To be honest, I don’t have a Norman Rockwell image in my head of what a church looks like any more. That image of a sublime country church where kind, loving people gather each Sunday morning was wiped from my consciousness a long time ago by, you guessed it, much time spent in the real deal. In the real world, church life doesn’t always go well for congregations or pastors. In other words, conflict happens. One such brouhaha in church life occurs when a once cherished pastor leaves the church as a result of conflict that reaches critical mass behind the scenes. It can be especially ugly when the pastor does not recognize, for whatever reason, his contribution to the split. When the breakup happens, the congregation can tend to divide into four camps: those who are angry because they feel the pastor was treated unjustly, those who are relieved that the pastor left because they experienced the pastor’s questionable behavior firsthand, those who use the event to find another church, thus avoiding the unpleasantness (in which case they are no longer part of the equation), and those who are bewildered as to what happened (often the largest group). All four groups can include people who feel wounded by the event.
One of the reasons why people permanently sour on the church has to do with the unfortunate tendency of congregations and church leaders to overlook the wounded who get hurt in conflicts between congregants and pastors. When a pastor leaves a church due to conflict reaching critical mass, there is often an outpouring of support for the pastor, which can be a healthy and proper response (but not always). That said, I wonder why we do little to offer support to our fellow congregants who were wounded in the melee, as well. The use of social media exacerbates this problem. Some people think nothing of jumping on Facebook to express their fawning support of a pastor who leaves a church due to excessive conflict, yet it seems like nary is any support forthcoming for the wounded who left the congregation as well as the wounded who remain in the congregation. Granted, we all have a Biblical mandate to forgive those who hurt us and to apologize and seek forgiveness when we hurt others. But a valid question remains: is there an unhealthy one-way street when it comes to forgiveness and healing in church culture today? An example will help answer that question.
Steve (not his real name) was a pastor on staff at Good Shepherd Church (not its real name) before Cindy and I became members. Apparently some of the good folks of Good Shepherd had treated Steve poorly, which eventually prompted him to resign and join the staff of another local church. We started attending Good Shepherd about the time they recruited a new senior pastor, long after Steve’s departure. Our new pastor eventually became aware that a few people in the church had mistreated Steve in the past. One day our new pastor asked the congregation to go to Steve’s new church during an evening service so we could apologize for hurting him and seek his forgiveness. It was a moving and healing experience to witness. Our new senior pastor simply became aware of an injustice and sought to make it right in accordance with Romans 14:19. Our pastor discerned that the church would struggle to move forward until we made amends with Steve. But what happens when a pastor’s actions or words hurts people in the church? Should the church expect an apology from the pastor? What happens to the wounded if no apology is forthcoming? Should those who were wounded turn their backs on the church forever and retreat to their darkened bedroom with a bottle of vodka and a book of teachings by Friedrich Nietzsche?
People naturally want to move forward after a bad experience. But after a major conflict in the church, I wonder if moving forward too quickly sends the unintended message to the wounded that their pain and disappointments are inconsequential and they should get over it and move on. Also my gut tells me that The Almighty isn’t too pleased when some in his flock are left to nurse their wounds as best they can after a significant conflict. We humans are complex beings. Some of us recover quickly while others require years to work through anger and disillusion following emotional or spiritual wounding, especially if the wounds come from a spiritual leader for whom we had great admiration. When our wounds run deep and raw, God’s tender spirit often does not rush us through the healing process. You see, healing requires a malleable heart, which, like it or not, can require a lengthy season of crushing and softening on the road to healing. And even those who weren’t directly hurt in a church conflict may have their own issues to work through in its aftermath. All of this takes time to heal. It takes time spent in the Gospels or in the books of wisdom like Proverbs and Psalms. It takes prayer, patience, and time with other men and women of God who have the wisdom to navigate turbulent times in the church. A softer heart filled with God’s love can indeed emerge from the aftermath of conflict in the church.
Unfortunately, untended wounds can fester and rob us of contentment and spiritual growth. Such situations are stressful and destabilizing in a church. The best medicine is to forgive. And forgive. And forgive again. But we must also acknowledge our culpability, if any. Not sure if you have any flaws that made you culpable in the conflict? With a sincere heart, ask God and he will be glad to show you (and don’t I know it). And if you know brothers or sisters who were wounded in a church embroiled in conflict, encourage them to not give up on God, or the church, and what God wants to show them. Perhaps it would be wise of church leaders to provide trusted and credible professional or spiritual counselors to aid the wounded in the aftermath of a church conflict with the pastor. Yet ultimately our source of healing comes from God and the people in the pews who love us as we love them.
Metaphorically, I believe God wants the people of his church to experience the divine joy of singing, dancing, and making music in harmony. It can happen. Finally, pray that God will give our church leaders the vision, time, wisdom, and resources for healing the wounded that come under their care. This will help people grow in deeper faith that Jesus is real because the response of the church is very different from a world that chews people up and spits them out like rubbish.