Now that we have discussed what can cause religious trauma and how to heal from it, let’s turn to the question of how NOT to create these situations. This post will be geared particularly towards creating spiritual communities that foster healthy, trauma-free environments. That includes churches but extends to any group gathered for spiritual purposes.
No group can be perfect in all these measures, but people who have experienced religious trauma have a hyper-sensitive alert system for anything that feels off. “Off” might include problematic theology, power dynamics, in / out requirements to be part of the group, environments of control or secrecy, and so forth.
I think there is often a disconnect between people who have experienced religious trauma and those who have not. I hope this post might help welcoming communities become more trauma-informed.
Lack of shaming / guilting / fear-mongering
First we need to admit that we cannot create a totally shame-free environment because we humans pretty much carry shame with us wherever we go. But we can do our best to create non-toxic environments where shame and guilt are not motivators for behavior.
It can feel risky to give up systems of guilt and punishment. Our whole society operates this way: we have laws and rules. We have justice systems if you break those rules. In much of traditional Christianity, there are standards and rules and hell to pay (…literally) if you break the rules (which include what you need to believe). As I talked about in a prior post, the threat of punishment – even when it’s not talked about directly all the time! – is a strong fear-based motivator that can cause trauma.
In a system where people are viewed as inherently bad and sinful, they need punishment and authoritarian power structures to keep them in line. But if they are seen good and worthy, and trusted to make positive decisions when given the right supports, the entire dynamic towards them changes.
If we created communities that were truly motivated by love, what would that look like? Does your faith system have enough to offer even when a person’s involvement in it does not determine their eternal destiny? If nothing bad would happen to a person if they stopped showing up, would there still be reason to show up?
Respect for psychological wellness (over “good behavior”)
I think the first ingredient in healthy spiritual communities is that the individuals themselves are striving to be healthy individuals. By healthy, I mean truly psychologically healthy, not just performing well by the standards of the church. In the evangelical communities I come from, we prioritized good behaviors and praised a certain kind of striving towards God: daily Bible reading and quiet time, weekly church attendance, following established morality codes.
I do actually appreciate the evangelical focus on that interior connection with God. Those habits enabled me to continue a meditation and journaling practice even after I stopped believing the “right” things. But what gets lost is often a genuine encounter with your Self and/or the Divine (some call those the same thing). When God is unconsciously someone to be afraid of, as we spoke about in previous posts, these behaviors are motivated by fear. The tasks can become performative, trying to be good enough in either the eyes of the church community or God.
True psychological wellness emerges from total honesty with oneself. And with this honesty, acceptance… and with acceptance, lies the possibility of change and healing.
Further, by creating communities that encourage individual growth and development, it allows for individuals who are healthy and strong enough to call out problems when they arise. Instead of falling back in submission, doubting their intuition, or being afraid of punishment if they speak out, in a healthy community, disagreement and accountability are not seen as a threat but as continual work towards betterment.
Openness to differences in thinking and beliefs
It is really hard to be open to differences in beliefs. Our polarized culture today illustrates this quite well. In the religious environment I came from, sameness in doctrine was prioritized. We needed to believe all of the same things because those were the Right things. To wander outside that was a threat to the cohesiveness of the community and the entire structure of the system.
But if there was only One Right Way to believe, we wouldn’t have differences. The millions of religious practices on the planet exist for a reason. I can even respect that the system I came from is NOT traumatizing to everyone and for many, many people, it does them well!
In practical terms, this looks like curiosity and openness towards others. Instead of seeing difference as a threat, we might instead find it an interesting thing to think about. There is no proselytizing needed. In a healthy community, I can trust that no one will proselytize me to believe differently. There is a respect that we each came to our views through our unique paths. And hey, open dialogue might do more to change someone’s heart or mind than a conversion effort would.
Do people in the community experience warmth and genuine acceptance even across difference?
Power structures are shared (no narcissistic leaders either)
This element is key. In a healthy system, people are given access to power and having their voice heard. This doesn’t have to mean there is never any hierarchy of leadership, but it does mean that leaders are accountable, accessible, and representative of the people.
The “powers that be” are VERY vested in keeping their power. In a recent Exvangelical podcast I was listening to, the founders of The Religious Exemption Accountability Project (REAP) were discussing how leadership at Christian colleges insist on maintaining the old, fundamentalist ways even when majorities of people at these institutions want new ways. One example was how 75% of the faculty (Faculty!! Not even students!) at Seattle Pacific University do not agree with the homophobic policies of SPU, but the Board of Directors refuses to listen.
We all know if we were to look at leadership of corporations anywhere (but most definitely in white evangelical spaces), the leadership is nearly always going to be white and male. These leaders generally have no interest in changing the status quo. For those who are, they are often or even almost always kicked out (check out this fascinating article by Anne Helen Peterson interviewing Kristen Kobes Du Mez https://annehelen.substack.com/p/jesus-and-john-wayne).
Take for example Beth Moore and Russell Moore (both Moore, but not related), both formerly of the Southern Baptist Convention, who had to take their leave after too much outspokenness. And neither of them is exactly what I’d call liberal.
The institution will eat you alive before it changes, and exvangelicals understand this intimately. This is why we often shy far, far away from institutionalized anything about religion. We, and others who have experienced trauma, have very good B.S. meters for issues around power and control.
In a healthy organization, there is genuine accountability, not just performative accountability. Every organization, denomination, leadership structure will have its demons, but are the leaders willing to listen to feedback and change their ways? Are ego-inflated narcissists driving the show, or humble servant leaders who are quick to listen before they lead?
This is but an incomplete list of ways to shape communities that don’t cause religious trauma, but it’s a place to start. I’d love to hear your comments and ideas about other essential ingredients!