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  • Janyne McConnaughey, PhD

Healing Religious Trauma: Listening to My Own Advice

Updated: Feb 26

view looking out of a tunnel

The day Trauma in the Pews published, my focus shifted, and I began living out an unhealed portion of my story in ways that were very beneficial for others but harmful to me. I accomplished important work, but by the time the first anniversary of publication arrived, I knew I was in trouble and needed to do additional healing.

Healing has been a secondary priority while I continued to live a very public life. Part of the struggle was finding myself in the midst of so many amazing people rethinking their involvement in faith communities. Some remained by finding churches where they felt safe or by staying and attempting to redirect the church from within. Others left. Those who left were on a spectrum from leaving a church to leaving Christianity to leaving God. Within this group of leavers were those who were recreating faith communities with what seemed more like retaliation to their previous experiences. I understood all of this, but something about it troubled me. 

This wide spectrum of choices got lumped into a massive churning vat called deconstruction, even though it meant many different things to each of them. None of it felt like a valid explanation or focus for my personal transformation. It all seemed to miss the point that I believe is most important—healing.

This morning, I ran across the following post by Gary Alan Turner.

It is becoming clear to me that the end goal of faith deconstruction isn't merely trading one set of fundamentalist beliefs for more progressive beliefs (i.e. going from evangelical to Episcopalian). It is the holistic transformation of the self into a contemplative way of being, seeing, and believing. Otherwise, we remain dualistic, combative toward our former faith community, and ego-driven. Until the "exvangelical" community recognizes the need not only to dismantle harmful theology but to mature into the contemplative mind and heart, my fear is we will never really get that far in the journey. In the 1960s, Jesuit Father Karl Rahner stated Christians in the future would either be mystics, or nothing at all. Or as Richard Rohr has written, "Without a contemplative mind, we are offering the world no broad seeing, no real alternative consciousness, no new kind of people, no healing of past hurts." Otherwise, we are simply putting new wine into old wineskins.

There it was! The point has to be healing. I responded with the following comment:

It is about a deep inner transformation that involves shadow work that does not happen when the focus remains on our anger at an "other." We only remain combative on the other side of the barbed wire fence we just painfully climbed over. We just have added more wounds to lick.

As I reflected more, I added:

I think the best metaphor is that we best not climb over barbed wire to leave. Instead, we dig a tunnel and sit in the darkness of transformation until we emerge deeply changed.

Not to say that anger is wrong or that it isn't part of being in the tunnel. It simply must include grief and transformation.

Why have I been able to do the work of helping survivors of childhood trauma heal in ways that were healthy for me? Because I spent three years in that tunnel and crawled out changed. Believe me, there was much anger in that process. The result was my first three books.

book cover of Trauma in the Pews

Why has my work with Trauma in the Pews been less than life-giving? Because publishing that book dragged me over the barbed wire of all that was happening in the deconstruction world and tore at my unresolved church/religious trauma. I had not transformed this part of my story and was trying to do the work while licking wounds. I have three unpublished books taking up space on my computer because I know I have not yet transformed the harm that came to me as a young adult and adult. My childhood trauma caused me to be vulnerable and the church/religious trauma became a painful suffocating blanket that made healing impossible.

Since last fall, I have been trying to sit in the tunnel while continuing the work. Along with turning seventy and moving, this path has been both difficult and less than effective. Yet, I did process some crucial pieces. It simply is not enough, so I am headed to the tunnel during March.

Book cover for Brave: Healing Childhood Trauma

Is one month enough? I sense it will be, but I will pay attention to clues that indicate if it is not. I have been living life like a fantastic ride on a motorcycle with my church/religious trauma beside me in a sidecar. I did not do this with my childhood trauma. I knew I was ready when I published BRAVE. That was so different. I could have known this except in hindsight. No regrets, but a cautionary tale for all.

The real kicker in all this is that I would not have identified my story as containing religious trauma before publishing Trauma in the Pews. I did not intend to write a book about religious trauma! But now, when I read it, my religious trauma is certainly hiding between sentences and paragraphs. The book is a snapshot of where I was but not where I am now or where I might be heading. I have no regrets concerning this. Growth is part of any transformation.

So it is time to return to the tunnel. (Mine is like a hobbit cottage with a secret porch.) There is a reason I have chosen the month of March, one that I will eventually share. When I emerge transformed, I will be ready to continue this work without continually stopping to lick my wounds.

I will still be writing! You can find me on Substack.

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