Why Do I Feel So Alone?!
People who leave churches because of spiritual abuse find themselves in a very lonely place. They have lost association with a primary social connection. Even though they feel devastated at this time, they still seem to be able look back to some of the good times that they had with this church family. There were a number of relationships that they had as regular church members and now those relationships have been severed.
Once people have been forced to leave, either by being asked to leave by the leadership or by their own decision to leave because of the unhealthy church environment, the fact that people have left a church is emotionally unsettling. The crucial feeling of being alone meshes together with the concert of other painful emotions.
This isolation is magnified when church leaders instruct the members that this person or this couple are in a church discipline situation. When people are falsely accused, labeled, and now must be avoided because of some unnamed sin, then their emotional rejection is intensified.
You would think that individuals who have exited from a toxic church atmosphere would feel major relief from leaving such an oppressive environment. Although this is probably one of the more positive emotions, the feeling of isolation far outweighs any feeling of relief.
The realization of what has just hit them and their descent into depression wreaks havoc with their emotional stability. It is often a long road back to reignite the sense of joy, peace, and purpose that has been ripped away from them.
The following encapsulates this feeling among people who have experienced spiritual abuse in their home church.
“Thank you so much for reaching out to me. Sometimes it feels like a lonely place when one is abused because people are more inclined to believe a pastor over a congregant. Your comment here is validating and much appreciated.” These were my initial encouragements back to this person:
“Many people who are in the middle of these devastating church issues feel so alone. There is so often no one who they can turn to in their church or in their denomination. They are already branded as ‘the troublemaker’ so other church pals stay away from them. They feel abandoned and alone.
If loyal church attenders are labeled as ‘causing strife’ or ‘dissenting against the leadership’ and Scriptures are used as a weapon against them, then they are further branded and marginalized.
What works for people who have been wounded by church leadership is connecting with others on the internet. There are a host of people raising the awareness about their disheartening church experience of spiritual abuse.
People find that they are not alone and they are realizing that they have become part of a huge family of people who have experienced the effects of this dysfunction in the Body of Christ. Take heart, there are many who understand.”
Feeling ‘So Alone’ Comes with the Territory
Feeling ‘so alone’ after experiencing spiritual abuse is a real factor that adds to the whole torment of the situation. People don’t visit with those in their former church for fear of being named as gossips. Congregants in the church are now leery of visiting with them. Former attenders also have a hunch that their former church pals just wouldn’t understand their concerns and so often, they are correct.
There are often very few who share their unease about what is going on with their church leadership. So many people don’t get what they are talking about. They come across as rebelling against God’s anointed. Their attitude is suspect, their ideas are far-fetched, and they are church members to be avoided.
There may be a chance to share concerns with denominational leaders, but that often is a dead end. As a rule, the assumption is that pastors are considered to be ‘in the right’ which makes congregants to be ‘in the wrong.’ Support is generally given to the pastor in conflict situations. Since many pastors have had to deal with troublesome people in their churches, the idea that the congregant is ‘the problem’ is the general perception.
When there is an independent church involved, then things are compounded, since there is often no one to appeal to in spiritual abuse situations. The pastor’s word is law and the elder board rally around to protect the pastor to the neglect of the congregant’s concerns. It is very difficult to find a neutral arbitrator to facilitate in such situations.
Although some people may find others who have been alarmed about this church’s direction and have left, simply raising concerns comes across as negative and most congregants don’t want to hear anything negative about their home church. Only those who have experienced spiritual abuse seem to be able to understand and offer support to exited congregants in their time of need.
The Muddy Tunnel
Since one’s social and spiritual network has suddenly come to a grinding halt, people who have left their home church now feel so disconnected, so disenfranchised. They did not know that their belief structure would take such a turn in their lives and that they would be without a church family, just like that.
Many emotions now cloud their thinking. Emotions range from negative to positive. Feelings of grief, loss, disillusionment, and devastation rise up. There are feelings of anger about the whole situation. Many people acknowledge positive emotions such as a sense of relief after leaving a toxic environment. Though difficult, many realize that there is a newfound freedom after leaving a toxic group. One emotion that remains is the intensity of aloneness.
Here is a participant response from my original study:
“As some of the soul bleeding stopped and the dust settled, there was a deep sense of relief that I was no longer tied to the manipulative, controlling authority structure; that I was free of those men and their filters on my thinking. But I mourned deeply the loss of the relationships, the friendships that I had nurtured over the course of eighteen years.”
Many times, with these excruciating feelings, there are doubts about the decisions that have been made. One’s decisions don’t only affect themselves, but others are affected, like those of close family members and friends. People regret having put their spouse or other family members through this unsettling experience. The feelings of isolation from church community amplify the whole situation and one wonders if they truly made the right decision/s.
When there are so few to talk to during this intense time of confusion and reeling emotions, there is often a tendency toward self-doubt and regret. This adds to the increasing emotional pain already being experienced.
Though exhausted and troubled, individuals and couples slowly come to realize that they have made the right decision based on the mounting factors that they have gone over in their minds over and over. After all is said and done, there was not much that they could have done to change the inevitable trajectory and their decision to leave their home church.
Finding an Ear
As time moves on, there is a chance for some clarity and a better perspective on all that has happened. What works for so many individuals is finding a confidant to share with. If there are people who they trust and who they can share their rocky and raw emotions with and get their perceptive feedback of the situation, then healthy processing can be started.
Confidants can be found in a number of places. Many find family and friends to be their first resource. Some discover those who were marginalized in their former church and can compare their mutual stories. These people often form into a support group. Numerous find mature Christians in other fellowships who will hear their story and affirm them. Being told that ‘one is not crazy’ seems to bring much comfort.
My Friend Google
The majority of people who have been faced with the decision to leave their home church and recognize the aloneness factor closing in on them, turn to the internet for comprehension, comfort, and encouragement. The online family of those who know about spiritual abuse, how devastating it is emotionally, and who write about it, are those who can provide immediate support for folks who connect with them online.
Strategic connections can be made online and the host of people who are available to support hurting folks is really quite astounding. Internet support is not bounded by location or time. People can connect with others in numerous locations, even around the world, for insights and support.
Flesh and Blood
Sometimes these online contacts can work into telephone chats or even face-to-face visits. Many lasting relationships with people can be forged through this common experience.
Finding internet community, especially at a time that a person is the most vulnerable, is without a doubt, so empowering. Finding others who know and understand about spiritual abuse and recovery from it gives support in so many unique ways.
As good as the internet community is, there is also a need to find people in one’s own location in order to have personal contact. This may take a while, but it is a goal to aim for. So, having both ways to connect would be the best scenario.
Journaling and Blogging
Having all this new found free time provides an opportunity for personal reflection. Countless people take up journaling about their disheartening experience. There are two ways to do this: some keep a writing journal, while others blog online. Some do both. Keeping records and documenting events, feelings, and one’s progress through this muddy tunnel season helps to give purpose and meaning to this untimely occurrence.
People who have left a church begin to consider relationships in general. They recognize that it is not so much the number of friends but it is the level of intimacy that one could have is what one longs for. So often after a critical church experience, one can better define the kinds of relationships that one has had, including the kinds in their previous church.
Although some church relationships may have been deeper, other relationships may have been superficial. So, even though there were activities and meetings with others, this new season has caused people to realize the nature of those relationships as well as to recognize what a healthier dynamic might look like.
Here is a comment from a participant in my study:
“An open calendar after leaving my church was both very liberating and very terrifying. There were people who had been close to me who no longer spoke to me, and that was hurtful until I was reminded in spirit again and again how tiring and surface-level most of my relationships had been (our things in common were almost exclusively church-centered).”
The Innate Need for Spiritual Community
The ideal is to find those who are keen to love and serve Christ and then to hang out with them. Though it may take a while to find these kinds of Christians, it is worth the wait and worth the time to seek them out. It is good to make relationships with people who can thoughtfully and fairly consider the church today and to be renewed in the understanding of a biblical view of godly leadership. It is important to pursue a healthy lifestyle in all aspects of life. This can be a time of stretching and personal growth.
Seeking to examine why things happened the way they did and seeking to understand why these scenarios keep happening in the local church can be an opportunity for change. One’s personal time of reflection, as well as times for sharing in healthy community settings, can be a time of renewal and deeper faith. Considering one’s former ideals and what they value now can be a lonely and painful road, yet ultimately it can be an enriching experience.
Here are some thoughtful words from another participant’s learning experience:
“When one’s faith has been tried in the fire and you know what is left of it, what you truly have is gold. And that can never be taken away from you.
I think when you are challenged in your faith that it forces you to realize that you hold a bunch of lies and untruths as true. You have to lay it all down and pick through the pieces and figure out what is yours to go forward with and what to leave behind. So this experience has birthed a maturity in that sorting process.”
When One Door Closes . . .
The old saying, “When God closes a door, he opens a window,” is very true here. Now is the time to look for those God incidences in your life. It is time to stretch out into new areas that you haven’t even thought about before. There is potential for personal growth through classes and activities outside of a church. There are opportunities to check out other churches. There is time to work on old or new hobbies, to make new connections, and to try new things.
Loss, and the grief that comes with loss, are all part of life. We cannot escape it. Change is part of the dynamic as well. There is need for grief to be valued and processed. This is one of those times. It is time to grieve all the losses that have been identified through this experience.
It is a time to recognize the range of emotions that are now being processed. You won’t always feel this way. Your heart will encourage you to be more self-reliant and to recognize that this experience can be part of the complex tapestry of your life.
For Those Who Want to Help
This article is also addressed to those who may be seeking ways to help individuals who are processing the emotional aftermath of spiritual abuse. It is important for helpers to know about the range of emotions that people can experience during such a disheartening time as this. It is important to know how ‘alone’ people can feel.
Being a good listener can speak volumes to someone who has experienced a huge church crisis. Having ‘big elephant ears’ is a crucial need for anyone who seeks to help and support someone experiencing grief and loss in their lives. Just being there and listening to others can be the best thing you can do.
Should I Seek Professional Counseling?
This is a very personal decision. There may be other personal issues in your life that need to be addressed while you process this occurrence as well. Having a Christian counselor who is familiar with the needs of those who have experienced spiritual abuse is important. Not grasping the magnitude of emotional pain that is encountered by congregants after experiencing spiritual abuse in their home church is not the type of counselor that you should be looking for at this time.
Some people prefer a secular counselor since their experience of church has made them wary of Christian leaders. Some secular counselors have been most helpful to a number of people. This need in the Body of Christ should be understood and addressed by professional Christian counselors. Again, seeking a professional counselor who understands spiritual abuse is a very personal step.
Resources for Counselling can be found in the Resource section on this website.
Knowing that your heart longs for authentic Christian community is a goal to aim for. This may be shaped in a number of ways suited to your own personal wiring. It may take a while to find such individuals as well as authentic community in your area. Don’t give up. Pace yourself and see how things unfold over time.
Survivors of malignant ministry situations can be a huge help to others who face these troubles. You can be one who is there when others are in need. You can be part of the solution!
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
One thing I ask from the Lord,
this only do I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to gaze on the beauty of the Lord
and to seek him in his temple.
For in the day of trouble
he will keep me safe in his dwelling;
he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent
and set me high upon a rock.
Wait for the Lord;
be strong and take heart
and wait for the Lord.
Psalm 27: 4-5, 14
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
For Further Reflection
A number of years ago, some friends shared a cassette with us. It was the story of Joseph, the Dreamer. It is an award winning musical by Cam Floria from 1983. The entire musical story is worth listening to. It portrays the life of the biblical Joseph. It traces the difficult journey of his life and the insurmountable odds he had to overcome.
When I think about people who have exited from a church and have no idea what is next for them, this one song comes to mind: “When God Closes a Door, He Opens a Window.” The words and the music are by Ronna Jordan.
It can be found on YouTube: Song: “When God Closes a Door, He Opens a Window.”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
© 2012 Barb Orlowski, D.Min.