How do you share with a friend the pain you feel after finding out that your pastor is actively sleeping with over half of the female members of the congregation? How do you confide to your friends that your savings account has a zero balance because you funded the pastor’s new wardrobe? How do explain to them that you got more sleep on your job than in your home because of all night Bible Studies? These were things that I wanted, and needed, to talk about after I left, what I now know, was an abusive church. Because I didn’t feel anyone would truly understand my involvement in such a scripturally unsound environment, I kept my thoughts–and my pain–to myself. As a result, the journey to recovery was long and lonely for me. But it doesn’t have to be that way. If you have a friend or loved one who has left an abusive church, there are five things you can do to support your friend through this traumatic time.
1. Forgive her.
She already feels a lot of guilt for the hurt she caused and realizes that although she had good intentions, she was wrong about a lot of things. The abusive church that I left had very strict rules of conduct and man-made restrictions on what it means to be a Christian. I accepted those rules as truth and tried to warn my friends and loved ones away from their own “worldly” church. I even called some of them “sinner” in my attempt to get them to see the “truth” that I had found. Later, I felt guilty and ashamed. Asking for forgiveness was hard and I never felt that the words “I’m sorry” were enough, but they were all I had to give. When your friend asks for forgiveness, give it. Don’t shrug her request off as nothing, because it’s something to her, and don’t withhold your forgiveness as a way of punishing her for hurting you. “And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.” -Ephesians 4:32
2. Don’t bad mouth her old church.
Though your friend has physically left the church, she may still have an emotional bond to it. It may be difficult for you to understand, but there were some good things that drew your friend to the abusive church. Your friend has to resolve the conflict that she feels over the good and godly that she at one time saw, with the evil and ungodly that she now sees. Any effort on your part to bad mouth the church will make her feel she has to defend it. If she makes negative comments, you can agree with her, but don’t go overboard. “Don’t talk too much, for it fosters sin. Be sensible and turn off the flow!” -Proverbs 10:19-21
3. Resist the urge to say, “I told you so.”
You probably told your friend that “something wasn’t right in that church.” Though she now realizes you were right, she does not need to hear you say it. My mother waited about three years to say the dreaded “I told you so” to me and she’ll never know how much her self-control was appreciated. She said those words at the right time, a time when we could both look back on my experience with the wisdom of hindsight and the clarity that only comes with time. As Ecclesiastes 3:1, 7 (NIV) tells us, “there is a time for everything” including “a time to be silent and a time to speak.”
4. Don’t rush your friend back to church.
While you may be worried that your friend has lost her faith and will never return to another church, you have to remember that, despite the situation, God is in control. God opened your friend’s eyes to see the evil in her old church and God gave her the strength to leave. Allow Him to use you and your relationship with Him to make this a time of faith-building for your friend. She’s seen “false” Christians, and by you loving God with all your heart, you reaffirm for her that sincere Christians do exist. “Set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and purity” -1 Timothy 4:12b (NIV).
Not only does your friend need your prayers as she recovers from her abusive church experience, so do the people she left behind at the church: the other victims, the victimizers, the enablers, and the innocents. The other victims and the victimizers are easily identifiable but the enablers and the innocents may not be as easy to label. Enablers know about the abuse and, either by their silence or encouragement, they allow it to continue. Innocents, on the other hand, have no knowledge of the abuse; they are the most likely targets for future abuse. Pray that the Lord helps the other victims to recognize their victimization and take advantage of the opportunity for escape that He always provides. Pray that the eyes of the innocent are opened so that they can escape before being harmed. We’ll only see abusive activity in the church end if we treat it like the spiritual warfare that it is. “We are not fighting against people made of flesh and blood, but against the evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against those might powers of darkness who rule this world, and against wicked spirits in the heavenly realms” -Ephesians 6:12 (NLT).
The bad news is that church abuse is much more prevalent that we want to believe. The good news is that God is bigger than any problem. Our hope is in Him.
Helping a Friend After the Trauma of an Abusive Church was originally published in Precious Times Magazine many years ago as a complement to my novel, The Amen Sisters. I wrote it hoping that it would help people who have friends and family involved in abusive church situations. So I share this article with you, hoping that you will share it with the people in your life that you think might be helped by reading it. May God bless you.