Church hurts. There, I said it…although I hate that. I was reminded today, at church, just how much church hurt is in my past, and I’d like to share some of my thoughts regarding church hurt…and also, how the church can help heal those hurts.
I’ll be clear: It is not my intention to speak negatively against any specific people, to drag names through the mud, or to, God-forbid, cause anyone else hurt. In fact, I have chosen against sharing openly about my thoughts on this topic, until now, solely for that reason. But some time has passed and part of how I heal is through writing. So here we are. My intention in sharing my story is not ill-willed. My intention in sharing the following is for this very purpose: to give hope to hearts that have been wounded by people in the church. That is all.
Back to today. The leader at our current church asked a question to our group about our experiences in our church – specifically relating to the topic of dress attire – from the churches of our childhood. Quietly, I glanced over at my husband, and we just shared a knowing look and a small, albeit sad smile. I waited until the others in the group shared their experiences and I debated, and prayed about, whether or not I should say anything. But after some silence, I felt peace to share what was expected in my childhood church regarding attire. Women were to wear dresses or skirts (below the knee) and head coverings. I am not suggesting that is wrong, it was just my experience. I also shared two memories from that church with regards to the topic of attire. 1. I remember when an elder stood up and read aloud an actual dress code that was to be adhered to amongst the congregants, and 2. When, after wearing dress pants to church one Sunday (years later), I was pulled aside and informed, not kindly, that if I chose to wear pants (instead of a dress) to church again, I would no longer be allowed to teach Sunday School. I’m aware that’s referred to as legalism. But I truly believe that those same people who did those things would most likely regret some of their actions today. I believe we all make mistakes, and I also believe that, by the grace of God, we can learn from them and grow.
And then he asked me, “Did those actions ever affect how you viewed God?” No hesitation. Absolutely, they did. “How?” For me, it made me believe, in a very skewed way, that God somehow expected perfection from me, along with certain behaviour I was to maintain, and that I was not worthy to receive His love if I didn’t act, behave, …dress… a certain way. I have forgiven those people who enforced their own personal convictions onto me…and our entire church, but as I shared those memories in our church group, I was surprised to find that I became emotional. My whole body was shaking and I fought back tears as I answered those questions. Sometimes, we don’t realize to what extent certain actions and behaviours hurt us until we are forced to think about them…and the consequences of them.
I have been blessed to know a few women who are wives of pastors, and let me tell you – they know church pain more than anyone else. The countless stories I’ve heard from them would shock most people. (I have permission to share the following.) One pastor’s wife shared with me how her husband would wear shorts to church, not out of disrespect, but due to significant discomfort. A member of their church didn’t like it, so she thought it would be acceptable to walk up to him after each service and pull his leg hair and then walk away. Pause. Consider that. If you aren’t outraged by that behaviour, you should be. That’s assault. And that type of behaviour and attitude has no place amongst God’s people. Another pastor’s wife recounted, “We were both serving in ministry together in a para-church organization when we got married. Shortly after we we were married, the directors suddenly left the ministry, leaving the entire weight of the ministry on our 5-month-married shoulders. The strain that abandonment had on our marriage was quite huge at the time.” Church hurt is isolating. I could go on with so many other stories from my friends who are pastor’s wives, but just trust me on this: there is behaviour in churches that would shock you, anger you, and grieve you. And it should. Because that’s not what God’s people are supposed to be like.
On a personal level, I know church hurt also, although differently from pastor’s wives. However, before I share, I want to restate the purpose of why I’m sharing this experience, and I ask that you remember it as you read. The purpose of this is intended only: to give hope to hearts that have been wounded by people in the church. It is not to cause more pain. I also want to make it clear that I harbour no bitterness or resentment to anybody in the churches referred to, and I have forgiven these hurts long ago.
Our family stopped attending church for 2.5 years because of significant pain caused by people in a previous church we attended. We just figured that the more you get involved in a church, the more you know, and when you know things, for us anyway, we felt it was important to stand up for what we felt was right and to stand against what we felt was wrong. When nothing we tried seemed to work, we relinquished our efforts, and chose to remain in that church for the sake of our pastors. My husband and I have developed a deep love and care over the years for those in pastoral ministry and we felt our calling, at that time, was to remain in our church to continue to love and support our pastors how we could. We tried to do just that. But for approximately 2 years, we hated going to church. It was exhausting. Draining. And it was evident we were no longer wanted there by some people. And yes, someone even said, “Well, there’s the door.” But, it seemed to us that we were just causing problems. The only reason we stayed for the time we did, was out of obedience.
After some time, my husband and I both felt peace about leaving. We met with our pastors and reminded them of our love and appreciation for them and expressed our desire, should they wish it, to continue a friendship with them. We sincerely desired and wished the best for that church (and we still do), but we could no longer attend. It was just too painful. Partly due to the Covid-19 pandemic, our church attendance…to anywhere…just dropped off. We were reminded often by friends of the importance to attend church during that time. I also remember telling one friend that if it weren’t for my kids, I’d never join another church again. Not because I didn’t want to. Not because I didn’t miss worshipping with other believers. But because the idea of joining another church and putting myself into another situation to be hurt was just too much. What’s the definition of “crazy”? Isn’t it doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result? No thanks.
There’s nothing quite like church hurt. Perhaps it’s because as Christians we expect other people in the church to behave…like Christians. Crazy, I know. But that idea IS kind of is crazy when you think about it. The church is made up of people. Sinners. And, if you are someone who has been hurt by the church, and you’ve been told this cliché before, don’t close your browser just yet. Hear me out, please. I used to hear people say that when they had been hurt by the church, they gave up on attending entirely. And, out of my ignorance in not knowing what church hurt can really do to a person, I would simply respond with that old adage that has been said to me: The church is made up of imperfect people. Yes, I know. Funny thing though: Hurt people already know that and hearing it doesn’t actually make the hurt feel any less or go away. But, there is a nugget of truth to that thought. I read the other day that churches don’t hurt people; People in churches hurt people. And that is where, I believe, the key to changing our perspective of church hurt lies. We weren’t hurt by our entire church. We were hurt by a few members in the church. Not the whole congregation. Not the pastor. And recognizing that truth was freeing for me.
We knew that we “should” have been attending church every Sunday for the 2.5 years that followed after leaving that church. But every time we would force ourselves to attend church “for the sake of our kids”, it was traumatizing. Yes, traumatizing. I would get fidgety and very uncomfortable and pray the singing and the sermon would just end! I wanted to claw my way out of the sanctuary. It was awful. And I hated it. The people in the new churches we “tried out” were friendly. There was nothing wrong with the sermons or the people, but I just couldn’t be there. And then a friend asked me one day if I had considered, given my reaction to attending any new church since our previous experience, that I may be having a trauma response. And just like that, it all clicked. It made total sense. I just didn’t know what to do with that knowledge. I was associating any “organized church” experience with previous hurt and pain, and I couldn’t shake it.
But, God is faithful.
My husband had been suggesting to me that we should try going to a small house church in the city. I was very hesitant, for many reasons. But we went. And for the first time in years, I exited church on Sunday morning with a feeling that was utterly indescribable. We were loved. We were cared for. We were prayed over. We were encouraged. We were wanted. And we had the opportunity to be and do those things for the others there. For the first time in years, I left church feeling refreshed instead of drained, exhausted, and depleted. We witnessed what church was meant to be: people searching the Scriptures with one another, praying for one another, and caring deeply for one another. And it was incredible. It was clear that this was where God had called us. Our house church has been a place of deep healing for us.
But I’m not stupid. Growing up, my mother would often say, “You’ll never find the perfect church, and if you do, don’t join it, because you’ll ruin it.” How right she was. I have no doubt that we also caused hurt in that same church, and we’ve owned that. Causing hurt was the last thing we ever wanted to do, but I know it happened. The church is made up of people…who are imperfect, yes. But, the church of God is also made up of people who don’t hurt too. It’s made up of healers and helpers.
For our family, for this moment in time, in order to learn how to heal and trust again, God has provided a small group of people who love us…even with our imperfections. In the only way I’m capable of right now, God has met me and has provided an opportunity to still worship Him in a corporate setting. Just a much smaller one, without any resemblance of “organized church”. And I am immensely grateful for that.
I don’t know where God will meet you in your journey of healing, but I beg of you to remember this:
God is faithful.
His people are imperfect. (Including you.)
But God’s love for you is perfect.
And if you ask Him, (although it may take time) He will answer you and meet you where you are. Be patient in that process. Imperfect people will always hurt you. And you will hurt other people too, even if that’s not what you’re intending. But recognize that it is not the whole church of God that has hurt you. It may have been people in a church or it may have been certain beliefs a church holds or it may even be the structure of a church. But it wasn’t the whole church of God.
No church is perfect. The real church of God is humble. And it recognizes when it hasn’t been humble. The real church of God loves people well and it doesn’t cast people out. The real church of God is one that brings healing to wounded hearts and souls.
The only way the church can be real is to love God more than anything else. The only way a church can help heal your wounds is if you allow them to. And I know that can be a very difficult thing to do. But search your heart. If you wish to be part of a church that heals others, you must, as I have learned in this process, also learn to: Practice humility. Love Jesus. Read His Word. Obey His commandments. Set aside your pride and even the identity you have assumed from being wounded by the church and slowly, allow Jesus to bring healing to you – through His Word, through His presence, and through His imperfect church. If you give up on the church entirely, because you’ve only seen the ugly, it means you also give up seeing the beauty that’s there as well. It might be more hidden – because yes, it’s made up of sinners – but beauty IS there. Seek it. And when you find it, grasp onto it and never let it go. Because in it, there is a family that is waiting to embrace you with open arms, to love you, to pray for you, to care for and encourage you. And it’s worth every bit of hurt you experience in the process and every bit of searching you do. Choose to become a part of that healing for others. Choose to become what God intended His church to be – His beautiful bride. And from that, you will reap abundant blessings and indescribable joy.
Side note: When you do find that church family, remember to love your pastor and his wife well. And be their friend.