Fathom Mag

Loss in the Shadows

My primary loss colored the way I approached my relationships within the church.

Published on:
July 12, 2022
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5 min.
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“You’ve lost a lot.” 

I yanked another tissue from the box and nodded mutely. My tears were slowing, but I knew if I responded to my counselor’s quiet statement in that moment, I’d begin sobbing again. I’d started seeing her when I descended into a paralyzing clinical depression after my mom’s untimely death a few months earlier. 

My counselor’s words that afternoon weren’t referencing my mom’s death. Instead, she was speaking about the string of disrupted relationships that had accumulated in my life in the wake of a trio of toxic church experiences spanning nearly two decades. While a handful of the friendships my husband and I formed at those churches survived, we’d lost community. Three communities, to be exact. 

The loss in my life didn’t start with the deaths of each of my parents. And it didn’t even begin at church. 

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The Foundational Loss

After I came to faith in Jesus as a teen, the already-existing fissures deepened into canyons in my complicated relationship with my Jewish parents. At the time, I figured if I could just survive the tension and emotional distance I felt with my parents, I’d find a spiritual family waiting for me when I became free to attend church after I left home. 

Jesus tells would-be disciples that assessing the cost of following him included being willing to hate their own family. The shocking use of the word hate (miseo in Greek) was meant to shock his hearers into understanding that the life to which he was calling them required a surrender of all they held dear. 

I thought I was home. And I was, for a while.

As best as I could as a teen, I counted the cost of following Jesus. I knew it would cause incalculable damage to my relationship with my parents, but I couldn’t imagine walking away from the one who’d saved me. What I could never have imagined at the time was the toll that my unprocessed grief over those disrupted family relationships would exact in my life. It was a cost I finally began to count in that counselor’s office.   

Broken Hope

When I dove headfirst into church life in my early twenties, I was anxious to serve. Or perhaps it would be better to say I was anxious to belong. The unhealthiest part of my Enneagram Two Helper self intuited that serving was a fast-track way to access the experience of belonging at church. My husband, a newer Christian like me, came to our search for a church home with his own set of childhood wounds that matched some of my own. As a result, we were drawn to a high-control, paternalistic faith community that welcomed us into their midst and promised to show us what it looked like to take Jesus at his word. 

When we became members, the congregation sang a song to us and others joining the church called “Welcome to the Family.” I thought I was home. And I was, for a while. The goodness of belonging to this close-knit church was eroded over time by secrets the leadership team was guarding about the ongoing sexual sins of the head pastor. I stumbled across evidence of those secrets and got too close to the truth. In response, the leaders punished, shamed, and eventually shunned me and my family. It took more than a decade before the lead pastor’s porn addiction and affair with the wife of another leader in the congregation came to light. 

By then, we were long gone. I was traumatized by the treatment I received from my “family,” but in those days, there were no resources for dealing with the after-effects of spiritual abuse. I limped through forgiving again and again, and my husband and I took our broken souls to our next church, where I relied on my old coping mechanism, service, to find my place in the community. Just as I was starting to think we landed in a safe place, the church split. It was like going through a group divorce.

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Devastated by the loss, I did what I thought a faithful Jesus follower would do and carried my rapidly-multiplying accumulation of church baggage to the next congregation, where I became a part-time staff member. (I became really good at serving!) Once on the inside, I discovered that the church may have had an org chart where I filled a slot, but the real power structure was a web of nepotistic, dysfunctional family relationships. They might have been giving me a paycheck, but I would never really belong. We eventually left that church too. 

My counselor was right. I had lost a lot. 

Ambiguous Loss

Psychologist Dr. Pauline Boss described ambiguous loss as the kind of grief I’d experienced first with my family, then at church after church. Ambiguous loss is grief without a clear conclusion. This kind of loss is traumatic, isolating, and is often connected to broken or changed relationships. Each one of us carries a measure of ambiguous loss, though it comes to us in different forms including breakups, estrangements, relocations, and diverging paths. 

Interestingly, my last conversations with both my mom and my dad before they died brought clarity and healing to years of relational disconnection. The “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” rituals of burial provided a sense of finality. But as I learned in the counselor’s chair, their respective passings also unearthed the cascading effect of decades of unacknowledged ambiguous loss in my life. There are no funerals for broken bonds. Ambiguous loss came first through my experience living in a family understandably hurt by what felt to them like a betrayal by my faith in Jesus. That primary loss colored the way I approached my relationships within the church.  

Church conflict was the direct descendant of the tension, conflict, and division I’d learned growing up in my family of origin.

I came to the church hoping that I’d find an idealized version of a family, though I didn’t have words for that longing back then. No matter how often fellow church members defaulted to the old “there are no perfect churches” trope in defense of the dysfunction I encountered, I believed to the core of my being that my fellow citizens in the kingdom of God would live out the joy of their new birth. Instead, I found church cultures shaped by peer pressure and a performance orientation that mirrored what was most familiar to me from my family of origin. Like clockwork, eventually, I found myself in conflict with church authorities. Though my issues were righteously rooted in reaction to a toxic culture, there was something familiar about it all, too. Church conflict was the direct descendant of the tension, conflict, and division I’d learned growing up in my family of origin.  

In the counselor’s chair, I learned there was much to deconstruct in my earlier toxic church experiences. As I did, I discovered there was much to deconstruct in me as well as I named my losses and began to grieve them for the first time. Even now, fifteen years after my mom’s passing and those hard, necessary visits with the counselor, I continue to walk through the valley of the shadow when it comes to church involvement. I show up, but I still struggle to trust church leaders. I am wary of attempting to step into community, knowing I may get hurt again.  

But I count it a victory that I am still showing up, albeit with the beautiful scars of experience—my early warning system to alert me to dysfunction in a church. Sometimes it feels like less of me is showing up at church these days than the eager servant I once appeared to be. I’m more guarded. But instead of a false version of me muting my pain and discounting my losses, a far healthier version of me is present. I’m still following Jesus, the one Isaiah described as a man of sorrows, familiar with suffering and well-acquainted with grief—grief that includes ambiguous loss.   

Michelle Van Loon
Michelle Van Loon is the author of seven books. Her most recent is Translating Your Past: Finding Meaning in Family Ancestry, Genetic Clues, and Generational Trauma (Herald Press, 2022). She blogs at michellevanloon.com.

Cover image by Andrei Lazarev.

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