Wounding Churches,“Wounded Resistors”

What I’ve Learned Since my Last Post

Since my last post, we’ve had so many of you reach out and express your love and support for our family. Some of you have also reached out in vulnerability to share with us your own stories of “church hurt.” We are humbled and grateful for all the ways you’ve reached out to us in this hard season. We’re still processing through everything, but there’s a couple of things I want to reflect on in this moment: something I want to share with all those hurt by the church, and something church leaders need to hear.

For the “Wounded Resistors”

That’s what Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer call anyone who is hurt by the church for the “sins” of truth-telling and faithful living in A Church Called Tov. One common feature of the stories you shared with us was that as hard as your initial rebuke or rejection was, the way the church handled “the story” was just as hard. McKnight and Barringer describe eight ways the toxic church responds to allegations of immorality, or even well-intentioned, constructive criticism. Though critical engagement with their book is just beginning, I know these eight marks are accurate. Over the last several weeks, I’ve seen and/or felt almost all of them, as they have been spoken to me or about me.

  1. Discredit the critics. Undermine the credibility of the criticism or accusation by attacking their character and/or their motives.
  2. Demonize the critics. Cast them not only as being anti-pastor or anti-church, but as anti-God or anti-Christ.
  3. Spin the story. Distort the actions and words of critics in such a way that they are used to buttress the church. For example, if a staff member leaves because the head pastor is micromanaging them, the toxic church will tell the congregation that the staff member was ready to seek out a position with more responsibility.
  4. Gaslight the critics. Use denial, misdirection, disinformation, and disingenuous questioning with the purpose of disorienting victims to the point of questioning their own perception of reality.
  5. Make the perpetrator the victim. Cast the person who has caused the harm as the one who actually was harmed.
  6. Silence the truth. Keep “a lid” on a story, so anyone passing by will believe that they need to keep moving because there’s nothing to see. Often, but not always, it’s in the form of NDA’s or threatened legal action.
  7. Suppress the truth. Shame, intimidate, threaten, or cover up the facts (variation of 6).
  8. Issue a fake apology. Say you’re apologizing when what you’re really doing is reframing the narrative, checking a box for your legal defense, or casting the accuser as the real problem.

So wounded resistor, which one(s) rang true for you? What was harder: your discrediting or their spin? How asinine was your fake apology, or did you even get one of those? In some ways, revisiting these is re-triggering or re-traumatizing. But, I’ll just share this with you: this list has been a life-vest keeping me afloat in these seas. It’s helped me understand, and even anticipate, the waves of grief: their frequency and intensity. And that’s kept my head on the right side of the water. I hope it’ll do the same for you as you make for solid ground.

Church Leaders, It’s Bad Out Here

Until I shared my own experience, I could have never guessed the number of people – parishioners, employees, community members – who have felt real hurt from the church. Over a dozen people reached out to share that hurt with us. The messages, calls and texts just kept coming. But, here’s the biggest surprise – at least to me. Only one person from my circle reached out; the rest all came from Aaryn’s circle of friends, family, co-workers, etc. So, there’s a lot of people feeling church hurt out there, but left to his own devices, this pastor would be unaware of it. 

My guess is that I’m not the only church leader insulated from these stories. It makes sense. Our circles are often filled with people a little too much like us. Being a pastor or a church leader isn’t just a job, it’s a vocation, i.e., it’s not just what we do, but who we are. So, the books we read are about building healthy communities, addressing injustice, or, you know, theology stuff. We take designated time away front he church to learn from experts how we can do it better (even if the learning is just in the morning, and you spend your afternoons drinking White Claws on the beach (You know who you are. No judgment, but I know what you did last summer)). Our weekends are often spent at church events, and so we hang out with “church people.” It’s a church circle, and what I’m seeing is that it’s far less porous than even this cynic thought possible. 

For many of us, our lives are simply not structured to be in circles filled with people hurt by the church. Because guess what, when a church throws you away after a decade of work, justifies your abuse because “this is how the sausage is made,” or makes you sign an NDA (yes, real examples sent to us) you don’t rush back. You maybe spend a few years as a Chreaster, but you might just be done with it all. Either way, you’re not showing up for the pot lucks, movie nights, small groups, or the 6th Sunday in ordinary time for a good long while. So, church leaders – pastors, execs, elders, deacons – if you’re like me, you need to know that there are a lot of people who have been hurt deeply by the church.

Don’t get defensive. Don’t start with the excuses.

Don’t rush into fix-it mode. Don’t make the hurt your project.

And for the love of all that’s holy, don’t make up another poorly constructed ministry with a catchy name to “bring them back in the fold.”

Just sit with this right now. When you’re ready, decide what you (or y’all) will do about it after a long time of listening and discernment.

If you’re interested in learning more about toxic and healthy church cultures, and wounded resistors, McKnight and Barringer led a great discussion of their work through the Siburt Center and ACU’s Baptist Studies Center.

3 thoughts on “Wounding Churches,“Wounded Resistors”

  1. I think my wife cried every day for three months and then for two years was going through stages of grief. A lifelong church kid, she used to do her crying in commune with the Holy Spirit IN church. I don’t know you well just to say, everything you wrote above has been lived by my best friends and my family. And it’s painful to read.


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