The Barnabas Ministry

Leaving an Unhealthy Church and the Grief Process
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. This article will discuss leaving a church in the context of a loss and grief process.

Identifying the Loss
Church 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 church.

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 conscious mind.

While there are many questions that naturally arise concerning the loss, discussing leaving a church in the context of a grief and loss model 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 of loss may exist.

Loss Models
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 death of 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 (originally 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 that those 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?

Denial and Isolation
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 good to be careful about what is said about the situation, and to whom it is said, an absolute refusal to discuss the loss may be denying that it took place.

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 those 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 may be an attempt to deny that the loss has taken place.

Anger
Those who leave unhealthy churches may feel anger at many things 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 could 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 the like.

Bargaining
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? Maybe 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.

Depression
Those who leave unhealthy churches may feel sad and downright numb about the loss. Though the actual leaving might be accompanied with fear 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 likely for those who leave groups who portray themselves and their activities in grandiose 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 the 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. 

The James-Friedman Model
In "The Grief Recovery 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 identify 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.

Reduced Concentration
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.

A Sense of Numbness
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.

Recovery Myths
In "The Grief Recovery Handbook" James and Friedman identify common myths about dealing with a loss (p. 35). These myths have developed 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 may 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.

Don't Feel Bad
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 other 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 is processed.

Getting involved in a new church too soon can also perpetuate unhealty aspects of the previous church 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 leave.

Grieve Alone
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 occur.

Be Strong for Others
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 "be 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.

Keep Busy
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 be have to be recognized and accepted.


We may be tempted to "act recovered" 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.

Healthy Mechanisms 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 individual thing, but there are some common components for all of us.
Triggers
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, simply use the same healthy mechanisms for dealing with loss that you have used before.

Stigmatized Grief in Unhealthy Churches
Earlier we 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:
Other legitimate parts of 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.

Do not accept these distorted teachings!

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 expect people to not be "bitter," but they never seem to realize that they are doing things that cause people to be embittered (ref. Colossians 3:21).  These sorts of double standards are nothing more than control mechanisms on the part of unhealthy church leaders.

Having been 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 healing. 

Recovery
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:

What do we mean by recovery? Recovery means feeling better. Recovery 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 healthy.

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.

Though a righteous man falls seven times, he rises again (Proverbs 24:16).

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven:
a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build,
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 throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace. (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8)

There is a time to dance.


Copyright © 2006 John Engler and Patricia L. Engler, M.A. LPC. All rights reserved.

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