From Faith and Leadership
An interview with Carol Howard Merritt, the author of “Healing Spiritual Wounds.
Carol Howard Merritt grew up in a conservative Christian family. It was also an abusive family, and she has struggled much of her life to heal from the wounds sustained in childhood.
Yet the writer, teacher and speaker has remained committed to the church — and has even become ordained in the PCUSA.
“Christianity was and is part of the problem, the cause of much suffering, anxiety, and pain in life; but Christianity has also been my cure, my solace, my center,” she writes in her new book, “Healing Spiritual Wounds: Reconnecting with a Loving God After Experiencing a Hurtful Church.”
In the book, Howard Merritt shares her personal experience and offers help to others who love the church but have been wounded by it.
She studied at Austin Presbyterian Seminary and is the author of “Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation” and “Reframing Hope: Vital Ministry in a New Generation.” She co-hosts the podcast God Complex Radio in addition to blogging at The Christian Century. She also has contributed to Faith & Leadership.
Howard Merritt spoke to Faith & Leadership about the book and the lessons it holds for institutional Christian leaders and others in the church. The following is an edited transcript.
Q: Why did you write this book?
I began writing this book when I began to see this intersection between how religion wounds us and also how it heals us. And I became very interested in this question because it was so real in my pastorate — it was so real in my life, so real in the people I was coming in contact with.
So I began to think about how does it really — this wounding — happen, and what does a healthy organization, or religious health, look like?
I began to try to think about steps that people could go through in order to gain some religious health. The book goes through those steps.
It describes religious wounding by thinking about a simple machine. If you think of love of God and love of self and love of neighbor working together, most healthy religions have those three things happening. We learn to love God, we learn to love ourselves, and we learn to love our neighbors.
Religious wounding happens when one of those things breaks down. So if we’re not able to love God, if we are thinking about a vengeful God, or a God who’s extremely punitive, then the machine breaks down.
Or if we have been taught not to love ourselves because of our gender or because of our sexuality or because of our ethnicity, then the machine breaks down. Or if we’re taught to not love our neighbors, then there’s a problem with the spiritual health, our spiritual health.
And we see this happening in different forms, and in different ways, particularly in American religion.
I was raised in a very conservative Christian home, and there was abuse in our home. My father was violent. And in our church, we were taught that we needed to submit to that abuse. So clearly, there was a breakdown in that machinery. We were not taught to love ourselves.
And so I worked through those steps of learning to love God, love our neighbor and love ourselves.
Q: How can your book and its insights help Christian leaders as well as individuals?
The way that pastors and church leaders can use this, I think first of all, is if we can begin to understand what’s happening in people’s lives.
For me, it was a switch from conservative, a very conservative, fundamentalism to Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), a more life-giving denomination. But many people are going through different sorts of wounding, and so it gives us the ability to understand people in a different way.
So what I do in the book is I try to bring people through a process that we learn in seminary, and that is to take apart your faith, to look at all the aspects of your faith, and to put it together in a more life-giving way and a more loving way. I use a lot of feminist theology, womanist theology, liberationist theology to bring people through to a more life-giving faith.
I’ve heard from different pastors who have used this in their congregations, and it’s been helpful for them to be able to lead people through this process of healing.
I’ve heard it used by Christian counselors who are using it in spiritual direction, who are using it to lead people through a process of healing.
But I think it’s also important for us to look at the landscape of America, and religion in America, and realize that this incredible shift is taking place, where even conservative evangelicalism has been such a huge part of our national narrative, and now those things are crumbling. We need to be aware of it and understand how to address it.
Q: Your personal experience in what you’ve described has to do with fundamentalist evangelicalism. But do you think it’s limited to that, or do people from other traditions also experience the kind of wounding that you’re talking about?
Oh, absolutely! Unfortunately, humans do terrible things to each other, and we often do things to each other in the name of God. We’re wounded in church all the time, and pastors are wounded.
And so yes, I think that is my particular story, but it’s a much, much larger story.
Q: Do you have recommendations for church leaders in helping prevent that from happening, from a sort of systemic or institutional perspective?
Right, that would be the best thing, wouldn’t it? As a Presbyterian, I chose that denomination because it has a good system of checks and balances. But even within that system of checks and balances, we see how breakdowns occur.
Our institutions, they sort of cave in on themselves in order to protect themselves. We see it happening all the time.
You can see how the whole church or the whole organization begins to protect the organization, and often the way that they protect it is they begin to blame the victim or gaslight the victim, like say that the victim is lying or the victim misunderstood.
And many times, we feel like we’re doing the right thing, because we’re protecting this organization that we love, and this organization that stands for God.
But believing that person is an extremely important part of this process, especially for church leaders — being able to make a safe space, and to have processes for people to be able to record or to tell their stories.
Then it’s important for us to be able to take God and what happened to that person and then disentangle those two things from each other.
Because for many people who have these wounding experiences, those things become enmeshed. People think that it was God who wounded them, God who hurt them.
Q: How did you retain your faith, both in God and in the institutional church?
One of the very disconcerting things happening right now is that so many of our institutions in our country are being dismantled. I see this, and it makes me worried, because it feels like we’re tearing apart something that’s extremely important.
I’ve always been someone who really believes in the institution, and the institutional church. I’m part of the denomination because I believe that we have that history that we can lean upon.
I believe that we have those checks and balances in place. I believe that we’re hooked into something larger and so it’s harder for us to throw away things, and I think that’s really important.
It helps us to be able to put a check on some of the sexism or some of the racism that can occur.
All of that said, oftentimes we make mistakes, and when those mistakes happen institutionally, they can become extremely large. We’re seeing this with the pedophile cases in the Roman Catholic Church. We’re watching how the institution covered up and worked to protect itself. So just like any human, just like any religion, just like any organization, we can be very good or we can be very destructive.
I believe that the institutions are our best form of checks and balances. It’s our best form of making sure that a whole and healthy faith can go forth.
One of the best ways to do it is to be vigilant, and allow that room and that process for truth telling.
Q: Did the spiritual-but-not-religious path appeal to you?
I needed community to be able to heal.
I needed the ancient liturgy, and the tradition that had long historic roots. I needed to rely on those things to show me a loving God, to show me that there has been a God throughout the ages who has been merciful and who has been just. I wasn’t able to conjure that up by myself.
I needed to do that within the community. I needed to do it within seminary. I needed to connect with God within the beauty and the art and the singing of a historic tradition.
I tell a story in the book that there was a point in my life where I couldn’t really disentangle God from the abuse that I had gone through. The thing that helped me was going to services and singing and having that chant go through my mind over and over and over again: “Bless the Lord, my soul, and bless God’s holy name, who leads me into life.”
And just being able to say those words again and again helped me to connect to a life-giving God.
Then I began to read the science that’s behind it. Neurologists tell us how this sort of singing or meditation or liturgy — it actually rewires our brain. You can see this when we look at political rallies.
And so there’s great power in these spaces, these shared spaces.
So for me, even though church was a place where I had been wounded, I knew it was the place where I could be healed, because I could connect with these liturgies. I could connect with the prayer; I could connect with the song, with the tradition.
The other thing that was really important for me was being surrounded by people who could hold my faith when I wasn’t able to have it.
And so knowing that I could walk into church, and maybe I couldn’t believe that Sunday, but I was standing in a tradition, and I was standing with a group of people who could believe, who would buoy me, who would uphold me until I was able to get to that faith.
I have worked with people who aren’t able to go back to church. I tell a story about a man who became physically nauseous each time he would go to church, because he had been a victim of a pedophile pastor.
And absolutely, if a person is in that situation, I completely understand if they’re not able to go to church. But for the most part, I found it to be a place that can be extremely life-giving, and extremely empowering for people.
Q: Do you recommend any particular way of approaching healing for folks who also are in the position of representing the church?
It’s hard to work in the church without getting wounded by it, and I’m constantly talking to people who have been wounded by the church. Oftentimes we are dependent upon the community of faith that we’re leading to get our spiritual nourishment, and oftentimes when we’re working through these sorts of wounding experiences, we have to find another community.
And that’s difficult, because we’re working on Sunday morning, and there are not a lot of places where we can find that community. But we can be very intentional about it, either through finding a cohort group or finding a place where we can do Christian education with a group of people that we can really lean on and learn to love.
But I think those spaces of community, those spaces of caring, are extremely important for pastors and for many church professionals.
Having colleagues that you can trust, having people that you can rely upon, having those spaces for yourself to be able to walk through the steps of healing and reconciling with God — it can be more important for church leaders, I think, than for laypeople.
I wouldn’t counsel pastors to talk about a lot of the stuff with their congregations until they’ve dealt with it.
I know we really love authenticity. It’s sort of a buzzword these days, and so pastors often feel like they’re being more authentic if they’re able to share what they’re going through. But sometimes that ends up just bleeding all over the congregation, using the pulpit as a therapy couch, and that’s just not fair to the people.
We can’t always get all of our act together, but we need to try before we emote all over people.
Faith and Leadership is a learning resource for Christian leaders and their institutions from Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.