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  • Janyne McConnaughey, PhD

Spiritual Gaslighting and the Wounded Body of Christ

Last Sunday I posted a blog about the need for compassion in ministry settings. As the responses arrived, they were equally distributed between both of my major denominational friend groups. With all the lines we draw between us, the common experience of pain within the church appears to cross those lines. Many of us really are the wounded body of Christ and so much of the cause is from those who proclaim, “we are family” one year and then leave us abandoned on the church steps the next.

Tragic but true.

My heritage is within one denomination, but I married into another and then, after twenty plus years, returned to the church of my youth. I have been on faculty at two Bible colleges--one that followed Calvin and the other Wesley. That is one of the most unlikely scenarios possible, but has afforded perspectives from many different vantage points—and provided me with a varied friend list—for which I am grateful.

When I read the stories being sent to me, I want to be angry concerning some of the very wounding things that happen in the church and church-related ministries. I want to clear the temple like Jesus did. Then I hear God telling me, “Just write and leave the rest up to me.” I know my purpose and mission is to write and voice those things so long silenced. There is so much out of the scope of my influence, but the keys on my keyboard are within my grasp. The responses to my words (often through Messenger) tell me I was not alone in my painful ministry experiences.

The silence about the pain we have experienced is ever present, but as comments were left, I began to feel the wall cracking. I thought about how many of us were silenced. In the church, it is a type of spiritual silencing, which disguises itself as virtuous spirituality. This is how it worked in my life—maybe yours also:

Someone hurts me.

I cry out in pain.

The person who hurt me says, “You need to trust God.”

I know I do trust God, but the pain is real and I cry out again.

The person who hurt me now implies in looks, comments, and sometimes-outright attacks, that I have an attitude that clearly indicates a spiritual problem.

You see what happened there? The abuser became the righteous and the victim became the one with the spiritual problem. The victim is now labeled as having spiritual ‘lessness.’

There is a psychological concept called gaslighting. It is when someone manipulates another, by psychological means, into questioning their own sanity (illustrated in the 1944 film, Gaslight). In the church and in ministry the process described above is a form of ‘spiritual gaslighting’ in which we, the victims, begin to doubt our spirituality. (I am not the first to make this connection.)

The silencing comes by way of feeling the ‘lessness’ of our spiritual condition. If we happen to have abuse in our past, as I did, then it is pretty easy to believe our spiritual ‘lessness’ is the problem. I even wrote a book twenty years ago in which said exactly that. I believed my inner turmoil was my own fault because I didn’t read my Bible and pray enough. It was depression and anxiety which resulted from the trauma, but I thought I was responsible. Every victim feels at least partially responsible for his or her abuse. Those with abuse in their past are prime candidates for spiritual gaslighting.

The only way to break this incorrect perception of spiritual 'lessness' is to speak—to tell our stories, and realize we are not alone. This is difficult because part of the story is embedded with the silencing. We are made to feel that expressing our pain and telling about the hurtful actions of others is not spiritual.

I had an interesting discussion about a resolution concerning social media approved by the denomination of my heritage. The resolution provided excellent guidelines, but I wanted to remove the last sentence which said, "Our activities should be life giving and affirming and should seek to uplift all persons." (I have avoided mentioning any specific denomination because it distracts from my point, but you can Google that statement.)

I am not sure the blog I posted last Sunday (or this one) will pass muster in regards to uplifting ALL persons. How can anyone speak truth about pain inflicted by others and uplift ALL people at the same time? I understand the need for kindness and decency. I do not understand the need for silencing those who have experienced pain at the hands of leadership. As I said last week, compassion is a more appropriate response to the pain expressed by the hurting.

How is it that telling the truth about the pain inflicted on us makes us less spiritual than those who inflicted the pain? Making the victim responsible is how those who have power silence the powerless. Where accountability is avoided by the silencing and spiritual gaslighting of the wounded, truth must speak so the wounded do not have to feel they are the only ones—or less spiritual.

Let us speak out and place the blame where it belongs—on the oppressor or silencer, not the victim. Bitterness grows where pain has no expression. It is not less spiritual to tell the truth about pain. It is not acceptable to silence those who make leaders uncomfortable about their actions.

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