March 2, 2023

Spiritual Trauma Part 3: Deciding When to Leave

By Article

In part 2 of this series, we discussed the importance of setting boundaries in faith communities. Boundaries are important because they allow us to practice our faith well and form meaningful relationships within the community. No community is perfect, which means that conflicts arise, personalities offend, and staying in community can be challenging. Often times, it is worth the benefits of the community and the way you practice your faith to work through conflicts. However, some boundary violations are severe enough that it is necessary to decide to leave.

The decision to leave a community is not easy, because it means that you may lose important relationships or struggle to find a new community to join. Most of the time, faith and spirituality are practiced in community, which means faith may suffer during this time as well. Here are some ways to know that it may be time to leave your community.

Your safety is threatened.

No one should stay in a community where they are being physically or sexually abused. When these things happen, it can be challenging to notify the members of the community that they have occurred, since many abusers will manipulate the victim into believing they deserve the abuse because of some sin they have committed in their lives. When this happens, you can feel lonely and isolated. It is important to find someone you can trust to tell them what is happening and seek their support in leaving the abusive situation.

Any form of abuse is never acceptable, but spiritual abuse can be harder to define. Spiritual abuse can look like twisting religious texts to fit a leader’s agenda. It can happen when public prayers are offered that call people in the community out for their “sinful” behavior. When you say “no” and people make you feel guilty or tell you that you are being sinful for refusing to comply, this could be spiritual abuse as well.

While these are some examples, spiritual abuse can happen in small ways over many years. Over time, it wears on your faith, creates shame, isolates you, and makes you feel as if you will never encounter God properly again. If this is happening in your faith community, it is a sign that you may need to find a new community where you can heal from spiritual abuse.

Your spiritual leaders are inaccessible.

Many communities have a hierarchical structure of leadership that allows for intentional mentoring at every level. This does not mean that you have to know the leader at the highest level, because these leaders are often very busy and have many responsibilities. However, if not a single leader knows who you are, this might be a red flag.

If you have attempted to get to know your leaders without success or your community intentionally bar access to leaders, this may be a sign that unhealthy things are happening at the leadership level in your community. Inaccessible leaders could mean a lack of accountability or burnout in the leadership structure. This often leads to unhealthy behavior in other areas of the faith community.

As a caveat, if you have not tried to get to know your leaders, this may help with your feelings of isolation and loneliness. Even knowing a small group leader can help you form meaningful connections with other members within your community.

You feel isolated in your faith.

If you have attempted to get connected to your community but still feel isolated, this may be a sign to look for another community. Faith is meant to be lived and practiced with others, so it is important to be connected and feel seen in your community. This is the most challenging concern to navigate because there is often a feeling that you could be doing “more” to connect with other people in the community.

If you feel isolated and alone, it is often made to be your problem that you feel this way. If you express your frustration that you feel alone, but no one validates these feelings or takes action to make you feel more included, it may be a sign that you would belong better elsewhere.

As you read these concerns, they may be creating conflicting emotions within you. Leaving a community behind is never an easy choice, but a therapist can help you navigate your thoughts, feelings and values as you make this decision. Call today to receive support as you decide whether to leave your community or create changes to stay.

Written by therapist Elise Champanhet

Ready to set up your first appointment?

If you haven’t been in touch with us yet, you can get started by filling out our intake form.