Why Church Detoxing Takes So Much Time

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.

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35 voices on “Why Church Detoxing Takes So Much Time

  1. I appreciate your post. It’s true that it takes years to undo the damage. I think that it’s especially bad for those of us raised in the house of horrors that was popular evangelicalism circa 1980s – 1990s. We were cocooned in multiple layers of repression and emotional manipulation that many of us are only now just beginning to break free of (hence the recent uptick in religiously themed memoirs from people under 30).

    Personally, I’m working on my 5 year church membership free chip. I don’t have any desire at this point to be a “productive member” of a church because I feel that most of what churches produce is pure bullshit. But, if I’d had an interaction with a church member in the last few years where I felt that they saw me as a person rather than an acquisition for their community, a new volunteer, or a renovation project, I might feel a little different.

  2. “…there is only one way to move forward: go slow.”

    An excellent idea, Ed. And a wonderful place to start. And while taking things slow, maybe to also read some of the great spiritual memoirs that constitute a “great cloud of witnesses” who’ve left records of how to finally find the marginalized, the disenfranchised, the sick-to-death-from-a-lack-of-compassion, one-and-only, true, wounded-victorious Savior within the religious rubble.

    Appreciate you, my friend. And this blog.

  3. Pingback: Ed Cyzewski and Time for Church Detox | Leadingchurch.comComment author's site

  4. Lovely post. I’m fascinated how the wounds from your parent’s divorce were mentioned seemlessly with the church wounds.

    In this conversation pastoral transparency becomes a function of the therapeutic need of the wounded. The pastor becomes a sort of medium by which the wounded can have courage to draw near to God for healing.

    Others wish the pastor to be perfect as a medium for the possibility of their perfection.

    Fascinating stuff. Thanks.

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  6. Pingback: Church-Damaged Christians Need Time to Detox from Church | Ed Cyzewski :: Freelance WriterComment author's site

  7. “For the disappointed, it’s hard to get past the expectation of future disappointment.” A thousand times THIS. It’s hard to get out of this protection mode. And I recently branched out of it to expect goodness … which led to only more disappointment. It’s really hard. Thanks for voicing a lot of things here, especially why that whole “plug in and volunteer” model is like a repellent for wounded church vets.

  8. Wow this really made me think:

    “Often, the recovering Christians require more time and attention than do the believers who are just now getting established…The pressure to …stop complaining can get intense.”

    Talking about it can be healing but people don’t understand. They just want you to get over it and move on.

    I do want to be careful that my toxicity doesn’t “leak out” and discourage other people.

    Thanks for writing this. It helps to know that it takes time and it also makes me grateful for the people who are willing to give it.

  9. Thank you for this. It has been a little over a year since my husband and I have been to church. We were forced out of the church we had been attending. That church was suppose to be a safe place after leaving a church in which I was hurt deeply by the pastoral staff. My husband had his own pain from a prior church experience.

    I have my M Div, he is graduating with his in a year. Neither of us can ever imagine going to church again.

    • Ugh. I’m so sorry to hear that. I got my MDiv and promptly had a crisis of faith. It’s a rough season for sure. Mick’s comment above has a lot of wisdom–just taking time to soak in the classics and to let the saints of the past pray for you and with you when you feel worn out. All that to say, I don’t want to offer simple solutions or prescribe anything. That’s just what helped me. Hang in there, and much grace to you.

  10. Such a great and honest article. I was far from God and found a church that practices grace in a way I had never experienced before. It’s a hospital not a courtroom. No pressure. It’s an amazing place that I’ve been privileged to be for over 12 years now, on staff for over 10. Thanks for nailing this!

    • The hospital metaphor has been very “healing” for me too. In fact, I have been most struck in the gospels by Jesus describing himself as a doctor rather than a judge.

  11. I like your article. I reposted it. It brings attention to a chronic issue that the church needs to be aware of. I do have one big concern- the label “toxic Christian”. It’s pretty negative and I would actually not like to see it come into common usage. You see, it’s not like other types of recovery- like recovering from alcohol, drugs, bad lifestyle choices- it’s recovering from what someone did TO them- from exposure to toxic church leaders and toxic church systems. It’s like expecting a rape victim to go back to the same location he/she got raped- to hang out with the group of people who raped him/her. It’s expecting him/her be vulnerable to individuals who share all her rapist’s characteristics – same demographic, occupation, language, style of dress- to listen to them and spend time with them to get healing. Say what?! That takes a lot of nerve. And should be applauded. Not labeled as “another toxic Christian to handle with kid gloves”.

    That said, I do think you are on the right track on how returning Christians need to be treated. The interaction with leaders does have to be relational based, not program based. But, that’s how the church should be for everyone, if they are following a New Testament model, not a corporate model.

    But that’s another topic. :-)

    • I can see where you’re coming from, but this is a complex issue. Generally Christians are the victims of toxic systems and/or Christians. It’s not a one to one comparison, but it does compare well to the results. The other thing for me has been that I’ve gone back to church even after having to “detox” from negative experiences. The difference is that I attend a different church and am around different kinds of people. And honestly, many of the people who “hurt’” me, at least in my own case, were just part of a larger system with major issues, so I was eventually able to reconcile with many of them because I could see their role in the bigger system of church in America. I hope that makes sense. This is complex for sure!

      • Yes, complex. However it’s important to differentiate from people who have been hurt in church and people who have been abused in and by churches and leaders. Based on your response I suspect you are in the first catagory , and indeed the catagory you are addressing in this article. Because if you are in the second catagory you will not be describing your wounds as “negative experiences” nor reestablishing relationships with those who have used, abused and lied about you. That’s ok, to be in the first catagory, but please do not apply that experience too freely to those in the second. It’s going to take more than breakfast with the pastor for them.

        • Thanks to the author.

          I think there is a lot of wisdom in this differentiation, roxanne… while abuse always happens in a context… a complex context with systemic level trends and forces that should be recognized… this recognition of the complex context does not seem to be enough precisely because of the nature of what churches espouse… “good news”, being known by our love for each other… in effect, a response to the violence found in that complex context. So when the church as a “body” or as individuals becomes identified in one’s mind as just another source of violence within a complicated social context, a person like myself who has been abused at church as a child will hear “love” and literally think violence and hate. The meaning of the words and “church language” becomes inverted… “good” becomes “evil” and “evil” becomes “good”. Even hearing the words is intolerable…

  12. This is me. I’ve been hurt by so many Christians including my mom and then a Christian who I thought was a good friend but almost destroyed my family. I have been to church after church that had some sort of collapsing devastation and corruption and the finally found a church home that I thought was great until I wasn’t able to continue due to trust issues with certain high ranking or well known members. I’ve become sort of recluse in my small community to avoid the chaos of one particular woman. And I feel sad that my kids do not have fellowship because of my fear of Christians and the harm they can cause. Fear and sadness based toxicity have prevented me from finding a new home.

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  14. Such a common experience: “letdowns, disappointments, and years of volunteering at extremely high capacities without so much as a thank you.” I’m in a mini-burnout right now. My pastor was always in my corner and the thank yous of others were sprinkled enough throughout the years to keep me going until I hit the wall and developed chronic fatigue. Now I’m reading “Boundaries” by Cloud and Townsend and have cut my ministries down to a manageable list with encouraging fruit (writing and prison ministry). But I now have a “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” rule for myself in place. I could easily turn into one of the naysayers who sapped the life out of me all those years. Why do we Christians do this to one another? Why do we overuse the other’s giftedness without thanking? Yes, we’re working for Jesus. But we’re part of a body and the body must care for itself. I hit the wall almost a year ago. The chronic fatigue is still with me. I hope my recovery doesn’t take years. Sigh.

    • I think the same mentality causes burn out in pastors and volunteers: It’s ministry. It’s work for God. It’s important. And on the one hand, there is something beautiful about serving others and doing work for God. However, that kind of overlooks the whole sabbath part of things!

  15. Very timely in my own like. Twelve years I’ve been out of church. Three weeks go I started attending church again in a church that is sooo different than the churches I grew up in. I know this is the honeymoon period, but so far it’s been wonderful.

    • Awesome!

      Hey, there are people in this church. Of course there will be conflict and disappointments. But I pray that the relationships are deep and strong enough to endure all of that.

  16. Thank you so much for this post! I’ve never realized there was a name for what has been going on with me! I have been hurt so many times by churches and Christians that I have lost faith that anyone can be different. Now I realize I need to detox from all of that and let God heal those hurts. Thank you again!

  17. Thanks so much, Ed. I certainly have been through a good many toxic church experiences. But God keeps opening doors and showing me opportunities to minister. As someone with a Certificate in Alcohol and Drug Counseling as well as an MDiv, I can well see the tie-ins between detoxing from negative church experiences/people and other kinds of detoxing! God’s blessings to you. @chaplaineliza

  18. Thank you for this. My husband and I haven’t been to church in a few years and are still pretty bitter towards it. You’ve shown me a little light.

  19. Thanks for sharing Ed. I can totally relate. So many years wasted picking up stupid chairs, and volunteering countless hours, and serving in any capacity (Seminary, being a missionary; taking care of orphans,etc..) trying to work to my way to become a pastor. Only to find out that it was a “family business” that you had to marry your way into it. That nepotism often seemed more like God’s will as friends and family members were handed these gigs while sincere people like myself were being passed by. I can also relate with having a broken family. and at least in me I had this urge like I was supposed help God redeem this crap in my past and lead other people to greener pastures. I think us trampled sheep need these reminders that even though we’re not fitting in with the group that Jesus still loves us. Thanks buddy!

  20. I found this article very helpful. It’s been 5 years since I was in a church for these reasons, especially after being in a cult-like one for 3 years previously. But there is another issue. I’m noticing negative changes in many churches as a result of wrong teaching re prosperity etc, New Age and other influences. I’m also encountering negative reactions even to my presence when I happen to see many Christians I know, and I’m sensing a subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) judgement and rejection, and I don’t know where I’ll end up church-wise. It’s very painful, but I’m trying to be kind and to greet these people and try to show God’s love to them, as its as if they don’t have this so much any more. I see very disturbing changes to the church here in the UK and elsewhere in the world, and I also see that those who don’t conform to their expectations etc will, in time, be persecuted very badly. I don’t know if that will happen in my lifetime (I’m 52) but it could, and I believe I must get ready for things to get much worse. God is keeping me, and my Bible reading is more meaningful now, and prayer. I am job-hunting, and recovering from serious mental health problems, which many Christians don’t understand. I do voluntary work in a psychiatric hospital, and I can honestly say I prefer to be there than in church at present because there is more care and mutual respect. I never thought I’d feel like that, but its the only place I feel cared about, though I don’t look for it. it just seems to come when I’m supporting others. God is in control, and I do hope I find a church sometime, though at present I know some are not safe, and I have to avoid them when I’m not well mentally (which seems to happen when I encounter these rejections from Christians here, ironically). I don’t want to hurt others with my bad experiences and the hurt etc, and try to be as careful as I can be. In fact I rarely go to others for help now, and pray instead. I’d really appreciate prayer. Thank you.
    Sue. Liverpool UK

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