Can you have “church PTSD”?

A friend of mine has written about her experience as a pastor’s wife and youth worker. Having gone through several painful experiences–“normal” church drama and then way beyond normal–at the hands of other church leaders, she details her current “church PTSD” that kicks in now when considering going to church

What if I WANT the community and the bumping up against different people with different opinions, but I CAN’T, I mean physically CAN’T go?  I have usually discovered in life that if I have a feeling, I’m not the only one.  So it makes me think there must be others out there like me.

What do I mean by “physically unable”?  I shake, I cry uncontrollably, my skin crawls, I am unable to speak.  It’s pretty difficult to be a part of a community, broken or not, with all of that going on.

Honestly, I have something akin to a PTSD (not to take away from anyone who actually has full-blown PTSD) when it comes to church.  When I hear people talking in Christian catch phrases I want to run away.  This is the language of the culture of people who persecuted and bullied my family and me.  If you speak their language, you must be one of them, too.  So I stay away.

Having worked with a large number of current and former pastors and families, this reaction is sadly not unique. So, it begs the question: What might be the root of this “church PTSD” (by the way, I think some of these features sound just like PTSD so we may not need the quotes)?

My friend hits the nail on the head: we accept meanness in the church because we fear disrupting our own safety and security.

there is a culture of acceptance in the church today that allows for people to be treated terribly under the umbrella of it being what is “best for the church”.  I would imagine that if a teacher was abusing children in the toddler department or if there were drunken parties going on at youth group there would be some type of outrage, as there should be.  But somehow just plain being “mean” doesn’t garner any type of outrage.  “It’s not ideal, but we are fallen people, after all, so you can’t expect anything better.”

Read her full post over at Scot McKnight’s blog here. Consider what one thing you might do to stand up to those who put down others rather than image Christ in sacrificing for the weaker party.  


Filed under Abuse, Christianity, Christianity: Leaders and Leadership, church and culture, conflicts, suffering, trauma

12 responses to “Can you have “church PTSD”?

  1. Noah

    My situation is very similar to the writers, as are my symptoms. I was a youth pastor for two years and a senior pastor for 6 years. Both experiences ended with pain and suffering. I have been out of church ministry now for almost 5 years. I struggle often with both the hurtful things that were done to me by others, and much worse, the hurtful things I did to others. My wife and kids long for the connection that is found in church, I run from it. When I hear the words “calling” or “blessing” or any other forms of christianese, a fire begins to burn deep down inside. I easily become angry and want to lash out at those around me. I keep hoping for those feelings to go away, and feel guilty that I feel this way, but I cannot deny that it happens often.

    After reading the article, I think that it might be a good idea for me and others to help reform the church and eradicate this force that tears churches apart. That is, if I can ever muster up the courage to get involved again. At least it is some comfort to hear that others are experiencing the same thing.
    -Thanks for the post Dr. Phil!

  2. I have PTSD, caused by severe childhood abuse, but I also was spiritually abused as an adult by a minister, who also ‘groomed’ me for sexual gain.
    I do believe after all the research I have done, that the trauma caused by the different types of abuse within some church’s – could indeed cause PTSD.

  3. Reblogged this on Healing From Complex Trauma & PTSD/CPTSD and commented:
    Absolutely yes, this is possible.
    Some church’s are not of God, and are abusive and condone it all.
    I believe the trauma caused by abusive church’s could cause PTSD.

  4. Not quite there

    I have a PTSD diagnosis due to abuse throughout childhood and into early adult years. ALL of it was connected to church. Every abuser was connected to some sort of full time ministry and the abuse was always covered up by those in ministry.
    As I have recently worked through these things in counseling, I have stopped going to church, even though I now have a wonderful church. It is simply too hard. I have not cut myself off from all believers, but sitting at church, even in a church that is completely different from the abuses I grew up under, is incredibly difficult.
    The panic starts in just thinking about going. If I make it there, I spend the time trying to stop shaking and block out memories and fears. I can’t hear the speaker.
    In my particular situation, there are ongoing investigations that includes some of the abuse I experienced. Those at my church are largely unaware of my connection to any of it, but almost every time I am with a group of them, the subject comes up and I learn that there are those who defend the abusers believing that what I know to be true, didn’t happen.
    For me, church is the hardest place to be. It can easily break apart the things I am trying to learn about God.

    • Ginger

      I feel exactly the same way. I want church to be small. One on one friendships at different points during the month, no religious off I list ion. Just true friendship Biblical sound growth and recovery time.

  5. Absolutely. I think any traumatic experience could potentially cause PTSD.

  6. I definitely relate to the cringing when people use “Christian-ese”

  7. Thank you for addressing a topic that too many of us have experienced. I resonate with your friend’s comment that we tend to accept the meanness. As pastor’s wives we wrestle over how to respond, if an honest response will stir up bigger problems, and so forth. And usually we are just too tired to deal with it. I’ve experienced the symptoms myself and worked with many pastor’s wives so I no longer use quotes for church or ministry PTSD. Now with coaching and training available for women in this unique role of being the pastor’s wife, I trust we can inspire change.

  8. Bex

    Absolutely, its called spiritual abuse. Look up Elizabeth Esther’s blog, its a great resource for those recovering.

  9. Kimber

    Thank you for writing about this. It is real and those of us who have suffered need acknowledgment that is was abuse and should not be accepted practice in the church.

  10. Ginger

    I have complex PTSD and been to a cancer for a year and it did not work out as much as I’d like to. I am not on medications. I do vitamins.
    I have been to three churches in the valley where I live and bring my kids with me because of an overwhelming guilty feeling when I do not go. I understand that the church is the body and we are the temple in which we worship God and a personal relationship with Jesus is here inside us. But to actually ping pong a relationship back and forth with other believers is difficult when you go to church and you mostly find aggressive religious Pharisees and Narcissists. A person with PTSD can’t survive the Pharisees and narcissists. Especially after packing two kids there. So what can a mom like me do?

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