Sounds Like a Personal Problem

Brice Laughrey
8 min readApr 20, 2024

Original photo by Min An

There’s a posture that’s common among White Evangelical Christians, one with which I grew up and learned early. It’s essentially the theological and philosophical equivalent of the phrase “sounds like a personal problem.” It’s a posture of orienting ourselves in such a way that we can see the problem without being able to trace it back to ourselves.

This posture goes perfectly with the defensive self-righteousness of many Evangelical theologies and seems to naturally blossom into victim blaming, gaslighting, narcissism, and all kinds of toxicity. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until I started trying to advocate for marginalized congregants that I learned to see it for what it is.

Welcomed But Not Welcome

One Sunday morning after worship, a woman told me she and her family would be finding a new congregation to worship with. She said this hesitantly, and I could tell it wasn’t an easy decision nor a rash one. I asked if she would tell me more, and we stepped away from the crowds for some privacy.

She explained to me, at times through tears, that she liked worshiping with us and that she believed the congregation was filled with good people. She and her family were thankful for the kind welcome they always received, even when they first started attending. However, there were two things that were becoming extremely difficult for her.

  1. The men in leadership would often greet and speak with her husband without acknowledging her, even when she and her husband were right next to each other. Sometimes just a quick nod or hello but nothing like actual attentiveness. It made her feel marginalized as a congregant, like she was less important than her husband, even though she and her kids were there more often than he was.
  2. Because of many off-hand remarks from many of the core members of the congregation, she felt it wasn’t safe for her to express herself authentically during worship. She felt that many members would only continue to be accepting of her so long as she conformed to their expectations of “Christian decorum.”

In short, she felt tolerated, at best, and parented, at worst, and she wasn’t wrong. She was welcomed but not welcome. We were welcoming but not hospitable.

I had been feeling similar things for years, but I had been taught to ignore those feelings. I’d been taught that it was me, that I was the one who refused to conform. I thought, “Of course it’s me; the Church teaches what’s right and good, and if I don’t conform, of course I’ll experience inner turmoil. I’m the sinner in need of transformation, and these feelings are the ‘old self’ resisting the Spirit.”

Talking with this woman about her feelings and struggles, though, I realized something: the things I was telling myself to rationalize away my thoughts and feelings were things I would never say to this woman. Here was someone who desperately wanted to be part of the community, so much so that she had been suppressing her authentic self so as not to risk exclusion. She was showing up week after week, and instead of the relief of communal worship and the laying down of her burdens, she was compounding her struggles with fear of rejection and shame.

This wasn’t what we were supposed to be about. We were a people continually talking about being welcoming and open for anyone who wanted to come. The juxtaposition of this woman’s struggles and the smiling, welcoming faces and words of that congregation was unsettling in so many ways. Surely, the congregation would see that, too, and make a change. Surely, we could make the transition from merely welcoming this woman to extending true hospitality.

Sounds Like a Personal Problem

The congregational meeting didn’t go well. Much like I’m doing here, I kept the woman anonymous. I don’t think I even mentioned that it was a woman; I simply said that one of our members told me they were experiencing these things. We had a problem, and this person wasn’t the only one experiencing it, and we needed to address it.

Where I had hoped for questions, I got excuses. Where I had hoped for conversation, I got defensiveness. The meeting quickly devolved into people telling me what that person needs to do to fix the problem. No one wanted to address what the congregation could do to fix the problem.

“We’re very welcoming; we’ve never not been welcoming to anyone who wants to come.” I.e. we smile and say good morning to everyone who walks in; that’s proof of how welcoming we are.

“Who is this person? They need to come forward and talk with us.” Let’s out the person who was already too scared to speak publicly. Let’s treat it like a one-off issue rather than a systemic one.

“It’s not our fault if they don’t feel comfortable expressing themselves during worship.” Meanwhile, some of those same members threw fits when we simply changed the order of worship or sang songs in a way they weren’t familiar with. Clearly, this person has no reason to feel like she’d be ostracized for clapping or raising her hands.

Unfortunately, I was too inexperienced to navigate the situation. I think I was too subtle in what I was trying to do, and the only thing we accomplished was agreeing that we could be more mindful about hospitality. I failed to discern that I was merely placating many of the members by not pushing as directly as I could have. We ended the meeting agreeing that “hospitality” should be a focus without defining exactly how we would do that or what our working definition of hospitality would be.

I tried futilely over the next several years to steer the course of the community toward a different posture, but it never worked. We never got past that defensiveness. We never managed to take responsibility for our part in marginalizing our own congregants. Instead, we continued to make excuses and to place the burden of transformation on the shoulders of others.

It was a personal problem for those who didn’t feel welcome. It clearly wasn’t our fault. We were so righteous and God-fearing. We were devout in our study and interpretation of “the Word of God.” After all, we attended worship service every week, sometimes twice a week, and Bible studies! We were the Church of Christ! Surely, it was their fault for not accepting the way of God; their discomfort was proof of their sin.

That woman stayed, and she watched as time and again the congregation rationalized how to ignore the needs of others. She watched as we marginalized people of color, women, and children. She watched as week after week people smiled and waved and nodded during the sermons only to walk away rationalizing a continued lack of empathy.

The congregation never did recover from that. It took three or four more years, but it all eventually came to a head. The congregation was split over so many things, and I was eventually fired by a narrow vote. Hospitality was never made manifest in that community, and many people suffered for it.

Safe Spaces and Anti-Shame

I talk with people often about creating safe spaces and being anti-shame, because I think they’re part of what went wrong with that situation. We failed to create a safe space for people to worship and share life, and part of why we failed is because we never cultivated a posture of being anti-shame. Shame is so central to many Evangelical theologies that being anti-shame is often perceived as subverting Christianity. But, without being anti-shame, people fall into the trap of needing to justify their own limitations.

When something is too shameful for a person to admit, like not having the capacity to hold space for someone or to share someone’s burdens, that person may start gaslighting or victim blaming to make it seem as though their limitation is actually someone else’s. For example:

  • If someone distances themself from us because they feel unsafe, we might say, “I was here; you could’ve come to me at any time.” This blames the marginalized person for not accepting harm as an inevitable price for relationships — no acknowledgement of our complicity in creating an unsafe space.
  • If someone articulates an experience different from our expectations: “You must not have been paying attention, because we’re not like that.” This invalidates the other person’s experience without acknowledging our own involvement.
  • If someone has a need but being attentive to that need makes us uncomfortable: “I’m just going to do it my way; you know this is how I am, and I mean well.” I see this a lot during times of grief, where people are uncomfortable with feeling helpless to “make things better,” so they ignore what someone has asked for and just try to do it their own way. There’s no acknowledgment of our own discomfort with feeling helpless or even just acknowledging that we do feel helpless.

For people who have grown up in White Evangelicalism, it’s more than just being uncomfortable. There’s shame attached to acknowledging any of these things, because all imperfection is associated with sin and unrighteousness. I see those sentiments carry over even as people deconstruct their theologies. They never take the time to learn to be anti-shame. That is, they learn to reject toxic theologies without learning to show themselves compassion. So, when their limitations harm others, rather than admitting those limitations, they fall back on the same excuses about how it’s everyone else’s responsibility but theirs.

Systemic Injustice and Internalized Prejudices

Another part of how we can resist these sorts of self-justifications is by accepting that systemic injustice and internalized prejudices exist, especially if we’re invested in fundamentalist Christianity. We’re as much a part of the system as anyone else. That makes us complicit, and until we’re willing to accept that, we can’t begin to discern how we might resist the toxic systems that are marginalizing our neighbors. Odds are, we’re being harmed by those same systems.

Moreover, if we’ve been raised in those systems or indoctrinated into those systems, we’ve probably internalized a lot of the harmful controls that are set in place, like how I rationalized my discomfort by shaming myself. I had internalized the prejudices put in place to marginalize and oppress others to the point that I was actively participating in my own oppression.

This is why deconstruction often leads to rejecting entire systems or theologies. We can’t just reject bits and pieces of a theology or a religious system if the system itself is designed to oppress. This often leaves Christians wondering if they can even remain associated with Christianity, as a whole. I can write more about that in another post; my point, here, is that it’s rarely ever enough to simply disagree about specific aspects of an expression of Christianity. Often, we have to look honestly at the entire expression, theology, or institution.

It can seem overwhelming, at times, to continually challenge the systems we’re in, confront internalized prejudices, practice self-compassion and being anti-shame, and try to cultivate safe spaces, especially if we haven’t freed ourselves of toxic environments. Hence, the temptation to fall back on self-rationalizing; “sounds like a personal problem.” If we want to be transformed into the likeness of the Christ, however, we need to build our stamina for this difficult work, because it’s not someone else’s personal problem. The burdens of being human are the concern of all humanity.

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Originally published at on April 20, 2024.



Brice Laughrey

Owner of Breaking Bread Theology and co-founder of 1310 Ministries. Currently living and worshiping in Las Vegas, NV.