The Six Stages of Deconstruction

(This 2004 article appeared in its original form on the MTPastor blogger site I used to manage. The number of people experiencing Deconstruction has greatly increased since then. I decided it could use an overhaul).

“Tearing things apart is a powerful aspect of human nature.”

–Patti Smith

Greg and I had gone to high school together. We attended the same church and youth group. We graduated Bible College together and were ordained within a few months of each other. We genuinely liked each other.

So why did I want to punch him in the face?

I was just beginning to Deconstruct.

It was 1983 and my wife and I were at the national Congress of our Canadian denomination. The big issue being debated was whether women would be allowed to serve as pastors and elders in churches. For two years I had passionately advocated for full inclusion of women into ministry leadership positions. I had done my homework and was ready with all the theological arguments. I was ready to tear down the arguments of the Complementarians. I was even the person who brought the proposal to the committee which introduced the measure.

I had no idea Greg would make a complete ass of himself. I had no idea it would throw me into such an emotional tailspin.

He didn’t address the doctrinal issues. He didn’t appeal to historical precedent or denominational practices. He simply said: “Everyone here knows if we do this it will tear apart the church and God’s judgment will come on us all.”

With that, he was able to sway enough people to defeat the motion.

At that moment, I wrestled with whether to leave that denomination. They had already refused to ordain my wife at the same time as me the summer before. I had thought I would quit then, but she talked me out of it. When two of my close female friends from college had moved to a different denomination so they would be allowed to preach, I wondered why I was staying. Again, my wife talked me out of leaving.

When Greg used his scare tactic to convince thousands to make this decision, I actually decided to stay. But I was no longer, in my mind, part of the mainstream. I was tearing down the “good old boy, just stick with the majority” approach.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was learning what it means to deconstruct.

The concept of Deconstruction is a philosophical way of looking at any system of knowledge or communication. It is a difficult and convoluted system of beliefs and it takes years to understand the nuances. Allow me to simplify as best I can.

Ironically, Jacques Derrida–the Father of Deconstructionism–says part of the problem happens when we simplify things. Being a language guy, he liked to show how simple words can have very complex meanings. And strings of simple words can result in thousands of possible meanings.

Here is how this relates to so many people in our culture beginning to deconstruct their beliefs. Too many human systems–Christianity among them–take very complex ideas and experiences and reduce them down to a binary understanding. For instance, let’s look at how the Church views the roles of men and women. Conservative Fundamentalist Christianity believes the roles of men and women are simple. Women are weaker, more susceptible to being deceived, and therefore need to submit to men who are stronger.

As with all binary relationships, we only understand one thing by comparing it to the other. We understand women as “weak” because we compare them to men. This weakness is defined by only focusing on certain characteristics of men. Additionally, this comparison ignores situations where the strong/weak dualism isn’t always true.

In ethics, we only understand “good” and “evil” in relationship to each other. Something is evil if it isn’t good. Something is good if it isn’t evil. The problem with binary thinking is it over-simplifies relationships that are extremely complicated, containing too many variables. And this is why people begin to deconstruct their beliefs.

For instance, in my observations, I noticed that not all women were weak, not all men were strong, that the marriage could work as an equal partnership, and that there were Bible verses which supported that. I did notice some Bible verses didn’t seem to support it. I realized this was a complicated relationship between men and women. It was not a simple binary: Ever!

There are many other beliefs that people begin to Deconstruct because they no longer see a simple binary. Some people believe that in our world there are more than two gender distinctions. Others believe there are more than two ways to experience attraction and express sexuality. There are more than two ways that we can do church government. There are more than two ways to deal with pregnancy. There are more than two ways to raise a child.

Therefore, the binary of “good” and “evil” becomes a weapon when leaders in the church or society want everyone to believe in simple binaries when issues are more complicated and nuanced.

Sometimes the Deconstruction is simply about an idea, instead of a behavior. The idea of Hell has been discussed for centuries. The various opinions would lead one to conclude that there are more than the “right” view and the “wrong” view. Who can say based on the evidence and the vast array of theological positions on the Afterlife? Yet many are adamant that they know and they seek to punish or discipline those who disagree within their communities.

Some people deconstruct their entire faith system because people within that faith system abused or assaulted them. Then, afterwards, the assault was minimized, covered up, explained away, or ignored by church officials. When a terrible evil is done to someone, many people feel it calls into question whether the belief system has any merit at all.

I believed women should be ordained and preach, but I was not received well by my denomination. I went through many stages in this process and all of them were markedly different. Over the past 35 years, I have seen many other people go through the same stages.

These stages are my understanding and labeling. You may want to call them something else. And, I have discovered this is not always the order that people experience them. I have also seen that many people will jump around these stages from time to time.

With those codicils, let me introduce these six stages of Deconstruction:

  1. The Disillusionment Stage

  2. The Separation Stage

  3. The Grieving Stage

  4. The Resting Stage

  5. The Justice Stage

  6. The Advocacy Stage

The Disillusionment Stage

All of deconstruction is hard, but this stage often catches a person off-guard. We aren’t looking to deconstruct our life and beliefs–and then it starts happening.

Disillusionment can be described many ways. It might begin by questioning something you have believed for a long time. It may start with seeing key authority figures (ie. Parents, teachers, pastors, mentors etc.) in a new and troubling light. One of them may have used you or groomed and controlled you.

For many church-goers, it may start when they see someone they love being treated badly by church officials. Time and again, I hear of people entering the disillusionment stage after a pastor sexually grooms and controls a church member. Then, when the pastor is confronted, the church rallies behind the pastor and will not believe the victim. They may even accuse the victim of lying or misleading others.

If the stories are correct, Deconstruction began for Martin Luther when he picked up a man out of the gutter. He had done this many times. This man was a drunk and a violent husband. As he took off the man’s jacket at his house, he noticed a piece of paper fell out. It was an Indulgence from Rome. This man bought what amounted to a “Get out of Purgatory Free” card by paying enough money.

As Luther wrestled with this hypocrisy, he began to tear apart his belief system. It led him to begin studying Galatians and Romans to get a better understanding of how we can have a relationship with God. At least, that’s how the story goes.

I have friends who say they felt literally dizzy as they realized what changing some of their belief system might mean. What will it imply if they leave their church? How will they handle life if they embrace an entirely new philosophy of life.

Kepler describes being emotionally overwhelmed when his mathematical calculations proved Copernicus right. The Earth did revolve around the sun and there was proof!

In the disillusionment stage, there are three common emotions:

  • Fear. We feel our whole life system starting to collapse
  • Anger. We do not know why, but others have done things or taught us things they had no right to do or teach.
  • Confusion. There are no manuals for the disillusionment stage. And once you have entered this stage, there is no returning to the old normal. To borrow a meme from “The Matrix”, you have swallowed the Red Pill and there is no going back. You can’t unsee doubt and you can’t unsee abuse and manipulation. In order to be happy again, you have to keep moving through Deconstruction.

So many things can happen in this stage. You may draw away from people you have known all your life, including spouses, parents, or best friends. Or, they may get worried about you and try to correct you. There will be a lot of cognitive dissonance as you still pretend to be what you used to be. It doesn’t work very well.

Once you begin to get disillusioned, there will be no peace unless you keep moving on at least to the next stage. I have known many people stuck for decades in disillusionment, and I warn them it can lead to depression and anxiety.

The Separation Stage

I have written in a number of places about my personal struggles with the Pro-Life movement. Though I am pro-life in the sense that I am a pacifist and cannot abide the taking of life, I became disillusioned with the political and sociological aims of the Pro-Life movement. As a Choice Theory practitioner, I objected to the heavy use of external control mechanisms. These are my issues. But as a pastor and a therapist, I was constantly asked my opinion regarding abortion. Because of my disillusionment, I could no longer spend time around the people most prominent in that movement.

I ended several friendships that I have never re-started. It is too painful to do so.

Over the years, I have counseled many adults who have a narcissistic father or mother. They go through years of abuse and manipulation, hoping to reconcile their parent back to common decency. It never works. At some point, the only recourse they have is to separate completely from that abusive person and never look back.

It is not easy to separate. In the case of a narcissistic parent, the other siblings are often used to triangulate. Sisters will call them up and ask why they hate Mom so much. Aunts will send emails to ask why they are causing their dad to have such horrible depression.

During the separation stage, the person who is Deconstructing must move away from all the people who hold onto the ideas/practices/systems which represent what they are deconstructing. It is very difficult to continue to spend a lot of time with people who easily believe what you no longer believe.

I have observed many famous people who tried. Rachel Held Evans, Anne Rice, Bob Dylan, and many others tried to stay part of the church of their youth, but found they could not.

Indeed, some people are Deconstructing their entire faith system. At some point, to do that, they have to pull away from formal faith communities completely.

In the Separation Stage, these emotions are common:

  • Grief. Even though there isn’t much choice but to pull away, it still feels sad to lose people and old systems.
  • Fear. The implications of separating are not always clear when a person starts. Some lose friends, family, and even jobs. Others lose emotional support people, financial support people, and even health over it all. Fear is one of the great debilitating emotions, and this is the stage many people get stuck in for a long time.
  • Relief. It liberates one to not always be called to answer for Deconstructing something. I have a friend who Deconstructed his beliefs on organized church. He was a pastor at the time he started. He couldn’t do his Deconstruction and still pastor a church. I met with him several years after he resigned and he looked like a new person. He felt free to explore life with God with just a few other believers over coffee instead of all the trappings of church culture.

This stage is crucial. No one truly Deconstructs while they are still part of the very system that holds onto what you are tearing down. It is like taking apart a boat while you’re sailing in it.

The Grieving Stage

Why do people grieve? I ask the question, knowing I can’t really answer it. But I think I know why people grieve when they are Deconstructing. The brain cannot handle the idea that years were wasted without anything to show for it.

Three decades ago, psychologists concluded they knew everything there was to know about grief. They said “There are five stages to grief: Anger, denial, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.” Except, they eventually found there were many more than five stages, and some people didn’t experience some of the basic ones. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross eventually admitted she didn’t think her model really explained very much at all. I agree.

What counselors now know is that every person’s grief is unique and if there are patterns to it, they are only surface patterns and don’t explain the deeper issues.

This is completely true of the grieving stage in Deconstruction. Since grief is the process of letting go of something valuable, no one can Deconstruct successfully without considering there was some value in what they were letting go.

In her book, “The Happiness Myth“, Jennifer Hecht reveals that none of us were as happy as we hoped we were earlier in life. Conversely, none of us were as sad as we feared we were earlier in life. At various times, we focus on only one aspect of our experience. “I was never happy” we announce. “I was always in pain” we conclude.

But those absolutisms are not true. They just feel that way. And that is the reason Deconstruction is so crucial. Our brains are given to either/or binary thinking. It is always “this” and “not that”. The value of Deconstruction is the ability to hold in tension two opposing truth claims, knowing that a more complete truth can be found by examining other pieces of evidence.

A friend of mine grew up in the Evangelical culture during the 1980s and 1990s. She was enmeshed in the Purity Culture belief that if she remained a virgin until marriage, it would guarantee she and her husband would have a great relationship. It was so difficult for her to do that because she had a strong libido. In college, she struggled with some of her dating relationships because she felt shame after being sexual in any way.

But she achieved her goal of not having intercourse with anyone until she got married.

By the time they reached the 3-year mark of marriage, her new husband had already had two affairs, and often hit her and kicked her. Her Deconstruction process began after the honeymoon. He was an angry, spiteful man. He played control games with her.

She cried out to God and wondered how this was the payoff for keeping her virginity intact. God didn’t answer. Her pastor, in counseling, told her to learn to be a better wife and he would eventually come around. God had made a promise, and God would keep it.

God never did.

So she got Disillusioned. She separated from her husband. After that, in order to keep in abeyance all the voices of judgmental people at church, she separated from them as well. She stopped going to church altogether, though she maintained a relationship with God. For a while, we were part of an online prayer group together. (Note: I have her permission to tell this story).

At one point, she surprisingly talked about seeing some value in purity culture. Since her divorce, she discarded the idea that there was any value in abstaining from sex outside of marriage. Admittedly, she became hyper-sexual very quickly after her divorce. As a result, she experienced some painful realities about hooking up. It did feel empty at times. It did feel occasionally like she was being used. In one encounter, she was assaulted by her date.

She came to our group one time and admitted she saw the value in being very careful about one’s sexuality. It could be dangerous to just abandon oneself to an open lifestyle. As she talked, she admitted that her upbringing was not all bad. This is actually the purpose and meaning to the grieving stage. Very few people and ideas are ALL bad. They just aren’t good enough to hang onto completely.

In Linda Kay Klein’s book “Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free” she writes about her Deconstruction journey out of the Purity culture. After she had gone through many of the stages mentioned in this article, she decided to write her book. She tells about going home and having a respectful conversation, warning her mom what she was planning to do.

At one point, she tells her mother this truth: “”Mom” I tried to explain, “God is why I’m doing this. I feel called to write this book.”

Though much of Linda’s journey was painful BECAUSE of the teachings of the church, she still sees that the foundation of her faith came through that broken vessel. Her ability to say “I feel called…” is something she took away from a flawed system.

No one will see any value in the Deconstructed past without navigating the Grief stage. Much of what we experienced and believed was not good. During this stage, one must let go of those things. Stop making excuses, stop compensating, stop minimizing the damage. You were hurt. You were taught harmful teaching.

And take responsibility for your part in this. This grief stage is similar to what alcoholics attempt in the fourth step when they do a thorough inventory of their life. This stage may take a few months, or you may spend years here. Who knows.

During this stage, there is really only one emotion that dominates: Sadness. Sadness is sometimes invaded by other emotions which may want to press in to take charge of this stage. But sadness is the key. We learn as we sit sadly in examination of that which we are letting go.

The Resting Stage

Basic brain physiology teaches that synapses are not binary. Even though a simple electrical signal travels down a neuron to the junction at a synapse, it doesn’t just send an “on/off” signal to the neuron on the other side. At every synapse, there are dozens of chemicals which may be triggered. Each of these sends a different signal across the synapse. Billions of synapses are doing this every moment. Our brain is capable of going many different directions. It is not locked in.

However….the longer the same synapse sends the same chemical across the same gap, it tends to use just that chemical and resists using another one. This means, it is easier over time for our brain to think in binary relationships between things. Therefore, it takes a lot more time and energy to view an issue from various points of view. This is why we resist doing it. It is much easier to think of “Us vs. Them”, “good vs. bad”, “strong vs. weak”, “rich vs. poor” and be blind to the variations and sub-tones.

During the Deconstruction Process, we finally break some old ways of thinking, some old behaviors. We reinforce these by not rejecting the old completely, but adding old things to new things, creating a new reality for ourselves. This juncture is called the Resting Stage. Our brain can finally grasp nuance and abstract distinctions and is not forced into old binaries.

After disillusionment, separation, and grieving, a lot of energy has been spent. When the brain accepts a more complex understanding, it can be a place of clarity. We think of new implications to what we believe. We form new relationships with people who espouse some of the same ideas.

[Please note: These new people are not necessarily allies. They are ones who share some of the same ideas. If you believe they share ALL your ideas and viewpoints, you will not be happy with the results.]

Some people are so tired from this journey of Deconstruction by this point they literally take a break. They may cut off contact with those who want to push them further. They may get rid of social media for awhile. This is normal and doesn’t last for too long.

For those whose deconstruction has included cutting off family members and/or churches, this is the stage where they find aloneness is okay. They don’t feel the need to join anything at this stage. In fact, they may return to this stage over and over as they deconstruct other things. One can only demolish ideas, relationships, and practices for so long.

A dear, dear friend of mine had to deconstruct her life after years of assuming she was heterosexual. She had been married for 35 years when she admitted to herself she was a particular type of Queer. She went through the first three stages of her sexual deconstruction in a halting, herky-jerky way, only getting help in the process through an online community. During this time, she finally told her husband, who ended up being very supportive and helpful.

Her church was not. She shared some details of her journey with a friend in the church who immediately told one of the pastoral staff. Within a few difficult months, she went looking for a new church. But old church members wouldn’t leave her alone.

She was told regularly she was going to hell. She separated from them as best she could. After a couple of years, they left her alone. She grieved all that she had lost, even though she remained married to her sweet husband. She saw some value in her old church standards though she could no longer live them out in community with them.

Her place of rest included avoiding church altogether. Her husband joined her in this process. They would worship with a couple of friends every few weeks. They prayed more than they had in years. She began to realize how she had hurt people in the past with her old views on sexuality, and she spent the Resting Stage making amends for how she used to treat LGBTQ people.

The Resting Stage envelops the feeling of tiredness with the knowledge of a job well done so far. It is often the time where one admits how weary they are of this process. Deconstruction is brutally hard work and often means the loss of structures one relied upon.

When Herman Melville finally admitted to himself that he was gay and that he was not interested in hiding it, he went through tumultuous years of separation and grief. He was thoroughly rejected by the one man he did share his feelings of love toward. But he also writes about a very strategic party where the astronomer Maria Mitchell listened with insight and compassion. With her help, he came to peace with himself and finally rested from self-doubt and fears.

This stage is a crucial goal for anyone doing the hard work of Deconstruction.

The Justice Stage

I was there the day thousands blocked the 880 Freeway in Oakland to protest the frequent killing by the police of black and brown citizens. When I say I “was there”, I mean I was in the interminable traffic jam that lasted for hours after the protestors left. And I was not upset about it once I learned the reason we were sitting there. They were angry and I wanted to support them even if I didn’t completely understand all the issues at that time.

The next day, I sat in a coffee shop with an African American friend. Ironically, he was telling me all the things wrong with Black Lives Matter. I knew his life story, and I knew that politically he sat on opposite sides from their organization. But at the end, I leaned over and asked him this question:

“Will you allow them to lead us to a new place, even if you think very little of their tactics and politics?”

To his credit, he took me seriously. He researched and read as much as he could get his hands on. After several months of doing this, he started to be disillusioned about police treatment of black and brown people. This, in spite of having friends in the police force. He isn’t planning on marching any time soon. His journey has only started.

In the Justice stage, one emerges from resting to realize that there are way too many people who haven’t even begun to question the status quo which you have awoken to. This is the stage where former victims of child sexual abuse might join groups like CASA.

This is the stage where victims of narcissistic pastors may scream on social media, write articles and blogs about clergy who are still getting away with crimes.

I am indebted to my fellow writers and Justice Seekers who fight the good fight to bring to light the dastardly deeds of Narcissistic offenders in churches. Thank you to champions like Robert Downen, Lise Olsen, Julie Ann Smith, Dee Parsons, Julie Roys, Amy Smith, Sarah Smith, Jimmy Hinton, Anne Marie Miller, Ashley Easter, Christa Brown, and thousands of others who every day write about these false shepherds.

Many more are fighting battles for their own issues that they have come to identify with. Others are seeking to open the eyes of people to doctrinal issues, to help them learn about nuances in how the Scriptures can be handled. Many Justice Seekers are showing how women have been treated badly by the Patriarchy and how the Bible does not give credence to do so.

In the Justice stage, the desire is to right wrongs and show where injustices are hiding in plain sight. Whereas in the Disillusionment Stage, information was taken in, in this stage, the flow of information is now going outward. The Deconstruction has now begun to come full circle. Even though the person was angry at the Disillusionment Stage, now that anger has matured and will not go away easily. It will not be deterred by threats or counter-attacks. No amount of clergy panels devoted to talking about the Dangers of Social Justice will scare these Justice Seekers away.

Yes, anger is the common emotion at this Stage. But dogged determination is also there in equal measure. This is not necessarily a hot burning anger. There are times to laugh in the midst of it, and at this stage the pain of the past has died down enough to laugh occasionally.

But in this stage, one resolves to keep working until all the wrongs have been righted.

The Advocacy Stage

After a decade of working with women and men who had been sexually assaulted, groomed and controlled, and abused by pastors and church leaders, I discovered the worst situation of them all. This is the one investigation I have returned to over and over in my writing.

In the course of 10 months, we uncovered the actions of a Youth Evangelist who traveled throughout Canada and the United States molesting teen girls. During that time, 32 women came forward to reveal that Gordon Skitch had used his position of authority to manipulate them into having sex.

He had been dead for 15 years when we found this out. To me, that did not matter. We needed to reach out as far and wide as we could to find more victims. Because I was working with these victims, I got more training for doing trauma therapy with victims of sexual assault.

I read everything I could read on the subject. I taught lectures in churches and bible colleges about how to spot narcissistic offenders in the pulpit. This all took place from 1989 through 1994. I started to get calls from many victims who wanted to tell their stories. Churches called me to help them evaluate their church leaders to see how they should proceed. I met with police, ADA’s, legislators, social workers, Child protective services, and many others to determine what legally and ethically needed to be done

Since that time, I have counseled over 200 victims of assault by church leaders. I have been involved with almost 100 churches in an advisory role. I have personally disclosed a dozen times to police when offenders have made disclosures to me.

Just yesterday, I spoke to another pastor about how to proceed in turning in one of their leaders to the police after he assaulted his child.

Many days, I ask myself “how did I get into all of this?”

I think of people like Boz Tchividjian, Jimmy Hinton, and others who work with churches where abuse has happened. How are these advocates formed?

I look at how Marg Mowczko has devoted herself to doing in-depth studies of New Testament passages regarding Egalitarian understanding of male-female relationships in the church. She is an advocate who has excelled by being diligent to study and write widely. How does one come to use theology to advocate for better teaching?

I look at how Chrissy Stroop and Blake Chastain have written extensively about people leaving the Evangelical church, and I’m thankful they don’t back down even as they face constant criticism. How does a person realize they must devote themselves to a cause regardless of the emotional cost?

Advocates go way past the anger of the Justice Stage. If I had to guess, I would say that only 1 in a 100 people move past Justice to Advocacy. For every William Tyndale who kept translating the Bible into English even though he knew he could be burned at the stake, there are thousands cheering him on, yearning to read the Bible. For every Martin Luther boldly nailing the 95 theses to the Wittenberg Door, there were millions hoping to escape the hypocrisy of indulgences.

Are you called to be an advocate? It means devoting yourself usually to only one cause and never letting go of it, even if you grow weary. Very few will find the Advocacy Stage. But none of us would ever have grown disillusioned if someone hadn’t.

7 thoughts on “The Six Stages of Deconstruction

  1. This has possible been the most helpful thing I’ve read on deconstruction. I’m sure I’ll be referring back to it again and again!

  2. Wow. This is timely. I hope you don’t mind, but I’m going to be using this on my blog (with attribution, of course). This is good stuff.

  3. Excellent article! It described all I have gone through over the past 4 years to a tee! Thank you!

  4. This is literally the most helpful thing I’ve read about deconstruction in two years I’ve been deconstructing. There are so few resources. So few. You should consider writing a book! With your background in counseling, it would be invaluable.I’m seeing a trauma psychologist to help me, but he doesn’t understand evangelical culture since he’s never been religious. I need to educate him along the way! I’m going to share this with him!

Leave a Reply