Last year I posted a number of articles (see more links below) helping people to identify a toxic church. I took a long look at spiritual abuse, along with steps to deal with a toxic church. But I’m realizing that I left out at least one important post: what do you do when you leave a toxic church?
Entering a new church can be tricky. It’s like rebounding off a bad relationship. Some people swear off dating altogether while others fling themselves at the next person walking by. Both are unhealthy reactions. So let’s take a look at this.
Engaging Your New Church
First you have to realize the condition you are in. You belong to the walking wounded. You might look good, but all is not well inside. If you’ve been in a spiritually abusive church it’s affected your thinking. You aren’t seeing straight. Your view of God and other people has been skewed. So be aware that you are prone to misread situations at your new church. That’s not bad, you just need to be aware of it and factor that in.
That means: go slow. Sit in the back row and observe. Don’t be too quick to judge the new church as right or wrong because, remember: you are off center. It’s going to take some time to recalibrate.
Be careful not to overreact. Talk to the pastor about any concerns rather than jumping to conclusions and assuming the worst. You don’t want to infect your new church with the toxicity from your past.
Grieving the Toxic Church Experience
A toxic church causes a number of losses that need to be grieved. You need to come to terms with those losses before you reengage in a new church. I’m not saying you shouldn’t attend a church, just don’t jump in and start leading or serving in any significant way. You might end up hurting yourself and the new church.
The best thing you can do for your new church is to get healthy. There’s plenty of time for you to get involved later.
Let me walk you through the fives stages of grief as they apply to recovering from spiritual abuse:
Denial. It’s hard to admit that someone could take advantage of you spiritually. No one likes to admit being duped or that they elevated a pastor beyond human status. It’s embarrassing. But the first step to any healing is to admit what went wrong. Yes, you bought into the toxicity hook, line and sinker. You are in a place you never thought you’d be. There. You said it. Now you can move on.
Anger. Anger is the natural response to any loss. Don’t kid yourself. You have lots of anger at the church, specific leaders, and anyone who convinced you to “just trust the pastor.” You might even be mad at God. The tendency is to cover it up. But that will only hurt you in the long run. Instead, get in touch with your anger. Anger is appropriate when you’ve been hurt like this. Give yourself permission to feel the God-given emotion.
List out the losses you experienced at the toxic church. What did the toxic thinking rob from you? Maybe a sense of dignity? Control? A true concept of God? Healthy relationships? Money? The list might be long.
But here is one tip for dealing with your anger…find healthy, constructive ways to process it. Too often the “ex’s” of a toxic church spend inordinate amounts of time obsessing with each other about the bad old days and how awful they were. Plus there is the constant update on who is still in the toxic church and who has left. This is so tempting to do and so unhealthy.
Looking back is only helpful if it exposes the faulty thinking that you absorbed. But it’s very easy to slip into slander and gossip. People will quickly grow tired of you singing the same sad song all the time. So find a support group, or friend, or counselor where you can process your anger without infecting others with the negativity.
Bargaining: This is when you look for a quick fix to solve your problem, like, “God get me out of this mess.” It involves a desperate mindset that encourages you to look for simplistic solutions. For example, you might pray, “God, just show me a new church where I can jump in and forget about the past.” You don’t want to do the hard work of healing. You just want a quick fix. Be careful. That can backfire on you in the long run.
Depression: It’s easy to give up on church altogether. You assume that church is broken and it’s not worth the effort to try again. It’s all an illusion. You become cynical and distrusting of every leader and what church is all about. You might even give up on God. So either you quit church, or you attend, but you are a negative influence because you’ve lost hope.
I know what’s that like. I was there once. But this is where you need to believe in the God of resurrection. God wants to bring something from the ashes of your experience. He’ll use what you learned for good, if you let him. He did with me.
Acceptance: This happens when you are willing to accept that something died and believe that life can be good again. You no longer try to make the past work or make sense. You put the nails in the coffin of your experience and bury it. You no longer talk about it with your ex-church mates. You have moved on and are willing to accept the new church experience God has given you. You won’t let your past experience infect your new experience.
I love the church and its people. I hate spiritual abuse. Spiritual abuse is bad enough when it happens. But simply leaving a church doesn’t solve the problem. You can carry the disease of spiritual abuse with you if you don’t treat it properly. I hope these few tips help you find the road to recovery and to reengage in church in a healthy way.
What kind of problems have you faced after you left a toxic church? Leave a comment below and it might not only help you but help others in the same situation. I’ll do my best to give you some advice.