By the time I finished seminary, I had stopped trusting most middle-aged men who called themselves pastors. But something about Pastor Tom caused me to make an exception. Perhaps it was his offer to buy me breakfast.
He was a kind man and an excellent listener, but he also asked really tough questions. I felt safe enough with him. He reminded me of the psychologists I used to visit during the hard years of my parents’ divorce.
Tom wanted to know why I hadn’t become a member of a church over the past three years of seminary. Why would a future pastor avoid the church? I told him story after story of letdowns, disappointments, and years of volunteering at extremely high capacities without so much as a thank you, but still getting tons of criticism.
“Ah!” he said. “I know what your problem is!” The way he said it made me want to storm out of the diner without finishing my hash browns. I didn’t have time for know-it-alls. However, I was curious to hear his diagnosis.
“You’re church-damaged,” he said.
I wanted to say he was wrong, that I was strong. I had endured my parents’ divorce and the years of legal fall-out that kept my family returning to court. But rather than protest, I just scraped up the rest of my hash browns and mumbled that he may have a point.
In the years leading up to that meeting and the years that followed, I had a hard time visiting any church. There may have been deeply flawed aspects of these churches, and they may not have been the right churches for me. However, the bigger issue during seven years of church avoidance was the toxic baggage I brought with me.
By the time I had breakfast with Pastor Tom, I was detoxing from my previous toxic church experiences. I was overanalyzing past disappointments, lamenting the failures of leaders, and seeking healing in criticizing the church. The toxic moments I had absorbed were leaking out, and the detoxing process prevented me from enjoying Christian community.
No one wants to admit they carry so many toxic experiences. I sure didn’t. I wanted to blame the worship leader for favoring terrible songs or the members who failed to greet us when we visited, the pastor for preaching an irrelevant sermon, or the leaders who constantly prodded us to volunteer.
I was a toxic mess of past pain, filled with dread each time I entered a church. My past let-downs prepared me for future disappointments. Every time a conversation turned to us joining the new-member class or getting more involved, a voice in my head would say, “Here we go again. More unpaid work. More complaints. More burn-out.”
It’s hard to be a part of any community if your history is filled with failure and disappointment. If you haven’t seen healthy community modeled, it’s hard to hold out hope for something better than your toxic past. Even worse, if you have been the victim of abuse or misuse at a previous church, it’s hard to admit that past toxic experiences could turn you into a potentially destructive force in a different church as you detox from past hurts.
Our church has spent a lot of time talking about how to bring together new Christians and lifelong Christians in one community, especially when the longtime Christians have been wounded. Often, the recovering Christians require more time and attention than do the believers who are just now getting established.
Churches have discipleship classes, new-member courses, and Alpha programs that are a kind of catch-all introduction to Christianity, but none work well for people who are detoxing. If you are recovering after being church-damaged, or are helping others who are recovering, there is only one way to move forward: go slow. The long, gradual path of healing is the only hope.
Any information about church leadership will be met with a suspicious glare. Even the aspects of church life that are decidedly positive and beneficial will be viewed in a critical light. For the disappointed, it’s hard to get past the expectation of future disappointment.
Detoxing Christians need to first remove everything that has clouded their view of church and community. Seven years passed before I would consider attending a church again—although I tried to join quite a few church communities along the way. Living in a small Vermont town didn’t help the situation. But by gradually transitioning back into a healthy church community, I started to learn how I could support the Christians around me without repeating the mistakes of the past.
The reintegration of toxic Christians shares nothing in common with seeker-sensitive models that focus on getting new believers onto a kind of “learning and doing” track. Instead, detoxing Christians need honesty, space, and time. Our pastor takes the lead in practicing honesty by regularly recounting his struggles and misgivings about church and sharing stories from several other leaders. A second thing that helps is that we downplay top-down leadership and learning. Everything we do as a community has an invitational element and takes place around shared meals rather than classrooms.
This has provided a healing environment for myself and many others. But some days I’m still suspicious. In fact, my default setting of suspicion has been hard to overcome. Leaders who are open to input and forthcoming about glitches that show up in the system help greatly.
I hate that detoxing has taken so long and kept me from becoming a productive member of various Christian communities. The pressure to get involved or to stop complaining can get intense. These are deep and lasting wounds that have come from the one place where we expect to find safety, peace, and healing. Detoxing Christians need time for a community to prove itself capable of redemption.
If you are a detoxing Christian, or if you are part of a community working with detoxing Christians, don’t be surprised if healing takes years rather than months. In my case, I didn’t even realize I’d finally left the bulk of my toxic church past behind until I met a Christian in the midst of his own church detox. I offered to buy him breakfast.