This is the third and final post in this series. In Part One, I shared the spiritual abuse to which I was subjected to for two years. In Part Two, I tried to describe some of the more acute symptoms of my Complex PTSD. In this post, I want to really drill down on one final symptom that can come with CPTSD: a questioning of your beliefs and a disruption in the way you make sense of the world. CPTSD is whole-person trauma, affecting the mind, body and soul. And it is the pain, the aching, in my soul that I feel most consistently.
When you’re a pastor, the line between your own spiritual disciplines and those of your congregation is at the very least blurred, and for many of us, non-existent. If a gathering calls for prayer, it’s usually you called to do the honors. If you’re going to worship God, then you’re almost certainly going to be leading others doing the same. If you’re grieving the death of a beloved sibling in Christ, you’re going to have to do that publicly, not only at the funeral you’ll be presiding over, but in the days and weeks to come for your congregation. Even when I was active in the community – at a town hall, commemoration of an event, or a demonstration – I was often in my collar.
Some pastors are good about carving out “their thing,” that’s not for anyone else, but I wasn’t. If I was doing something that deepened my faith, I wanted others to experience it too. So, the day I was banned from the church – from helping others in their faith journeys – it was like being cut off from my God, or at least how I expressed my belief. This cleaving would have been a severely damaging event all by itself, but when you take into account the centrality of the church and God in my life for the decades leading up to it…well it was downright devastating.
I grew up in the Bible Belt in a Lutheran Church where generations of my people worshiped. I was there every Sunday: for Sunday School bright and early, then worship, and then maybe confirmation or youth group. It was a community church, so my parents, like many others, often had weekday commitments that meant I was also at church during the week. And growing up in a small town meant that when I was late for school on Wednesday mornings, my parents knew by choir practice Wednesday nights because that community didn’t stop at the walls of the church building. I eventually made my way over to the Presbyterians, but I still love those Lutheran church people; they were my village for almost two decades; they made sure I was a hard-worker, honest, fair, and compassionate.
Their support, along with mentors at the Presbyterian church down the road no doubt influenced my decision to be a religion major at Presbyterian College. There I explored my faith added to my support network to include not only back-home folks, but the professors and staff at PC. They got me to Princeton Seminary for my M.Div. and then to Baylor for my PhD in Religion.
At Baylor, I realized the academy wasn’t the place for me, and after a brief stint in pediatric chaplaincy, got a great job as a youth director at a Presbyterian church in Florida. I was ordained shortly thereafter and began my life as a pastor. The first two calls were both really hard (church dysfunction is more rampant than you probably want to believe) but caring for the sick, teaching, baptizing, remembering the dead, and empowering Christian leaders kept me going. Even now those memories give me great joy.
Now why did I tell you all that? Because the day I was banned from returning to the church, wasn’t just about the end to almost three years of ministry there. It was the single most difficult turning point in my life. I had spent 20 years, studying, training, and preparing to serve God as my vocation. I plumbed the depths of theological traditions, studied with scholars who pushed me to do better, and learned from some really great pastors along the way. But, even more significant than that, the first 40 years of my life were spent at church, getting ready to go to church, getting back from church, or thinking about church. They were spent wondering about this world and its Creator, talking theology and debating high school friends around campfires, reading and thinking about the God of the Bible and Jesus Christ.
God and the Church formed the organizing center of my life. Farmers live around growing seasons. Accountants structure everything around tax season. Teachers plan around the academic year. And I lived by the liturgical seasons – Advent, Christmas, Lent, Holy Week, Pentecost, ordinary time, and repeat. It wasn’t just because I was a pastor, but because I was a Christian taught those rhythms and their greater significance from the day I drew breath.
But spiritual abuse stops the clock. It grabs those hands tight and holds them in place, so that every day becomes just one more in a season of hurt, lament, and struggle.
The abuse by my supervisor, and the indifference to it by those who who had taken vows to care for me, left me stuck in that singular, horrible moment in time, haunted by questions I could not resolve.
How could this happen in a church?
Why was there no accountability?
How could God let it happen?
Was any of this church stuff even real?
Coming from that small town, I put a lot of value on a person’s word, so I struggled mightily with the fact that the people who abused me, who enabled it, and who turned a blind eye to it, took the same vows I did: to be faithful in my discipleship and ministry and to the polity (the governance, authority, rules and structures) of my denomination. It felt – and still feels – like I was the only one in that bunch who felt bound by those public vows. Everything I did was done in the light of day, while my abusers and their enablers worked behind closed doors and legitimized their actions by making up their own rules. They baptized their abuse and abused the baptized…all “for the good of the church.”
In the months following my forced resignation, I had decided all of this stuff – stuff I had organized my whole life around and believed with my whole heart – was, in fact, just a game (playing church), that the church was infested with narcissists and apathetic disciples who just wanted to bask in their leaders’ self-importance, and that if the God of the Church was real, she sure as heck wasn’t minding the shop. There was just too much pain for any kind of nuance. None of my childhood churchgoing, my training, or theologizing prepared me to deal with the toxic dregs staining the church, and quite frankly nothing should – for any of us. Normalizing that toxicity is a huge part of the problem, and while I don’t wholesale subscribe to those early “decisions” born out of my pain, the church would be in much better shape if we lived as the church instead of “playing church,” if narcissists didn’t have an unnervingly easy time finding their way into our flagship pulpits, and if we were more apt to smash idols rather than make them. And still I wonder, as I see these shadows, never retreating but growing, where the God who spoke light into being is amidst the darkness.
I find myself in a period of deconstruction, along with so many other Christians who have themselves experienced religious trauma. It looks different for each of us, and I’m faced with decentering the institutional church from my discipleship. I’ve only been in a church a handful of times since I was pushed out, and some of that has to do with the pandemic, but much more of it has to do with the fact that it is still a painful place for me. I have to create some kind of boundary around my faith that doesn’t involve the church.
Some of you are no doubt suspicious of such efforts. To be honest, in an earlier time, I probably would have been suspicious too. All I can say is that I didn’t ask for this task, and I’m not prepared to do it, I have to take down stones loosened by the institutional wrecking ball and try to rebuild my demolished faith because I am not a whole person without it.
I’ve rediscovered the importance of simply following Jesus Christ. Every day, I rise and see where he will lead me. Some days we stay put. Some days it’s a lot of walking. Some days I just retreat into the crowd. But, every day I have a teacher, liberator, and redeemer who leads me and changes me with his care and attention. And for now, that’s enough. I can’t handle much more and couldn’t survive much less.
When everything first happened, I was certain he abandoned me, but I was wrong.
He’s met me where I am without judgment, leading me somewhere, my faith and experience whisper to me, better than I could hope or dream.
I hope that’s back into community…but not yet. We’ve had so many friends pulling for us, and many of them with open positions at their churches and the (often not so subtle) suggestion I come be their pastor. But, I just can’t trust a congregation to tell me the truth about who they are or what kind of pastor they want and need. Or to stick with me when things get hard. Or even to just treat me as a fellow human. I just can’t trust the church. Not right now, at least. If I can’t trust them, I know I can’t lead or serve alongside them.
After 40 years of journeying the church, I now find myself looking in from the outside. After almost a decade of working in churches, I find myself hoping a non-profit or corporation will take a chance in hiring me. And every day rising to see if and where Jesus will lead me. One dusty step after another.
A Final Word to Conclude this Series
There are days I get lost in disbelief that this is where I am beginning the fifth decade of my life. Other times I am overcome by anger at the spiritual abuse that was done unto me, and still others I find myself sinking in despair that my experience has been, and will be, visited upon countless others. The church has to decide that it has to stop…that there’s no dollar or member amount worth empowering toxic tyrants…that if it is to be a place of real justice, then disturbing their false peace is necessary …that God in Christ has called us to a better way.
A lot of reading about toxic church systems like Something’s not Right and A Church Called Tov have helped me understand that though it may feel chaotic and haphazard, there are patterns of abuse in systems like churches. For years I saw it up close and how everyone is affected by it. If you’re an abuser, stop and get help. Your abuse comes at a steep price for your targets. If you’re a church member or leader turning a blind eye to this abuse in the name of stability, money or prestige, you need to understand that inaction is a choice that has consequences.
And if you’re being abused spiritually by clergy and/or leadership, I want you to hear from me that I know you’re out there, and I’m thinking about you a lot these days. What’s being done to you is wrong. What’s being done to your loved ones is wrong. It’s not your fault. It’s not the refiner’s fire. It’s not a test to find joy in your suffering. It is not your cross to bear.
What you’re experiencing are the final flickers of the dying embers of love and justice in our churches.
Like you, I now have to make sense of the abuse I endured. I have to reintegrate mind, body, and soul; reconnect with my family and friends; and reconcile with pain that was too deep to deal with in the moment. The work is daunting, but too important to shirk off. So, I am grateful I have a network of support to help me through it.
I am Rev. Dr. Brandon Frick. I am living through CPTSD with the rightful hope that I will know healing from this wound. So, there’s one final thing I want my abusers and their enablers to know:
I will no longer carry the burden of your sin alone. It’s your turn.
You unmade me, but Christ is remaking me.
It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming.
7 thoughts on “The Unmaking of Me | Part 3 Complex PTSD and the Soul”
It’s tears in my eyes, please know that we are behind you and praying for you and Aaron and the darling boys. You are so strong…… I have seen that in you. God is beside you walking. Our prayers and love are with you at this time. How can the church do this to anyone? Love, Carolann and Vic
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Brandon, may God heal you of your pain. May God bless you in amazing ways. Your sharing although difficult is helpful for so many people on all sides of abuse. Hopefully your honesty will help the abusers to stop.
You are so brave for speaking about this publicly. Thank you for your thoughts feelings and musings. I pray you find your connection again to your true loving self, your family, friends abs lol forward to where God leaves you.
Sending love to you across the miles. ❤️
I can hardly wait to witness how mightily God will empower you for ministry (ordained or not; within the church or not) for God’s glory after you emerge from this time of pain, suffering, despair, wilderness.
People fail us, temporarily damage us, cause us to doubt our Belovedness; God never!
You will emerge in your own good time changed, but scarred, but even more “usable” than you ever thought possible. The desert will bloom!
I just hope I have the grace not to say “I told you so. ❤️😎❤️😎❤️😎
Brandon, I commend you taking care of yourself by getting counseling and EMDR. Those surely will help your healing. I see you as a brave warrior. Sending blessings to you and your family. Bob Fletcher