Church Hurts, Church Heals

Like many of us, I was saddened by the death of scholar, activist, and trailblazer, bell hooks. As I scrolled Twitter reviewing the tributes and bell hooks quotes and pictures being shared I was shook by one quote in particular.


“Rarely, if ever, are any of us healed in isolation. Healing is an act of communion.” - bell hooks


Like many of us, I was saddened by the death of scholar, activist, and trailblazer, bell hooks. As I scrolled


This quote took me back to my own personal and professional journey over the past year. As many of you may know, my scholarship centers around the intersections of faith and mental health. However, spirituality is not just what I do professionally, it shapes so much of my everyday life. You see, I am a proud “church girl”. Growing up, my dad was a deacon and my mom led the youth department (we called ministries departments back in the day). Even in my adult life, church has served as the backdrop of so many important life moments for me and my family. Thus, for me, and I suspect many of you, church is both a physical place and a phenomena in its own right. It is both a big idea and a very intimate space at the same time.


In many of my presentations, I share Fowler's (1981) Faith Development model. I discuss Fowler’s ideas about the ways in which crises of faith inform and shape our own personal spiritual journeys. Sometimes these incidents (e.g., loss of a loved one, career transitions, sickness) drive us closer to what is sacred to us, and other times it seems these crises can drive us further away. But lately, I’ve been toying with the idea that in many instances our crises of faith stem can stem from our experiences in church itself. And in my world, we grew up calling this construct, “church hurt”. So, the researcher in me formulated the question, “How does church hurt impact one’s own faith development?” And, "how do these experiences impact one’s emotional and mental health?” I placed these research ideas on my ever-growing to-do list. I’m still in post maternity leave catch up mode (more on that in a later blog) so hopefully I’ll be able to get to it soon.


But this leads me back to bell hooks' quote and her idea of healing. The irony of church hurt is that it often spurs us into isolation, separating us from the people we have shared sacred space with for so long. During these times, community actually can feel too vulnerable and too risky. We may ask ourselves, “What are people saying about me?”, “How will people respond to me?”. “Do people know what really happened?”. And, yet, as bell hooks so eloquently stated, it is in community that that we will likely find our deepest healing. So then how do we get there? How do we move from isolation and hurt to community and healing? I’ll share 3 really quick points that may be helpful in your journey. As we say in church, “I won’t hold you long”.

  1. I’ll start with what I know - counseling. It's okay to seek out and talk with a professional counselor about your church hurt. Many clients may feel some apprehension about bringing this conversation into the counseling room. You may be tempted to feel it is somehow not a worthy topic of discussion. However, church hurt is a valid presenting concern and counselors are trained to hold space for your experiences. Trust a counselor to help navigate you through the stages of grief that may ensue as a result of your separation from your church community.

  2. Remember what is sacred. Although the recovery from your church hurt may be challenging, I encourage people to remember what is sacred. For many the sacred may be your belief in God, your personal devotional life, your connection with other believers. Your experience of church hurt does not have to eradicate what’s sacred. Oftentimes, when we are faced with transition we are forced to be intentional to identify what’s really important to us. Integrate what’s sacred to you in your daily routines as it will be an important part of your growth and healing.

  3. Reimagine the possibilities of faith community. Although I am not against the idea of gathering in a building, If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it's taught us the value of imagining church beyond the traditional four walls. I recommend that you find a group of believers with whom you can share values and cultural traditions that are significant to you. If it is your desire to return to a traditional church experience, give yourself grace as you take your time to find a new home that is trustworthy and affirming.


I didn’t want this blog to be incredibly long. But, I hope that the words of bell hooks have encouraged you as they have me. It was an important reminder of the beautiful complexity of the church community. Although I have seen it be the backdrop for many people’s hurt. I have also witnessed the incredible power that comes from sharing spiritual space with others. It is my sincere hope that you find that place of communion and that you hold that sacred. Stay well.


~~Dr.JRAH


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