I want to be clear when writing this post that I am in no way attacking or speaking poorly of the church that I was hurt by—in fact I loved my church. I loved the people there. I loved the worship and the messages and I am forever indebted to them for pouring into me week after week for nearly three years. But no church is perfect. Things happened, words were said, and hearts were broken.
Being hurt by the church that I began my faith journey in was one of the hardest things I’ve ever gone through. It has taken me two and a half years since leaving to finally be able to share what I’ve learned from it and I’m going to warn you now: this isn’t perfect advice, but it’s what I would tell anyone who asked me how to move on right now.
While I would love for this blog post to end with me telling you five easy steps you can take to make everything just peachy keen between you and your church again, I have to be honest and tell you those cookie cutter steps don’t exist. I think sometimes we (or at least I) look at tough situations and think that there has to be an option that is ‘perfect’, the one that ends with us not experiencing hurt, but I’ve learned over the years that sometimes we don’t get to choose between a good and bad option, we just have to decide which type of hurt is worth going through for the outcome we want. When everything happened I stayed for a while thinking that it would all pass and that I just needed to ‘get over it’, but nearly nine months went by and the pain was only getting worse. After lots of long, teary-eyed conversations with friends and family, I ultimately decided to leave my church and look for a new place to call home.
One of the most crucial things I needed to come to understand was that it actually was not ‘the Church’ (as I knew it at the time) that hurt me, but a select few people’s words and actions.
Why is this crucial to understand?
As a somewhat new Christian, 'the Church' to me was: God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the Gospel, the building, and the people that went there. I kept saying and thinking that I had been ‘hurt by the Church,’ but that wasn’t entirely true. Like I said previously, I was not hurt by the gospel, God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit, but by a few people that I was closest to that also were partof the church I was going to. For too long I was lumping in the Father with my attackers and accusers when He was never one of them. Through a fundamental misunderstanding of what ‘the Church’ consisted of, I allowed myself to feel hurt by God when I was really hurt by His children. Not only was the Father not a part of the group that hurt me, but nor was the majority of my church. I let my mind take the idea that the Church was a single unit, to the extreme. I allowed my mind to convince me that the entire church had hurt me and had condoned how some treated me. Truly, I think this is a really important distinction to make. Even if it is the pastor of your church that you find yourself hurt by, he/she does not represent the entire church. They are simply part of the body and we have to separate this person/people from the entire church. If we don’t, our minds will quickly turn our entire congregation into a mob with pitchforks chasing us out of the Father’s house. This leads me to my first step so let’s jump in. Here are five steps I took (or wish I had) that helped me move on after being hurt members of the Church:
Step 1: Assessing the Situation + Players
Assessing the situation in a calm and objective way can be one of the most difficult things to do in the heat of a situation where you find yourself hurting. No matter if it’s the church, some of your best friends, a family member, or a significant other, the first step to moving on is taking a step backward and looking at the situation from the outside, free from all of the powerful emotions. When you take this step backward, two things need to happen. You need to be able to compartmentalize the hurt the people you see as involved and you need to decide if you are able to continue to receive or accomplish the purpose of being in the given situation in the first place. When talking about hurt inside the church, this looks like separating the people, words, or actions that hurt you from the congregation and mission. It also looks like deciding if you are still able to hear the Father speaking to you and if you are able to continue worshiping amidst the pain and reminder of the conflict. Once you have a full grasp on where each person, group, or action stands, you can move on to step number two.
Step 2: Taking to Your Pastor About the Situation [if he/she isn’t the source of pain]
This was honestly a step that I didn’t take that I wish I would have. As I previously said, I made the mistake of letting my mind connect a few members with the rest of my church. When I was hurt by the few, I let my mind believe that my Pastor was on the side with ‘them’ or would treat me the same way the others had if given the opportunity and that just wasn’t something I wanted to go through. After I left, my Pastor messaged me and asked where I had been and said that he missed seeing me the past few weeks [since I hadn’t exactly made a grand or official exit]. I shared with him that I had really been hurt by the clique-y-ness of the church and had found myself on the outside. He said that he wished I would have reached out to him sooner and maybe he could have helped. I don’t really know if he actually could have done anything to have kept me from leaving because he couldn’t take away the hurt these few people caused, but maybe I would have left on better terms. I urge you to take this step. If not for you, for the next person who might experience hurt in the same way if the issue isn’t addressed. If you decide that it’s best for you to stay and try to work things out, I’m so happy for you and you can skip step three, but stay tuned for step four and step ‘x’ because you’ll need those too. For those who have decided it’s time to part ways and search for a new church family, here’s step three: church hunting.
Step 3: Church Hunting
If you do decide that you are unable to focus or hear God amidst all of the conflict, it might be time to look for a new church. If you decide this is what is best for you, I want you to know that leaving a church doesn’t make you a quitter or in the wrong. It doesn’t mean that you don’t believe in the Father’s ability to heal hearts to make situations right. It could simply mean that He is bringing you into a new season, using this situation to bring you into a new family or place of growth. Inevitably, you will need to go through the process of finding a new church.
I started writing this post because of a conversation I overheard at a Mexican restaurant. I shared the story on Instagram and had an outpouring of people responding saying, they too had been hurt by the church and didn’t know how to move forward. Here’s the story in case you missed it:
One of the first days I was back in the U.S. I went out for lunch. The restaurant was quiet, no music playing, and there was only one other table in our section. I don’t know if I overheard their conversation because I’m nosey, or that it had been nearly a year since I spoke the same language as the other tables in a restaurant, or if God wanted me to hear it, but I heard every word and it broke my heart.There was a couple and another guy at the table and the guy in the relationship was in the process of inviting his friend to go to church with him and his partner, the friend abruptly asked, “don’t you still go to that church with your family?” The guy replied, “no, didn’t I tell you what the pastor said about us?” He proceeded to tell a story about how he was at a restaurant watching a sports game, sitting at a table and had two or three drinks, the waitress didn’t take the old glasses away, in walks his pastor who threw him a judgmental look as he saw the empty glasses. During the next Sunday service, the pastor told a story about “someone sitting in this room” who he saw getting drunk earlier that week. After telling the story, the guy told his friend that they hadn’t been back to the church he grew up in since that day. The friend asked, “where do you go now?” The guy in the relationship then proceeded to tell him about the new church, where it felt like a nightclub, where they sometimes talked about the Bible but mostly it was just a really uplifting message, how he never felt convicted there, and always left feeling better and happier with himself than when he arrived.
Do you see what happened in this situation? The pastor assumed something about the guy and went into immediate and public condemnation. I can’t imagine what he felt in that moment; it must have been awful. BUT, what he did from there is what concerns me more. He left the church (which I would tell anyone to do who found themselves having a pastor who treated people that way) and found a church where no teaching, correction, or biblical instruction happens. A place where he would never feel conviction (which is much different than the condemnation he felt by his previous pastor). That is exactly what the enemy wanted from all of this, to get this guy (and any of us who get hurt inside the church) into a place where he is made comfortable and not challenged in his faith.
If you decide to leave your church, there will inevitably be some people who either don’t know the whole story or aren’t very sympathetic to it and decide to judge or even condemn you for leaving. Just be aware of that, but don’t let it be the cause of you not looking for a new place to worship, serve, and connect with the Father.
I’m all for modern churches and uplifting messages, but we must not forget that the church should be centered on and guided by word of God and not just “sometimes brought up.” When you visit churches, make sure that you don’t choose one that just makes you feel good. Look for one that challenges you, one that encourages growth and builds community in a non-clique-y way. Look for a church that is constantly referencing the word of God and not just teaching you to ‘be a good person.’ Look for a church where you feel freedom in worship and there are consistent opportunities for you to receive prayer and guidance. Look for a church that is constantly working to build you into a more effective believer through opportunities to serve and grow in your own ministry.
Here were a few things I looked for (and found in Lifeline Church):
- An Open Alter (a.k.a. no one is going to judge me for going to receive prayer)
- Opportunity for Involvement/Service
- Connection to the Community/World (getting outside the walls of the church)
- Freedom in Worship (I sometimes raise my hands and didn’t want to be thrown dirty looks for worshiping)
- All Messages Must Be Rooted and Backed Up by Scripture
- Opportunity/Support for growth into Leadership Positions
- Weekly Bible Study/Life Groups/Connection Groups
- Multiple Generations in Leadership/Represented
It took a grueling four months to find ‘the church’ and commit to it, but I learned so much about myself and my faith during those four months. I finally found all of those things in Lifeline Church which at the time was held in a movie theater. We have since moved to another building in Christiansburg, VA! I would LOVE to show you my church if you’re in the NRV and looking for a new place to call home. Send me a message and I’ll send you some deets! Regardless of where you land, the next step is to get involved.
Step 4: Getting Involved/Serving
I keep wanting to start each of these steps saying “this was the hardest part for me,” but the truth is, every single step of moving on from painful situations is hard. There is no easy step. I found this one particularly hard, not because it was extremely painful, but because it was very difficult for me to allow myself to trusta church again—to allow people into my life, into my deepest and darkest places where usually only myself and the Holy Spirit go filled with all of my burdens and insecurities. Sounds pretty terrifying, right? BUT, I have tasted the goodness of being involved with a church and even amidst all of the pain and bitterness, my heart was longing for connection; it was longing for a place to serve and be involved. “Opportunity for Involvement/Service” was pretty high on my list of criteria when looking for a new church. Lifeline, now my home church for 2+ years, made it clear within my first visit that they were all about involvement. It wasn’t a matter of me ‘working’ my way to a position where I was allowed to serve, but simply a matter of me saying “yes.” I urge you to look for a church that provides multiple opportunities for you to get involved. Whether that’s through Bible Study Groups/Life Groups/Clubs, church league sports teams, or volunteering at or through the church, involvement is what you want. Friend, if you’re just showing up to church on Sunday mornings, you’re missing out so much. It can be scary to take the dive into a church community, but I can promise you it will be one of the most fulfilling things you ever do. If your church doesn’t have a clear cut path to involvement, can can either talk to the pastor or someone you meet who is currently serving in some way. Trust me when I say that most churches are looking for people willing to help and serve and when you take that step to offer your time, you’re putting yourself on the fast track for deeper relationships in the church community. Another thing you can do in conjunction or if you aren’t ready to jump into a serving position is to take some time to have genuine conversations with people before and after church. Yep, that means you might have to wake up fifteen minutes earlier or wait for lunch for a little but longer. It also means you’re going to have to engage in a few awkward conversations, but that’s where true community starts—intentional conversations. Soon enough, you’ll be finding your family and people who come alongside you in everything.
So all of this sounds good on paper, but to tell you the truth. There’s not a single step that doesn’t take some amount of vulnerability and that’s one of the hardest things to do from a place of hurt. If you’re interested in reading a bit more about forgiveness or vulnerability, check out my post How to Pursue Forgiveness + Fight Fear! In this post I go into much more detail about the path to forgiveness and why it’s SO stinkin’ hard. This brings me to one more step: making peace.
Step X: Making Peace
I’m calling this ‘Step X,’ because it doesn’t necessarily fit in a certain place with the other four steps. For me, it’s a step that’s been working in tandem with all of the other steps I’ve taken to move on and honestly, it’s still a work in progress. Maybe this is something you do before leaving your church or before you decide to stay, or maybe it’s something you do immediately after leaving. If you can do that, I applaud you. However, for most of us, it will probably be a few years before we truly get all of those evil little roots torn out of our hearts. There have been many times when I thought I was completely at peace or ‘over it,’ but then something would come up or touch a nerve and I would be propelled back into that place of hurt I knew all too well. I used to let the enemy’s voice rule my mind when I would find some part of my heart that hadn’t healed. I would listen to things like, “Wow, you’re so petty.” or “Look how over it everyone else is and you’re still bitter? Pathetic.” or “They’ve been over you for so long, don’t you have anything better in your life to do?” or “You’re never going to get over this.” Instead of embracing that season, I guilt tripped myself for not having fully moved on yet. My point is, it’s good to work towards being ‘over it,’ but occasionally, we might come across some cuts that didn’t quite heal. That’s something to celebrate, not be frustrated over. Every time the Father brings up or shows us an area that hasn’t quite healed, it’s an opportunity for us to dive in and work through it with HIM, to let Him show us His heart and love on us a little bit more. Run towards the parts and words you haven’t quite gotten over yet and the Father will meet you right there. You’re not petty. You’re human.
Shew, friends! That was a long one, but there is even so so so much I could say on this topic! If this post helped you, would you consider sharing it? This all started with me posting a story I overheard on Instagram and getting vulnerable about my own hurt. I had such an outpouring of people saying that they too had been ‘hurt by the church.’ Some of the people that responded I didn’t even know were ever part of a church! Y’all. We’ve got to spread the word that being ‘hurt by the church’ doesn’t mean that we should run away from all churches or that we should seek out a church where there is no growth or conviction.