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We Can Lose Our Identity Through Many Forms of Abuse


Like many people, church played a wonderful protective role in my life, beginning as a child. At age ten, the state removed me from an abusive home and placed me in foster care. My new foster family became my forever family. With them, I gained a safe, trustworthy faith community that helped me heal from some of the abuse I had experienced. As a child, I loved going to church and Sunday was my favorite day of the week. This was because I knew there were people there that cared about me and would help me if I had a need.


As an adult, my faith continued to grow and I became part of a church wherever I lived. I was an active member in any church I attended regularly, I tithed generously, and I volunteered in many of the programs they offered. Church provided me with friends, a place to belong, and ways to use the gifts and talents God gave me. All this helped me form a positive self-identity.


This all changed eight years ago. There was a prominent older man in the church that was arrested for sexual abuse of a child. This is when all the things I had believed to be true about the church shattered. The church did not speak openly about the crimes the man had committed. There was very little support for the victims and those who were survivors of childhood sexual abuse, like me. Rather, the church remained silent for several months, thus protecting the perpetrator and his enablers. Because of their silence, the religious leaders themselves became enablers.


Sadly, my story is not unique. I hear the same version of it on a weekly basis from the victims and survivors I work with. Too often, the church abandons its moral mandate and abuses its power. This creates multiple adverse effects in all areas of a person’s life. We are hearing these kinds of stories more and more from friends, acquaintances, and in the news. Maybe you have experienced a similar story. This type of harm is spiritual abuse or is sometimes called religious trauma.


All forms of abuse take away a person’s feeling of self-empowerment, identity, self-trust, and self-worth. This is also true of spiritual abuse and religious trauma.


The Global Center for Religious Research defines it as:

“Religious trauma results from an event, series of events, relationships, or circumstances within or connected to religious beliefs, practices, or structures that is experienced by an individual as overwhelming or disruptive and has lasting adverse effects on a person’s physical, mental, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”


This is a growing problem, with 33-37% of U.S. adults experiencing this type of abuse at some point in their life. Just like other forms of trauma, religious trauma affects a person’s life over an extended period.


Being a part of a faith community and believing in something bigger than ourselves is a healthy protective factor in life. However, these systems also use their influence to protect the institution of the church and those who hold power. When this happens, it becomes a toxic and abusive environment.


I understand this type of abuse on a personal and professional level. I work for GRACE, which stands for Godly Response to Abuse in Christian Environments. This is an organization that investigates abuse in churches. I see clients that experienced harm by religious leaders and the damage caused by institutional betrayal. (See Researcher Dr. Jennifer Freyd’s definition of institutional betrayal.) I have also experienced this type of trauma personally, as the story at the beginning of this blog shows.


Trauma can cause nightmares, shame, depression, fear, stress, and anxiety. Religious trauma also has these effects on a person.

There are various ways institutions perpetrate spiritual abuse. Author Scot McKnight lists a few of the ways they execute this trauma in an article in Christianity Today:


manipulation and exploitation, enforced accountability, censorship of decision making, requirements for secrecy and silence, coercion to conform [inability to ask questions], control through the use of sacred texts or teaching, requirement of obedience to the abuser, the suggestion that the abuser has a ‘divine’ position, isolation as a means of punishment, and superiority and elitism.


A person’s world is turned upside down because of religious trauma. Many people lose their community, their friends, and other social supports. Things that previously brought them comfort like prayer, reading scriptures, and even the ritual of going to church are gone for many. And even if a person goes to another church, their trust and faith in religious institutions is often severely damaged. They may feel very cautious about fully engaging in another faith community. For many, their lives will never be the same.


For victims of spiritual abuse, it is difficult to comprehend how an institution that had always been caring and supportive can be so hurtful. When a faith community feels like a family, how can they reject shame, blame, and walk away from those seeking truth and justice? For some, this experience causes them to feel God has walked away from them. This may cause people to not only leave the church, but to leave their faith in God.


Even though this is such a difficult and life-altering form of abuse, it is possible to recover. More and more counselors and coaches recognize the need to understanding the dynamics of spiritual abuse. I’m opening my coaching practice to helping those who have experienced spiritual abuse and religious trauma. If this is something you struggle with and need help, please contact me at: kathywienscoaching@gmail.com.

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