sessions and having deep healing conversations. I don’t know if we will ever go back to organized religion, but I’m spiritually much more mature and have healed from much of the past trauma.

A few good things did come from going to church all those years, but most of it can be replicated elsewhere without all the fuss and bother of going to a building to support an organization.

Laura and I published our book, Out Into the Desert, in August. We invite you to read it, and evaluate your own situation. Then join in the conversation!

Be where you are,

be who you are,

Karl Forehand

Photo by Alex Green: https://www.pexels.com/…/stressed-black-man-with…/

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