Religious Trauma and Leaving the Church

Let me know if this fits. You spent your entire life going to church for a variety of reasons: maybe parents made you and you didn’t have a choice, maybe it’s the only place you saw your friends at youth group, maybe you had some sort of spiritual awakening yourself and sought out church on your own. Regardless of how much you were involved prior, you’ve begun thinking things like “what if they’re all wrong and evolution is real?” or “if these people are Christians and they’re objectively not great people, why should I be like them?” or “I was really hurt by someone in the church or the church as a whole” or “my family disowned me because of something I can’t control”. How do you figure out who you are now? What do you believe? What are your morals?

Your story is really not that unique. Churches all around the country are posting think-tank pieces about “how do we get the kids back?”. They’re usually full of ideas like “what if we allowed guitars and drums on stage? What if our pastors wore jeans on stage? What if our youth pastors were allowed to swear in general conversation – but definitely not from the stage?”. Clearly they are missing the mark. People don’t leave the church because of the style of music or what the pastor wears. People leave the church because a large percentage of the churches get involved in politics to the point where it seems that they are more interested in power and “culture wars” than trying to spread the love of Jesus in real life to real people. People leave the church because there are more verses in the New Testament about gossip and greed and taking care of people than there are verses about being gay or having abortions, and yet our churches are full of people gossiping about each other under the guise of a “prayer chain” and complaining about the homeless in their city or Black Lives Matter protestors holding up traffic. People leave the church because there are churches out there protecting sex offenders and allowing them a position of power.

Perhaps you’ve had these thoughts and maybe you’ve even brought them up to the powers that be in your church – your youth leader, your pastor, your parents – and I can almost guarantee I know how that conversation went. You discussed your very real concerns and they came back with “people are flawed, keep concentrating on God”. And then you were a “person of concern” and you start losing friends and volunteer positions and regarded with wariness. So here you are: questioning your faith, questioning your family and the church and nowhere to get answers. I know the stereotype that we’re in one of the most religious regions in Michigan. If you don’t belong to a church, how do you find a community? How do you talk to people about your doubts without them distancing themselves from you? How do you decide what you do believe and what your morals are? What boundaries do you need to set up to keep yourself sane and safe?

It feels like at the base of all of this questioning is “if I’m not a Christian or a member of a church, who am I?” It’s easy to base our identity on a lifescript someone hands us, all tidy with “if you just do this, then you’ll be happy and fulfilled, and if you don’t you’ll be sad and miserable”. I wish that I could tell you that it works, but it doesn’t. Think about the couples you know who are “staying together because the Bible is against divorce” and are completely miserable or are in abusive relationships. Think about all the LGBTIA+ individuals who are in heterosexual relationships to “not sin” or are resigning themselves to a life of lonliness because their church has said “it’s ok to be gay, but only if you’re celebate and don’t try to find romantic love”. Think about the teen moms who were told “if you abort this baby you’re going to hell” and then struggles for the rest of her life to support herself and her family because the church isn’t really interested in helping poor or homeless people after the baby is born.

On the other hand, if you want to explore what you do believe and what type of person you want to be, that’s really hard work. It’s hard to see yourself grow and not understand why the people around you are not putting in the work it takes. It’s hard to look back and understand “yeah, I’m pretty messed up and traumatized from my experiences in church”. But I promise you it’s worth it. Maybe one day you’ll find your way back to a church that is healthy, if that’s what you are seeking. Maybe you won’t and instead you will find your way to being ok in who you are without the church. As a therapist, we accept people for who they are regardless of what they believe or what religion or non-religion they belong to. Yet, in counseling, we are focused on helping people figure out how they want to be in the world, how they want to act, who they want to surround themselves with, and how to apply what they believe to real life. Therapists will never engage you in a debate about what is true or not true–that is not up for us to decide. Counselors / Therapists will help you engage in how you want to apply your belief system in this world we inhabit. Living out your beliefs from a place of clarity has real benefits. Ascribing to a belief system for your spiritual life can be quite beneficial, yet, applying your belief system to your actions is something that you will see results from.  Counseling can be extremely helpful as you work through religious doubts, possible sanctuary trauma, difficulties with those who do not practice what they preach, and figure out who you are and what you want out of life.

By Melodie Whitmore, MA LLPC

Sources: Murray, M. (2019, September 26). Churchdread. Retrieved December 02, 2020, from


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