Your Stories: Joy Brooks – Freedom from Unhealthy Religious Systems

Glancing up at the screen I register the song lyrics – ‘You’ve never failed me yet’ – and experience a familiar surge of frustration and pain. I’m sat at the edge of the room with a notebook, so I start journaling:

There’s a part of me that would like to shout ‘bollocks’ to that…
And yet – you’ve led me through and out to a place that is better in every way…
And yet – the manipulation and bullying were carried out in your name AND YOU HAVE NOT DISTANCED YOURSELF FROM THEIR ACTIONS AND WORDS.
That feels like failing me.


Image provided by Joy Brooks. Used with permission.

This is me, aged 43, at the church I attend with my husband and teenage sons. If my younger self could see me now, she’d be concerned. I can imagine her puzzled frown as she tries to understand why I’m sat on the floor at the back of a church meeting, no arms in the air, no heartfelt singing – instead responding to worship songs with naughty words. How did a contender for ‘Most Enthusiastically Committed to all things Church’ get to this place?

I’m not always quite sure how I got here either. For a while the process was remembered in a mish-mash of frozen emotions and jumbled images. I’m still working on it in therapy but, a further four years down the line, I can put the pieces together much more coherently.

Since birth I attended charismatic or Pentecostal churches, enjoying shared faith and a profound sense of belonging. Eight years ago, whilst working for a church, I noticed my stress levels rising as I experienced unusual levels of conflict and drama with the relatively new leader of the church. Things built up until two years later, anxiety levels caused me to cry during a planning meeting. In the following days the leadership told me they believed God was asking them to give me the ‘opportunity’ to resign from my job. Exhausted, I agree.

We remained in the church and my husband began ministerial training. However, we seemed to be in a continual cycle of conflict and appeasement with the leader. During that time, I read a book on childhood and adult bullying and felt as if I finally understood what was happening. Looking for a way forward, I spoke with people I trusted with a view to raising the issues with the leader and working towards a healthier relationship… what could possibly go wrong?!

It turned out, quite a lot and approximately a year later my family and I left our church of 21 years. By then our friends, truly loving, wonderful people, were questioning my character and sanity. Some of them had rebuked me – ‘telling me ‘in love’ that I should ‘honour, respect and submit’ to the man I had begun to think was manipulating and bullying us. Others were no longer speaking to me. My husband was no longer training to be a minister and we had not been permitted to serve on any team for some months. I was terrified that I was ruining my sons’ spiritual and emotional lives. My mental health was plummeting, alongside my sense of faith in myself, others and, even though I desperately wanted to protect it, my trust in God.

During that final year though, I started training to be a counsellor at Waverley Abbey College. I was spending long weekends in a beautiful mansion in Surrey, connecting with like minds, exploring counselling psychology and the areas of interface with spirituality and faith. Combined with antidepressants and a mind-bogglingly supportive husband, I believe this ongoing learning experience prevented me from losing my life to anxiety and depression.

On the course were Christians with a wide range of beliefs, some of which I shared, but many of which I’d thought were incompatible with a ‘real Christian faith’. As we were being encouraged to critique pretty much everything, I started evaluating the legitimacy of terms such as ‘spiritual authority’, carrying on questioning, until even the existence of hell was up for grabs.

I was also delving into ethics, issues around power imbalance, and learning to truly respect and promote the autonomy and agency of another person. Why oh why, I wondered, was this something I had rarely witnessed in pastoral care and church leadership? And although my experience was on the milder end of the spectrum, I also devoured everything I could find about spiritual abuse, narcissistic leadership and recovery for those who had been a part of unhealthy religious systems.

And so, over the next few years, plenty of unravelling, learning and change took place. Whilst new friendships have emerged, I still grieve those I’ve lost and sometimes I long for the old security of evangelical certainty. My faith is fragile but somehow it exists and I’m hopeful that it will develop and grow in healthy directions. Mostly I’m hoping that I will get closer to understanding the nature of God’s love and what it means to be made in their image.

With that in mind I started to wonder what it would be like if God joined me…

We sit together with that sense of betrayal and it’s OK.

God’s not asking me to change how I feel and definitely not demanding I repent.
We can look at this together.

  

“Of course you feel betrayed. Why wouldn’t you? I know how deep that pain goes and I know it hurts just to look at it. You don’t have to, but if you want, you can express it all to me. Rant, swear, scream if you need to. There’s no rush. You don’t need to apologise. I’m not angry, but I understand if you’re angry with me. I’m so very sorry.”

What if that was God’s response? What if that was how S/He met with every abused heart? And what if there was space in every faith community for this sense of betrayal to be heard and accepted?

– Joy Brooks

 

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