In tonight’s article I bring you a conversation with my dear friend Kat. A few years back, when I was twenty, I was introduced to a campus group made up of young and ambitious Christians. I quickly joined their community as a way to connect to others and hopefully find some answers to the existential questions I was having. There are many reasons which made me pull away from religion and the church a couple of years later. But my story doesn’t really capture what it was like inside the church, the emotional toll of devoted service, and the manipulation and cowardice employed by church leaders. Kat’s story does. So we discuss the oppressive culture of the church which saw the rise and fall of her marriage, friendship break-ups, and her emotional departure. And everything she knows now.
The first Sunday service I attended at the church was powerful and emotionally healing. My heart clung to the promises the Pastor spoke of. The church cared about my pain. It wouldn’t judge me and it was confident I would be able to overcome anything just by being a part of it all. It seemed so far removed from the rest of the world, and it felt like I discovered something wonderful.
KAT: I can absolutely relate. Preparation and planning is done prior to every service, mainly involving senior leaders. They plan how to create an atmosphere where people feel emotionally awakened. It’s very business-like. Emotions are used as a manipulation tool. They were encouraged in a Sunday service, but strongly discouraged outside of a Sunday. At first, the sermons in church resonated with me because I was searching for something to fill a lonely void.
Yet we couldn’t have known, Kat. That the church would become toxic for us.
KAT: It’s crazy to think it seemed so normal and wonderful at the time. For me, life before attending church was average, I felt lost amid university stress, drinking, partying, sex, and all the expectations that come with your early twenties. I found church was a good outlet. It was the opposite of those things I was running from, and I felt loved, wanted, and accepted.
Speaking on love…I never dated a guy at the church, but I did feel watched if I was talking to a new guy I found interesting. The leaders were always setting the rules around proper behavior. (N.b. You have to understand, that this wasn’t a 20th century parish. The church is stylish and modern and endlessly entertaining, it’s curated to appeal to young minds drawn to creativity and self-actualization. You forget about the archaic principles the church’s leaders hold dear). The leaders were always trying to re-frame your doubts if you felt they were overstepping personal space. They always made me feel like they were looking out for my best interests, and probably believed. But everything, every thought, had a religious currency. What was your experience of dating in the church?
KAT: My experience with dating in the church was really fun because you have heaps of friends, and are always hanging out in groups of people. The main problem was that you were encouraged to not spend any time alone with your significant other, meaning you had very limited time to get to know the real them. I’m a real believer in seeing your other-half in all sorts of life situations. How else will you know how they deal with grief, with anger, with insecurity, with financial stress, with excitement, with children?
I remember the Pastor telling the room of people in their twenties that they shouldn’t be alone in a room with their partner before marriage because it leads couples into sin (or sex before marriage). The church was very aware about how couples were interacting, and I had a friend who was chastised for carpooling with a guy in the church to and from events, because it raised questions about the nature of their relationship. It must have been very confronting for young people dealing with the church’s “chill” and progressive face to outsiders and newcomers, yet it had a very strict culture around normal human experiences like sex and dating. How exhausting it must have been constantly trying to meet their expectations.
KAT: Absolutely. The expectations were exhausting. In my experience, most couples were getting engaged within the year. It was highly encouraged by the leaders. Short engagements were common, and some marriage counselling was done by senior leaders. However, this was often only six weeks before the wedding, so there was not a lot of time to change your mind if you had any doubts.
Christian marriage was scary. You’d just committed your lives to each other in front of God, all your church community and your family and now you had to make it work. Seeking any sort of help from anyone not of a Christian faith was frowned upon or advice such reading the bible more or praying was an answer for everything. It was the most isolating time of my life.
Were you able to find common ground with other married women in the church?
KAT: My conversations with married women in the church were surface level, because I wasn’t wanting to let anyone in to how I was really feeling. There seemed to be this level of sexual dissatisfaction within marriage in the church- specifically around submitting to husbands and adhering to their sex-drive, but it was never really discussed more than a couple of comments here and there.
Wow. Sex should be pleasurable for both people, and to never be a powerless act of duty whether married or not.
You also served in the church in the hospitality and youth services. What was your level of commitment to serving?
KAT: Being a committed and consistent servant in church was a requirement. If you weren’t forthcoming in your eagerness to serve then questions around your inability or lack of want to serve were heavily questioned. Within the church there were employed staff and volunteers. In my experience, there was more expectation on volunteers. This is where the isolation starts- serving so religiously with no room for movement pulls you away from friends and family who aren’t in church. The level of commitment was more a full-time job and incredibly overwhelming. If I voiced my concerns, I was often made to feel like the problem. Years of believing you are the problem causes catastrophic damage in a person.
It’s a very manipulative system isn’t it? What happened if you did question how things were done?
KAT: Throughout the years I was involved in church, I did question what went on a number of times but I, or someone else, managed to distract me from the way I was feeling. From my observations, people would put on a face or a front at church. Their personal lives were suffering, they were unhappy in their marriages, they were struggling with the weight of their involvement in church, but they never showed that at church. The consequences of that behavior was a feeling of complete isolation. However, from the stage, leaders would preach openness, transparency, and being in touch with your emotions which was very contradictory. You have to understand that these people were also my friends, my only friends at that time. Without them, I felt I would have nothing. That feeling, led to the reason why I didn’t depart church earlier. I didn’t think I could cope without the support system of the church, I didn’t know who I was without them.
I love my friends. We watch all sorts of shows and movies and chat about love, and sex, and social politics, and so much more. It made me sad all the time that I could never seem to go deep with church friends. It was like we would avoid certain topics for being too secular. I was always thinking, what does she think about her right to have her boyfriend stay over? What does she really think about how church thinks homosexuality is a “struggle” to overcome- not something to embrace- because a straight marriage was the goal. Like hey, is it just me or do we never talk about something real unless we are comfortable with relating it back to God somehow or what the leaders think about that thing.
KAT: I felt I had to put on a façade with people, both inside and outside of the church. If I was honest with those within the church, I was at risk of having my leadership taken away from me or being talked about in leadership meetings. If I was honest with those outside of the church, I was at risk of them knowing how I really felt and that scared me. The church was run as a business and if you look at it like that, I would say I was in middle management which meant I wasn’t quite at the level of the senior managers but I was too high up to have normal relationships with the employees who didn’t hold a managerial position. I never understood or felt comfortable with that, I constantly considered how we were ever supposed to be relatable whilst being ‘untouchable.’ I was stuck between people I had to put on a facade for and people I wasn’t allowed to open up to. It was a very lonely time.
Before you left the church, you made the difficult decision to get divorced. Tell us how this was for you, and what was the response of the church leaders?
KAT: Divorce is such a complicated topic because it is so personal and I have to be careful what I write here, I am only one half of this story. Making the decision to separate was difficult, we really did try and make our marriage work. It was difficult because we didn’t want to let each other or anyone else down. Deciding to separate coincided with our decision to leave church. We were burnt out. Telling church leaders was difficult, there was a lot of guilt and shame that came along with the decision and we were told that if we decided to go through with the separation, heaven would no longer be our destination.
There was a lot of rumours that circled our separation. Rumours of physical abuse, domestic altercations, cheating. All of these rumours stemmed from members of the church. Once we had told church we were leaving and once we made a final decision to separate after an overseas holiday, I essentially isolated myself from the church. I was so hurt by their reaction and the circulating rumours that I couldn’t sit back and watch them going about their daily lives with no repercussions.
In such an incredibly difficult time, what got you through?
KAT: I don’t know. A combination of things. My family, especially my Mum, Step-Dad & Dad. My current partner who is incredible. My friends who stood by me. The determination and strength within me. There was nights I felt like I couldn’t do it anymore and there was nights were I felt overwhelming relief. Grief is difficult, I’ve watched friends and family lose incredibly special and important people to death so I don’t want to compare losing my friends to their losses. But it is grief. It’s this feeling that sort of just takes over. I shared my life with these people and they remained silent during the hardest time of my life so far, most of them did anyway.
How did you feel towards church in the end?
KAT: Burnt. Misunderstood. Hurt. Left-out. Abandoned. Shamed. Guilty. Sad. So many things. It’s funny how we often put so many expectations on ourselves. I don’t miss church. I don’t miss the demands. The constant feelings of guilt and shame. Feeling like I wasn’t enough. I don’t think badly of church in general. I think that church really can be a powerful place for people to find themselves. However, I am aware of what can go on behind closed doors and as well as experiencing it myself, I am watching other people go through the same thing. But I’m the happiest and most relaxed I’ve been and it’s been a privilege to share this small part of my life with you and the rest of the internet.
Once I left church and religion altogether, I was finally able to think for myself again. Do you think your worldview changed over time to accommodate the influence of Church?
KAT: My worldview has changed. My decisions and thoughts were strongly based around the church for many years. It has taken me a long time to not only think for myself, but to trust myself again. Trust that I’m a good person and that I can make a positive difference in this world, regardless of whether I’m involved in church.
There it is internet babes. Thanks to Kat for getting vulnerable with us. We could talk for days about this topic. But do let me know your thoughts.
Love Han x