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  • Janyne McConnaughey, PhD

The Church: Is it Safe?

Four months before I began therapy, I was introduced to a growing church here in our city. At the time, my employment contract stated that I should support the denomination of the college where I taught; but decisions by denominational leadership had decimated the church my family attended and made it impossible to continue with the group that carried the ministry forward. I was churchless, when a family member invited us to Discovery Church Colorado (DCC). I only went to see why this was the church of choice for so many. I never intended to stay because I was a rule follower.

God spoke to me at DCC every single Sunday. I could hardly wait until the next week to see how God would step into my life with truths I so needed to hear; but I knew I was breaking rules. Then, God sent me to therapy and a lifetime of pain began to explode from deep inside me. My full story would make it abundantly clear that a church should never be a place where I would feel safe—but I did feel safe at DCC. Maybe it was these words, spoken every Sunday: “Where everyone’s story is safe.”

While I was healing, I very seldom felt safe. I never told anyone where I worked that I was in therapy because I did not feel safe. To go to church on Sunday morning and feel safe was truly miraculous. My therapist and I often sat in wonder at how the message I received on Sunday so completely aligned with my place in healing. It was during that first year of therapy that I learned the voice of God was more important than rules; but I was ethical and I turned in my resignation in the guise of possibly retiring—at 62.

Now on the other side of my healing journey, I wonder how many of the thousands who attend this church do so because they feel safe—and maybe God speaks to them. During my healing process, some (who did not know I was breaking rules) vocally diminished the church on the grounds that it was all glitz, loud music, and no doctrine. Sigh. This was far from true. I didn’t go to be entertained. How insulting. The box in which we place the ways God's speaks to people is diminishing.Ask me. God often spoke to me via secular songs. Surely God can speak through any form of music.God is not limited by our preferences.

My story of trauma is not unique. Statistically one in four (or five) have experienced some type of sexual abuse—mostly as children. If you attend a church and don’t believe that at least 25% of your congregation has a story of some form of abuse, then I would chance to say that they do not feel safe in coming to your church or they don’t feel safe in telling the story. If they are in your church and you aren’t aware of the abuse, it is because they are hiding in plain sight.

For any victim of abuse, the result of hiding is to never be fully able to heal from the trauma held in the body and mind. Complete healing makes it unnecessary to hide and being able to safely tell the story is an important part of that process. Victims who have often been told no one will believe them are made to feel the abuse is because of who they are. I understand the shame of feeling responsible for my own abuse. I lived above it as I was told to do, but the effects were tragic and emotionally debilitating.

When true healing occurs, the lies become clear and our abusers lose their power over us. When stories can be shared freely and safely (without judgment) in the church, it can then be a place where the healing journey is helped instead of hindered. When people are told to leave their stories at the door (or in the past) there is no safety and healing cannot be fully experienced. The need to hide only reinforces the shame involved in the abuse.

The reasons I felt safe at DCC are uniquely my reasons, but I believe they have value for any church desiring to be a safe place for victims of abuse. There are probably more reasons than this, but here is my list—with caveats.

  1. ‘Going to counseling’ was often part of the sermon. I am not sure why most Christians are more comfortable with the term counseling vs. therapy, but it was at least part of the conversation.

  2. The Lead Pastor was comfortable with sharing his own story—not comfortable with the story of marital failure, but able to tell how he and his family were able to come to the other side. This level of vulnerability provides hope for everyone’s story.

  3. The significance of story, specifically our childhood experiences, was highlighted in several sermon series. Our childhood experiences were not seen as something we needed to grow out of or leave behind. Childhood pain, unless healed, affects our choices every day and very often the effects of trauma live in painful life choices we call sin.

  4. Stories were not merely accepted, but instead honored by talented videographers who helped people share their stories as part of Baptisms and various sermon series. The public sharing of stories is important to healing. It is a huge step for those who have been hiding.

  5. The remainder of the list is specific to my story. The importance of small groups (living in circles, not rows) was promoted, but I could never access this because of my past experiences. Going to a small group is not an easy path for those who have been hurt within the church by those they should have been able to trust. Small groups are generally not a place where victims feel safe—even though they desperately desire support and connection. I have not yet taken this leap, but am aware that part of the preparation for group leaders was an instructional session conducted by a therapist who specializes in trauma. Her presentation provided specific guidelines to help leaders ensure victims are not further traumatized.

  6. During my healing process it became very important to not feel trapped. We would arrive at least a half an hour early to claim a table at the back, near the exits. I think it also probably felt less ‘church-like’ which was also significant to my journey. There are lots of reasons why people choose to sit in the back row. It isn’t a sign of a spiritual problem.

  7. Part of my story involves handshakes. When I was twelve, a hand offered in friendship turned into an attack. I had repressed the memory, but always had an aversion to handshakes. The ‘meet and greet’ tradition included in many churches was extremely uncomfortable. As a professional, I had to walk through this, but one Sunday I experienced a flashback and stomped my feet and said, “NO!” to the hapless greeter who reached out to shake my hand. Not long after that the greeters stopped shaking hands. I am not sure if I was responsible for the change, and I have healed the trigger, but I am still more comfortable walking in without keeping my hands full to avoid the handshake. While the handshake was my own trigger, most victims of any type of abuse are uncomfortable with physical contact.

  8. If someone is in a healing process, he or she should be able to focus on the healing. One Sunday, I heard the Lead Pastor ask for volunteers, but say that this request was not for those who were involved in a healing process. I was shocked. I was always led to believe that the sign of a healthy spiritual life was involvement in the church. I was always involved, but I was certainly not healthy. (I did fake it really well though.) To be given permission to heal was the greatest gift I had ever received during announcements.

I have the hardest time stopping a list before ten, but I am going to crawl over that obsessive/compulsive urge. I am so thankful that DCC provided the safety I needed to hear God’s voice while I convulsed through two years of therapy. As I begin to write and speak about the importance of creating safe spaces for healing, I will be forever grateful for the example DCC set. Thank you, Greg Lindsey, for your determination to create a church culture where everyone’s story is safe.

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