When You Lose Your Church Family

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Two nights ago I dreamed I was in the foyer of a church talking, joking, laughing with, and enjoying church people.

These were my people. My tribe. I was safe and happy in their circle of love.

I woke up and felt such a sorrow weighing on my chest and constricting my throat. Because it was just a dream. A distant memory, actually.

Because I lost my church family.

I loved my church family. They were mine because we shared some incredible things.

We shared a faith. We shared a language. We shared a culture. We shared a history.

I used to belong to my tribe, and they belonged to me. We were one, just like God had said we would be.

Until I spoke up and said my husband was hurting me.

For some reason I cannot fathom, that was not acceptable among my people. They no longer talked to me or laughed with me. I had to pine after them from a distance because they no longer enjoyed me.

I became “that woman who said her husband was hurting her.

I would come to learn that…

When a woman says her husband is hurting her, she is:

  • Ungrateful
  • Selfish
  • Airing dirty laundry
  • Lying to herself
  • Wearing the pants
  • Making a mountain out of a molehill
  • Unsubmissive
  • A dripping faucet
  • Jezebel
  • Mean-spirited
  • Rebellious (which is as the sin of witchcraft)

All of the things I had desperately spent my life trying NOT to be.

Brene Brown points out in her new book, Atlas of the Heart, that “we know from the research that unwanted identity is the most powerful elicitor of shame. If you want to know what’s likely to trigger shame for you, then fill in this sentence stem: It’s really important for me not to be perceived as ______”

For me, the word is selfish.

My mom used to scold me if she caught me looking at myself in a mirror or a store window. I was being “selfish.” To this day, I have a difficult time forcing myself to look into the mirror in a public bathroom for fear that someone will think I’m selfish.

I was selfish

  • for speaking my thoughts.
  • For using the word “I” in my writing.
  • For having a different opinion.
  • For not giving someone what they demanded.
  • For not reading their mind correctly in order to provide them with what they needed.
  • For having a blog.
  • For having a business.
  • For having a hobby.
  • For resting.
  • For bringing a store-bought pie to share instead of a homemade one.
  • For having emotions.
  • For talking about my emotions.
  • For having an inner world and daring to share it in a blog post (hi!)
  • For saying my husband was hurting me.

Actually, that’s not quite true. I could say he was hurting me, but I wasn’t allowed to say it too much (maybe once every 5-7 years was okay as long as I didn’t give details and minimized the impact on me), and I wasn’t allowed to do anything about it for myself. That would be selfish.

I had to face my inner shame in order to find my freedom.

In order to find ME.

I had no idea where I began and where I ended. I was enmeshed with everyone around me. I belonged to them. I was swallowed up by them.

But here’s what I learned.

The issue wasn’t that they were swallowing me up and I had no power. The issue was that I allowed them to swallow me up because I had zero boundaries.

Boundaries meant being selfish, and there was too much shame around that identity for me.

So it was a blessing in disguise when my people sent me packing at the first sign of a personal boundary. I had to stare the belly of the monster of shame right down the gullet.

And then I had to jump in.

Like Jonah, I didn’t die in that belly. I found out who I was and why I was created. I found out that to live is to be “selfish” on some level.

If we are not selfish, we would not eat or drink or shower or sleep or take medicine. We would die. Because we are a creation of God, wired for survival, we will preserve ourselves.

  • We will contemplate and have thoughts about our appearance in mirrors.
  • We will have our own thoughts, dreams, and opinions.
  • We will have our own choices and make them.
  • We will make our own mistakes and learn.
  • We will write our own songs and stories and create our own art.
  • We will make our own money and help our own people and change our own world.
  • We will feel our own feelings and share them with the people we trust.
  • We will make our own choices about who we spend time with, have sex with, and serve.
  • We will write emails like this where we talk out our experiences.

That’s our God-given inheritance as His beloved creation.

We call these human rights. And to the degree that we exercise our own healthy boundaries, that is the degree that we grow into selflessness.

We cannot help others grow into the fullness of who God created them to be when we are afraid to “selfishly” grow into our own.

I had this dream because I am still processing this loss. I admit it. Maybe I’m just slow on the uptake, but I wonder sometimes if I will never quite overcome my sorrow over this tremendous rejection from my tribe.

All these years later I can’t step foot in a church without feeling like I don’t belong anymore. Which is why the dream I had, which felt so real and beautiful, tore me up inside when I woke up and remembered it wasn’t true.

The other day I had to sell tickets for my daughter’s basketball game. Three of my kids attend a small private church school in our neighborhood, so I get to dip my feet in those waters on a regular basis even though I no longer attend church anywhere.

During my ticket selling assignment, I bantered and laughed with some of the folks coming in. I especially enjoy the older ones with their twinkling eyes and easy teasing.

They have nothing to win or lose. Just life to live.

I can relate to them the most, and I’m drawn to them. The little girl inside is thirsting for that connection. That church-family-love I lost.

And when they went into the game, I was left sitting at that desk trying my darndest not to bust into body-wracking sobs. God help me, I miss my people. I will always miss them.

But…

There is another side to this story inside of me.

Because in that same week I met with the Flying Free members on Zoom and then with the Flying Higher members. We also laugh and cry and pray together. And since we have all been identified as “those rebellious ones” we gather outside the city gates in our huddles and comfort one another.

We are the Church. The Church Jesus is living and breathing and moving in. I remind myself of this, still wishing we could see each other in person. Still wishing we could share potluck meals, listen to missionary adventures on Sunday nights, and sing songs with choirs and Awana kids.

But then I think of the underground church in China and other places where rebels have to hide to survive, and I know I have it good. I’m blessed. The Church is alive and well all over the world, and I am an integral part of it in just one of the varied ways it thrives.

I do believe (because this is the AMAZING God I now worship) that God is Big Enough and Love Enough to restore us to our people. To enfold us back into FAMILY.

I don’t think it will happen here on this planet. Too much smoke and mirrors. People can’t see clearly.

But one day, beautiful butterfly.

One Great Day.

I can’t wait.

XOXO,

Natalie

P.S. If you have experienced spiritual abuse, you may benefit from the articles and podcast episodes on my website HERE that specifically focus on understanding and healing from spiritual abuse.

6 Comments

  1. Avatar

    This article is me!

    – Going back a few years. I’m over the worst now, it took a long while to understand what was happening……

    Reply
  2. Avatar

    I didn’t lose my church family.

    I lost my daughter.

    Because she abandoned my church, of which she had been a member for 23 years, and joined another ‘church’/cult. Their teaching was that my daughter’s new church family was more important than her biological family.

    I no longer have the daughter I loved and cherished. She says I am just the womb she grew in. 🙁

    Reply
  3. Avatar

    I can relate after losing my church family of almost 14 years
    I can relate to the PTSD as every time I step into another church I hear my pastors words of no church will like you. Every time I sing I hear his words of your worship is so terrible that people are having trouble worshiping here. I am shattered and none of my friends are picking up the pieces

    Reply
  4. Avatar

    I can sooo relate to this. I grew up in the church and love the REAL body of believers there. The internal shame from being told I’m selfish and so blind that I don’t even see it and the external shame from those with their own religious mindsets kinda takes the oxygen out of the church room. But… I’m closer to Jesus than ever! He’s walked with me every step of my way out of abuse. And His presence with me trumps man’s shame. Good to know manmade stumbling blocks will not be found in heaven.

    Reply
  5. Avatar

    It is heartbreaking that abusers are supported and victims are rejected. I am happy to say that I have found churches in my journey that literally are based on the grace of Christ. It is terrifying to take the risk to enter the building and then face the people but grace is to be found along with a new tribe. Would it be possible to create a network of grace focused and trauma informed churches who band together to support and enfold the hurting?

    Reply

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