Leaving an Unhealthy
Church and the
Having various experiences in dealing with
life losses and the experience of leaving a church, we have
often noted the applicability of the loss and the recovery process.
article will discuss leaving a church in the context of a
loss and grief process.
Identifying the Loss
members may often feel a tremendous sense
of investment with their church. This is good and right and Scriptural.
Over the course of many years, many have given sacrificially of their
money, time and energy towards its
benefit. They may have altered life goals and career plans to help the
church. They may have received criticism or shunning from family or
friends for their involvement. They are not just casual church members.
So when someone leaves a church they are invested in, they experience a
loss. Such a
loss is multi-faceted and affects many
areas of one's life:
In an unhealthy
church, these losses often come gradually.
Initially, they might think "this is a great church." However, as
problems become more apparent and less likely to change, the member
will lose that perspective and realize, "This church has serious
problems." Due to the level of investment, the member may think, "This
church has problems
and I want to help it change." However, unhealthy churches resist
needed change, this is part of what makes them unhealthy. What
was once wonderful in the member's eyes has come to be troublesome and
a source of pain. This and other losses happen before someone actually
leaves an unhealthy
- Idealogical- They hold
to the teachings, ideals and goals of the group.
- Spiritual- They
identify themselves spiritually as members of that group.
- Relational- They
have relationships with many other members. These may be severed or
severely strained when someone leaves the congregation.
- Memories and
people have been members for many years, they probably went through
major stages of life in that church, such as getting married, having
children, and experiencing various life transitions and hardships such
as the death of loved ones, job changes and the like. These experiences
are milestones in our lives, and they are experienced within the
context of the church social structure.
- Areas of Service-
They may have served many fulfilling functions and roles within the
- Hopes and Dreams-
They may have personal hopes and goals that are tied to the church,
such as work they were doing in the church and future plans or goals
associated with that work. So
when the church membership ends, those goals, hopes and dreams also end.
They may see themselves as primarily members of that church and
devote many hours a week towards that involvement; leaving it leaves a
huge void in terms of time and their life routine.
- Cascading Effect-
Leaving may cause secondary losses-- for example, children
won't be seeing their friends at church anymore.
Once someone actually leaves a church, the losses become more evident.
It is more
than just not being there on Sundays for services. The passage of time
reveals how much a part of someone's life was wrapped up in the church
involvement, and the various losses begin to emerge into one's
While there are many questions that naturally arise concerning the
loss, discussing leaving a church in the context of a grief and loss
can be quite helpful.
In spite of whatever pain was associated with continued membership, and
whatever difficult circumstances may have been a factor in leaving,
once someone leaves a church-- even an unhealthy church-- a deep sense
In the 1950's, Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
pioneered the study of grief processes as they related to those with
terminal illnesses. The model has been expanded to cover the loss from
loved ones, and other losses as well. In more recent times, the study
of the grief process has
grown and become better understood. Let us discuss leaving a church as
it relates to the grief and loss process.
The Kubler-Ross Model
The Stages of Grief
identifed by Dr. Kubler-Ross) help us understand the process of grief
better. These are not stages that are gone
through sequentially, but rather these are different aspects of grief
experiencing loss go through. After a loss, these stages may be
visited time and time again. There is no specific time frame for how
long it takes someone to grieve.
So what are the stages of loss in the Kubler-Ross model, and how do
they relate to leaving a church situation?
Those who leave unhealthy churches will probably wish they could erase
the whole thing from their memories-- wishing it had never
happened, wishing the whole problem would just go away, wishing it was
no longer part of their experience.
One manifestation of
this stage may be a refusal to talk about it
with anyone. While is
the situation, and to whom it is said, an
absolute refusal to discuss the loss may be denying that it took
Another way people
may deny the loss of leaving a church is to deny their membership or
investment in the first place. Subconsciously, this might be expressed
as, "if there was no membership, then there was no loss." This is not
the same as trying to put a good face on something that was bad, it is
an attempt at re-writing history as it concerns one's membership and
involvement in the group.
Those who leave
unhealthy churches may desire to retain friendships with some of
left behind in the church. This is a
tricky area; it is healthy to have relationships not
constrained by organizational loyalties. Others left behind in the
group may also be seeking a way out, and those who leave may want to
provide a "lifeline" for them. However, maintaining such relationships
be an attempt to deny that the loss has taken place.
Those who leave unhealthy churches may feel anger at many
and people. This may be felt towards flaws and corruptions in the
system that made
leaving necessary, as well as the institutional resistance (such as
silence or doubletalk
about problem areas) that usually
accompanies unhealthy churches.
Anger may also be felt towards
any individuals who did hurtful, abusive or neglectful things. This
include leaders who did not listen or who they felt have acted wrongly.
This could also be felt towards friends or peers who abandoned
them when they took a stand, and
Those who leave unhealthy churches may ask all sorts of "what-if"
questions. "What if I had handled a certain situation differently? What
if somebody else had done something else differently? Why did this have
to happen the way it did? Maybe they are right and I was wrong?
I made too big a deal out of it? Maybe I should have compromised
instead? Maybe if we "nipped them (the problems) in the bud" this could
have been avoided."
Such questions may illustrate the severity of the loss. If there was no
sense of loss, there would be few questions. But the larger the sense
of loss, the more persistent the questions will be.
Those who leave unhealthy churches may feel sad and downright numb
about the loss. Though the actual leaving might be accompanied with
and then gladness or relief, once the loss becomes apparent sadness is
likely to set in.
This depression is a feeling of emptiness and pain, that to some
degree life has no meaning or purpose now that this loss has been
suffered. This is especially
who leave groups who portray themselves and their activities in
ways, as though members can find no reward, satisfaction or approval
from God apart from that particular group and its goals.
Acceptance or Integration
At a certain point, those who have suffered loss accept it
and move on in their lives, having been changed by this loss. This
doesn't mean they will no longer have any sadness when thinking about
loss, but that they live having integrated this loss into their lives
and into who they are now as a person. They can feel a sense of freedom
and personal growth
from the negative experience more often than not.
In "The Grief
Handbook: The Action Program for Moving Beyond
Death, Divorce and Other Losses (Harper
Perennial, NY, 1998)," John W. James and Russel Friedman share
their experiences from conducting loss workshops for many years. They
the most common responses to loss (p.13). Here, we will examine these
with a view towards how they might apply in a church-loss situation.
When leaving an unhealthy
church, those who leave are likely to feel overwhelmed and confused. At
any point in time-- while at work, driving, or doing something
enjoyable, the mind may flash to matters surrounding the loss.
This sense of numbness is akin to
the Kubler-Ross stage of denial. The potential for deep emotional pain
associated with the loss is so great that we instinctively protect
ourselves from it by going "numb" instead. Numbness is a normal
response, but it shows that the powerful emotions associated with the
loss need to be expressed and addressed.
Disrupted Sleep Patterns, Changed
Eating Habits, Roller-Coaster Emotional Energy
These characteristics are associated
with depression. People experiencing a loss may go to either extreme in
these areas-- taking on new projects with extraordinary energy or
being absolutely lethargic about wanting to take on anything, eating a
lot or not very much at all, sleeping a lot or not very much at all. In
the context of leaving a church, these could be expressed as a refusal
to get involved in a new church, or (alternatively) immediately going
into a new church situation with high levels of energy and involvement.
Both of these are expressions of loss.
Loss models should not
serve to pigeon-hole our emotions or direct our experiences and
healing. We should not feel inferior if we experience one stage or
aspect more or less severely than others. The point of these models is
to help us understand what we go
through when we experience a loss.
In "The Grief Recovery
Handbook" James and Friedman identify
common myths about dealing with a loss (p. 35). These myths have
because the world is uncomfortable with pain and loss and generally
doesn't want to deal with it.
This sort of thing is learned very early in life. When a child doesn't
get his or her way in something, he or she cries. For most parents, the
instinctive instruction is to say, "Don't cry." This has more to do
with the fact that parents are uncomfortable with crying than helping
the child deal with the loss in a healthy way. This is even more
pronounced if the child cries in a public place, such as a store.
Oddly, parents often try to get the child to stop crying through
various means-- whether letting them have their way, or whatever. This
article isn't about parenting, but this discussion shows that early on
we are taught that expressing our pain is socially unacceptable.
Further, we are taught that "if we are good" there shouldn't be any
pain in life. These recovery myths have their origins in these dynamics
we learn at a young age.
So when we experience a loss as adults, other people don't know what do
or say. They
want to intellectualize the loss, change the subject or not want to
deal with our feelings of loss. As a result, each of these ineffective
mechanisms below have devleoped. They have a "don't bother me, go away
until you're over it" aspect
to them. We will discuss these with a view towards how they might apply
in leaving an unhealthy church.
This general response might be an
implicit request to shut-down the sad feelings associated with the
loss, or they might be an urging to "look on the bright side" of the
loss-- in this case getting away from a bad church situation and
looking forward to a new situation. Surely there is a bright side-- but
there is still pain from the
loss, and all of the
eventual pluses to making a change don't make the loss go away.
Replace the Loss
This response would be to seek out a
new church to replace the one that was lost. This fails in several
ways. First, as in the case of a deceased loved one, the loss simply
cannot be replaced. Nothing else is like that which was lost and it
cannot be replaced.
Second, attempting to get involved in a new church
too soon after leaving an unhealthy one will not allow for dealing
with the loss experience in a healthy way. It is good to visit
churches after experiencing your loss
(and even before considering leaving an unhealthy church). But it is
wise to not get too involved before the loss of the old church
Getting involved in a new
church too soon can also perpetuate unhealty aspects of the previous
experience. For example, there could be a temptation to get your
self-esteem from what you do
in another church or a desire to "prove something" to the group you
left. If your involvement in an unhealthy church led to corrupted
motives, be wary of going into a new
church sitaution with those same motives. Avoid the temptation to
find "something better" than what you left to justify your decision to
Society generally doesn't like to
deal with loss and pain. If we must grieve, we are taught to grieve
alone. In addition, losses associated with an unhealthy church
situation can compound this factor. We may feel embarassed or ashamed
that we were involved with a particular church, or that we did not heed
comments from loved ones cautioning against what we were doing.
Yet, communication in safe relationships is vital to the grief and
healing process. Whether
it is the expression of emotions and feelings about the loss or coming
to grips with its implications, we need to be able to speak with
trusted ones to heal.
Just Give it Time
Time can facilitate healing, but the
mere passsage of time
alone does not. Time allows the other aspects of grief and recovery to
Be Strong for
We may want to be strong for others
who might be considering leaving (or have already left) the church.
This is somewhat
natural, and life goes on in spite of our losses. However, trying to
strong for others" prevents us from addressing our loss. When we
experience a loss, we are weakened. There
is a time to be strong, and a time to be weak.
Many people experiencing a church
loss may need to devote attention to other areas that have been
neglected because of the unhealthy church experience. However, busyness
can prevent us from dealing with our loss.
Other Counterproductive Actions
In addition, James and Friedman discuss the ideas of "enshrining" or
"bedeviling" in response to a loss. Thus, we may point out only the old
churches' positives or only its negatives. But all churches have
positives and negatives; dwelling on one or the other is not a true
perspective on the old church (though it may be necessary for a time to
"complete" the picture). In time, both the positives and negatives will
have to be recognized and accepted.
We may be tempted to "act
to gain the approval of others (as society is extremely uncomfortable
with those who express emotional pain). But acting recovered doesn't
mean you are recovered.
We may also binge on other things instead of
dealing with our loss-- anything from food to sex to exercise to work
to anger. These behaviors release energy for a short period of time but
do nothing to help with the loss and recovery process.
for Dealing With a Church Loss
The stages of grief don't
help us recover from grief, they only
identify various aspects of the process. Myths about grief don't help
us recover from a loss.
Dealing with grief is a very
thing, but there are some common components for all of us.
- Time- There is no set timetable for
grief. In the Old Testament, the people of Israel officially mourned
for 30 days (Deuteronomy 34:8), though we may be sure that those who
knew him better and personally mourned him much longer. Do not expect
to deal with your loss on a
certain timetable; every person and every loss is unique.
- You are not "weird"- Many figures
in the Scriptures experienced spiritual losses-- David, Samuel and most
of the prophets. Jesus also knows
what it is like to have a loss related to a bad church experience
because he was rejected by the religious leaders of his time.
- Cling to God- He has not left you and wants to
show you he is still with you and loves you. (Psalm 73, Hebrews 13:5).
- Cling to Trusted Relationships-- It is
have people that genuinely love you and whom you trust to be able to
share your grief with them. This may be a spouse, parent, relative,
minister, or counselor.
- Acceptance- There is a
place for trying to change an unhealthy group or people by confronting
them with their
unhealthy actions. But at a certain point, you have to let them be what
they are (since that is their choice). At that point, your objective is
- Retelling- Discussing your experiences with the
church can help you to see both the good and the bad. This is a key
trait of how
processes a loss of any kind. However, be careful about whom you
select to share
your experiences. Your objective in retelling is to get an accurate
picture, discern good from bad and to identify areas that are not yet
- Forgiveness and Completion- There will be a need
at some point to forgive wrongs done to you and to recognize areas
where you also have regrets or need to come to completion. These could
include making significant emotional statements.
- Reshaping and Growth- Your
has changed you forever. Not only did you take good things from the
experience, you can learn other good things as a result of your
experience. For example, you may become more sensitive to those who are
excluded or might be hurt by some program in your new church.
From time to time, things may happen to bring your
loss back into focus. For example, if the idea of giving money was
abused in your old church, when this topic is brought up in a new
church setting it may reawaken old memories you thought you had already
dealt with, or it may bring to mind something else about the past
experience that you aren't quite resolved about. In such cases,
use the same healthy mechanisms for dealing with loss that you have
Grief in Unhealthy Churches
discussed how society is uncomfortable with pain. Grief is naturally
stigmatized, but unhealthy churches can make grief even worse by
trying to take away the tools for recovery. This can make recovery from
losses very difficult and troubling from a spiritual point of view.
Let's discuss some examples of this:
the grief process may be demonized as selfishness, faithlessness,
rebellion towards God, and the like. In fact, there is no shortage of
texts that can be twisted by abusive people to justify abusive behavior
in a church context. Not only are these abusive, they rob the victim of
the tools for recovery.
- Some unhealthy churches
but often it is openness only about certain things. People
may be expected or encouraged to be open about their own sins. However,
about feelings concerning mistreatment, the shortcomings of the group
or the negative
results of its practices is not
encouraged. This is akin to
not allowing a
child to cry when it suffers disappointment. From these sorts of
practices, people learn that disappointments and losses in a church
setting are "bad" or are somehow a source of shame. The truth is,
members of an unhealthy church will have more than their share of
disappointments and losses, plus there is no acceptable healthy
mechanism to express
scriptural teachings or incidents can be twisted to contribute to the
stigmatization of grief.
- For example, citing
the example of Jesus'
silence before his accusers (Matthew 26:63, Isaiah 53:7), some churches
have taught that whatever loss
or pain comes your way you must "shut up and bear it in solitary
silence." While Jesus experienced a
tremendous loss on
the cross, but it was hardly unexpressed. Though he was largely silent
before his accusers (owing to the dishonest nature of the entire
proceeding), passages such as Psalm
22 and Isaiah 53 provide a glimpse into this experience on Jesus' part.
- Sometimes the story
of David leaving Saul is applied in this setting, as in "A Tale of
Three Kings" by Gene Edwards. Citing 1 Samuel 20, people are told,
"When you leave, you
must leave alone." I agree that leaving a church is a very personal and
individual decision. However, we can see that when David left Saul (a wicked
and troubled king who wanted to kill him), he found others who were
also out of favor with the king.
is a common expression for
non-sinful sadness in the Bible (see the Barnabas Ministry article on bitterness), but
churches may indoctrinate people
that any expression of pain from a loss or mistreatment is "bitterness"
- Retelling one's
wrongly called "slander." It is not "slander" to say what you feel
think or to testify about something that actually happened. It is only
slander to say
something untrue about somebody.
Do not accept these
Isn't it ironic that those who expect victims of spiritual abuse to act as
Jesus did during his trial are aligning themselves with the Jewish and
Roman leaders who crucified him? How it is that victims of spiritual
abuse are "supposed to act like Jesus," but spiritual abusers in the
name of Christ can act like the Jewish and Roman leaders? Or how is it that abusive
leaders expect the people to behave like David (in this case, a
distorted version of how David acted), while they are allowed to act
like Saul? Or that church leaders can
people to not be "bitter," but they never seem to realize that they are
doing things that cause people to be embittered (ref. Colossians
mechanisms on the part of
unhealthy church leaders.
exposed to this sort of teaching, we may feel that every stage of the
grief process is sinful. Thankfully, these processes
are not sinful, but natural responses to pain and the pathway to
With healthy recovery mechanisms and time, you will be able to put your
loss behind you. Though it has shaped you, it will truly be part of
your past and you will be at peace with it. A statement by James and
Friedman (op. cit. p 6-7) concerning recovery gives a glimpse of what
this can be like:
means claiming your circumstances instead of your circumstances
claiming you and your happiness. Recovery is finding new meaning for
living, without the fear of being hurt again. Recovery is being able to
enjoy fond memories without having them precipitate painful feeling of
pain and remorse. Recovery is acknowledging that it is perfectly all
right to feel sad from time to time and to talk about those feelings no
matter how those around you react. Recovery is being able to forgive
others when they say or do things that you know are based on their lack
of knowledge about grief. Recovery is one day realizing that your
ability to talk about the loss you've experienced is indeed normal and
There is a time to grieve, and
a time to move on, but no man can tell you when that time is. Spiritual
losses require processing, time and pain. But there is hope for
recovery and wholeness if we address our spiritual losses honestly and
directly, without allowing the stigmatization from society or unhealthy
churches to rob us of the tools for recovery.
again (Proverbs 24:16).
There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under
a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to
a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to
a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace
and a time to refrain,
a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to
a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to
a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.
There is a time to