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What Is Spiritual Bypassing and What Should Church Leaders Know About It

If you are a church leader then chances are you have at one time or another practiced spiritual bypassing, whether you are aware of it or not. What is spiritual bypassing? It is a term coined by prominent psychotherapist and author, John Welwood. He defined spiritual bypassing as using “spiritual ideas, words and practices to sidestep or avoid personal, emotional ‘unfinished business,’ to shore up a shaky sense of self, or to belittle basic needs, feelings, psychological wounds and developmental tasks.” Welwood says that we are spiritually bypassing when we use spiritual practices to rationalize and to rise above the raw and messy side of our humanness, before we have fully faced and made peace with it. Welwood further states that trying to move beyond our psychological and emotional issues by sidestepping them is dangerous.

In my experience, spiritual bypassing is an occupational hazard of the professional minister if not all Christians. We are prone to use spiritual words and quote familiar Bible passages to avoid uncomfortable feelings, difficult conversations, and unresolved life and relationship situations. In other words, using spiritual words and practices to cover up problems can become an easy way out, as opposed to working on the actual issues and their challenges.

Some Examples of Spiritual Bypassing

Spiritual bypassing is complex and has many expressions. It can sometimes be difficult to spot because it is often very subtle and because it involves using familiar catch phrases and pat answers. And, though these responses are heartfelt and may provide some temporary comfort, they can promote denial and detachment and fail to address real life human issues. Here are some examples frequently used by Christians:

  • Following the death of a loved one, people tell surviving relatives that the deceased is “in a better place.”
  • When tragedies and troubles occur, we say that it was “all part of God’s plan.”
  • When difficult circumstances or challenging relationships arise we say “this too will pass,” or “all things work together for good…..”
  • When there is disagreement we say “let’s pray about it” rather than address the real issues.
  • A woman is angry and upset about something that someone else has said or done. When she tries to share her feelings, her friends tell her to stop whining and being so negative.
  • A co-worker regularly crosses boundaries and behaves in ways that are hurtful to other team members. Rather than confront this behavior, organizational leaders and those who have been harmed feel that the “Christian thing to do” is to repress their anger and remain overly tolerant.

Some Reasons For Spiritual Bypassing

At its root, spiritual bypassing is a coping mechanism that is used in a variety of ways.

As A Defense Mechanism: Spiritual bypassing acts as a form of defense mechanism. It protects us from things that seem too painful to deal with, but this protection comes at a cost. Dismissing an issue or an emotion can make stress worse in the long-term and make the unresolved problem more difficult to solve later on.

As a Form of Avoidance: People often engage in spiritual bypassing when they think that they should not be feeling what they are feeling. Anger, jealousy, disgust, and annoyance can leave people feeling ashamed. Rather than deal with the negative feelings—and any resulting reactions to those feelings—spiritual bypassing becomes a tool for avoidance.

As a Way of Justifying Suffering: It is often difficult to know what to say to people in times of suffering so we resort to pat answers such as “it’s that way for a reason,” “it’s as God intended,” or “you will now be better equipped to help others who are suffering.” When we try and explain away suffering with trite phrases we avoid addressing realities of the situation and the emotions people are experiencing. And even worse, at times such phrases let people off the hook for taking any responsibility for bad decisions, because according to such explanations, these things are natural, unchangeable, or divinely caused.

As a Way of Not Having to Take Action: Spiritual bypassing can also sometimes involve participating in spiritual activities in order to get around having to take any meaningful action. For example, instead of talking about a conflict, you’ll “pray for the person.” Instead of confronting your discomfort, you’ll recite a favorite Bible verse. The problem does not lie in engaging in these spiritual practices. The problem is that you’re using them as a shield and as an excuse for not taking concrete action rather than for truly spiritual reasons. The difference lies in the intentions behind those actions.

A Final Word About Spiritual Bypassing and Spirituality

Spiritual bypassing isn’t always a bad thing. In times of severe distress, it can be a helpful way to temporarily relieve frustration or anxiety. Spiritual bypassing may act as a way to protect the self from things that we find too threatening to confront in the moment. However, researchers suggest that it can be damaging when used as a long-term strategy to suppress feelings and to not address problems. Further, it is important to not confuse faith and spirituality with spiritual bypassing. Faith and spirituality can be positive forces in one’s life. Faith and spiritual practices and disciplines can, among other things, restore hope, help cope with distress, provide comfort and support, and offer meaning to life.






Posted on July 20, 2021

Jim Baker

Jim is a Church Organizational Leadership and Management Coach, Consultant and Trainer. Throughout his career Jim has demonstrated a passion for showing Pastors and Ministers how to use organizational tools for church and personal growth and health.

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“For I may be absent in body, but I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see how well ordered you are and the strength of your faith in Christ.” Colossians 2:5