Formation / Global Church / Witness

In the House of Belonging: Healing Church Hurt Through Church (Part 1)

This is the bright home in which I live,

This is where I ask my friends to come,

This is where I want to love all the things

it has taken me so long to learn to love…

—David Whyte, “The House of Belonging”

Beginning at the End

I will never forget the moment I realized that church could be a place to heal — not multiply — the vast collection of church-inflicted wounds I had carried around with me like an over-stuffed suitcase. It happened over runny eggs at a greasy diner in Seattle, which I suppose is as good a place as any to change one’s mind about church.

Post-divorce, I was sharing my story of recent church harm with Summer and Mark, a married couple who co-pastored the church I had hesitantly begun attending with my new boyfriend after a much-needed hiatus from church. As I shared, I kept my head down and pushed my cold eggs around the plate, unwilling to risk being misunderstood by church leaders again. Though I had only shared with them my most recent experience of harm within a church context, that story came at the end of a long series of cuts at the fraying rope which tethered me to my belief in church as an essential part of the Christian journey.

I grew up moving from state to state as a child, and my vastly differing experiences of church paired with varying doses of legalism and purity culture left me confused at best. My middle school and high school experiences of red-faced threats of hell from a preacher spitting with rage in the pulpit, guilt-induced door to door evangelism, and punishment swiftly doled out for skirts being too short or tank top straps being too thin had done a number on me. In one youth group I attended, raising one’s hands in worship was scandalous; in another, not raising your hands at the chorus of “Here I Am to Worship” indicated a lack of intimacy with God.

Over time, I learned which parts of myself were and were not acceptable at church. By the time I reached adulthood, the chasm between authenticity and belonging had grown so wide that I no longer recognized the person I was on Sunday mornings. The experience of splitting off parts of myself to be accepted at church reached its climax during the abusive and chaotic marriage I endured in my early twenties. In that season, church was a place my former husband and I attended with a great deal of pretense. When we first started attending church together, I doubted I would ever find an ally or confidant — someone who would believe me if I said, “Even though we look happy together, things are not okay at home. I think I am in an abusive relationship, and I don’t know what to do.”


Over time, I learned which parts of myself were and were not acceptable at church. By young adulthood, the chasm between authenticity and belonging had so grown wide that I no longer recognized the person I was on Sunday mornings. Click To Tweet


Eventually, an older couple began inviting me and my husband into their home, investing in us relationally and spiritually. I began to trust them, which increased my trust in the church as a safe place to be. Theirs was the home I fled to one night when my husband’s anger was especially out of control, and they welcomed me in. But the next morning, I found out they had invited my husband over for dinner that night without my knowledge or consent. I felt betrayed, and the self-protective walls I had just begun to let down at church came right back up again. When we turned to our pastor for a last-ditch effort at marital counseling before divorce, I believe he tried his best to help us both. I found out later, however, that he had inadvertently chosen a side by choosing to keep my husband’s secret sin of ongoing sexual indiscretion from me.

When that marriage ended, so did my relationship with church; at least, that is what I had intended.

Leaving the church during the season of my divorce provided a much-needed spiritual hiatus in which I had space to sort out which parts of church were of God and which were not. In seeking God on my own again, I learned to trust the still small voice inside me — a voice I had largely ignored in my attempt to hold a chaotic marriage together. And much to my surprise, it was my own voice I heard in that Seattle diner, sharing my story with two pastors and risking trust once again.

I don’t know what response I expected after sharing my story with Summer and Mark — perhaps a few sympathetic platitudes or tolerant smiles. But when I finally looked up from my plate, I saw tears in their eyes. Tears of compassion, yes, but also tears of anger. Anger that someone who shared their calling had played an active role in enabling the sexual sin of my ex-husband. Anger that when I searched for safety, it was nowhere to be found. It was their tears and their anger that began to loosen the tight knot of wounded confusion in me. Though I could not have known it at the time, that conversation was the beginning of my healing journey within a church context — a journey of repair that began at the end of a long series of ruptures.

I decided to give their church a try.


Leaving the church during the season of my divorce provided a much-needed spiritual hiatus in which I had space to sort out which parts of church were of God and which were not. (1/2) Click To Tweet

In seeking God on my own again, I learned to trust the still small voice inside me — a voice I had largely ignored in my attempt to hold a chaotic marriage together. (2/2) Click To Tweet


Rupture and Repair

When relational rupture has occurred — whether with an individual or an institution — there are two primary pathways to repair. The first is to avoid the set of circumstances that caused us harm altogether — for example, to swear off church for good, vowing never again as the promise of safety we make to ourselves. The second pathway is to experience those same set of circumstances again within the context of safe and healthy relationship, as they were meant to be. The first path builds self-defense; the second, resilience. For those who have freshly experienced trauma, keeping one’s self well-protected in the wake of profound harm is a good and necessary stage of the healing process. But to stop there is to miss the gift present within re-experience — a gift that often leads to repair, but does require the risk of rupture again.

This is what love does: it risks wounding for the sake of deeper love — not foolishly, not masochistically, but wisely and with a healthy dose of self-compassion. This is, after all, what Christ did for us. In becoming human, he made himself flesh-and-blood vulnerable, knowing full well that to be human is to bleed but also to be bound up again and again by the healing embrace of the God who holds all things — even imperfect churches — together.

It can feel threatening to step out onto the thin air of hope again, trusting that the solid ground of love and belonging will rise up to meet our feet. But I truly believe this is what God wants the Body of Christ to be: a secure place to land, to rest our weary hearts, souls, and bodies — to receive Christ together as one body in what The Message describes as “food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat” (Matthew 5:6, MSG). This is the feasting table to which we are invited. It is a table from which many have been wrongfully excluded, kicked out, and disinvited. But the table is set, nonetheless, by wounded hands extended in eternal welcome and embrace to all who hunger and thirst.


*Editorial Note: Part 2 of Katelyn’s piece, “In the House of Belonging: Healing Church Hurt Through Church,” published on Thursday, June 6th. ~CK


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Katelyn J. Dixon is a writer and photographer from Auburn, Washington. As a writer and poet, Katelyn’s work focuses on beholding the Kingdom of God in unexpected places, exploring the many paradoxes of life and faith, and celebrating the beauty of the Divine all around and within us. As a photographer, she strives to convey the glory I see in the faces I encounter and the places I wander. You can find Katelyn on Instagram @katelynjdixon, her writing at https://www.katelynjdixon.com, and her photography at https://www.tenthousandplaces.com.


There are two primary pathways to relational repair. The first is to avoid the set of circumstances that caused us harm altogether—for example, to swear off church for good, vowing never again as the promise of safety we make. (1/2) Click To Tweet

The second pathway is to experience those same set of circumstances again within the context of safe and healthy relationship, as they were meant to be. The first path builds self-defense; the second, resilience. (2/2) Click To Tweet