David's* Story of Church Hurt
*This is the first in a series of posts to share individual's experiences with church hurt. The purpose of this series isn't to heap blame on the church or any individual (all names are changed and locations kept ambiguous unless absolutely necessary). I hope to accomplish 3 things.
First, I want to provide a space where people who have been hurt by the church can openly share their experiences both for their healing and to help encourage others who may be going through something similar. Second, I've yet to come across a place online that explores in detail the impact that going through church hurt has on a person's faith outside of "Do they continue to go to church or not?" Reality often occurs in the grey, and I believe this black and white question to be far too limited to help us wrap our minds around the impact being hurt by the church has on individuals. Finally, I've found that church leaders often have far too simplistic of an understanding of how people are hurt by the church and the impact that has on them. If you're a church leader, I hope you find this series to be insightful, more compassionate, and better equipped to walk with people when they've been hurt.
Have a story of church hurt you're willing to share? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and let's find a time to talk.
David didn’t grow up in the church. His parents believed in God but were nominal believers at best. David found Jesus through the crucible of loss.
His first experience with a church was when he was 12. Around the same time his grandfather was diagnosed with cancer and only given 6 months to live. David’s grandfather was “the closest thing I had to a demonstration of unconditional love.” His diagnosis and subsequent death months later confronted David with mortality and other big questions that he had decided to punt on and deal with later. Around the same time that his grandfather passed away, David professed faith in Christ.
David grew up in the northeast where the number of Protestant believers was small. Most of David’s Christian classmates were Catholic and did not prioritize their faith in the same way that he did. While David found a church to attend that had an active youth group, most of the other kids in the church were homeschooled. Even as a teenager, David was aware of the skeptical eyes of his friends’ parents as the public-school kid interacted with their protected home school children.
Community was the biggest driving factor of David’s growth in his faith in the early years. Despite the skepticism of other parents, David connected deeply with other teenagers through his church. Church functions played a role in fostering those connections, but David cited Saturday evening movie nights spent devouring pizza and Dr. Pepper at friends’ houses as among the greatest catalysts for growth in his young faith.
Music also contributed greatly to the growth of his faith. His teenage years saw the emergence of bands like Underoath and Korn, bands that, while not Christian, had at least one member that was open about his faith. David was drawn to these groups, seeing his faith not as something that should isolate him from the world but that should permeate it instead.
Unlike many teenagers, David avoided the cult of personality surrounding many popular Christian ministers. His theological understanding and the development of his faith were localized around his youth pastor, family, and friends.
Prior to his church hurt experience, David characterized his church involvement as “zealous, eager, idealistic, and not deterred by reality.” A creative person, David’s creative input into the life of his churches extended beyond that traditional creative categories into visionary imagining of what the church could be. At the same time, he admits that he had little understanding of the complex relational/historical/political dynamics that could be at play in church life.
His first experience of serving in a church was in a volunteer youth capacity at a church in the northeast, a position he shared with two other guys. All were single seminary students at the time and took turns rotating through an interim position as youth pastor while helping each other out along the way. Instead of hiring any of them for the role, the church kept them all in a prolonged state of service with no real authority because it had a bylaw which prohibited church staff from being single.
Undeterred, David moved to the south to further his education. He eventually found a staff position with a larger church working on the creative side of ministry (graphic design, videography, photography, etc.). Unfortunately, his position was eliminated when the church experienced a budget shortfall and had to make cuts.
But everything seemed like it would work out find. Around that time, David got connected with a local pastor who wanted to start a new church. David felt God leading him to be involved. After talking through exactly what that could mean for him, David dove headfirst into the helping launch the new church.
At the outset, David understood that he would serve as an associate pastor in a strictly volunteer capacity. As the church grew, both he and the pastor anticipated that they would eventually begin to draw a salary. David’s understanding was that, as soon as salaries were able to be drawn, they would be split between the senior and associate pastor positions in a 60/40 fashion. Specific numbers were even set as projections.
When a staff budget became available around a year down the road, even at a raw number much smaller than anticipated, the decision was made to allocate the entire salary to the senior pastor role. The agreement was then altered to prioritizing fully funding the senior pastor position before the associate position would receive any funding. Since it had taken a year to get to this point in the development of the church, it was conceivable that such an arrangement could take 5 or more years to be fully realized.
David attempted to voice his frustration over this change to the leadership of the church. His frustrations were treated in a matter-of-fact manner: “Agree, or feel free to move on.”. Since David felt called to the church, he swallowed his pride and stayed.
The situation continued to devolve. As a creative, David poured considerable energy into that aspect of church life. He now characterizes the utilization of that talent and passion for ministry purposes as “rape.” He felt that he was given almost no respect or consideration for the time, passion, and energy he put into the creative projects placed under his leadership. The church expressed little gratitude or appreciation for his work but expected that he would provide excellent service however and whenever the church needed them. While constantly receiving a message that labor was worth its wages, he simultaneously received messages that he should “get a real job.” When he expressed reservations with what was being asked of him, he was met with gaslighting: “Where’s your heart? Your intentions aren’t pure.”
Eventually, David disengaged. A change in employment necessitated relocation, so David left his church. The experience left him feeling manipulated, exploited, and unappreciated. Unlike many church leavers, David repeatedly attempted to resolve his issues with the leadership of his church. As many report, such attempts were not met well and instead served to deepen the hurt he experienced.
Today, David travels for work. His job keeps him on the road working odd hours, so his church involvement is limited to attendance. But even though his job keeps him on the move and limits the time he has to be involved in a meaningful sense, attending church is still a priority. But now, in contrast with his earliest church experience, church doesn’t feel like community. Instead, it feels like helping to build something for someone else to enjoy.
His experiences have also pushed his faith into more philosophical territory. David readily attributes this development to the letdown he has experienced between what he hoped for and what has actually happened in his church experiences. Recently married, David likened this letdown to a young person’s idolization of marriage to their actual experience of marriage. Regardless of how good a marriage is, it rarely meets the expectations of a person who has no personal experience of being married. Admitting that it may be cynical, David also expressed a desire to not be cynical. But he can’t help feel that he noticed a machine that wasn’t working optimally only to be reprimanded for trying to help fix the machine. “If it wants to be broken, let it be broken,” he lamented.
Even so, David hasn’t written off the church completely. He hopes for a day when he and his wife will find a church community that nurtures both their faith and their marriage. As he searches for such a church, he is hoping for a church that shows appreciation and acknowledgement of the sacrifice of all kinds of resources. In the past, he’s been made to feel like his methods of contributing to the life of the church aren’t as important because money hasn’t been involved. Existentially, that has hurt him, “But,” he notes, “it’s also practically wrong.”
David’s faith persists despite his church hurt. Being somewhat philosophically minded has helped him. “There’s clearly something wrong with humanity,” he noted. “And Jesus seems to have the best solution.”
Having his pain validated by friends has also been helpful. When he left his most recent church, David expected to be told that he was being self-focused. Instead, he found friends who were willing to name and validate his pain. When he felt guilty about pulling back from church leadership and just attending, friends have encouraged him to take his time and heal before jumping back in.
David sees this type of empathy as invaluable for the church going forward. “I don’t need people to understand, but I need people to see that things don’t randomly happen and that I’m not just an idiot,” he noted. David’s experiences have played out the way they have for a variety of reasons, many of them beyond his control. From the outside looking in, processing hurt can seem illogical or the hurt may seem to be largely self-inflicted. But taking the time to understand a person’s perspective and to see understanding for why they responded the way they did instead of immediately finding fault is critical.
Instead of condemning or criticizing, David encouraged Christians to give others the benefit of the doubt. No relationship is static in its development. “When you enter a relationship, you’re entering a person’s timeline. There were seasons that preceded your introduction,” he observed. Failing to account for the seasons prior to your introduction stunts your ability to understand anyone, especially when they express hurt or frustration to you.
David hopes that others who have experienced church hurt feel free to share their stories with others. While many feel pressure to “just move on” and maybe even feel some pressure to protect the reputation of others, David pointed out that “You move on by talking about it. You don’t want to live in the past, but you move on by processing it.”