Religious Trauma Syndrome, Spiritual Abuse

Let’s Talk about Religious Trauma Syndrome (RTS)

Religious Trauma Syndrome is a frequently used term among ex-pats of the church. As time has moved forward, RTS became a part of my own identity post-church.  This syndrome is interchangeable with the term Post-Traumatic Church Disorder, coined by Reba Riley in the book of the same name.

When unpacking a former life in the church, those leaving have many questions and frameworks to unpack from the smaller issues of “can I take birth control” to larger issues of “is there a god?”

I will be pulling source material from HERE for this post.

Causes of Religious Trauma Syndrome:

Authoritarianism coupled with toxic theology which is received and reinforced at church, school, and home results in:

• Suppression of normal child development – cognitive, social, emotional, moral stages are arrested

• Damage to normal thinking and feeling abilities -information is limited and controlled; dysfunctional beliefs taught; independent thinking condemned; feelings condemned

• External locus of control – knowledge is revealed, not discovered; hierarchy of authority enforced; self not a reliable or good source

• Physical and sexual abuse – patriarchal power; unhealthy sexual views; punishment used as for discipline

(From the source above)

Let’s start with a few premises.

  1.  The church should be a safe place for vulnerable populations to be. (Youth, Homeless, Women, the Abused, etc.)
  2. The word of god (in this case, the Bible) should be used as a tool to better people’s lives.
  3. The people of the church (employees, volunteers, workers) should be safe to be around and work to edify the members safely.

So, let’s unpack how RTS might occur.  I am speaking from the view of a youth/young adult, as that is where my RTS stems from.

Lack of Oversight

It frequently surprised me as a youth worker, how little involvement parents had with the youth ministry.  Many of the youth in our care were from vulnerable families (impoverished, single parent or abusive.)  They were often dropped off early, and picked up late, trusting the church to manage their care for the evening. (Which alone is not an unreasonable expectation.)  I rarely saw parental involvement regarding the teaching the pastors were giving at weekly youth nights, or on Sundays.

I have to acknowledge my own bias on this issue.  I lived in a church that had unhealthy boundaries,  unacceptable teaching practices, and shame placed on youth.  If I didn’t know what I do, I might not have the same amount of awareness of what information a church is giving to youth.  There SHOULD be a certain amount of trust given to a church, to protect, serve and help develop morally centered youth.

It brings me a large amount of shame to know that I was a part of an oppressive religious culture for youth.  I take some solace in the fact that I was subjected to brainwashing by this church from a young age and I didn’t know better.  I also was not in a position that I could question those in charge. (Especially since the men in power “spoke for god”.  One gift I gave myself was an extensive journal history that documents my feelings THEN, rather than how I have filtered my history post-church.  I did indeed wish to do well, but it’s obvious that I (along with every other youth) was subject to oppressive MALE figureheads.

Toxic Theology

As a youth leader, we were expected to be the eyes and ears of the paid leadership and the small contingent of adult youth leaders.  We reported back to the leadership when there was a youth who was “straying” from the expectations of the church. (EG: moral & sexual purity, sexual orientation, the home life that was unacceptable.)  This information was documented in books on each youth for the church leadership to review and refer to.

As I developed during my teen years, purity culture was strong.  Youth were STRONGLY encouraged to develop relationships within the framework of courtship.  Girls and boys would express their interest in “courting” a girl to our pastor.  A discussion would ensue between all of them about whether it was a good match, and to set up boundaries. (For an extensive post on this topic, click here.) Then, the girl and boy would be closely supervised by youth staff to make sure they followed the rules set up.  Much of the burden of maintaining actual and moral purity was placed on the girl.  This set up a clear precedent for slut-shaming and the patriarchal framework.  Sexual purity was often the burden of the girl (resulting in girls being “responsible” for the straying of thoughts, or hands of boys.)

Toxic Peers/Adults

One of my former pastors currently still is within the church. He took time off from being a pastor for a while (rumor mills swirl, but I don’t have a clear story on this, so I’ll leave that there) then returned to ministry.  He left his mega-church to found his own in rural PNW.

I have many qualms about his practices.  How so many youths came through his care (we were a mega-church with at least a couple hundred youth and young adults) and he was never called out on his words, is beyond me.

One very large issue was this.  A girl was raped on church property, during a youth night, and this information was brought to his attention. He did not report this as a crime occurred on the property.  When approached about the question “did you report the rape that occurred?” his response was “that was so long ago, I don’t remember.”   Clearly, this answer wasn’t hard to unpack.  He was avoiding admitting that he did not report a CRIME.  At this point, no parent should feel safe that this pastor is in charge of their care.   And this pastor is still practicing.  The amount of restraint I need to practice on a daily basis to not warn the public is huge.

We have to feel that our youth are safe when at youth events, and if the unplanned/unexpected occurs where a youth/young adult is injured or there is a crime, we should expect that will be reported to the proper authorities.  This is youth care 101.

Circling back to RTS- After the assault, I was told to give back my purity ring, because I was no longer sexually pure.

This sort of victim blaming and shaming is nothing new.  Look at the recent sexual assault allegations (and subsequent weighing of whether the woman was in the wrong) with Aziz Ansari. Here.

What must women do to make it more clear that sexually based crimes are never the responsibility of the woman?  It is always on the perpetrator. In the same vein, spiritual/religious abusers are also in charge of their manipulation.  They MUST be held accountable for harmful behavior by the adults who know about it.



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