As a therapist and advocate who specializes in recovery from abuse, I have been witness to many stories of how survivors of abuse were treated by their church elders and pastors. I can tell you that some church leadership understands the complexities of domestic abuse, but sadly, many more leaders are doing incredible harm to female and male survivors. I do not believe the damage is always intentional, but rather stems from commonly held ideals that are ultimately creating environments where abusers are given “grace-passes” and the victims are left carrying the full responsibility for saving their marriages.
There appears to be significant blind spots within the western evangelical church when it comes to abuse and how leaders are to effectively counsel within the context of toxic marriages and abusive people. I hope to highlight a few of the areas that seem to stumble most church leaders. I am doing this not to bring shame or condemnation to pastors and church staff, but I hope open discussions will continue to occur. Survivors of abuse deserve to receive safe and informed care from their religious leadership. Unfortunately, this is not currently happening in many of our houses of worship in the United States.
Why won’t the church recognize abuse? Magical thinking.
The main issue I have observed is that far too many congregation leaders are teaching a lot about what God can do to change the abuser’s heart and far less instruction on what the abuser must do to be a reflection of Christ’s character to his or her family. The focus is placed on everyone but the abuser. The responsibility of changed behaviors is not where it needs to be, but rather deflected outward and away from the source of pain; the abuser.
Leaders are telling survivors that they must pray more if they want to see their abuser changed, that it is their duty as a wife or husband to remain steadfastly committed like Hosea did to Gomer in the Bible, and that God can change anyone if enough people are praying. Where are the teachings about the abuser repenting and permanently turning away from their harmful lifestyle? Where are the teachings about natural consequences when we mistreat other people? Where are teachings about personal accountability for a changed life? Instead the survivor, and even God, are held out as the only tools of how the abuser will be redeemed and made more Christ-like, even as the abuser does absolutely nothing concrete to be different. It leaves domestic abusers (both male and female) ultimately off the hook and everyone around them left to adjust to their poisonous behaviors.
The idea of wanting change for an abuser, when they themselves put no action towards healing, almost borders on magical thinking.
I recently was in a church lobby and a few people were standing around excitedly talking about a well-known public figure who exhibits abusive behaviors. One person said, “God is going to get a hold of him!” and another said, “He doesn’t know it yet, but God has a great plan for his life.” Of course I had to interject and ask what the abuser might think about God getting a hold of him. I asked what evidence can we see of a changed and repented heart from this particular toxic individual. I shared with them that it concerned me greatly that this small group of people in the lobby wanted salvation and healing for the abuser more than the abuser himself may even want it. At what point have Christians crossed over into dangerous wishful thinking that inhibits their ability to have eyes to see and ears to hear?
There is something very naive and unhealthy about projecting positive character traits on abusers that they do not possess and may have no interest in obtaining. If they did the hard work to become a new creation, then sure, we could join them in celebrating. But to hold out hope for an abuser who shows no lasting signs of change is like hoping we walk out our front door to a brand new sports car but we refuse to show up to work every day. It’s honestly embarrassing that the collective church will not see people for exactly who they are in their current state, hope and pray for more, but not be blinded to what is right in front of them. We will not change an abuser simply by wishing for it to be true. Sanctification is a process and one that the abuser absolutely must be a part of on a daily basis.
Why won’t the church recognize abuse? Power.
Power is a strong driver for people to remain in denial about abuse going on around them. When toxic people have the ability to get us what we want, we are sadly more willing sometimes to look the other way of character traits that might be unsavory. Many times the worst abusers at home are the same individuals who are showing up to church every time the doors are open. They are seen as pillars in the community, or at least useful to the church in some form or fashion. These powerful abusers are given a quiet pass when concerns are raised about their treatment of their families. People say things such as, “I know him, he would never do the things his wife told the pastor.” You can change the gender and the message is still the same when the abuser is a female. Power or the acquisition of something church leadership wants will, and has, caused many to justify abusive behaviors. They often utilize the magical thinking I mentioned above and decide that the abuser will get better with God’s help, even as the abuser shows no signs of authentically seeking God at all.
Why won’t the church recognize abuse? The covenant of marriage is being held in higher regard than the safety of a spouse and children within an abusive marriage.
I know churches where someone can repent of horrendous crimes against people and these individuals will be received within a congregation family but another church member discusses dissolving their marriage because of abuse, and that person will be literally shunned by church leadership and other members. The concept of marriage is held to such a high standard that in some places of worship, it does not matter that evil is being perpetrated within the walls of the family home. Why do some church leaders cling so tightly to the idea of all marriages remaining intact? I think there are two reasons and the first is that sometimes radical things do happen and terrible marriages are restored. Harmful behaviors are addressed and forever changed. Church leaders love those stories of how one of their ministries or their own counsel redeemed a family that looked hopeless. However, not all toxic marriages will go through a 180 shift. Just like not all prayers for a sick person will result in a miraculous and spontaneous healing. Sometimes the body dies and some marriages die as well. Just like the fact that we are not seeing resurrections of bodies at hospitals all over the country, we may not see resurrections of marriages that are abusive when the abuser does not do the hard work to bring lastly healing to his or her family.
The second reason that churches are holding tight to saving marriages, even when one spouse is literally dying within the poisonous environment, is because some church leaders believe that without strong marriages as a foundation, our country is on a collision course with doom. These leaders want to hold onto the concept of the traditional marriage so much that they are literally willing to pretend a marriage is reflecting God’s will even when they know good and well the marriage is a fragile house of cards. As long as it looks good from the outside, right? This sort of thinking perpetuates the fake billboard living that many complain about in regards to modern Christianity.
What can we do when we are worried about the church and its response, or lack of, to abuse in marriages? We first educate ourselves and then we set out to educate our local church leaders. We find books that have been helpful in our journey to understand what abuse looks like in all its forms and we share those books with church leaders. We walk along side a survivor of abuse and tell him or her that we will not spiritually abuse them as well. We will not use Scripture to justify the harm that is being done to them and we will not place the burden of change on the survivor either.
The church should be a sanctuary of hope and healing. Until abuse within Christian marriages is properly handled by all churches in America, we are failing in our calling to carry each other’s burdens and be the hands and feet of a God of justice.
Keep dreaming big!
Bestselling Author of Healing from Hidden Abuse: A Journey Through The Stages of Recovery from Psychological Abuse
From reading the title, you might be wondering what this post is going to be about. I am writing this for the family and friends of survivors of psychological abuse. Why? Because I hear from many survivors who say that it is incredibly hard for them to describe the insidiousness of the abuse they experienced and many family and friends just don’t know how to support their loved one through the steps of recovery. There is so much to be said on this topic but I am going to try and just hit the highlights.
For those who aren’t familiar with me, I am a Licensed Clinical Social Worker Supervisor and I am the owner/lead therapist of a private practice. One area of my counseling work includes specializing in recovery from psychological abuse from a narcissist, sociopath or psychopath (aka toxic person). These relationships can either be romantic, family members, friends or in a work environment. For the purposes of today, I am going to focus on recovery from abuse within a romantic relationship.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness month and if your loved one was romantically connected with a toxic person, he or she was the victim of abuse. I know that may be hard to comprehend because the type of abuse your loved one experienced didn’t leave visible bruises or broken bones. It did, however, leave your loved one very harmed and much different from when they began the relationship with the abuser. You may even have witnessed behaviors from your loved one that you never thought he or should would do. Their reactions to the psychological abuse may have even left you questioning if your loved one might actually be losing their grip on life or might be “crazy.” For some reason, toxic people love to accuse their victims of being crazy. I hear it again and again. Not sure why that particular word but it is a favorite go-to for narcissists, sociopaths and psychopaths.
I hope to shed some light on why your loved one is or has been struggling with finding stability post-breakup with a toxic person. Let’s start with the basics of why this breakup is not like any other relationship your loved one has been in previously or maybe you have experienced:
It Was All A Lie:
Your loved one met someone who they had fully and truly fallen in love with and wanted to spend the rest of their life loving. Your loved one was authentic in his or her feelings towards the other person.
However, your loved one met a con-artist. The other person only pretended to have feelings for your loved one and strategically set up the entire “relationship” in order to meet his or her own abusive needs.
Toxic people derive great entertainment out of taking a healthy and happy person (your loved one) and completely ruining their life. Hard to imagine right? As a therapist, I can tell you it is 100% true. Your loved one may have tried to share this information with you but it was hard for you to believe. You may have even liked the toxic person. Guess what? You were scammed too. Luring in the family and friends is all part of the staged affection the toxic person exhibited and it is done to gain your trust that they are a good honest person. How does this work to their advantage? When your loved one comes and tells you all the nasty and horrible things that happened to them, you question them and their perspective. Maybe you even unknowingly sided with the toxic person against your loved one. Nice move by the abuser, right? It’s all part of the calculated attempt to destroy your loved one and even their relationship with you. Pretty scary if you ask me.
Not A Normal Break-Up
Telling your loved one to go date again or even better, to go hook up with someone new isn’t going to help the situation at all. So, please don’t tell your loved one anything close to that advice. The reason that your loved one isn’t ready to get out there is because they are a shell of human being right now. Their grief is so complex during the stages of a breakup and recovery that a survivor has no idea which way is the ocean floor and which way is the surface. They are literally drowning in their emotions. Why? Is it because they are weak and need to just get a grip on life? No. Their entire personhood was systematically stripped down and replaced with abuse. The exact traits that your loved one exhibited that the toxic person found appealing, then became the target for destruction.
Your loved one’s self-worth and identity have been scrambled by a master manipulator.
For example, if your computer got a virus, would you just expect the computer to keep functioning like normal? Why can’t the darn thing just work like it did before?! No you wouldn’t. You would realize that your computer had been infected by malware that took over its operating system. This is what has happened to your loved one. They have been poisoned by the exact individual who they thought was their special person in the world. Their rock, their go-to person, their happily-ever-after. It is going to take time for your loved one to deprogram from the abuse; like when someone leaves a cult. Their entire way of seeing themselves and the world around them must be torn down and correctly rebuilt. Just getting out there and dating isn’t going to help your loved one at all. It actually can stunt their recovery in many ways.
It Takes As Long As It Takes:
I know you want your old loved one back. The one you remember pre-toxic relationship. I know you can see glimmers of her or him at times and then get your hopes up that this nightmare is finally behind you all. In reality, many survivors of psychological abuse develop post traumatic stress. There are triggers that bring on intense anxiety and certain times of the year that are harder than others for your loved one. This is normal. Sad, but normal. Why does the abuse cause trauma and a long recovery? Your loved one experienced systematic and repeated covert abuse. The toxic person set out to destroy your loved one. No matter how nice she or he presented to you, listen to what your loved one tells you about the true character of this person. Really listen. Educate yourself on terms like Gaslighting, Smear Campaigns, Triangulation, Flying Monkeys, Idealize/Devalue/Discard Stage and Love Bombing. Do yourself and your loved one a huge favor and read the book “Psychopath Free” by Jackson MacKenzie. It is from a survivor’s perspective and really truly excellent.
Above all, believe your loved one when they confide in you that they were abused. Forgive yourself for not noticing the abuse and come together with your loved one to move forward. The toxic person wanted to destroy your loved one and all of her or his relationships. Please do not let that plan succeed.
I wish you all the best as you support your loved one in their recovery. I truly believe better days are ahead for you both.
Keep Dreaming Big!
To know me is to know that I have a few favorite sayings. Over the last eight years of chatting with clients in a private practice setting, one of my favorites is that personal growth is like a measuring stick. When we want to make changes in our lives, we are not typically going to go from one inch to twelve inches overnight but instead we are on the little black lines of change. I have even asked clients to go buy a measuring stick or put a picture of one on their phones. This can serve as a reminder that we are not expected to become different overnight. What an incredible burden that would be. Yet, it’s how many of us were raised or came to believe as adults. Do it better and do it better now! Let’s all say a collective NO to that sort of internal pressure. Because guess what? It usually backfires and we end up not changing at all for fear of not doing it fast enough and without enough “perfection.”
The measuring stick approach is much more gentle and kinder to ourselves. Like the saying goes, if we are not nice to ourselves, who’s going to be? When we are not nice to ourselves, it’s funny too how we end up magically attracting people into our lives who are also not very nice to us either. Ever notice that? I sure have; both as a therapist working with people and as a woman with my own history of love and friendships.
Why is the measuring stick a good visual for folks? I think it works well because it nicely illustrates that small changes do get us somewhere and the stick shows that to be true. It may be slow and it may be small changes, but eventually we would end up from one inch to twelve inches and isn’t that super, duper, amazingly fantastic?! It’s also a whole lot less overwhelming when we make small incremental progress, rather than turn-your-life-upside-down changes. Sometimes I like to call those “snow globe moments.” We take our life snow globe, shake it all up and wait for the dust to settle. That sounds remarkably un-fun to me. I don’t think un-fun is a word but you get my point.
What kind of changes can we make using the measuring stick idea? Any change! That’s the fabulous thing about it. It works with all personal growth. Try it out. What goal would you like to achieve? Consider that your twelve inch mark. Now back track all the little steps it would and will take to reach the goal.
Next, we write those steps down and start working from one inch, which is today and where we are in the process (or lack thereof) in reaching our goal. We often have to break down goals into even smaller sizes to fit the small black lines on the measuring stick. That’s the point. Small, small, small changes.
For instance, some of you know and some of you don’t, that since my twenties I have lost over 125 lbs. Yes, it’s true. I lost a whole skinny person. It’s still very weird for me to get an off glance in the mirror and see a size 4 rather than a size 24. For me, losing weight has been a life changing experience for the better. I am not saying that everyone who is a size 24 should lose a small person of weight and poof, they will be happy. I am saying that for me, it revolutionized my life. I think it was because the weight was symbolic of other healing that needed to happen for me and when I truly dealt with those issues, the weight naturally came off.
I have previously written about my journey of weight loss and you can read them at “112 lbs and Going” “Sabotage Weight” and “Our Relationship with Food” In the 112 lbs, you even get to see my Before pictures. Now you want to go click on it, don’t you? It’s okay. I put them out there for the world to see, so go ahead and peek.
The measuring stick worked for me regarding weight because I gave myself very small, very doable goals. The little black lines of change goals. Things like “only order two Whoppers at Burger King, instead of three” or “do ten push ups against the wall tonight.” Eventually, those black lines of change became “run 10 miles in prep for the half marathon that’s in a few weeks away.” Did I start out running 10 miles? HA! I don’t even think I have to answer that, do I? Even training for the one and only half marathon I ever did and probably will ever do (check off Bucket List item), it was a lesson in the measuring stick practice.
To train for a ridiculously long run, you break down those runs into small growth in distance over several weeks. That way you gradually condition yourself to the mileage and your body adjusts to what you are asking it to do. Same theory goes for all personal growth.
What if your twelve inch goal is to have a happier and healthier relationship? Well, then, take some time to visualize what you would like that to look like at its best and then back track the small changes that would get you to the goal. See how the measuring stick works for at least the two types of growth of weight loss and improved relationships? I promise it works for all life goals.
What twelve inch goal would you like to reach? Write it down. What are the really (really) small steps to get there? Write those down too. Be realistic that it won’t be done perfectly and that’s perfectly okay. But if you keep moving forward, it will be done eventually. All the growth along the way feels really good too; not just the end of the measuring stick. As you see your hopes and dreams come into focus, the entire journey of growth is amazing.
I can’t wait to hear about what goals you have set for yourself. Enjoy the process of change.
My counseling business name is Southlake Christian Counseling. As you can imagine, I get all sorts of inquiries about what exactly does the Christian part of my business really mean. People wonder, and more often worry, that they are going to get yet another heavy dose of religious guilt by seeing a counselor with the word Christian in the business name. One of the best compliments I get is when clients say that they were nervous to see a Christian counselor but have had a great experience and never, not once, felt like I was finger waving at them in shame.
Why is it that a lot of people are cautious about things that have to do with Christianity, even Christian counseling? Well, I think it’s because there are far too many pastors and church/ministry leaders out there running amok in the name of God and doing a lot of harm in the process. Harm to people who are trying to find God in the blur of modern life and harm to the terms Christianity and Christian. Now let me pause here and make sure every reader knows that I am not saying all pastors or church leaders are awful. I am saying that some, if not many, are miserable examples of the wonderful character qualities of Jesus. How do I know this to be true? I have been in the culture of Christiandom for twenty-one years and I have seen a lot. A lot.
I have been on church staff, I have been on ministry staff, I have been a member of churches and I have been a member of ministries. I have witnessed the best of Christianity and the worst. For the last eight years, I have been counseling under the umbrella of Christian counseling. I truly think this season has taught me the most about what works beautifully within churches and ministries and what qualifies as spiritual abuse.
Yes, men and women are being abused in some churches and ministries. More light needs to shed on this area not so that embarrassment can come to the collective Church but so that healing can come and no one again experiences abuse in the name of God.
What qualifies as spiritual abuse? Good question! I recently did a five day series on social media highlighting some of the major forms of abuse that are happening:
1) Spiritual Abuse: When scripture on forgiveness is distorted to keep someone from setting healthy boundaries with a toxic person.
Boy, isn’t this a doozy of a one. I see more clients, men and women, who have sought solace and help from a pastor or ministry leader regarding an abusive/toxic relationship and instead, the survivor was given a long lecture about forgiveness and extending grace to the abuser. Ultimately, will any survivor have to walk through the process of healing and in doing so, qualities like forgiveness and grace will surface? Absolutely. But I assure you, that when a survivor initially seeks guidance from a christian leader, they need help setting healthy boundaries with an active abuser. They do NOT need a leader reinforcing the concept that the abuse is the survivor’s fault. That is precisely what happens when instead of teaching boundaries, the leader lectures the survivor to take more abuse but under the guise of misapplied forgiveness and grace.
2) Spiritual Abuse: Using religious guilt to keep a person in a toxic relationship when the offending person shows no true attempt in changing their behavior.
Here’s how this form of abuse works in a practical sense: Let’s say a couple shows up at a pastor’s office for marital “counseling.” By the way, I have a hard time calling it counseling when the work is done by leaders that are not trained mental health professionals. We wouldn’t expect a pastor not trained in dentistry to perform a root canal right? I wrote on this topic if you should wish to peruse it: I Got A Root Canal At Church.
Anyway, back to the couple and the pastor/leader offering marital help. When one spouse isn’t really interested in changing his or her ways, they often do a wonderful job of deflecting responsibility and they might also be highly skilled manipulators. If this is the case, then not much authentic change will come from that person. Pastors and leaders will then need to focus their attention somewhere else in the room and that usually ends up on the spouse who is willing and able to be self-reflective and capable of personal growth. You can probably guess what happens next. The victim of abuse becomes the identified asset of change and religious guilt is used to keep that person trying harder to make an abusive relationship not abusive. At that point, a truly vicious cycle has begun.
3) Spiritual Abuse: When wives are religiously shamed for not praying enough for their toxic husbands, but the men are held to a lower standard.
Let’s continue with the same couple as above and now make the wife the survivor and the husband the abuser. Pastors and leaders who spiritually abuse in this way do so by placing the responsibility on the wives for praying their husband into the godly man he was created to be. She is expected to have the patience of a saint, constantly be turning the other cheek and endure abuse in one or more of its forms (psychological, sexual, emotional, physical, financial). What is the husband expected to do? Not much. Oh sure, there may be discussions about actions the husband needs to take but things don’t really change. While in the pastor/leader’s office, the husband may even wholeheartedly agree that he has areas to improve. But no actually repentance and lasting behavioral changes occur in the husband. Yet the wife is religiously shamed when she brings the double standard up or heaven forbid, she starts to speak about not wanting to take the abuse any longer.
4) Spiritual Abuse: When good men are held to an unreasonable religious standard of personal responsibility for being in and fixing a toxic relationship.
When a good man is in a toxic relationship, he is often told that as the head of the household and the spiritual leader it is his duty to continue to serve his abusive/toxic wife. Is it possible for women to be abusive? Absolutely. Some are physical by punching, pinching, slapping, pushing and other aggressive physical contact. Good men don’t want to be that guy who fights back and rather, many will attempt to defuse a volatile wife through humor or distraction. Good men want to shield their children from physical combativeness. Our culture seems to downplay the impact that verbal abuse can have on people and especially when the perpetrator is a woman. The hurtful, stinging words of toxic women harm those around them just as much as if they were spoken by a man. A good man also wants to shield himself and his children from a psychologically and emotionally abusive wife and mother. Unreasonable religious standards are often placed on men to keep the family together at all cost and love their abusive wives as Christ loved the church. Wow. What a religious burden to place on a man who truly wants what’s best for himself and his children. Sometimes getting away from an abuser is the only way to be safe physically and emotionally.
5) Spiritual Abuse: When church leaders refuse to recognize relational abuse in all its forms and further the abuse by falsely blaming and shaming the victim.
Now here is where the true issue comes to light. There are many trained mental health professionals who struggle to initially recognize insidious relational abuse. As a therapist, it’s hard sometimes to truly sort through the issues that a couple or family present. We have the education and spiritual discernment to help us and it’s still a challenge at times. As mental health professionals, we are trained to know the full depth of relational issues and yet, we can miss the early signs of some forms of abuse. Hopefully, as counseling continues, we hone in on the true core issues. If a narcissist, sociopath or psychopath is a party to the counseling, the entire dynamic shifts and we have to fight to sort through the layers of chaos and confusion intentionally spun by the toxic person.
Many pastors and ministry leaders do not have adequate training to spot relational abuse and therefore, in their ignorance, re-victimize the victim. Other times, a pastor or ministry leader may simply not believe that abuse comes in forms other than physical. If this is the case, that pastor or leader is going to do extensive amounts of harm to a victim who is suffering behind closed doors. Imagine the intense isolation a victim must feel when they are abused at home or from an extended relative and are told by their religious leaders that the abuse does not exist. It will leave a victim feeling “crazy” and desperately alone. Where was God and His leaders when the victim needed both?
Whew. That’s a whole lot to take in, isn’t it? Those are the five main areas of spiritual abuse that as a counselor I see from my specific perspective. Are there more? Most definitely. But I wanted to share at least the ones that seem to be happening the most within churches and ministries at this time in our culture.
What should you do if you or someone you love is being spiritually abused? Keep seeking a safe place to talk about what is happening both in the church or ministry and the original issue of being in a toxic relationship. I often say that people go into a pastor/leader’s office with one problem (an abusive relationship) and end up coming out with two problems (abusive relationship and now spiritually abused). That simply must stop.
Again, I want to say that there are amazing pastors and ministries doing really excellent pastoral care. There are people being incredibly strengthened and encouraged by the spiritual leaders in their lives. That should always be the norm. Until it is, folks like myself and others will continue to shed a spotlight on an area of life as a Christian that needs to change. The change will better reflect the character of Jesus and better reflect living with true love, hope, joy and peace.
– Shannon Thomas, LCSW-S
Imagine walking into church and in the lobby, you see a sign-up area for getting a tooth extracted or a root canal. You go up to the counter to learn more and the pastor of Family Ministry says “Hi! Want to sign up to get your dental work done right here at church?!” You might be somewhat excited about this because you hate going to the dentist’s office so you ask more questions. The pastor assures you that even though a licensed dentist will not be actually performing your procedures, the church has a real dentist on staff. He has done training classes for some of the pastoral staff and a core group of peer leaders on how to take out teeth and perform other dentistry functions so have faith that you are in good hands. What?! Are they serious? Your interest in receiving dental care at church might be waning at this point. We could even exchange the dental service at church with cancer treatment. Instead of a dentist on staff teaching pastors and peer leaders to pull teeth, the oncologist that is employed by the church is showing people how to mix just the right chemical cocktails to treat a few well known cancers. This way, the church can positively impact more people “for God” and hold a group class where everyone who has cancer can come, each get hooked up to a medication drip and the church is serving a great function, right? What could possibly be wrong with this picture? It’s actually very scary isn’t it?
Do these scenarios sound outrageous? They shouldn’t at all because this is precisely what is happening in churches regarding mental health. Open up some church bulletins and you might see classes offered such as “Freedom From Depression,” “Inner Healing From Anxiety” or “Learning to Stabilize Your Moods.” You see friend, there are church leaders across the country who have no formal training in mental health or how to recognize risks, and yet they are offering to treat mental illness. Depression, anxiety and mood disorders are not just some fad words that should be taken lightly. I would imagine that the recent death of a beloved actor and comedian might have served as a spotlight for the general public that depression has at times very serious risk factors associated with it. Those of us who have made assessing, treating, diagnosing and evaluating mental health as our profession are reminded every day that depression can be dangerous.
Churches need to be taking mental health issues as serious as they would take physical health issues and stop advertising that they are equipped to treat these conditions.
In a church setting, where does the responsibility and liability fall when a dental extraction, chemo session or depression treatment goes badly? I can guarantee you that for those churches who are advertising that they treat mental health conditions, if something goes wrong, church leadership will be very quick to point out that they are not in fact licensed professional counselors. Back away, back away, back away. That’s what happens in churches when they overreach their skill set by offering to treat mental health issues and bad things happen. That’s just wrong. As licensed professional counselors, we can’t just wash our hands of a “mistake.”
With my own ears I have heard church staff members literally say “Why do people call the church office like we are some suicide hotline?!” Yep. My mouth dropped open too. Well, when churches advertise that they treat mental health issues, people are going to assume they treat mental health issues! It’s pretty simple actually.
What does a church do who genuinely want to help their congregation members live better lives and want to offer group classes in order to reach the most people? Call the classes something like “How To Enjoy Your Life More” or “Changing Thoughts Changes Feelings” or “Learning To Live Stress Free.” See, not one of those titles implies a treatment for a mental illness. Big difference. Churches should be a place for folks to gain Bible based encouragement of how to overcome life’s challenges. The moment church staff start to believe they can treat depression, anxiety or mood disorders, they might as well put up their booth for root canals and cancer treatment because they have gone too far.
What is my point of this blog? People who need help are getting hurt in churches that are trying to treat mental health issues with pastors and peer leaders who have no formal counseling education. It’s unethical.
I have no doubt that I will hear from people who have gone to a Freedom From Depression class or Inner Healing From Anxiety and they will tell me how much it changed their lives. I will not deny that some good truth is being shared in these sort of classes. The bottom line is that no church should be offering to treat depression or anxiety unless the leader of the group is a licensed professional and the group standards are those that meet ethical licensing guidelines.
Through the recent suicide of a famous actor, I hope that there is a collective understanding that mental illness should not be taken lightly. I hope churches across the country will start re-evaluating how they address these issues within their congregations because people are getting hurt by ill-equipped leaders. Those of us in the mental health profession see it on a regular basis. We see how people’s faith is called into question when they are dealing with depression, anxiety or even abuse.
We hear when people are told that if they are grateful enough, they won’t deal with depression.
We also see how inadequately trained leaders are digging through people’s personal history without the skill set to keep that history from imploding in on the person. Many individuals deal with trauma in their life story and untrained church leaders have absolutely no business unraveling hurts they do not know how to therapeutically manage.
We also see that people are advised to not take their medication because God will heal them. We see that spouses in unsafe homes are spiritually abused into staying where it is causing more emotional and physical harm. We are seeing it all because after folks leave a church class or pastor’s office and have been hurt, guess where they go next? Christian counselors who are trained professionals and can help put together the mess that has been created. We are hearing and seeing the aftermath.
Please know it is not escaping our notice.
Have you been hurt in a church setting regarding your own challenges with depression, anxiety, mood disorder or abuse? If so, what helped you move forward and not allow the wounding within the church to affect your relationship with God? Always remember that the works are men (or women) are very different than the grace, unconditional love and hope that are the promises of God.