Occasionally, I talk to people who are considering leaving their faith community, due to conflict that they are experiencing. It’s been several years since I attended church regularly, and, from my experience, within Christianity, conflict within a faith community can be complex. Aside from the regular interpersonal issues, the addition of theological perspectives can result in greatly intensifying the stakes of the conflict.
Conflict within a faith community, can sometimes cause people to wonder if they’re losing their faith or if someone else is. Depending on the faith, this can feel catastrophic.
Within mental health research, over the past 20 years, it has been found that having faith and being part of a faith community, impacts mental health in a positive way. Questions about spirituality are part of the regular Mental Health Assessment (MHA) performed by mental health clinicians.
People leave their religion, faith community, or belief systems for a wide variety of reasons. It can help to understand where the issues actually lie, when conflict arises. Sometimes there is conflict with others in the community. Sometimes there is differences in theological positions. If the conflict is between you and an authority figure, it might feel like you are rebelling against the religion or faith tradition, as a whole. Someone may actually tell you that you are. Scriptures and theology may be used against you.
It can be difficult to determine what is a personality conflict, what might simply be a problem with communication styles (yours or theirs), and what is actually a conflict of beliefs.
I often see people after they’ve already left a faith community. They speak of the isolation and the confusion that followed, and sometimes about the impacts of emotional or spiritual abuse they suffered in the midst of the conflict. But the issues don’t start when you decide to leave, they generally start long before.
Understanding what is generally considered respectful behaviour outside of your community, and what is considered abusive, can help you to sort out what is going on.
When you’ve been in a community for a long time, it can be hard to determine this. If someone uses their authority within the community to manipulate individuals into particular decisions, particularly when those decisions benefit the person giving the advise or direction (i.e how much money to give to the community, who to marry, or whether to have more children, etc.) is generally considered abusive. Telling someone that things outside of their control (such as their illness, or a child’s death) are happening due to a lack of faith, or bad morals, is abusive. Treating a person, a natural condition, or a behaviour that is natural for a child or teens’ developmental stage, as evil, is abusive.
There may be a distinction between generally abusive behaviour, by members of your community, and the faith tradition that it comes from. Find someone you trust to get their perspective on what has happened.
Check to see if there are others within your faith tradition that also see this behaviour as abusive. This will reveal whether it is an issue within this particular community, with this particular person, or is actually a part of the faith tradition.
If it is abusive and is not part of the faith community’s tradition, report to that person’s supervisor. Most religious organizations have abuse policies that are utilized when a complaint/charge is made. If the behaviour is abusive and is part of that faith tradition, you should report to outside authorities.
If there is nothing obviously abusive, double check cognitive distortions to see if you, or others, may be falling into one, or more of these distortions.
You may find that, after looking more closely into the beliefs held by your faith community and checking to see if there are others who interpret these differently, that you still want to leave. At this point, consider if there are people within your community that you feel safe with and don’t want to lose connection with. Are there ways to maintain connection without being a part of that community?
If you do leave, look to connect with other like-minded people who share your values. You don’t have to stay isolated. Hold on to your values and look for ways to continue to live them out.
For more on conflict regarding values see “Dear Me…” or When Values Collide
For more on values see What’s Worth Digging For? Finding your Values
See also ‘Forgiveness,’ A Dirty Word?
You may also want to check out Where Do I Draw the Line?