In my ministry as a church finder, I help people who are wounded by their church experience to return to Christian community of various denominations. These folks have been hurt for a variety of reasons – their gay son was rejected by church leadership, they were told they couldn’t serve in ministry because they are divorced, they witnessed abuse but told not to report it, they were continually taught they were inherently bad and evil, they were told they couldn’t leave their abusive husband. The list goes on and on.
So when I hear sexual assault victims come forward to accuse their perpetrators and others question why they didn’t say something sooner, I know why. I know because of my own assault experience and because of my ministry with the wounded. We don’t teach consent well in America. I have never accused my attacker and probably never will. Many times, teaching consent starts with church and that can go well but it can also go very badly.
Church wounding is a deep, deep cut that takes a long time to heal, if ever. There is a grieving in both admitting that you have been hurt (a profound loss of innocence) and that you feel you must leave. For many, leaving their church is a death. It is the death of community, relationships, and hopes. But standing up and saying, “this place will not hurt me anymore” is a boundary. We talk about physical consent but there is also emotional consent. And we don’t teach this well.
As I hear the stories of parents struggling with leaving their church community after a wounding experience involving their children, I am learning more and more. They often feel they are being “judgmental” or “un-Christlike” if they abandon their faith community. Christian teaching will tell us to forgive 70 times seven, right? This scripture, as well as others, is misused to create an “anything goes” dynamic and it is dangerous. Forgiving each other does not mean accepting abuse and hurt.
These parents worry about the lesson they are teaching their children if they abandon their church instead of staying and working towards reconciliation. In the Episcopal Church, we believe the mission of the Church is to be reconciled to God and each other but this does not mean that we tolerate hurtful treatment. Reconciliation can take many forms and it can be done without remaining within a painful community. It may take years to be reconciled and in the meantime, we are teaching our children.
Here is the lesson I tell parents they are teaching their children when they leave their church: You are teaching them consent. You are teaching them that consent is not only physical, it is emotional and spiritual. You are teaching them it is okay and healthy for them to reject hurtful treatment and protect themselves. This is an important lesson for all people. No one has the right to hurt you and especially not in the name of Jesus. You are empowering them with consent and that is a great gift that will serve them in all areas of their lives.
Our faith communities need to challenge us to leave our comfort zones, grow more Christ-like, and take risks in the name of Jesus. They are not there to convince us of our unworthiness, to wound our souls, or stress us out.
When I hear the joy in the voice of these tender souls when they discover a Christian community that loves them just the way they are, where their soul feels safe, I am over the moon. Sometimes, even worshipping one time in a place that is loving and welcoming is profoundly healing. And I am continually amazed at how God shows up in these people’s lives and opens all the right doors for them. It is truly a miracle.
Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened for you. What are you waiting for?