"I Felt Like I Was Going to Die": Charlotte's Church Hurt Story
*This is the second 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). As a reminder, 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.
Charlotte’s family did not attend church in her infant or toddler years. After a move when she was 5, her family began attending a church in the area. When she was 8, she attended her first church camp. The counselors there talked a lot about following Jesus. That idea made a major impression on her. A few weeks later, sitting alone in her room, she decided she would follow Jesus like the camp counselors talked about. There was no pomp or circumstance, just a child-like decision to follow Jesus. In her words, “It just made sense.”
A few years later, Charlotte’s parents had a bad experience with the pastor of the church. Denominational leadership got involved and the situation devolved to the point where the pastor threatened a lawsuit against the church. Charlotte’s parents decided it would be best if they just left.
After about a year of searching, Charlotte’s family landed at a church where she would be a member for the next 20+ years. Only in middle school, Charlotte was identified as a leader for the youth group almost from the get-go. The youth pastor believed in training students to perform roles and then allowing them to do it. “It was very student led which, at the time, wasn’t done a lot,” she remembered.
Though she was involved in church all through middle and high school, like many, Charlotte’s faith became her own in college. No longer having her family to rely on, she realized that she had to take ownership of patterns, behaviors, and practices that had run on autopilot to that point. She got involved in a campus ministry and briefly served on the leadership team there.
Coming Home, Making Family
Charlotte got married shortly after graduation. Unfortunately, both she and her husband lost their jobs within the first year of their marriage. They moved in with her parents and they began attending Charlotte’s old church together.
Things were a little odd when she re-entered her church as a married woman. As a youth, she had been on the church leadership team, a position that gave her a seat at church leadership meetings where consequential decisions were made. Not only was she not seen as a “leader” now, but she felt that many in the church still viewed her as a kid. Getting established as an adult was difficult.
But Charlotte and her husband persevered through the initial difficulty. The church ministry strategy was based around small groups with an emphasis on “doing life together,” but it didn’t feel like things really worked out that way. Charlotte and her husband found community, but they still felt somewhat isolated because they were among the very few people in the church who were in their age range and life stage.
They eventually got on the church’s track to become community group leaders. At this church, that included an open-ended training process to get you prepared to serve. Even after being “in training” for 10 years, Charlotte and her husband were never given a group to lead.
Despite the hiccups along the way, Charlotte recounted that “The church was our family.” She and her husband ended up leading the church’s children’s ministry (birth to kindergarten) and gained a place on the church’s leadership team. Charlotte’s former youth pastor had become an associate pastor. He began to disciple her husband.
Cracks in the Foundation
Throughout their time at the church, Charlotte and her husband had regular conversations where they expressed how glad they were that they “really trusted our pastors” because they didn’t observe any kind of accountability structure for them. There weren’t any systems or processes in place through which the pastors could be told “No.” If someone did voice opposition or concern, they quietly disappeared from the congregation. Up until that point, Charlotte had never been impacted by that lack of accountability, so it had never felt like a real problem.
Unfortunately, issues started to creep up prior to COVID hitting. At the time, the church had 2 services but the first was more like a Sunday School lesson. The teaching was more discussion oriented and questions could be asked and answered from the pews. The pastor announced that they would be starting a series on Genesis at that service. Charlotte was excited. She loved what Genesis taught about trusting God, especially in His care and provision for His people. She assumed the study would be about that.
Instead, the study largely emphasized why you should believe that dinosaurs walked the earth with humans. It felt out of nowhere. Charlotte was confused why the church was spending time on this instead of the great themes of Genesis about who God is. That’s when things started to feel weird.
Around the same time, just prior to COVID, Charlotte’s former youth pastor’s wife passed away unexpectedly. She had been like a second mom to Charlotte. While Charlotte had experienced the death of a loved one before, this death hit her hard.
When COVID finally hit just a few weeks later, Charlotte expected that the former youth pastor’s wife’s death would rally the church together. It didn’t. Like many churches, Charlotte’s church viewed masks in a political manner. They asserted that Christians had the right to proceed with life as normal because of their faith. They asserted that wearing masks was a sign of weak faith. When Charlotte and her husband appealed to the need to wear masks as a sign of love and concern for others, the church simply told them “No.”
Not Fitting in the Box
But Charlotte’s and her husband’s problems ran deeper than the church’s response to COVID. They started noticing Christian nationalist themes that, looking back now, Charlotte admits may have always been there. Her first memory of what she now labels Christian nationalism was during the Syrian refugee crisis. Members of the church labeled everyone attempting to leave Syria as “terrorists” and didn’t want to allow them into the country. Charlotte and her husband asked about the need for compassion in the situation but were met with justifications of needing to be “as shrewd as serpents.” The church kept talking about how the government should handle the refugees while Charlotte and her husband were asking questions about how the church should respond. No one at the church could separate the two entities. It’s the first time that Charlotte remembers noticing how the American government had been wed with the church. In her congregation’s mind, the two were so intertwined that they simply couldn’t be separated.
The intertwining of government and church factored into the church’s response to COVID, race riots, and everything else that happened in the spring and summer of 2020. Charlotte summarized the church’s response to all of it as, “There’s only one way to think about this and if you don’t, that’s sinful.”
Charlotte readily admits that over the last 10 years both her and her husband’s political thoughts have shifted. The issue was that they felt the need to hide those shifts from people at the church. Looking back, she’s uncertain whether that stemmed from a fear of conflict or if she simply knew there wouldn’t be space for them at the church if people really knew what they thought.
Eventually, they got tired of “trying to fit ourselves into a box that somebody else made for us.” As they voiced how their faith informed their alternative opinions, things got worse for them at the church.
Charlotte and her husband’s decision to speak out about the racial turmoil the country experienced in the summer of 2020 was a flashpoint. As they expressed their support of protestors, their church labeled them “communists.” Their faith in Jesus was called into question because they had the audacity to say “Black lives matter.”
Over that spring and summer, Charlotte and her husband had several conversations with the pastor in which they tried to create space for people like them who might not completely agree with the church’s stances. Each time they had a conversation, things got more awkward. Finally, in October of 2020, they decided they couldn’t go back. Reflecting, Charlotte knows that they didn’t handle the situation perfectly. She admitted that they both felt a lot of anger and hurt towards the church.
Hindsight being 20/20, Charlotte now realizes that she felt God was leading her family to leave the church as early as March of 2020. But she didn’t want to leave. “I fought God hard on that point,” she confessed. She loved the people of the church. They were the people she had grown up around. She considered them more family than members of her actual family and didn’t feel like she could walk away from that. It felt like she would be betraying them.
As the events of that spring and summer progressed, Charlotte felt like she couldn’t be herself around the people of the church. She wanted the freedom to be who she is, not that who she is is perfect, but she felt unfaithful to God for not fully being who she was created to be. In obedience, she started stepping out of the box that she had been working to fit into for so long. Things went terribly each time. People she thought loved her did not respond well.
Through it all, Charlotte and her husband felt alone. Her former youth pastor was dealing with his wife’s death, so they didn’t want to bother him with all of their stuff. Reflecting, Charlotte remembers their desire for “someone to pastor us through all of our mess.” Instead, they felt like problems that needed to change their minds about almost everything or continue to be viewed as problems that aren’t to be taken seriously. They got to a point where they simply weren’t willing to do that anymore.
Since leaving the church to which she had belonged for 20+ years in October of 2020, Charlotte has heard from 4 people from the church. Shortly after leaving, they received a letter from the pastor that essentially expressed, “We’re here when you’re ready to come home.” But Charlotte doesn’t think that any church is ever anyone’s home. “Jesus is my home,” she expressed. “Now, I’m just an item on the church’s prayer list.”
"I Thought I Was Going to Die"
Remarkably, Charlotte’s faith in God has never been in question. 6 years ago her husband nearly cut off a finger in a DIY project gone wrong. At the time, she was staying at home with a small child. Her husband provided their family’s only income but was unable to work for 2 months. He spent most of that time on strong painkillers that also limited what he could do to help out around the house and with their child. There were days when Charlotte wondered, “How am I going to feed my family tomorrow?” Through that experience, Charlotte learned that God was faithful to provide what her family needed and that He was good even in the most difficult of circumstances. She trusts that God is unchanging, so she reasoned that if He was able to be trusted to care for her and be good to her in that situation that He would be in this struggle no matter how difficult things got.
And things did get difficult for a while. When asked to describe how she felt emotionally between March and October of 2020, Charlotte quickly replied, “I thought I was going to die.” While dealing with the loss of her second mother would have been difficult enough, she reflected that if she had known prior to her death that she would also soon lose her church she might not have had any hope.
Charlotte felt completely alone. In the past, when something had been hard she went to her church for community. Now, she couldn’t.
Much of her identity had been wrapped up in the church. Noting that this wasn’t all bad, she now realizes that it was probably unhealthy to the extent to which she did it. She struggled with dueling questions: “Who would I be if I leave? And am I even allowed to leave?” Whether or not she liked the box she felt she had been made to fit into, she understood it. Thinking about life outside of that box was frightening.
That 6-month period of struggle exacted a heavy emotional toll. Virtual school was happening at the same time. Charlotte and her husband now have two children. One has struggled with some behavioral issues that were compounded by the virtual learning environment. Charlotte recalls many days when, after her husband arrived home, she went for long drives where she cried and cursed at God in anger. Showers became opportunities for good, extended cries. “I felt destroyed by it,” she remembered.
Not the Final Chapter
As difficult as her experience was, Charlotte is still grateful for the good things that came from her involvement in her church for so many years. She’s also grateful to feel a newfound sense of freedom to be the person that God has created her to be that was lacking the last few years of her time there. Having heard similar stories of hurt from others, Charlotte is grateful that her faith is still intact to serve as her anchor. She feels a great deal of empathy and compassion for people who have been through similar experiences who have lost their faith along with their church
How did her faith persevere? Charlotte credits the discipline of maintaining a personal connection with God throughout it all. While community was an important part of Charlotte’s faith, it never served as a substitute for her personal communion with God. Without maintaining that connection, Charlotte acknowledged that she doesn’t know where she would be now.
“This [my church hurt experience] wasn’t the last thing. It doesn’t define the whole story,” Charlotte concluded.
Charlotte’s family has recently joined a local church. Thus far, things are going well. The people are friendly and welcoming. Everyone in their family is finding their place in the new church community.
But getting involved in a new church has also been emotionally challenging. Charlotte described feeling anxious at each and every woman’s Bible study she has attended. “For the first few weeks, I just sat on my hands. I don’t know why. It’s not like it actually accomplished anything, but it felt like that was the only thing physically holding my body in place and preventing me from running out of the door.”
Fighting cynicism has also proven to be a regular challenge. Recently, Charlotte had a conversation with the children’s minister about missing a training opportunity. “She immediately called me to say that was completely fine and wanted to catch up with me. We just chatted about life for 15 minutes… My husband and I are both weirdly struggling with how much people at church seem to genuinely like us – it’s both funny and not.”
Music has helped Charlotte express thoughts and feelings for which she didn’t have words at the time. She specifically cited a song called “How it All Matters” by Bethany Barnard that posed a series of questions to God about pain: Do You remember? Does it even matter? Will this tell a story Or just be a big blur? Will all the sorrow Bе glory tomorrow? Only You know How it all matters…
You remember You know it all matters This tells a story But it's not the last chapter
For Charlotte, church hurt is part of the story. But it’s not the last chapter.