Author, Ministry Founder Natalie Runion Talks Staying in Church after Being Hurt

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While walking her dog one morning in 2019, author and Raised to Stay ministry founder Natalie Runion felt God calling her to write a book. At the time, Runion was disillusioned with the church and questioning if she should stay.

Like many Christians, Runion knew that she loved Jesus but was at an impasse with her local church. In her new best-selling book, Why I Stayed, Runion unpacks the reasons she wanted to leave the church and her decision to ultimately stay.

Her hope is that by sharing her story, she can encourage other believers not to walk away from their local churches.

“If I’ve wanted to quit, there have to be hundreds of people who have wanted to quit,” Runion told Christian Headlines in a recent interview. She asserted that by deciding to stay, one just may realize that God has something in store for them that He doesn’t want his children to miss out on.

Read the full interview below.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Christian Headlines: How did the writing Raised to Stay affect you?

Natalie Runion:  It helped me heal. I was going through a lifetime of being a pastor’s kid and then going into full-time ministry. I had to heal from my own childhood trauma and some of the adult trauma that I’d seen. The book was really an opportunity for me to create a community of like-minded Christians who said, “Hey, we don’t want to quit, but we’re also kind of tired of getting hurt all the time.”

It allowed me to be able to go back and see where God had been faithful to me and my family, even in hard situations and under narcissistic leadership and church abuse.

CH: You start the book off by talking about how your dad was suddenly let go from the church. What did your dad think of the book?

Runion: He was the first to read it. He got the first copy and read it in one night. He was visiting my sister, and he kept texting me. He was just so proud. He also felt like I told it in a way that kept people falling in love with Jesus in the church, not pushing them away. The idea of loving people above all else was in his heart. And that’s still his mantra, to love people well, and God will do the rest.

CH: How did your dad bounce back from being hurt by the church that traumatized you?

Runion: I can remember those mornings fresh off that church hurt and being let go from that church. I’d never seen my dad look for a job before. Suddenly, he’s now circling jobs in the newspaper, and I am embarrassed. My identity as a pastor’s kid has been stripped of me and I’m thinking that he’s going to lose his mind because he’s not a pastor anymore. But my dad did something so honoring and so noble. He went right into the workforce, and he got a job as a car dealer. He started selling people cars, and they came to him because they trusted Pastor Ron. He really modeled to me what it looked like to pastor in positions that weren’t in the church. He did that for many years before getting called to take another church. From there, you’ll read in the book that he had a heart attack a few years later.

CH: What did he do in his last ministry assignment?

Runion: His bounce back was to always go back to the people. So, he went to a little community college, got a certificate in Autism spectrum, and ended up going into local schools and working with young male students who had autism. That’s how he has retired, by being in the local schools. I will tell you this, when we moved to Colorado, and I took a job with a New Life Church, my parents came with us and lived with us. New Life is known for helping pastors heal. Pastor Brady Boyd is one of the best pastors for pastors. I remember looking around the staff meeting and thinking my dad should be here. I’m getting this redemptive experience, and my dad should be here. About three years after we got to Colorado, they contacted my dad. I was not a part of this, it wasn’t because I was on staff, but they heard he was very gifted with students with autism. My dad got to have one more stent being a pastor in a church as the autism spectrum special needs pastor. So, we got to see my dad go full circle from being an outcast and rejected. It felt good to be welcomed back in and have a season of healing. So, God is good when we don’t quit. God will make all things new.

CH: After being hurt by the church, how did you decide not to walk away?

Runion: Raise to stay started because I wanted to quit. I was on a walk with my dog in 2019, and I was tired. I just said, Lord, you know what? These are your people. This is going to be the rest of my life, fending off crazy Christians. I would rather go back into the world and deal with crazy world people because we know they’re crazy, but Christians are crazy. We’re our own different kind of crazy. I was just done, and I think that the way we don’t quit is by confessing. We want to quit by not gaslighting ourselves. Looking at ourselves in the mirror and saying, this is hard. I cannot do it in my flesh.

And the Lord dealt with me on that walk. He said, you know, you’ve been trying to fight your own battle since you were a little girl. You’ve never really let me fight for you. If you would just let me fight for you, I’ll deliver you from your Egypt, just like I did the people in that Old Testament. But if you want to get to the Promised Land, you must tell me you want me to get you there and stop fighting for yourself.

It really was a season of releasing all my expectations, disappointments, and frustrations and saying, God, “I know you called me to do something mighty for your kingdom. I want to quit, but I believe more so in the thing that you’re asking me to do. So, can you work with me here?”

And it was really when I came to the end of myself that He began. And that’s what I tell people. We learned to stay by coming to the end of our rope, which I believe in the beatitudes in the message version, it says, “Blessed are those at the end of their rope.” That’s kind of where I was when Raised to Stay came into play.

CH: What do you love about the local church?

Runion: First, I’m going to be really honest. I love potlucks. I love food. I love the way Christian Church people cook. I think a lot of why I went back to the church was because I love potlucks. I love funerals and weddings. Like when the people of God are all together. That’s my funny answer. That’s my worldly answer, but there’s something holy and nostalgic about that answer. That is when the family of God is truly the family of God, and in all our dysfunction, all our humanity, and all of our fleshiness, that really, we are God’s idea. Anything that’s God’s idea is a good idea. I love the church because I know that when I walk in, anything can happen. When a bunch of believers come in one accord, it says where there’s unity, it commands the Lord’s blessing and not to forsake the gathering of the saints.

When we come together, blind people can see, deaf people can hear, people can get out of wheelchairs and run. Demons will be told they need to hit the road. And I can say that cause I’ve seen it with my own eyes. So, when we come into the church building, it’s not about how hot the coffee is. It’s not about how great the sound is. It doesn’t matter if you or we have a celebrity preacher or not. It is about coming with this expectation, but above that, in anticipation that God is going to do something so incredible that I don’t want to miss it. And that is what I love, is just the unexpected goodness of our God. Every Sunday that I walk in, are there broken people? Yes. Are there mean people? Yes. Is there probably a Judas in the room? Absolutely. But I believe that the Jesus that I’m going to encounter is greater than all those risks.

CH: What can church leaders do to help people who want to leave?

Runion: We must be okay with people asking questions and wrestling. When we have congregants or sheep come to us and question, confess some hurt, or confess some concerns, our first defense is to defend the church. The first thing that a leader does is try to convince that person that they’re fine. That’s called gaslighting. What we must realize is that if we’re going to keep our sheep, we must be willing to go after the one that’s kind of stuck in a fence or got his leg stuck in a hole.  We can’t rush those sheep back. We can’t be in such a hurry just to make sure our family looks perfect that we’re not willing to have these hard conversations to find out what we’re doing wrong that could be hurting them or confusing them. Honestly, I just think church leaders are so busy with things like butts, budgets, and buildings that we forget that our main priority is the people under our roof. So, I don’t blame church leaders who don’t know what’s going on. When you do know what’s going on, listening is a beautiful ministry.

CH: Why do you think some Christians are afraid to hear about people wanting to leave the church?

Runion: We, as a church, don’t know how to bear a burden, but we know how to pick up an offense, right? Yeah. We spend all this time being so offended and picking up offenses that we forget that we’re called to bear one another’s burdens and not bear one another’s offenses. So, the church shies away from these hard conversations, I think, for several reasons.

Number one, we don’t have enough staff. We don’t have enough people who can help walk people through things.

Number two, our pastors are so busy writing books and keeping up social media and doing things that they pawn these hard conversations off to leaders who aren’t prepared to have those conversations. And finally, one reason I think we’re having a problem right now is because pastors are posing as counselors and pastoral care and clinical counseling are not the same thing.

CH: You say that every church should do two things to be effective in dealing with people. What are those two things?

Runion: I believe every church needs to have two things. An HR representative and a Christian counselor licensed within that state who can help people have these hard conversations that pastors are not equipped for.

CH: Did you say everything that you wanted to say in this book?

Runion: I think I said what needed to be said for book one. I hit send, and I felt the weight of writing a book kind of lift. But then I felt the immediate spiritual weight of the words that I had just pushed into the atmosphere, knowing that when I get to heaven, I will be held accountable for everything said and unsaid. I think for content creators, we forget there’s a weight to what we’ve been asked to carry.

Photo courtesy: ©Getty Images/Kadirdemir

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