When Trauma Appears at Church

Note: This is a third post in a series about teaching. Click to read Part 1: The Incredible Power of a Teacher and Part 2: Creating a Community of Belonging.

Credit: Pexels

“And this,” said the driver of the taxi in which I was riding through downtown New Orleans, Louisiana “is how high the water reached.” I solemnly stared at the watermark on the second story of the building we were passing. It was the fall of 2016 and my first visit to New Orleans. I was in town for meetings with other chapter presidents like myself prior to our professional organization’s annual convention held in a different city each year. I arrived late at night yet the taxi driver was eager to share stories of the city he loved even though those stories now included remembering the devastation and loss of life caused by Hurricane Katrina and the ways in which people’s lives were permanently altered by this storm.

During my days in New Orleans I couldn’t help but contrast the impact and changes from a deadly storm with a recent conversation I had with my therapist about another way change happens – a bit at a time. One of my favorite places in the world is Arches National Park. It is a place that too has been shaped by environmental forces. The forces at work here are tiny drops of water; tiny wisps of wind. Combined with time, the effect is undeniable even though in the moment the process of change can be difficult to recognize.

Similar to forces at work in nature, traumatic experiences change humans. Psychological trauma is any event that is greater than a person’s mental, emotional, and/or physical capacity to respond to that event. It is not the event itself that determines whether or not trauma will be an outcome of the event. What matters is how the individual person perceives the event(s). Every person is their own unique mix of genetics, personality, development, etc. which means that no two people will experience the same event(s) in the same way.

Panoramic view of Arches National Park in southern Utah. Photo by unknown author.

Experiences resulting in trauma to a person’s psyche can be as big and recognizable as a hurricane – war, physical and sexual abuse, natural disasters, violent crimes – or tiny and difficult for both society and survivors to recognize – growing up with a parent who consistently displays belittling behavior such as eye rolling, sighs, or sarcasm; emotional neglect such as growing up with a parent who didn’t know how to talk with you about emotions much less meet emotional needs; living or working in a high stress environment; being rejected by friends; moving to a new location; living in poverty; or being exposed as a child to ideas, movies, events, etc. that you were not developmentally capable of processing. Experiences that can cause trauma are numerous. Especially when repeated over time and experienced during developmental years of childhood, small traumatic events can cause as much damage as large events.

Traumatic events shape our brains and bodies, changing how our nervous system responds and how our brains are wired. During my time as a graduate student in a trauma informed education program, I was both fascinated and horrified to see the differences in brain scans between children who had experienced severe trauma and those who had not. Also as part of becoming a trauma informed educator, I learned how trauma can be expressed through behavior, gets trapped in our bodies, became aware of my own ACE score and how it affects me, and was taught to view behavior through a lens of curiosity knowing that kids do well if they can. This knowledge influences my practices in the classroom such as creating predictable routines, writing plans for each class period on the board, utilizing art and movement as learning methods, and prioritizing building community. As my favorite professor said, “If we are harmed in relationships then we can also be healed in relationships. Time spent building community is never wasted time.”

Now let’s shift to consider trauma in the lives of church members as well as considering how trauma can happen at church.

While church culture might not want to admit this, trauma is also a part of the lives of church members.

Trauma is a part of being alive on the earth. It’s not because anyone sinned, or didn’t read their scriptures enough, or didn’t pray enough, or didn’t attend the temple enough, or any of the other excuses church culture says are the reason people experience pain, especially pain at church. Sadly, church can also be a source of trauma.

Trauma resulting from religious and spiritual abuse is a topic I have rarely heard discussed. If there is one thing I want people to take away from reading this post, it is that trauma caused by the church is real. It is pervasive and something that needs recognition so that we, individually and as a community, can both heal and stop the ‘incorrect traditions of our fathers’ that are the teachings, culture, and practices that are causing trauma.

This past summer Valerie Hanmaker, a therapist who created the Latter-day Struggles Podcast, discussed spiritual abuse in a three-part series on her podcast using this article and this book to diagnose the degree to which spiritual abuse is present in the systems of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Spoiler alert: our community is not well. Turns out I’m not the only one who has experienced spiritual abuse and subsequent trauma at church.

Of the nine consistent markers of spiritually abusive church or family systems Valerie discusses in her podcast series, I will share how two of those markers have impacted me. One marker is the tendency for the misplaced authority by hyper-focusing on loyalty to the institution which sometimes emphasized more than loyalty to Jesus Christ. Basically church leaders = God which means disagreeing with a church leader means disagreeing with God. This means church leaders have authority to do what is described in another marker which is a tendency for the institution to hover over personal decisions in the lives of church members.

Looking back from a vantage point of twenty years later, I now see how the depression I carried with me during my late teens, college years and beyond was a result of spiritual abuse. I disliked saying the young women’s theme; too bad for me. There was no room to express that opinion in order to have an adult help me identify why I felt that way. Expressing that I disliked something integral to the young women’s program would have been the equivalent of disagreeing with God. When in 1998 I went to the temple for endowments, I walked in determined to wear my bra under the garment top. But, too bad for me. The temple workers preempted that by specifically telling me to put my bra on top of the garment. Temple workers = church authority = God. I felt ashamed that they somehow guessed what I wanted to do and figured they must have been inspired to give me exact instructions to prevent behavior so obviously in contradiction with church practices/God. (I later learned these instructions were never a written requirement but a cultural practice.) When I wanted to pick a different wedding date than the one my fiance suggested, I stayed quiet because I had been trained to defer to male authority. I hated so much about my wedding day; I burned with resentment and disappointment for years. My finance/husband had no idea. When I chose to pursue professional work and graduate school after getting married, I was warned about what prophets, and therefore God, said about putting off having kids. When I had an opportunity to change to a less than full-time schedule at my professional job after my first baby was born, I was elated because it provided the balance I wanted plus income we badly needed to pay for housing and healthcare. But I couldn’t very much enjoy either my baby or my work because I had voices in my head of church leaders, and therefore God, telling me everything I had to do be an acceptable mother. I had to do all of that mothering even better since I was obviously putting my family and society at risk of disintegration by continuing to work professionally, even if not full-time. Over more than a decade, these and many, many other incessant tiny drops of water and wisps of wind took a toll on my mind, body, and soul.

I despaired at the loss, albeit a perceived loss, of agency over my own life.

My journey with healing from trauma started just over five years ago. Months after the sudden death of a family member left me reeling, I finally admitted to myself that the grief over this loss wasn’t the only item I needed help with. It took some time to find a therapist who could help but once I found this person, I dove headfirst into a journey that is the mental equivalent of taking a house down to the studs and rebuilding it. I thought I would go to therapy for a year; turns out it takes longer than a year to excavate shards of trauma and then remodel and rewire a brain, body and soul. The work I have done in therapy is the hardest work I have ever done. Staring into the abyss of blackness, opening up doors to darkness and pain that I shoved down for years sometimes threatened to overwhelm me. Angels literally surrounded me at times. I was also often carried by the presence of the Divine Feminine. In the church we call Her Heavenly Mother but to me She is so much more. Because I have come to know Her so well, the idea of an embodied God, Elohim, being more than one person seems obvious to me. That God is plural is now so comfortable and familiar to me, I sometimes forget that saying this out loud in church would make me sound like a heretic to many people.

At this point, you may be wondering how I survived all this; how I am still here alive, because I did reach a point of crashing down from suicidal thoughts.

A few things that have helped me heal:

  • Therapy. Lots and lots of therapy. It was hard to find an effective therapist. Once found though, therapy has been invaluable. So has the rapid-eye technician my therapist referred me to work with.
  • Reading The Body Keeps the Score. I read this book years ago and ended up reading it again during my trauma informed teaching graduate degree. It explained the source physical symptoms that challenged me for years. If you are curious about the book but prefer a brief overview, listen to this interview with the author.
  • Learning about inter-generational trauma from the book It Didn’t Start With You. The work in epigenetics about how trauma is passed down as genetic markers and through our bodies is astounding.
  • Yoga and meditation. Trauma often results in dissociation from the body. For me, connecting with and becoming grounded in my body has taken a couple years of slow, consistent work.
  • Reading Dance of the Dissident Daughter and other experiences of connecting with the Divine Feminine. These experiences are holy and not possible for me to put into words.

Wondering about my status in the church? I am still a member and I do still attend. This is my current choice; I don’t set any expectations that my participation will always look like it does now. Also, I will never, ever judge anyone who makes a choice different than I am making. One benefit of my soul crushing experiences is a deep compassion for anyone who has also suffered. I firmly believe in prioritizing healing over participation in an institution, especially if that institution is the source of pain.

For me, therapy helped me untangle the relationship between God and church so that now I have separate relationships with each. I prioritize my spiritual connection to God over my religious connection to the church institution. This changes what my participation looks like; I check-in with myself to see what I need and what would feed my soul and what my body needs to be able to heal. At first, this meant taking a break from church. Currently, this means sometimes going to church. Sometimes it means staying home. Sometimes it means attending a different denomination’s worship services. Changes in participation also include establishing boundaries with church such as not accepting meeting requests with leadership, especially a bishop, without knowing the topic beforehand. It’s a simple boundary yet one that helps me tremendously even though it’s a boundary people seem surprised when I make a request to know the topic before accepting a meeting request. I also give myself permission to craft my own spiritual practices with zero guilt that these practices might be different than what the church tells me to do.

I give significant credit for my current church participation to an amazing teacher I had during fall semester 1997 at the BYU Jerusalem Center back when church members who were students at other universities could attend if they met academic requirements. This teacher, whom I’ll refer to as Brother H, taught an elective course about the New Testament. I remember sitting in class after class soaking up everything I was learning. I had never before heard anyone talk about Jesus, about the worth of women, or how Jesus treated women in the way this teacher did. It fed my soul. This teacher showed me a vision of the gospel, the good news that Jesus lived, died, and was resurrected, that I hadn’t ever heard of before his class. If I didn’t have that vision of how things could be, I don’t think I could stay in a church where Jesus can be hard to find.

It can be hard to face the reality that abuse can be a part of systems in places such as church where we want to be safe. The book Valerie references in her podcast series wasn’t written by anyone associated with the LDS church. It’s a book about churches in general. However, that there are so many markers of spiritual abuse present in the LDS church needs to be brought into the awareness of church members so that we don’t continue to perpetuate abusive practices. If spiritual abuse is present in the system, the system can change. Downside: I am not in a position to make changes to the system. However, I can change how I interact with and participate in the system. At times I also choose to challenge the system by becoming aware of spiritually abusive practices and speaking up when I see these practices happening around me. I challenge the system by establishing boundaries and by continuing my personal growth through stages of faith that others might find scary or uncomfortable.

Tiny wisps of wind and drops of water cracked open my heart and allowed me to step into a column of light; into a place of peace and endless connection with God. It all began with admitting that trauma is real and that I had experienced it.

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12 Responses

  1. Cass says:

    Thank you so much for this post! I, too, know the pain of church-induced trauma – by people who did it unintentionally as well as by those who exerted unrighteous authority over me. The concept of God=church=church leaders is truly a huge and damaging issue. I have religious trauma from all ages in my life going all the back to Nursery. Finally in my 6th decade, I have started to recognize it, what caused it and find the self-love inside me to finally do something about it – including strict boundaries that protect me and my family from further damage.

  2. nicolesbitani says:

    I really needed to read this. Thank you!

    • Bailey says:

      You’re welcome! Thank you for sharing that you needed this. It helps make the time it takes to write worth it.

  3. Anna says:

    This is a subject that really needs to be talked about more, and really needs to be looked into at the very top of the church leadership. So, thanks for opening up this discussion.

    I grew up hating to sing “I am a child of God” because I knew something was wrong with the parents God sent me to. And if God sent me to parents who are not kind and dear, then I must not be a child of God. I knew as a small child that something was wrong, even if I didn’t know how to name what was wrong, and the worst of the abuse hadn’t even started. Then I hit a lesson at church, about age six or seven, because that lesson was still being taught when I was an adult and teaching primary and that was the age I was teaching at that time. But the lesson promised that Heavenly Father loves us, just like our earthly parents, and just like our earthly parents might do something we dislike, like send us to bed, they will never do something that harms us, and God is the same way. I knew my parents did things that were not for my good, but things that harmed me. It was such a lie, and to teach that God is just like that, was that a lie too? It must be, and primary teacher is an idiot. God will lie to me, hurt me, not care if something is unfair, just like my earthly parents. And then there were stories about God drowning all the bad people, or killing all the enemies of God’s people. And since I already knew I was not a child of God, well, if a flood comes, I won’t be on the ark, because I am not someone God loves and protects.

    So, instead of seeing God as a source of love and comfort, someone who disapproved of my parents’ abuse, the church was actively teaching me that God didn’t really love me. God loves you just like your parents, means God’s love is needing me around for someone to kick. It was a fake kind of love just like how my parents said love, but were abusive.

    Then, as an adult, I tried to heal from the childhood abuse. I got real bad counsel like because I was over 8 during the sexual abuse, I was accountable for it. I was guilty of sex, even though I had no idea of what sexual intercourse even was when the sexual abuse started. I was told that I was worse then my abuser, because I had not forgiven. And what was the proof that I hadn’t forgiven? It was because I blamed myself for the abuse. I mean, that was jacka** backwards. I needed first to recognize that the abuse was totally my father’s fault, finally find it in myself to forgive ME, and hate HIM. Only when I could really be angry at my abuser, could I begin to heal. But being angry at my own parent was just something church leaders could not let me do.

    I finally got myself some therapy and support group, but I was criticized for getting help outside of the church. I was told being in a support group was “wallowing in it” rather than….um, stuffing it all back inside of myself.

    Long story short, I have dropped out of church. There is just too much tendency to blame individuals for any and everything that is wrong. It couldn’t possibly be that the church has untrained bishops who have no clue, or that the church leaders are not perfect. The church equates itself with God. It has a supper shallow understanding of things like forgiveness, expecting forgiveness to automatically heal all injuries, and tell stories about forgiveness where there really was nothing to really forgive. It was an accident or misunderstanding. Not an intentional crime with life damaging consequences.

    I just am not in a position to change how the church deals with trauma, and I am just tired of fighting to keep my sanity in a church that repeats much of the emotional abuse I got as a kid. So, I opted out, and honestly see no reason to ever go back.

    • Bailey says:

      Thank you for sharing your story. It is a tender one. I wish I could say something eloquent. I admire your wisdom in recognizing that you reached your limits dealing the institutional church.

  4. Mikaela says:

    I love your mention of “false traditions” passed down from prior generations- it has taken me a long time to realize that, more often than not, this means demanding we stay within our strict religious cultural expectations and is not talking about Gadianton robbers and murderous extremists. Those fringe groups must be sought out. Meanwhile, we bake patriarchy, misogyny and reducing women to their sexuality right in to our teachings generation by generation.
    I too was forced to unpack my religious trauma after unexpectedly losing both parents in an accident at 28. This was the moment I realized no matter how perfectly obedient you are, the math equation doesn’t add up. 11 years later I’m still unpacking complex trauma from church/family traditions. Thanks for the resources and beautiful analogy.
    As I stood as a witness at my daughters baptism frustrated by our entirely non-sensical approach to women and priesthood I had the distinct impression, “change is slow, but it is happening”. Tiny drop by tiny drop and wisp by wisp this too can change.

    • Bailey says:

      Ah, my heart goes out to you about your parents.
      Generations of teachings are tough to untangle. You are welcome for the resources and analogy. Happy you found it helpful. Thank you for sharing your impression that change is happening even if slowly! It’s reassuring to know there are many of us hoping/longing/working for change.

  5. Katie Ludlow Rich says:

    This is such an excellent series, Bailey. Thank you for the hard work and vulnerability you put into these pieces.

  6. Heather says:

    I love everything about this. The honesty, the insight, the thoughtfulness. Amen.

  7. Kaylee says:

    I’ve been chewing on this line all week: “Time spent building community is never wasted time.”

    Loving this series! Definitely something I’ll be referring back to.

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