• Cynthia McCarthy

Hurt By The Church

In my years working as a guest speaker and minister, I’ve been shocked by the number of people I’ve come across who have been somehow damaged or hurt by their religion or a particular church. It amazes me how many people have a story to tell about their spiritual journeys being impacted by something they experienced years earlier in a church setting or with a church leader. When I started to notice how common this was, it made me think back to my own story, to my own specific experience with religion that ended up impacting my spiritual journey. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a faith crisis, but faith setback certainly applies. In the hopes that the old adage is true—that we learn and grow from hearing each other’s stories, here’s what happened to me. 

Many, many years ago, I was a very unhappily married woman with two young babies, born back to back. My husband and I had been fighting a lot, struggling financially, and questioning our faith. We’d sought the help of a Christian marriage counselor, who ended up exhibiting some ethically questionable behavior. (At one point, he invited us to his home to explore a multi-level marketing business opportunity, which should have been a big red flag—but we were young and naive!) It gets worse…

This same counselor invited us to his Bible-based, non-denominational Christian church. Now, that may seem innocent and well intentioned enough, but in hindsight, I suspect it probably fell into the category of behaviors that are discouraged by licensed marriage and family therapists. I don’t know many professional marriage counselors who want to see their clients at church on Sunday, but I digress… 

As I said, we were young and naive, and so we went. It was there at this church that we got to know the minister, our marriage counselor’s best friend. I won’t even get into the part of the story where this minister tricked us—I mean “graciously loaned us” the money for the down payment on our first house at a high level of interest without us clearly understanding the terms of the agreement. In hindsight, I truly cannot believe how young and naive we were. We must have exuded inexperience and innocence to have gotten involved with the man in that way. He, on the other hand, should have known better to take advantage of young new church goers who viewed him as a person in a position of spiritual authority. I haven’t even gotten to the faith setback yet.

The real problem for me came when I decided I had had enough, and I separated from my husband. As one would imagine, it was a very difficult time for all of us, and this minister invited me to a private lunch, just me and him. He placed his well-worn Bible on the restaurant table in between us. Finally! I thought, some personal ministering. Some spiritual help. A life line.

It was close to twenty years ago, and I still remember him calmly asking me what was going on in my marriage that I felt I needed to divorce my husband and break up my family. So, I let loose. I described all kinds of disappointing behavior, irresponsibility, irreconcilability, unhappiness and utter misery—probably with an unnecessary amount of dramatic flair. The bottom line was, I was just too unhappy to stay married.

He didn’t say anything for long moment. He just nodded and chewed his food. Then he thoughtfully pushed his Bible across the table until it rested in front of me, and then he tapped it aggressively with his index finger. “You show me where in here it says you deserve to be happy,” he said, almost accusatorially.

I blinked, confused. He added, “Where in the Word of God does it say you get to be happy?”

I remember feeling stupid, judged, and very angry at him. But I said nothing. It’s not like I was so well versed in biblical theology that I had memorized scripture quotes ready to reference—nor would have felt confident arguing my point to an ordained minister more than twice my age. 

I didn’t defend myself at all. I didn’t question his spiritual authority (which in hindsight should have been questioned.) In fact, I think I nodded naively as if I understood his point and probably as if I were encouraging him to continue lecturing me about how divorce is wrong, and God didn’t want me to do this, and how I was failing my children, and I was being selfish. I think I quietly agreed with everything he said in the hopes it would make lunch end sooner.

I fully admit that my faith in God was young and immature at that time in my life, but that minister made me doubt whatever immature faith I had. I felt shamed and wrong, like I was doing Christianity wrong, like I was a failure. The truth is, I didn’t want to believe in a God that didn’t care about my happiness. I didn’t want to choose a life of misery and unhappiness, walking around with a twisted opinion that God was fine with this. There had to be more to life than that. The only thing that seemed clear to me was that I could’t be a part of a church whose leadership instinct was to judge me and tell me how wrong I was.

I know now that the “problem” with this experience was that I genuinely believed in a different kind of God than that man. It was simply a difference in theological opinion, a difference in scripture interpretation, a difference in life outlook. I believed back then as I do now, that God is Life. God is Harmony. God is Peace. And God is Love. I believe this love flows through me and exists in me, as I co-create with God and manifest my best, happiest life. It took me many years to get comfortable with my beliefs, to find a philosophy and principles that work for me spiritually, to mature me into my current understanding of not only biblical scripture, but wisdom from the spiritual texts of many different faith traditions.

I wish I had had more spiritual understanding back then. I wish I could have told that minister that God does care about my happiness, that, “All things are possible to him who believes,” and that includes my happiness. (Mark 9:23) Looking back, I know I didn’t believe it was possible to find happiness with my husband. I didn’t believe in our marriage, in our compatibility, in our success. Surely that is at the very least partly to blame for the failure. I played a huge role in its demise because I wasn’t praying from a place of “believing I had received” the happiness I desired. Instead, I was believing in our incompatibility, focusing on negative thoughts, rehashing arguments in my mind, and imagining volatile conflicts. Which in turn created more incompatibility, more negative thinking, more arguments, and more conflict.

My experience with that particular minister pushed me away from Christianity for many years. (In retrospect, I wish I had just sought a different church and a different minister much sooner than I did.) Eventually, I found a loving faith community that sustained me for a long time. That church led to others, which led to more personal study and growth on my spiritual journey. Most people I encounter who have these kinds of negative stories that impacted their journey end up okay and even better off for the experience. Ironically, my own experience with that man made me think more for myself spiritually, pray more, read the Bible more, and interpret things for myself. In a sense, he did me a favor because I could have easily turned into a miserable woman who checked her brain at the door of the sanctuary in order to blindly believe whatever the person in the pulpit told her to believe. Wow! Thank you, minister man from my past, for saving me from that kind of life.

These experiences we all might have had push us to recover, reconnect, and heal. We are supposed to seek a relationship with God, for God is always seeking us. If you are in a spiritual community or situation where it doesn’t feel right, if it’s painful or judgmental, or if it goes against what you know to be true of God, Spirit, Universe, Source, then seek God elsewhere. That is the best advice I have, however paltry it may be. As an interfaith minister, when I say I honor all paths to God, I mean it. There are so many. I pray you find or have already found the best path that works for you.


Rev Cynthia

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