Lots of people I know have left their church, and are hurting because of it. I’ve even facilitated courses to help folks find their feet after such experiences. As a person who has left church myself, I know there are some ways people who are still in the church and are quite happy with their own experience can help those who have left and are hurting.
Here are practical ways you can help a person who has been hurt by their church.
1. Search your own heart.
Before you even speak a word to a hurting person, you need to mindfully consider your perspectives, biases, position, and agenda. If you are a person who is happy in your own church, you may have some attitudes and perspectives about this person’s experience that are prejudiced by your own experience, and you may not even be aware of this. If you have a positive relationship with the church and your experiences have all been pleasant, or you have worked through any issues you had, this may put you in a position of wanting to defend the institution or even the individual involved in this person’s story. It may make you feel impatient or irritated this person hasn’t been able to resolve their issues, or you may feel an obligation to defend the church against this person’s accusation. You may have already decided what they need to do about their problem, and you may be on the defensive. It’s important you think mindfully before you speak a word about why it is exactly you’re approaching this person (and approaching may mean in person, or virtually, such as in an online forum or on social media). Are you about to speak to them because you really want to help them deal with what they are experiencing, and help them move towards wholeness and healing, or are you actually wanting set them straight about the church, and defend it?
Do you want to be what this person needs at this time, or are you acting from a place of loyalty to the church? Your answer to this question is more important than you think. It could be the difference between your being an empathic listener, or a non-empathic contributor. One of these things is going to help the person, and one is not.
It may take a strong stomach and a lot of self-control for you to hear this person’s story, especially if you know the people or congregation involved. Part of empathic listening is making up your mind you will not defend the party accused of causing harm or hurt. This does not mean you need to become a co-accuser, and it does not mean you are being disloyal to the church. It means you are allowing this particular person to relate their experience to you, and instead of taking the posture of the accused in defense, you strive to understand what is being said behind the words and choose not react to it emotionally. You become an ally and an advocate to this person here and now, and it has nothing to do with your own loyalties or experience. You are taking the stronger position of remaining neutral, and placing your own preferences and loyalties in a personal place inside you for the time being, while are present with this person.
While you are with them, their feelings and thoughts and experience is the focus. You then allow their words and perhaps even their anger to pass through you and leave you with only the meaning, but without the anger attached, and their anger does not cause you to react. It’s easy to do – simply acknowledge any feelings of discomfort that arise whilst you are listening to them, and take ownership over your feelings. In your mind and heart, thank those feelings for coming and teaching you something about yourself, and allow those feelings to pass through you without responding to them. Easy.
If you choose to enter into a discourse with a hurting person and engage with them around the issue which is hurting them, you will not help them if you take the posture of the accused in the absence of the accused. You will cause the person to feel bullied and isolated. When you move into the posture of defending the accused, you become a proxy representative of the offending party, and the person will close their heart to you. You need to decide at the outset whether you can place the hurting persons well-being and need for help above any loyalty you may feel towards the other party or institution.
Empathic listening is a helpful skill to have when dealing with hurting people, anywhere, anytime.And just think about this; often as Christians we believe if a person with a hurt or a need comes into our path, then we have a responsibility to help or teach them something. But often, we who think we have it all together are the pupils, and the other person, who we may even consider as less than, is the teacher. If a person who has been hurt by the church comes into your path, then perhaps it’s an opportunity not for you to teach them something, but for them to teach you something. Think about whether you are approaching this person with a fix-it attitude, or a how-can-I-learn attitude. And don’t think they won’t be able to tell.
2. Get close, but not too close.
People who are hurting are often angry, and folks who have left church and are hurting in the wake of their experiences are no exception. The hardest part of being with a hurting person may be dealing with any expression of anger. Anger manifests in a variety of ways, and none of them are nice to be around. Use your empathic listening, and your mindful acknowledgement of your own feelings, to come respectfully close to the person, verbally, physically, emotionally, as the case may be. It’s hard to be around an angry person, our first response is usually to defend ourselves or get away. Standing in an angry persons space means being close enough to indicate we are not afraid, and far enough away to indicate we are safe and respectful. Do not touch the person physically, or assume intimacy in any way, as this can be perceived as a violation of personal boundaries. Do not ask them to trust you, and do not expect them to. Anger is primarily a fear response, and if you read the signs, you’ll understand what this person is saying, which may be, “I am hurt, don’t hurt me again.”
So, don’t hurt them again.
I have this saying my chaplaincy trainer used to say to me – see the King, be the King, bring the King. Look for Jesus in this person; He is in there, and if you look with your heart, you will see the King in them. Be the King; if you were God or were the embodiment of the Holy Spirit standing in the room, what would you say or do? Bring the King; pray, even if it’s just in your mind. Ask the Holy Spirit to give you wisdom and listen for the response. Say nothing at all, and just pray in your mind or heart. Bring the presence of God to the situation. Sometimes this is the best thing you can do.
3. Validate their experience.
Once, my family and I went fishing and I fell over on some rocks. As I reached out to break my fall, I felt a sharp pain in my arm. I ran to my mother and told her I hurt my arm, but she told me not to be ridiculous, and if I was going to make a fuss to go sit in the car. I did. When I was still sitting in the car whimpering after an hour, she drove me to a nearby chemist, I think hoping someone would look at my arm and confirm her belief I was being a drama queen and there was nothing wrong with me. As I pulled up my sleeve, the chemist spoke sternly to my mother, “That arm is broken. You better take her to the hospital.” All my mother wanted was a peaceful fishing expedition with the family. When I made a fuss about my arm, she saw it as confirmation of her belief I always made a nuisance of myself when we went out, and exaggerated everything that happened to me. She also was not good at handling crises. So when I started complaining, she minimized the situation and denied there could be any real problem. I was in plaster for six weeks, and we laugh about that story now.
But this often happens when happy church people and hurting church people are in the same space. Sometimes, the hurting church people may seem to the happy church people like the type who often seem to take things seriously or personally anyway, maybe too seriously, in others opinions. If only those people didn’t make such a fuss, everything would be great and everyone would just have fun.
Sometimes we may feel inadequate in the face of crises and don’t know how to cope when someone is hurt or claims abuse. Sometimes, we simply don’t want to hear about it. Because of this it’s possible to minimize or even deny another person’s experience, or at the least, claim is couldn’t be nearly as bad as all that. This can be as damaging as the original hurt or abuse.
If you really don’t want to hear someone’s complaint about the church, then leave the person’s proximity. Denying and minimizing will not make their hurt go away; it is probably best that you go away instead.
Many denominations and congregations have tended to invalidate the negative experiences of hurt members by trivializing the accusations or complaints to be merely “offense”, blaming and shaming the hurt or abused, labeling the complaints as a device of the devil or victims as perpetrators of church destruction and as anti-Christ. This is categorically another form of abuse. The best way to bring a hurting person to wholeness and healing is to be a grown-up Christian, and not be so brittle about the church’s reputation or condition. If the gates of hell won’t prevail against it, then surely it won’t hurt the Church to sit awhile with those we have marred and scarred along the way.
Claims of abuse must always be heard, particularly if those accusations are sexual in nature. Emotional and spiritual abuse is just as real and as valid. Dismissing, denying or minimizing a persons hurts, claims of abuse or experience is really just another form of abuse. Avoid using phrases or words that diminish the experience of the hurting person, and instead act to validate them by remaining present, and listening without judgment.
If claims have been made of sexual abuse, particularly of a minor, please act responsibly in alerting the appropriate authorities.
Just listen. Often, anger will dissipate in the presence of a person just willing to listen without judgment or reaction. Listening is a lost skill, as often we may feel we need to have our voice heard or want to give advice. Allowing a person to get their story and experience outside of themselves is the core principle of counselling, and works for a reason. When all those thoughts and responses and hurts get out of our heads and are spread out before us, it often becomes much easier to rearrange them into a more comfortable order, and even find resolution. Listening allows the person to debrief, self-organize their thoughts and often come to their own satisfactory conclusion. Avoid the temptation to tell the person what to do. They are smarter than even they probably realise. You can simply say, “Thank you for your courage in speaking out. I am listening.” And this is a lot.
5. Stay connected.
Sometimes, the most hurtful thing about leaving a church is the fact you often lose all your friends. If the church doesn’t overtly warn people not to contact the person who leaves (and this happens more than you probably think), often there is simply a disconnect simply because your paths don’t cross any more. Being friends and having lots of friends is easy in a church context when you all have so much in common and see one another often. When you drop out of that network, the sense of isolation and rejection can be crushing.
In a course for women who have left the church I facilitated not long ago, one of the top issues participants articulated was isolation. Their friends avoided them in the street. Invitations for coffee elicited a “no thanks”. If church has been a dominant common factor in our relationships, once that factor is removed, the relationship can falter and disappear.
There has been kind of subtle culture of maintaining indifference towards church leavers as a kind of “just desserts” – an attitude which dictates the person who left ought to feel bad in as many ways as possible, a kind of social excommunication, or shunning – well, they know what they need to do if they want to feel better, don’t they?
The truth is hardly anybody leaves a church lightly. The number one reason I find people stay in difficult church situations against their conscience is because they know they will lose their valued connection to their community. So, dear happy church person, know this – a person who leaves has counted the cost, and whatever wasn’t working for them was so bad, even their friendship with you could not make them stay. That’s pretty bad. This should tell you something about how they are hurting right now. Most leave not because they don’t care anymore, but because it’s become a matter of deep principle. Now, they may leave and cut all ties, but more often, leavers deeply value their relationships and will grieve them deeply if they cease to be.
You could be an intrinsic and essential part of your friends spiritual and emotional healing, just by choosing to keep in touch. You may have to renegotiate a little to find a happy medium between you, but wouldn’t that be worth it?
Remember, see the King, be the King, bring the King. And that may mean trying hard to maintain a friendship with someone who doesn’t go to your church anymore.
If you’re a happy church person and a friend in your network leaves, why not try to keep in touch? Phone and ask how they’re doing, connect on social media, even if you or they would rather not talk about church any more. Be creative and perhaps arrange a different context for your meeting up. As far as it’s within your power, why not make an effort to keep those ties intact? You never know what might happen one day. Perhaps you’ll find yourself in the same position.
It’s never easy to leave a church, or be in a church where people leave. But we could all be doing this better. Communication is key to building better understanding between all of us, and by improving how we listen to and extend grace towards one another ultimately we build the Church, rather than merely reinforcing the boundaries that divide us from one another and in turn, from our wider communities.