Once upon a time, my grandaddy wanted to be a preacher. He grew up on a farm and he’s the youngest of thirteen children. He didn’t have a lot of money or education but he cared about people and was kind.
His pastor took him under his wing and began to mentor him when he was around 17 years old. My grandaddy trusted his pastor implicitly, respected him, and didn’t question his authority.
Until a scandal broke out and the pastor left suddenly. He ran away with the church organist and embezzled church funds. This was particularly damaging to my grandaddy who trusted this man as a spiritual leader and friend.
So, he went searching for the pastor…
When he found him, he beat the shit out of him and made him give back the money he’d stolen. After that, my grandfather stopped going to church for decades and became an alcoholic.
He still tried to provide for his family well but it wasn’t until I was in middle school that he came back to church. I tell you that story, because a few generations later, we’re not so different.
Spiritual trauma is passed down from generation to generation and is usually connected to other forms of abuse. My family knows first hand what spiritual abuse can do both in a church community and to the families that go to that church.
My dad pastored a small church for five years that split from a larger congregation. And they never really dealt with the issues that caused the split. So those wounds festered and the church was extremely fundamentalist and authoritarian. My dad became a pastor and was manipulated by a church that caused harm both to him and the rest of our family.
That’s a much longer story for another time, but my family ended up leaving that church and going back to the one I grew up in after I finished college. My parents still go to a church that pushed me out for being queer. They somehow still trust the leadership of the church.
I think part of that is that it’s all they know. They’re trapped in a cycle because they’ve been taught not to question the church leadership’s decisions regardless of the harm that may be caused in the name of “righteousness.” It’s hard to get out when your whole world revolves around your faith community.
If you leave, you may never find that sense of community again. Effectively, it’s isolating. It leaves folks stranded and causes damage that’s irreparable…even to the point of leaving many with symptoms of PTSD.
I lost many relationships with people I thought were my friends–people who I thought were my family. I consider myself one of the lucky ones. I found a supportive church community to fall back on. At times, that doesn’t even feel real and I still don’t trust most people. But I want to.
How do you trust a space that tells you your love isn’t valid, that you can’t work with the children anymore, that you have to “repent” of a part of you that you know you can’t change? How do you feel safe again when a place that’s supposed to be safe destroys you? How do you feel safe?
There are a lot of us who are survivors of spiritual abuse who don’t know how to heal and have the psychological scars to prove it. I don’t know what healing looks like for us yet, but I want to help prevent other people from being hurt and help those who have been hurt move forward.
So, it seems weird to be in seminary and wanting to be a pastor. It feels like this should be the LAST thing I’d want to do. But I do it for people like my grandaddy. For my friends who have to go through therapy because of church. For my friends who aren’t sure they believe in God anymore because the only picture of God they see is an angry God who tells them they’re going to hell for being queer.
I guess…I want to be a pastor for those who have been hurt by pastors. I know I can’t fix the harm already caused, but I hope I can provide healing and love so that the wounds can become scars. And if anyone tries to hurt you again, they’ll have to deal with me.