Monday, May 30, 2022

A Punch to the Gut

April 2022. I was in my hometown. As we drove past the Episcopal church where I grew up, my sister commented on how large that congregation had become. My response was a kneejerk, "Of course. People tend to flee to the Episcopal church when they have been beat up by evangelical one." To which my sister replied, "That's what Mama did."

It was a punch to the gut. My heart broke open.

Let's back up a bit.

My mother grew up in the First Baptist Church of our mid-sized southern city. She was beat up by the cliquishness, the snobbery, the judgment she met there. She fled to the Episcopal church in college, finding a way to connect with God without the self-righteous trappings of her childhood church. Throughout the years she was the target of many of the neighbors (complete with "I Found It" bumper stickers), all wanting to evangelize her and see her get saved. Again, the evangelicals came to beat her up.

I grew up in the Episcopal church. When I "got saved" or "accepted Jesus" or "became a Christian" or whatever phrase you prefer to use, I was 17. It was all new to me. I plunged headlong into evangelicalism: Campus Crusade for Christ, Southern Baptist Church, then the PCA. For decades. Until I realized that I, too, had been beat up by the evangelical church.
Starting in my late teens and ending when I was 45 and my mother died, I held myself to be superior to her in her theology, in her doctrine, in her understanding of scripture and how that played out. Wen I realized what I had done, it just broke me.
For the past 7 years I have been dismantling, untangling, deconstructing what it means to believe in Jesus and what the church is called to be. I have been on the receiving end of both covert and overt spiritual abuse. I have read the books and listened to the podcasts and even been interviewed on podcasts for my perspective and experience. I have been outspoken against spiritual abuse in all its forms.
And yet that day in April, I realized that I had been an abuser.

Do you know what it does to you to realize that in your desperate need for space and identity, you have abused someone else? When you realize that you caved to the pressure to evangelize your family? You bought the lie that your church's way of expressing faith in God was the only possible manifestation of belief? When you reflected in disgust that "right" theology was better than living without judgment?

It's a crazy balance to strike. My mother was so insecure that anybody who did anything differently was a threat. Disagreeing was taboo. Differentiating, become my own person, was a challenge. Being who I was created to be and not just an extension of her or her "prized possession" (if she was happy with me) was a long and arduous journey full of minefields and pitfalls.

Was she, in many ways, emotionally and verbally abusive? Yes.
Did she look to me to meet her emotional needs? Yes.
Did I need to break away and develop my own personhood and my own idendity? Yes.
Was it hard when she felt threatened by my leaving her church? Yes.
Did I have emotional baggage with her choice for expressing her faith? Of course!
But did I need to establish my beliefs and church choices as superior to hers? Absolutely not!

A few years ago we housed a few college students for a few days while they were in Asheville as part of a church trip. One evening they all started talking about their challenges of evangelizing their families. It was clear that they no longer saw their family members as people but projects. Inferior in many ways. And it was their job to convert them. I felt sick.

When relationships, the most precious thing we have, the thing we were created for, become weaponized, spiritually monetized in a way, we are no longer loving like Jesus.
How many overzealous college students or arrogant theologians have damaged, sometimes irreparably, relationships that should never be part of an agenda? Is it possible to be Jesus to people without having to convert them or fix them or stuff them into a box?
I don't know if any of y'all have ever come to the realization that you have at times been the things you hate most. It was a horrifying, sobering realization for me.

Please know that if your point of interacting with your family is to convince them that you are right, that your flavor of faith expression is better than theirs, that, in order to have your approval, they have to jump through all the right hoops, then you are pushing them farther away from God, not bringing them closer.

What can you do?

You can avoid categorizing people based on whether or not they agree with your set of presuppositions.

You can seek to love people without an agenda.

My mother's gone now. She died 13 years ago this month. I can't go back and say I'm sorry.

What I can do is fall on my face before God and ask for forgiveness.

Monday, May 23, 2022

Trauma Informed

I mentioned in a post yesterday that it is time for all churches: pastors, leaders, even the congregation, to become trauma informed. As Diane Langberg says, "Trauma is the mission field of our time." 

A friend rightly expressed concern. It is very easy for the traumatized person to be looked down on. Seen as inferior. Broken. Someone to be fixed. This dynamic in itself is retraumatizing. So I need to explain a little more what I mean.

The healing of trauma never comes by way of being yet another person's project. That is dehumanizing and only reinforces the impact of trauma: the loss of power, the loss of control, the loss of voice, and often the loss of connection. To truly come alongside those who have trauma means to listen, listen, listen and learn from them. To give them the voice they had taken from them. To empower them to make decisions about their life. To give them the agency to know what they need and move forward. To enter into their journey so that they know they are not alone. 

To me, trauma informed means that these leaders DO NOT treat someone with a history of trauma as a project. Nor do they treat any effects of trauma as sin or some spiritual problem, such as a lack of prayer or faith in God. To be trauma informed means to have at least a bit of a grasp on how incredibly complex the human brain is and how it records traumatic events or toxic relationships and development deprived of oxygen of love and acceptance.
A truly trauma informed person will not view the traumatized as a someone to be fixed but as a miracle that has made it this far. And will recognize that healing comes little by little, step by step, over a lifetime.

Friday, May 13, 2022

Church Planting 101

If I could train church planters, this is what I would teach them: 

-Learn to listen to people. Listen more than you talk. Listen to understand, not to respond.

-Listen to the stories of people who have suffered. Listen to the stories of people who have suffered at the hands of the church. This is your training ground. 


-Talk to people who have lived in the city for a long time. Talk to those who have regular contact with unbelievers. Talk to those who know the lay of the land regarding churches. Talk to those who have a handle on what people really need rather than coming in with your own assumptions. 

-You are planting a church. Get a clear idea of what a church is. This is not a missions organization. This is not a soccer team. This is not a seminary. This is not the army. This is a church. A church is for the care of the believers. The church is the hospital. If you dash out of the gate to rake in large numbers of unbelievers without having established a church, you are courting disaster. It is like running to the battlefield and dragging the injured to the site where you plan on building a hospital some day. It does them no good. Think of how you are going to care for all those people who you want coming in your doors. If you haven’t a clue, then stop what you are doing and become equipped. 

-Know what you can and can’t offer. Know the local resources. The homeless shelter. The domestic violence organizations. The substance abuse programs. The mental health resources. 

-It does way too much damage for someone with needs, be they spiritual or physical or emotional, to come to the church in hopes of finding care, only to discover that the church has no idea whatsoever how to help you and they may even think that isn’t their job. People's needs don't get in the way of ministry. They ARE ministry. 

-Beware of false advertising. Don’t tell people all the things the church will do for them and be for them once they are a member and then not follow through. 

-Because all of your pastors and church planters and elders are men, take special care to focus on the needs of the women. It is natural for men to be more comfortable with other men. And I know you are cautioned out the wazoo about not being in compromising situations with the opposite sex. But you have to understand that all this discomfort and all this caution, in practical language, means that women are not getting the attention and pastoral care that they should. They are also not being heard and their wisdom is not being mined the way it should. If you feel you must have another person with you when you meet with a woman, make sure you still focus on her and not the other person. If you meet with a couple, don’t just talk to the man. 

-Be careful with your authority. Be careful with how you leverage it. You are not their ruler. You are their pastor. Their shepherd. Their servant. 

-Welcome questions. Know that you don’t know everything and take the posture of a learner. 

-Learn to take feedback without becoming defensive.

-Don’t be afraid of people who have had bad church experiences. These people aren’t the enemy. They very well may have learned a good deal about what makes and breaks a church. Learn from them. 

-Be careful that you don’t treat those in your congregation like cogs in the wheel. Their value is not in their production. Their value is in being created in the image of God. 

-Watch out for numbers. Any time you put a numerical goal on your ministry, you turn people into products. 

-While I am sure that you are all well versed in theology, do a deep dive into the issues that impact the lives of your people. Become trauma informed. Learn the dynamics of abuse. Know the difference between a hard marriage and a destructive one. Don’t assume all struggles are “just a sin problem.” 

-Let your people have their time together. Do not try to impose an agenda on every get together. “Just hanging out” is important, especially in a culture where people are so separated from one another while working from home, etc. That building of community is important. Even if they aren’t reading the Bible every time. Even if they aren’t praying every time. Being together while not performing or being evaluated is holy ground. People desperately need it. 

-Respect people’s opinions. 

-Be careful about imposing templates on things because it is easier. People don’t fit always fit  inside the cookie cutter. A cookie cutter approach can sever important limbs. 

-If you feel you need to bring the hammer down on the congregation, do it gently and do it in a place other than the worship service. Nobody is going to want to bring an unbeliever to church if they never know when they are going to get slammed by the pastor in a sermon. 

-Know your audience. Prepackaged sermons can do tremendous damage in the wrong context. 

-Watch out for the game plan. God’s agenda may be different than yours. It’s ok to be feeling the way along as you go. 

-If your church is to be congregationally governed, then let the congregation do some governing. Beware of wanting to have complete control of everything. 

-Seek out the marginalized. It might be tempting to draw only those like you and cool into your inner circle but you can learn a lot from those who get left out. Jesus is there with them. 

-Before you jump into ministry, deal with your own junk. Know yourself, your bent, your personality, your insecurities. Deal with your past. Address any trauma. I think anybody who is going to do important Kingdom work should spend some time in therapy with a licensed professional counselor. Consider having a psychological evaluation. Know this: your unaddressed past will affect your ministry.

Monday, May 2, 2022


For a while we had something beautiful. 

Every single week a small group of us from church met together. We alternated weeks being out somewhere, such as trivia night at a brewery, with meeting for dinner in someone's home. Yes, we might have spiritual discussions and yes, we did frequently share concerns and needs for prayer and, yes, we did often pray together, but the focus was on our relationships. Intentional community, it was called. 

This group of people became my lifeline, my family of sorts, my refuge during some terribly hard years. I lived for Tuesday evenings when I knew I could show up and be me in whatever mess I was in. And they knew I was there for them. Always. And outside of Tuesdays we still got together for hiking and game nights and such. Life together. It was the closest thing I had ever experienced up to that point to what I think true fellowship looks like. 

A new pastor came along and changed things up. He brought an agenda. Each week became a specific Bible study with questions and answers and asking one another spiritual questions about sin and repentance. The tone changed. The atmosphere changed. The streams of living water dried up and I was faced with a desert of spiritual expectations and forced piety. When we questioned the changes the leader of the group asked, "But don't you love the Word?" The pastor blasted us in a sermon, proclaiming we were to "say no to casualness of faith...just hanging out and doing things together because it makes us feel good." He told my husband that the change was not up for discussion. Drop it.

And like that, just like that, what had been so very beautfiful to me was gone. This all happened amid a growing concern over other serious issues and I quit attending church. And then we left the church altogether. Another story for another time.

I was left to grieve and grieve deeply what I had lost. And yet there was a hefty heap of shame on top of it all. Why was the transition from hanging out and loving one another to a structured spiritual time together so hard for me? Did I "love the Word?" Or didn't I? 

I had always longed for a sense of community and felt oh, so bad for wanting it. In church cultures where deep dives into theology or telling "the lost" about Jesus were the true marks of a heart after God, my hunger for connection was seen as avoiding the hard truth that Jesus should be all I need. 

Why was the loss of this little community so devastating to me? When reading Krispin Mayfield's book, Attached to God, I found my answer. 

And rather than try to cut and paste bits and pieces, I'm going to share most of the entire section:

Therapist Francis Broucek worked with many clients in families where the mode of relationship was to meet a parent's strict standard. This created a sense of self that put value in the person's performance. He found that in the most important relationships, where "a connection should be, there is only the experience of being evaluated or evaluating oneself." It doesn't always have to be negative judgment, but that every interaction was based on how the child was peforming, how they were doing, rather than the parent coming close for closeness' sake. For these clients, the relationship was all assessment, absent of true connection. 

For many of us, this mirrors the spiritual tradition we've been given. Most facets of religious life have been about determining whether you are following God in the right ways. How close are you? What are you supposed to be doing next? Are you growing--or backsliding? What is God trying to teach you right now?

,,,Broucek found that this same prompting between parents and children created shame. It's not surprising since in the absense of connection. we begin to conclude that the disconnect is because there is something repulsive about us. The more we continue to focus on our performance and progress, the more we feel shame. When we believe that shame is due to sin, then we try to get it right--or confess our way out of shame. But if we're going to heal from shame, we need relationships that go beyond evaluation. 

As Broucek reflected on our need for a connection that creates sanctuary in a world of evaluation, he thought about the importance of interactions that aren't rooted in evaluation, assessment, standards, or measuring up. Searching for a word to describe a relationship that is nonevaluative, he decided simply to call this kind of connection "communion." 

Communion. That is what I had. That is what I lost when the template of spiritual performance and evaluation was slammed down on a precious group of people. 

Mayfield had started this section of the book by saying that in order to understand our belovedness, we need to experience it. We need to be able to connect with God and with people minus the constant state of evaluation and performance. 

Some of my friends and I have a regular conversation that goes something like this: "Why are friendships with church people so much harder and more awkward?" I think this explains so much. We have been somehow convinced that our own connection to God is dependent on our performance and part of our performance is policing the performance of those around us. Thus we admonish and exhort and chide, we goad and sharpen, we lob scripture bombs, and often suffocate with the silence of disapproval. But we don't listen. We don't treat one another with respect. We don't necessarily treat one another as beloved. We don't believe that connecting for the sake of connecting is beautiful in and of itself.  

(True admonishment and exhortation, when necessary, should only come in the context of strong connection and community. Otherwise it does way more damage that good.)

Why was I so grief-stricken? I had lost communion. I had lost communion in the name of God. 

I know my processing of this has been long and rambling but it now makes so much sense to me. Reading this short passage in a very excellent book (I highly recommend reading it) proved to be lightbulb moment in my understanding of my hunger for connection, community, communion. It helped me understand my grief and why that loss was so very profound. And it helps me know what I, what we all, really need.