Voices: Spiritual trauma and congregations: A missing link


In the wake of years of exposing sexual abuse hidden within the church, we flounder to figure out what went wrong and how to bring healing. Seeing through the weeds of horror and picturing a healthy church on the other side can be difficult. Progress is being made, but there is still much to be done.

The church, generally speaking, and para-church organizations are trying to bring healing to people, but this becomes even more complicated when the original hurt came from the church. This intertwining of abuse and spirituality can lead to spiritual trauma, an under-researched and rarely discussed category of trauma.

Spiritual trauma can occur when spiritual abuse comes from religious beliefs, religious leaders and/or religious systems. Spiritual trauma is the missing conversation piece as we seek healing for survivors.

What is spiritual trauma?

A woman sexually abused by her spiritual leader, a child controlled by his father using the belief that he must obey or go to hell, or a person losing his or her community and identity through excommunication all point to traumatic circumstances involving religion and spirituality.

We cannot pretend or ignore the fact that just as religion and spirituality can bring joy, community and hope, they also can bring misery, isolation and despair. If we, as the body of Christ, wish to be a source of good, we have to acknowledge we also have been sources of evil. We cannot pick up and repair the brokenness if we ignore the shattered pieces.

Ephesians 4 reminds us words have the potential to build up or tear down. As followers of Christ’s way, we have the potential to build up or tear down those who have been abused under false teachings using Scriptures, the misuse of Christian ideals for coercion and the veiling of abuse as adherence to God.

What can we do?

Where do we even start? I take my cue from the Old Testament story of Hagar in Genesis 16. Hagar probably is remembered mostly as the mother of Ishmael, Abraham’s first son. She often is seen as a minor character and an outsider. Yet, a close reading of the story points us to a narrative exemplifying spiritual trauma.

We do not know exactly what was done to Hagar in the house of Abraham under his jealous wife Sarah, but we do know it became so distressing that Hagar fled to the wilderness.

When God entered the scene, the story becomes instructive for us. Notice how God met Hagar in the wilderness. She encountered an angel and was given a promise, a promise for a future and a blessing. She was told God saw her affliction. With this new perspective, Hagar boldly gave God a name: the God who sees.

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Our first step in being a part of a journey of healing for survivors of abuse is seeing them and acknowledging their abuse. The Lord saw Hagar and listened to her affliction.

Before we jump immediately to trying to fix the evil or to bring help to the deep woundedness that has occurred, we need to see and listen to those who have experienced the abuse.

Before we give hope for a better future, we need to hear their stories and acknowledge their past. We need to be sure we are seeing the person—with all of the potential that person has—and not focus solely on the condition that may label or identify that person.

Changing our focus

For years, our strategy has been trying to get people into our church buildings. We think once we get them there, we can minister to them.

In Genesis 16, we see God meeting Hagar in the wilderness. Yes, we believe God is everywhere, but the story anthropomorphizes God as going to find Hagar by the spring, to meet her where she was in that moment.

The word “triggering” may have been co-opted by popular culture to be anything that gives you a bad feeling, but for survivors of trauma, triggers are very real. A rape victim may faint in a store because the man in front of her smells of the same cologne as her assailant.

If survivors were abused in the church, it is detrimental and cruel for us to expect them to return to the site of abuse. If we wish for them to start a journey toward healing, we need to meet them where they are. We need to practice being the church with someone rather than focusing on that person’s attendance in a church building.

Healing in real-time

Practically, we need to remember healing takes time. If you have experienced spiritual trauma, know God meets you where you are. You do not need to feel pressure to return to places and people who hurt you.

Jesus tore the curtain of the temple; so, we are no longer required to go to a building to experience the presence of our Savior. Returning to a loving local congregation is possible in time. Until such a person is ready, we can know a form of sacred worship by seeking the new ways a spiritually abused person experiences God’s love.

If you know someone who has experienced spiritual trauma, do not assume you know what that person needs. Rather than assuming, honor those persons by asking them what they need or want. The following question is powerful: “What can I do to help you in your healing process?” They may not know what they need, but they need to know you are there and that you will listen.

May we be kind to those who have experienced spiritual trauma. May we meet our brothers and sisters in their wilderness, following the God who sees.

Jess Gregory was born to missionary parents in South Africa and spent most of her academic career in Lancaster, Penn. She is a Master of Divinity and Master of Social Work candidate at Baylor University. She is pursuing a career in congregational social work, receiving training from C3I, and researching spiritual trauma as her passion project. Views expressed are those solely of the author.

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