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On (Not) Finding a Church - Part 3
The magic ratio, childhood trauma, and the real question
Welcome to Part 3 of my series, “On (Not) Finding a Church,” in which I’m exploring the ways that culture, location/context, changes in theology, church-related trauma, childhood trauma, and more are impacting my desire and ability to find a church. You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.
magic muddy ratio
When Peter and I were doing marriage counseling seven years ago, we learned about the magic ratio. It’s based on research suggesting that a stable and happy marriage requires at least five positive interactions for every negative one, particularly during conflict. As the positive-to-negative ratio during conflict approaches 1-to-1 or falls below it, the likelihood of divorce increases significantly.
It stands to reason that this logic might apply to how likely we are to stay in a particular church or to stay churched at all. I don’t know, though. Compared to a marriage, which involves just two people working hard to make their relationship work, a person’s relationship with a church community or church at large seems infinitely more complex. There are so many different types of conflict that can arise and so many ways conflict can play out. The scale can be small, huge, or anything in-between, and therefore, so can the impact.
If a fellow parishioner abandons you during a time of great sorrow because she lacks emotional capacity (negative interaction), it may break your heart and affect your relationship with that person, but it probably won’t cause you to want to leave the church, especially if others in the church show up for you (positive interactions). If one of the pastors betrays your confidence and tells another person something sensitive you shared with him/her, that’s a much bigger blow because now it involves potential malpractice by a church leader (negative interaction). But what if they’re genuinely remorseful when you confront them (positive interaction)? Does that create enough space for trust to be rebuilt? It depends, right? I mean, is this the first time something like this has happened to you, or have you experienced this level of betrayal before? Also, was this a one-time careless slip of the tongue while the pastor was seeking someone else’s wisdom about your situation, or is gossiping a pattern with this person? What if the pastor denies any wrongdoing and starts to give you the cold shoulder (negative interaction)? Do you escalate the conflict and make an appeal to the elder board or other governing body? What if you do that and it blows up in your face in spectacular fashion (many negative interactions with many other church leaders), but all your friends are at the church and they’re on your side (many positive interactions)?
In addition to all these considerations, life history and context outside of church can be significant factors in either exacerbating or mitigating the impact of negative interactions within church. For example, if you experience conflict within your community of worship but the rest of your life is running pretty smoothly and you have a strong, supportive network outside of it, you’ll have a lot more reserve for working through the church conflict. You might even have enough to help you see it all the way through to a point of resolution or reconciliation (unless there’s egregious sin involved and neither party repents). On the other hand, if you’ve recently experienced even one of the Top 5 Most Stressful Life Events (moving, divorce, death of a loved one, job loss, major illness or injury), and you lack a robust social support system outside of church, then even one very negative church experience will feel intensely traumatic and impactful. Like a pile-on. It won’t matter what the actual balance is between positive and negative interactions. That single negative experience will feel like this:
More than simple math
In the last sixteen years, I’ve gotten married, had a baby after a long traumatic labor, moved three times, changed professions, gone through a long period of postpartum anxiety, experienced two bouts of serious illness that rendered me homebound for several weeks, been diagnosed with complex PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), broken a leg, torn a meniscus, undergone three operations, kept a weeks-long vigil for a critically ill parent, cared for a different family member with a serious mental illness, hosted a family going through crisis, provided intensive support for a homeless person over a six-year period, gotten kicked to the curb by a once-dear friend (she was in my wedding party) when our opinions on various social issues began to diverge and she couldn’t tolerate difference, been in two car accidents that involved getting hit by people who were texting while driving, and (like everyone else) gone through a global pandemic. Interspersed among those stressful life events were four terrible, horrible, no good, very badexperiences at four different churches—one in San Antonio in 2008, two in Atlanta (in 2012 and 2014), and one in Dallas in 2020. And long before I arrived at the past sixteen years, I experienced many years of childhood trauma, the effects of which I will get into below.
I have to remind myself that I had positive church experiences in Houston from 1992-2007, in San Antonio from 2009-2010, and in Atlanta from 2016-2019. If there were a reliable way to sort all of my church interactions (during conflict) into categories of positive and negative and tally them up, I’m guessing that the math would reveal that the ratio of positive-to-negative interactions (during conflict) is at least 5:1. But I’m telling you that even if someone handed me definitive mathematical proof of this, it wouldn’t have the power to undo this feeling that I’ve been wrung out and left on the floor. By the church.
Feeling this way means that I have to manage a fair amount of hypervigilance, distrust, and judginess (God help me, I’m SO judgy) every time I visit a new church. That’s because a church is not a silent retreat center where we go and meet with God in complete solitude. A church is full of people. And all the elements of worship—prayer, singing, reading of the Word, sacrament, confession, passing the peace—involves people. This is by God’s design. See 1 Corinthians 12:12-27 and Ephesians 4:1-16.
But dang, being among people in religious settings is hard when we’ve been hurt by people in religious settings because it’s always people who hurt us. Having gone through some punishing experiences with people in churches, it’s hard for me not to think of all the strangers sitting in pews or the strangers leading liturgy as a bunch of new people who have the potential to hurt, betray, neglect, or offend me. This is not ideal. Obviously. I don’t want to be like this indefinitely.
It’s funny to say this, but I’ve progressed to the point where I accept that I’m a little paranoid and gun-shy. I don’t mean that I’m comfortable with or complacent about my wounds, sins, and character flaws or the flaws of churches. I simply recognize that this is where I am at this time as a not-invulnerable human being in a world filled with other not-invulnerable human beings. I accept that on the occasional Sunday right now that I do find the strength, energy, and desire to visit a church, I will without a doubt—even if I’m in a good mood—enter that house of worship with my pain, my grief, my trauma, my burdens, sins, and addictions. Because church is where I seek to become more integrated, not more compartmentalized—more conversant with God and others about what ails me, not more avoidant. The fact that one third of the Psalms are songs of lament and complaint serves as a strong indicator that God welcomes and ministers to me as I am in His house of worship. I don’t need to engage in self-delusion, denial of reality, or emotional repression.
My Gordian Knot: Childhood Trauma
It’s taken a long time for me to connect the dots, but pertinent to this whole church discussion is the fact that a significant part of my history involves repetitive trauma over the course of the majority of my upbringing. One of the consequences of this is that I struggle mentally and emotionally in ways that are consistent with what some have come to call complex-PTSD. In her memoir, What My Bones Know,writer and radio producer Stephanie Foo provides a pretty accessible description of it:
It occurs when someone is exposed to a traumatic event over and over and over again—hundreds, even thousands of times—over the course of years. When you are traumatized that many times, the number of conscious and unconscious triggers bloats, becomes infinite and inexplicable… The world itself becomes a threat. (Foo, 2022, p.78)
I’ve gone through quite a few seasons of professional counseling over the years with two different counselors—one in Houston and one in Atlanta—working to understand the way my traumatic past impacts my present. I will always have a deep appreciation and affection for them both. Although they were quite different in their styles, each of them was very effective at helping me identify exactly what I wanted to work on in a particular season and what my goals were. They also helped me make sure my goals were realistic. Once I reached my goals, whether it was in three sessions or eight—they would say, “Ok, I think you’re in a good place. We don’t need to meet regularly anymore, but if you ever need me again in the future, just call.”
When I think back on the work I did with them, I realize that there was always an anchoring question—one that was spiritual in nature—that focused those sessions. Examples: Why do I seem to have a disproportionate number of volatile, manipulative, and narcissistic people in my life? Why is this relationship triggering panic attacks? Why am I turning into a rageaholic now that my daughter is three years old, and how do I stop? How do I make sense of what just happened at this church, and how do I heal?
When I started trying to unpack my acedia around church, I sincerely thought the anchoring question for my thesis was, “Why is the American church landscape so difficult, and what can be done about it?” Now, that may still be a question worth asking and attempting to answer. But that question lends itself to prideful abstraction and intellectual analysis of things outside of me; it’s not really a spiritual question. The question I’ve needed to ask all along but was was too afraid to ask at the beginning of this process is, “Why is Christian community so difficult and so fraught with pain and disappointment for me?” This question gets at the heart of things that I actually have the power and agency to address.
In Part 4, I’ll share how I’ve been laboring to answer this question.
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Foo S. (2022). What My Bones Know. New York: Ballantine Books.