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Recovering from Spiritual Trauma

Leslie RobertsBlog, Church

Author’s Note: With readers who have also experienced spiritual trauma in mind, details about specific traumatic experiences have been intentionally omitted. 

In the summer of 2021, Christianity Today released a podcast called The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. This investigative report on the story of an evangelical-church-leader-turned-celebrity-pastor, and the massive fallout that happened when unethical and abusive patterns of leadership were revealed, caught the attention of many, including a lot of my friends. Some of the people closest to me wanted to know if I was listening because they knew about my experience working in a church that was part of the same network as Mars Hill Church. Some people I hadn’t talked to in years—but who had attended the church where I worked—reached out to me, recognizing the patterns and behaviours described in the show as ones we experienced at our church, and in particular from one pastor. 

I had been processing my experience of spiritual trauma for three years already, but healing has been a slow process. Pursuing healing took a lot of investment and intentionality: I moved to a new city (in a new country, in fact) in pursuit of a Master’s degree in theology, which helped with some of my questions and opened up even more questions for me about church and leadership. I continued receiving counseling and found a church and Christian community where I could participate on my own terms, in ways that were healthy for me. Still, every time a new episode of the podcast was released, I felt my heart jump to my throat, my pulse quicken, my body moving into fight or flight mode—a trauma response. Listening to the series was both scary and affirming. Sometimes I had to pause and practice deep breathing or a grounding exercise; often it filled me with nervous energy, and I had to listen to it while doing something active, like going for a jog. Using the show as a framework for talking about my experience with people I trusted helped me feel seen, known, and understood in new ways. It helped me practice telling myself, “What happened to me was real, and it was horrible. I survived, and now I am in a different place, and I am safe. I am so sad and angry about what happened. I am so grateful to be in a place of healing and recovery, even if it is still hard.”

I was and am thankful for the series—as difficult as it is to listen to the stories of people with experiences so similar to my own and to know there are so many people who live with their own stories of spiritual trauma (including clergy abuse, harmful theology, and more). Developing our understanding of spiritual trauma, learning to care for ourselves and others in the wake of spiritual trauma, listening to different stories of spiritual trauma (it’s not always a single leader or a stand-alone incident), and taking steps toward individual and community healing and recovery—these steps are essential for our wellbeing as Christians and an act of loving our neighbours. We also need to recognize when we have perpetrated spiritual trauma (intentionally or not, directly or indirectly), learn how to confess and lament these actions, and listen to those who have been wounded as they identify how we can change and move toward the heart of Jesus. 

Over the coming months, a new podcast about spiritual trauma and healing by Hillary McBride will be released. The podcast is called Holy/Hurt and it explores in greater depth some of the topics mentioned above. Hillary, who is a Registered Psychologist and a Sanctuary Ambassador, explores spiritual trauma and healing through the lens of mental health, centering those with lived experience. The series is designed for people who have experienced spiritual trauma, with mindfulness around language, presentation, and topics. Those who haven’t experienced spiritual trauma are invited to listen and grow in understanding and empathy for the experiences of others. Each episode of the podcast includes interviews as well as embodiment practices for grounding and helping our bodies process our own experiences (past and/or present) and what we are learning. I’ve had the privilege of helping produce this podcast, and have found Hillary’s content to be incredibly informative, helpful, and deeply healing. Like the aforementioned Christianity Today podcast, it may be difficult for some of us to listen to—whether because of our own lived experiences or because it can be painful to hear how certain things have been damaging for people we know and love, especially if we have participated in the damage. It may also be difficult to hear stories of those who have moved away from Church and religion for their own health. For those of us in the Church, the opportunity to hear these stories is a gift, helping us learn how to better love and serve those who have been hurt by the Church.

As the sponsor of the podcast, Sanctuary wants to help equip the Church to support the mental health and wellbeing of those who have experienced spiritual trauma and still want to be connected to churches and Christianity. Sanctuary has shared discussion questions related to the podcast content so that groups can engage in gentle and genuine conversations that increase awareness and support recovery. These questions invite us as Christians to explore how our churches and communities can be places of welcome, safety, and healing. You can follow Sanctuary on Instagram to see the questions that were released with each episode. Now that the series has ended, the questions have been compiled into a downloadable PDF resource, which you can access by filling out the form on this page.  

Whether you have experienced spiritual trauma, love someone who has, or just want to learn more about the subject, I encourage you to engage with this content in ways that support your wellbeing and/or your community’s wellbeing. Whether that means reflecting with a mental health professional or close friend or group, going at a slower pace than the content is released, skipping certain episodes or sections, or choosing not to listen at all is up to you. I hope that this resource will be a gift to you and to the Church as we examine this difficult topic and move toward healing. 

Editor’s Note:

The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the speakers and do not always represent the views of Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries.

Cover photo by Leslie Roberts.


Leslie Roberts headshot

Leslie has a bachelor’s degree in marketing and has worked in advertising, television production, and as the Communications Director for a church in Texas. In her time working at the church, she realized one of the biggest needs in the church is for education, awareness, and care for people living with mental health challenges. Following her ministry experience, Leslie earned a master’s degree at Regent College in Vancouver.