Recovering from religious trauma: Healing begins with believing

The number of people sharing stories of religious trauma has increased significantly in recent years. Religious cultures in the United States all too often create broken institutions led by broken people, who do everything imaginable to break the very people who came to them looking for Christian community or support. It should go without saying that this description does not fit every or maybe even the majority of Christian institutions, but you have to say it anyway because the first objection always raised is the “whataboutist” mantra: “Well, I had a perfectly healthy Christian experience all my life.” That is fantastic if it’s true, but one person’s positive experience does not negate the reality and pain of someone else’s traumatic experiences.

After finishing graduate school, I returned to my undergraduate alma mater to teach. The place had been through several waves of traumatic institutional battles since the time I had been a student there ten years earlier. In hindsight, the warning signs screamed from every corner. But several of us new professors were reassured by trusted friends already working there that things were fine and that the rumors were just that. A year later, those same friends said if they had only known then what they had learned they never would have encouraged us to come. But at the time, it was a full-time job finally getting to do what I loved and at a place formative in my own life. My teaching went well, and I loved my connections with the students. I received formal accolades for my teaching and enjoyed a great reputation.

Unfortunately, the administrative takeovers had created an institution hell-bent on being the poster child for institutional dysfunction. There were so many elements that today we would call “Trumpian” that it now feels like a foretaste of the problems later inflicted on the whole country. The inhumanity and cruelty with which faculty and students were treated was appalling for a Christian institution. Lies and manipulation constantly shaped interactions between administration and faculty and, sometimes, between faculty members as well. Some of us started to speak out as a matter of conscience. We did so quietly and internally, going through the proper channels. Those channels shut us down at every turn. The standing rule at this institution, as it is for an alarming number of Christian colleges and universities, stated that faculty could not approach the board of trustees directly with problems. Doing so would mean immediate termination. The only way to get word to trustees of what was happening was through the very administrators who were causing the problems. Eventually, inevitably, we were forced to share stories more openly outside the institution in hopes of getting help from someone outside who had the influence or power to make changes. That was when we really learned who our friends were.

The theology department enjoyed the most prominent position on a campus that was priding itself on returning to the “Biblical roots” of the institution. They distanced themselves from any efforts to address the problems at the school because they were protecting a newly established divinity school. In their minds, the divinity school was doing such a tremendous “work for God” that it was worth any price to protect “what God is doing here.” The price tag included sacrificing fellow faculty to institutional bullying and looking the other way while the real mission of the school, rigorously teaching academic disciplines from a Christian perspective, was compromised under the influence of populist prophets with no academic credentials. That was their defensive strategy. Their offensive strategy lay in discrediting those who spoke out against the administration.

I presented a difficult case for all involved. Unlike some of the other faculty who had the courage to speak out, I was not as easily labeled as an outsider because of my alumni status and pastoral denominational service. I had no serious moral issues they could exploit. My teaching record was exemplary. I had widespread student support and respect, an advantage that probably mattered more than anything else. I’m also known for my fairly gentle and gracious personality, which is part basic Christian obedience and part overcompensation for taming my naturally strong temper. Unfortunately, even in Christian circles, many people see such gentleness and compassion as weakness or a willingness to be led. They didn’t know how to process my combative side because it wasn’t what they were used to seeing from me. Ironically, I would be penalized as being influenced by others to take a stand because I didn’t make a habit of causing trouble.

The narrative spread about me after I spoke out was that I was being “influenced” by other people. That I would never make such accusations if I were speaking on my own accord. Because, well, “how could these things be true? And we know he is too upright to lie.” The rumors were spread despite the fact that all my life I have been characterized by refusing to conform to popular pressure. For better or worse, I’ve always been the one to speak out against injustices and what I felt were wrongs. This moment was not a new turn for me. It was a natural extension of the way I had always lived. Yet, suddenly, even people who supposedly knew me well were buying into this narrative to keep them from having to accept how truly broken and unethical the institution was. A person I’d once respected as a mentor and close friend, someone who had seen me stand up against these sorts of things before, actively promoted the idea that I was simply a patsy parroting the concerns of someone else.

The hardest thing about that whole experience was the stealing of my agency. I have always been willing to own my mistakes and my successes equally. Even when I make mistakes, they are mine. Except now, my actions supposedly weren’t my own. Coupled with that was the seeming futility of trying to live my life with integrity. I felt I had checked all the boxes. Yet in the end, I felt people trusted a pathological liar and an ambitious dean protecting his turf more than me. With most people, it made sense because they didn’t know me. But the number of people who should have known me better, even those formerly closest to me, who equivocated or even bought fully into the lies was crushing. It truly made me ask both, “What have I even been doing all these years?” and “Does anyone know me at all?” I know now that there were far more people who supported us than were able to say and, even then, there were new friends from unexpected places who stood in place of those who faded away. At the time, it was harder to see. There were silver linings in a small circle of faculty friends who met and supported one another. A person from campus who observed and overheard us meeting at one point said, “You know, they’ve been accusing you guys of plotting, but what I heard sounds more like group therapy than plotting.” It was. That faithful little cluster of faculty definitely saved my sanity and maybe even my life during those years.

I eventually got out and moved to another institution. In my second year there, everything blew up in a spectacularly devastating fashion at my former institution. Institutional leaders were going after the divinity school, and suddenly, the theologians found their consciences. They never retracted a word of the slanders directed at those of us who went before even as they made the same points now to defend themselves. They never apologized and still haven’t. I’ve marveled in recent years at how many Christians, people who supposedly base their hope for eternity on asking for forgiveness through Christ, seem incapable of apologizing to others.

I honestly asked myself if I should be writing about this topic even this many years later because I’m not sure how much I’ve healed. I think I’m in a good place, but one is always subject to experiencing periods of relapse. Healing is a journey with hesitant steps, nasty bumps, jarring regressions, and gradual movement to a better place if you’re fortunate and God guides you. I felt it was worth writing about both because the writing helps the healing and because of the growing numbers of people who are coming forward with their stories of religious abuse. Much of this abuse is egregious, including sexual assault and other types of physical and emotional harm. Some of it is more subtle like my situation, the gradual acid of dehumanizing treatment wearing people down in spaces where they hoped to feel safe, where they hoped to find God. One thing I have learned through it all is the healing power of knowing that you are believed and trusted in situations of religious trauma.

I vividly remember an experience about five years after my move to another institution during an academic meeting in Grand Rapids, MI. We had gathered at the home of a colleague to enjoy some post-conference time together. A friend and one of my former professors from my doctoral institution, Baylor University, came over to talk with a group of us. As our other friends drifted away, she gently put her hand on my arm and said three words I didn’t realize my soul had been starving to hear for so long. “Are you okay?” she whispered. Amazingly, no one without an agenda had asked me that question in all those years. We both knew what she meant, and in that moment, she communicated three things of infinite healing power. She cared. She saw. And she believed. It took me a moment to find my voice, which choked a little for the first time in years, but when I did, I had one of the most honest conversations with her I’d had with anyone in a while. She didn’t perform any magical acts that night to make it all better, and sharing didn’t change anything in a material sense. I’m still not sure she knows how much it meant to me. But it meant everything and changed everything in a deeper, internal sense. It was refreshing in the most profound sense of the word for someone to ask and care with no agenda, no manipulation, no demands that I just “get over it” and with absolute faith in the person they knew me to be. Believing people is not the only thing we can do, but it is the most powerful first step we must take before we can help in other ways.

If you are wondering how to support someone struggling with religious trauma, start by believing them. It may sound nuts. It may look insane from your perspective. Others may discourage you. Even when you don’t have all the facts or the personal experiences, you need to summon the ability to trust their heart. If you know them to be a person of integrity, that should be enough. Most people don’t choose to upend their lives and challenge the powers that be on a lark. There are some people of a contentious nature who might do that sort of thing for sport, but most of us strive for comfort and security. Risking those things is not something people do lightly. Your friend or loved one is standing in the gap facing the weight of institutional patterns that have been mastering the ability to crush dissent for thousands of years. If they have the courage to step out on a limb, you need to have the courage to trust them if you truly love them. If we believe God is a God of truth, then God is always honored when the truth is revealed, no matter how sordid it might be. The Apostle Paul wrote that love “believes all things.” (1 Cor. 13:7)

If you are standing in that place now, know that you are not standing alone. Many of us have been there before. It hurts and it’s cruel, but there is light at the end. There are Christian institutions that try to follow their ideals. I pray you find one. Feelings mend and hurt heals. Trust slowly rebuilds in those relationships that matter. The friends you made in the trenches will be friends you value for life. And hopefully, somehow you managed to inspire someone else who will make the choice to stand firm in the hour of testing.


Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

About Post Author

Related Essay