Gaslighting for God, Part 7
Healing from Spiritual Trauma
Credit: The Wittenburg Door. Used with permission.
As I've noted throughout this series, the Christian Industrial Complex continues to create hierarchical (and at times heretical) forms of church that continue to prop up those in power at the expense of those in the pew. John Pavlovitz, pastor, activist, and author of If God Is Good, Don't Be A Jerk: Finding A Faith That Makes Us Better Humans, offers these observations as to why this dynamic persists despite this never ending steam of books, podcasts, and other forms of media offering instruction on how to create new forms of church, a new kind of Christianity, and other branding BS.
Because modern church culture is both consumer-driven and competitive and results are desired quickly, many communities are built backwards, in that they usually begin with a person (or a personality) around whom a staff is assembled. A building is found or built, services are designed, and supporting ministries are created—all to serve the vision of the minister. In this context, the church's ability to draw people to their services depends on personality cults and worship styles, thus elevating the small number of people involved.
Steve Arterburn, author of the classic book Toxic Faith founder and chairman of New Life Ministries, defines "toxic faith" as "those instances where a person is tainted by the teachings from the Bible by someone in a position of prominence or control who is supporting a bias." This dynamic becomes compounded when the leader is surrounded by those more interested in "saving" the reputation of their besmirched leader than addressing the harm this person committed in the name of Jesus.
In their book A Church Called TOV, co-authors Scott McKnight and his daughter Laura Barringer counter each negative habit present in a toxic church with a positive alternative found in a TOV church (the word TOV is Hebrew for goodness). In terms of spiritual narcissism, they found the healthy alternative was empathy. Barringer summarizes their findings on this subject.
Empathy is the ability to feel what somebody else feels and go through the experience of another person. A narcissist isn't really able to do that as it's all about their own glory, feeding themselves, and caring about themselves. We believe any church that wants to follow Jesus has to have a heart for the wounded and the marginalized. This isn't a case of indicating one's support for the latest cause du jour but rather developing a culture that can hear the calls of those distressed and respond with compassion.
According to Barringer, the number one question they get asked by those in toxic churches is if they should stay or leave. "We found that for those who want to stay and make changes and help transform the culture to one of TOV is that the further a person is away from the power circle, the less influence they're going to have to make change." Are you in a position where you can create small TOV circles within a small group that over time can outweigh the toxicity and enable change to truly happen?
Before leaving a toxic setting, Arterburn suggests addressing the abuse with those in church leadership. "I would write each person a letter saying, ‘I understand how you got in here, and I am writing this to give you another bit of input that you may not be getting. You are a victim of this person, and you don't have to be. You can change your focus from being more interested in the person who has the power to becoming interested in creating a healthy church.’ Close the letter by leaving your phone number and offer to talk with them about them." If they don't respond, Arterburn suggests shaking the dust off your sandals and moving on.
Can We Change the Church Culture?
Simply put, changing the church culture requires decentralizing power. As Pavlovitz reflects:
The more influence a singular person or small group of people has, the greater the chances they are going to be negatively altered by that influence or to leverage it to serve themselves. Individual faith communities or denominations that actively resist personality-centered leadership will not be beholden to those individuals because their growth or sustainability will not be tethered to them. Healthy churches should have genuine community and disparate voices at their center but this takes time and great effort.
In his research, Lance Ford, co-author of Starfish and the Spirit and author of UnLeader, points to how healing from unhealthy patterns of leadership requires a move towards a biblical system of mutual accountability and submission at the local level. "We have to slay the dragon of power based titles and positions."
While our current celebrity-making culture may focus on making kings, Ford points to the need for a stronger collective of voices where no one is trying to dominate. "From a systemic basis, we need to debunk the groupthink that tells you you're crazy when you speak up. You're not rebelling when you push back against a leadership system that was put upon you and abused you," he opines.
Creating a Community to Heal from Spiritual Trauma
One example of such a community I've encountered in my travels is The Bridge, a ministry in Portland, Oregon that attracted street kids burnt out from traditional church. Co-founder Deborah Loyd noted it became necessary for them to put mechanisms in place to help these kids deal with their spiritual traumas. "This started by creating a culture that encouraged truth telling and honesty. We made it safe for them to get it out there on the table."
They encouraged their members who experienced spiritual traumas to get therapy, and even paid for this therapy in a few instances. They were approached by graduate students from a local counseling program, who had to do their clinicals. Their professor created a counseling organization where church members could pay for their sessions on a sliding scale starting at $10.00. Also, they held a lot of subgroups in the church including a theological brewpub (this was in those days before such gatherings became all the rage in holy hipster circles) and movie nights, as well as women and men's groups to help members deal with abuse wounds. "When a community is bonded, they feel it's OK to be vulnerable," Loyd opines.
One policy they enacted to ensure those with destructive behaviors did not dominate the church culture was to not let new members volunteer until they had been in the community for six months and were known to the community. While this measure proved to be successful, Loyd adds that no one can can guarantee 100% safety. "Someone can always show up under the radar."
For those too wounded to enter a church setting, pastors like David Hayward, aka Naked Pastor, and Pavlovitz offer online healing opportunities. Pavlovitz describes the advantage of meeting in a virtual setting.
This provides a chance for them to read a great deal of my writing and to see me delivering messages without having to step into the physical space of a church building (which is often both intimidating and triggering for people who've experienced abuse in organized religion). As survivors of trauma engage with me through that vast body of work, they realize that although I come from a system that has caused them harm, I am actively confronting that system, and pointing out the toxic worship of leadership and the cults of personality responsible for their injury. In that way, I've already responded to them through something I may have written three or four years ago. People who reach out to me personally whether online or in person, already feel an affinity with me that allows them to feel seen and heard and respected. I simply sit with them in the grief and the anger and the sadness without trying to fix it.
Minister Heal Thyself
While Arterburn believes spiritual narcissists can change, such transformations are quite rare. "For that person to change, they have to have this amazing moment where they're willing to surrender to something other than their own ego." Hence, rather than continue to try and "change" a narcissistic minded spiritual leader, why not focus instead on equipping people to lead TOV style communities?
For those who feel called to ministry but want to avoid the pitfalls of becoming yet another pastor-for-pay, who becomes more consumed with his profit margins than pastoring his flock, I'd like to offer this reflection from Pavlovitz:
Ministering in any context is inherently challenging because you're being asked to live extremely personal things in a very public context. In many ways it's not a natural setting for a human being, trying to balance who you actually are with the person your audience, readers, or congregation expects you to be. It is a daily discipline to not be inflated by the praise or steered by the criticism. The key to doing this work long-term and to not be swallowed up by it is to continually examine your motives. Faith-based authors, speakers, and ministers can easily grow beholden to or be compromised by their tribes. Whether it's in the context of a social media platform, a video channel, or a local church, it's critical to surround yourself with good people who will help you remember why you do what you do and not try to manufacture a following. Ultimately, the advice I give people is to do all they can to speak or write from the most authentic place, and the community that forms in response will be the right one.
Additional Resources for Healing
Each person's healing journey will differ based on number of variables. Here's some of my S&H and Only Sky articles designed to help one heal in both body and mind. Think of this curated list as akin to an AA meeting - take what works to help you in your journey towards spiritual health & wellness and leave the rest behind.
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