Surviving Ecclesial (Church) Trauma

Lauri Ann Lumby shares her story of being raised Catholic, receiving her vocational calling and training in the Church, ministering in the Church and then being abandoned by the Church.  Her story is an “everywoman” story and reflective of the same trauma that has archetypally befallen Mary Magdalene in the history of the Church.


The File with My Name On It

This morning, I received in innocent inquiry from an online acquaintance about “the file with my name on it” that I have factiously mentioned several times in my writing. The file, I have come to understand is very real.  While I have not seen the file, I know that the effect of the file is that I have been blackballed by the local diocese and anything associated with me or my name has been banned.  After I explained the file to this acquaintance and tried to go on with my day, I found I could not.  Instead, I found myself fighting off a panic attack and if it weren’t for a combination of yoga and tears, I know that would have been the consequence of sharing my truth.


For years I have tried to explain, make sense of, get over, my painful experiences with the Church. I have tried and tried and tried to do what the Church says to do which is to “forgive” and no matter how many layers of this I have processed, I find I am still heartbroken, hurt, angry, feeling betrayed, disappointed, and I guess, traumatized by the past experiences – which explains why I am not able to simply “let this go.”  When we experience something as trauma, it lodges in the limbic portion of the brain, ever-vigilant for the next sign of potential or perceived danger.  Having to share the story of the local self-appointed inquisition and the ways they have hassled me over the years and the way in which the Church failed to support me was enough to trigger my nervous system into a state of panic.

Ecclesial Trauma

I know I am not the only person who has been wounded by the Church and who now suffers from what I will refer to here as Ecclesial Trauma.  Ecclesial trauma is not listed as a disorder in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual), but it should be.  The challenge is that unraveling Ecclesial Trauma is like trying to untangle a slinky or unknot earbuds….and to those who have not experienced this kind of trauma….it makes no sense at all as there is nothing logical or rational about Ecclesial Trauma.  Instead, the trauma occurs in a very deep, invisible place related to our Soul (as one friend recently observed) – the center of our being that defines who we are, our ground of being and the way in which we find our place in the world.  To state it in mathematical terms:


The Church = God

The Church = Family

The Church is necessary for Survival

Your value is determined by the Church

The Church = Love


Rife with Inconsistencies

The problem is that more often than not, none of the above proves to be true. Instead, the Church is rife with inconsistencies:

  • Preaching a God who loves without condition, but then placing conditions on God’s love.
  • Proclaiming the equality of men and women and then depriving women of positions of equal status and pay as the men.
  • Claiming all people are God’s children, but saying it is only through the Church that one is able to enjoy salvation (also implying some/many will not be saved).
  • Saying they are doing the work of Jesus and are Jesus’ representatives on earth (serving the poor, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, etc.) while living a life of luxury, excess, vanity, abuse of power.
  • Condemning “sinners” while sinning themselves.
  • Stating that “God desires mercy not sacrifice,” then asking for sacrifice – or more pointedly, placing Jesus in the position of the one being sacrificed (what kind of God sacrifices “his” own son????? And why was a sacrifice needed if we are loved without condition?????)

The list goes on and on and on.

The mildest form of ecclesial trauma arises in the face of these simple inconsistencies. What exactly is one supposed to believe?  The cognitive dissonance alone is enough to drive one batty.



What Happens When It Becomes Personal?

But what happens when these inconsistencies are used against someone in a very personal way?

Like my aunt. She was raised Catholic and was married in the Church.  After several years of marriage, her husband left her for another woman.  He filed for divorce.  When she went to the Church for counsel and support, she was told she was no longer welcome – at the communion table or even at mass – simply because she was divorced.  Here:

The Church + God ≠ Love ≠ Family ≠ Value ≠ Survival

It was not God who didn’t’ love my aunt, it was the Church. But, in the eyes of the faithful, if one is rejected by the Church that must mean one is rejected by God. Even if one believes otherwise in their minds (the rational part of the mind that says, “The Church is NOT God”) the heart receives it otherwise. Here then is the source of the trauma.  The mind says, “I believe in a loving God.  I’m still loved by God,” but something deep in our heart/soul can only believe the actions of the Church, even when we KNOW Church and God are not one!


This is what happened to me. In spite of the inconsistencies, I grew up loving my Church.  The Church was “god” and the “God” of the Church was my God (even if he was the “old man in the sky God,” at least I had a mother in Mary).  I found my value in the Church (in fact, I found my vocational calling through the Church).  I found belonging in the Church.  Church was part of my ancestry and being Catholic became part of my being, part of my soul.  I found my identity in the Church and I was encouraged, supported, mentored and then empowered to pursue this identity.


What Gets One in Trouble

That was……until I started to see the truth, question the inconsistencies and suggest that perhaps the Church and God were not one:


  • Why does Fr. (now Bishop) Doyle get to go to heaven before me just because he is a priest? What if he did something bad? Would he still get to go first????
  • Why couldn’t I raise my hand with my male classmates when asked about my call to ordained ministry?
  • Why was the God I was coming to know in contemplative prayer sooooooo different than the God the Church preached?
  • Why is it wrong for me to practice meditation with my Zen friends, but ok for me to practice Centering Prayer which is basically the same exact practice???
  • Why is it wrong to wonder if Jesus were married?
  • If Jesus treated women as equal to men, why were there no women among “the twelve?”
  • What ever happened to Mary Magdalene and why did Peter get all the glory when SHE was the one Jesus revealed himself to on Easter morning?
  • If we believe that God is without gender, then why is God portrayed as only male and why do we only use the word “Father” in reference to God?
  • Why is it wrong of me to teach the Lord’s prayer in Aramaic – the language Jesus spoke?
  • Why does it matter what ingredients are used to make the communion bread? Are we really supposed to deny the sacrament to those with a wheat allergy and what harm is there in adding a little honey?
  • Why is it not ok for Catholics to have sex before marriage but it is ok for priests and bishops to have mistresses (and even have it lauded in the local diocesan newspaper or have the Bishop suggest it was a better choice for a priest discerning marriage)?

Why is it wrong of me to do what Jesus told us to do – heal the sick? Why is it the “work of the devil” when I am doing it, but when a priest does it it’s a sacrament?!!!!!

Oshkosh WI 2/9/11: Photo by Jeannette Merten.
Oshkosh WI 2/9/11: Photo by Jeannette Merten.


Withdrawing Support

These questions are clearly valid and I had/have a right to ask these questions. But in the end, it was not the questions or the Church’s response to these questions (which was ultimately no response – because there is no way to defend these inconsistencies except to say, “Because we told you so.”), that broke my heart.  Instead, it was the ongoing pattern of the Church NOT supporting me when the fearful minority came after me with condemnation, came to my classes to confront and challenge me in front of students who were there to learn, wrote harmful and hurtful letters to the bishop and harassed me with “I’m praying for you to be released from Satan’s grip” emails.  NOT ONCE did the Church support or defend me, neither did they create space to get to know me or “my side of the story.”  NOT ONCE!

Ok, that’s not entirely true, the Chancellor did once make time for me to meet and discuss Reiki, but that was only after I reached out, and then he kept me waiting 45 minutes after the scheduled time and then only had 10 minutes to talk because he had to catch a flight to Rome. What is worse is that he promised me we would continue the conversation after his return, knowing full well that the prohibition order against Reiki had already been signed and would be released to the public the VERY NEXT DAY.  In other words…..he lied to me…..he led me on…..he offered false promises…..  In the words of modern psychology….this is ABUSE, plain and simple.

Then there was the local priest. Again….NOT ONCE did he try to get to know me or understand the work I was doing, even when I was under his roof running an urban retreat center sponsored by the very parish he was appointed to serve.  I wrote letters, sent emails, made phone calls.  Not once did he even try.  Apparently the fearful minority had already bent his ear and he had already formed his judgment.  Then the hammer fell and again, there was no Church there to support me.

priestcollar pixabay

The Only Choice Was to Leave

So I left. That was in 2007.  Nine years later, I am still suffering the effects of Ecclesial trauma.  The Church, as an “agent of God” was supposed to love me, support me, encourage me, protect me, comfort me, inspire me, provide a family for me and a place of belonging.  But what I learned is that this is true only if you follow their rules, believe what they tell you to believe and do what you are told.  If you question, or God-forbid, try to grow in your relationship to the REAL God (not the one they made up), you will be rejected, condemned, scorned and abandoned.  When all of those things the Church professes to provide are taken away, one is left feeling alone, abandoned, rejected, without love, comfort, encouragement and support.  The worst part of this trauma is that because of the way in which the Church has manipulated God and recreated God in their own image, not only does one feel abandoned by the Church (thereby losing one’s “family,” “Sense of belonging” and in my case, “my vocation and personal identity”) one feels abandoned by God.

  • How could God (the Church) abandon me in this way?
  • How could God (the Church) condemn the work I’m doing on “his” behalf?
  • How could God (the Church) betray me in this way?
  • How could God take away all that had previously been my source of support, belonging, love, vocation, ministry, even my identity?

Intellectually, I know how messed up this is and how God has nothing to do with the actions of the Church. In my mind, I know there is no rational reason I should equate the actions of the Church with the actions of God.  BUT…..after 40+ years of Catholic indoctrination it is impossible to separate the two.


The Path to Healing Ecclesial Trauma

Impossible for me perhaps, but not impossible for God. This is where healing comes in (and a fair bit of reprogramming).  The short answer to this LONG and (perhaps boring as hell) blog is that the remedy to Ecclesial trauma is to FIND A NEW GOD.  Not a God that has been made in the image of the Church to fulfill their political agenda.  Instead….THE REAL GOD.  The God that seeks to be known within us.  The God that Jesus knew and tried to help others to know.  A God who is without gender, who isn’t human at all – but is beyond image or form, but who in its infinite nature can reveal itself to us in whatever way is helpful.  All this time, this is the God who has been trying to reveal itself to me…and the God I know has been guiding and leading me all this time – guiding me to Love, leading me to my calling, leading me into and through the questions, supporting me when the Church refused to, loving me when I grew angry, encouraging me when I struggled with doubt, and who ultimately led my new acquaintance to ask about “the file” so that another layer of Ecclesial trauma could be brought forth for healing, transformation and release.












4 thoughts on “Surviving Ecclesial (Church) Trauma

  1. Lauri, You are a fighter, like Joan of Arc. Look what they did to her! You have the eyes to see and the ears to hear. You are also a Mensch. The Church’s God isn’t real. It’s made in their own image and likeness. And it ain’t pretty. It’s lonely not belonging when you want to belong but I don’t know life seems to be like that. I hope tomorrow is a better day. Shalom,Jane


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