Is it Possible to Not be Hurt by the Church?

  • Written By 
  • Jonathan Swindal

A month or so ago a friend of mine posed this question on Facebook: “Is it possible for a church to completely avoid hurting someone? If so, how?”

 

As you can imagine, smack dab in the middle of “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” season the post elicited well over 100 comments, many of which were profound.

Interestingly, only one person in the whole thread responded “yes.”

Many of you reading this are employed by churches and have given your lives ministry in the local church.

There’s much more that should be said about church hurt than I can offer here in a blog – like distinguishing between hurting and harming, talking about individuals who harm and the systems that perpetuate and enable harm, etc. – but I’d like to attempt diagnosing a few subtle, yet pervasive ideas and behaviors that perpetuate harm and offer a few thoughts toward solutions.

So if the 99 commenters were right…

 

…and I think they are, Lord bless the single outlier – that it is improbable that a church fellowship will exist and not hurt people, what can and should we as pastors and leaders be doing to minimize the hurt and offer ministry that is life-giving?

How can we truly model & embody being communities of healing and restoration? 

It would do us well to remember that, as Christ-followers, when we bump up against the pain in others our primary response should be compassion without judgment.

 

Quite often we compare and minimize the pain of those whom we think are exaggerating or are the cause of their own pain. If you stub your toe and I think it’s silly, telling you to “man up” or that it’s “not that serious of an injury” won’t make your pain go away.

We’ve got to learn that people’s pain is painful to them, no matter how trivial to us.

When you’re attempting to pastor someone while internally thinking “they should just get over it” it will be very difficult to be a healing presence to them. If we don’t model compassion and attentive listening then how can we expect the people within our congregations to live that way one with another? From experience, it won’t happen.

So how might we help minimize the harm caused by churches in the first place?

 

One way is to relinquish the desire to control and fix people and commit to ministry that is not coercive or manipulative in any way.

Our vocation calls us to be spiritual guides, shepherds, and protectors of those whom the Lord has entrusted to our communities. So much harm in the church occurs when spiritual leaders understand their vocation as fixing people rather than guiding people.

To avoid the risk of sounding like a know-it-all I’m going to draw from Saint Eugene (Peterson) who claims, “the pastor’s [primary] responsibility is to keep the community attentive to God.”

See, I’m not making this up! Our job is to care for people as we gently turn their eyes toward God, not change them or use them.

A careful look at the ministry of Jesus reveals this model of pastoral ministry.

 

He would teach, train, and correct when necessary – which was often – but he was never coercive or controlling. This is much tougher than it sounds, and it sounds quite tough. Certainly, we all know people who have been blatantly abused by church leaders. But many of the wounds people suffer at the hands of church leaders are more subtle.

Pastors are accustomed to people coming to them for counsel and advice. When they do, are we guiding their attention God-ward or are we telling them what we want them to do?

Occasionally those two things will align, but we likely overestimate how often.

More specifically, when people in the ministry you lead come and share that life is difficult and they need to take a step back, what are your impulses and reactions?

Do you let them go, but ever-so-slightly shame them for doing so? Do you *say* the right things, but with your body language make it clear you’re disappointed? Or do you thank them, bless them, and assure them that there’s a place for them in the community no matter what they’re able to contribute in this season? These are the subtleties that reveal what a church’s culture actually is.

Directing people to God requires great patience and the continual slaying of the ego.

 

Impatience and unchecked ego are two of the great perpetrators among church leaders.

I’m not casting stones; I’m certain that I have given in to both more often than I’m aware. How many people have been harmed because of our inability to be with people who are “in-process” without trying to fix them? How do we handle people who are inconvenient for the growth of our ministries? And how many more have been wounded by pastors with unhealthy egos draped in too much authority without accountability?

The fruit of impatience and an unchecked ego tends to manifest in manipulation, taking things into our own hands.

And nothing is more dangerous than someone who has taken things into their own hands while convinced they’re doing the Lord’s work.

To continue the previously mentioned “stubbed toe” metaphor…

 

a stubbed toe is legitimately painful but it should heal quickly with the right care in the right environment. It must be said that pastors are not equipped to handle many kinds of spiritual and emotional wounds. Good guidance would be referring people to professionals who are trained to deal with trauma, grief, etc.

But here is a key question: how can our churches be environments that foster healing rather than produce infection?

These are the kinds of questions that, as pastors and lay leaders we must concern ourselves with. Humility, patience, prayer, stability, and the ability to listen well are integral to a Christ-like healing environment that resists impatience and the triumph of ego.

Here I want to offer 3 simple and very practical suggestions that can help us curate healthy environments.

 

These are not sure-fire fixes, but if you are truly open to the conviction and correction of the Spirit these tools can create safety for those most vulnerable under your care.

1) Accountability

Create simple ways for people to share feedback on the areas of ministry that you lead. Press them for honesty. This may require, for a while, offering anonymity until there is enough trust built and it’s no longer necessary. It could be a Google form that you send out quarterly with a few blunt, yet open-ended questions that will give people a voice. If you do and no one responds that may indicate people don’t feel safe. Or it may be that you’re establishing a new culture, which takes time and requires reminding them of the purpose regularly.

2) Collaboration

Invite people into your decision-making processes. Set planning, team meals or outings, devo’s and prayer at rehearsals, etc. all provide opportunities for others to speak into the ministry. The more people are invited to participate – and it must not be token – the more they will feel free to share when things bother them or are hurtful to them because they’re invested.

3) Community

Encourage your team to rely on one another. As the leader, don’t do everything for everyone all the time; if you do you’re inadvertently creating a culture where you’re needed. And nothing puffs up the ego like being needed all the time… by everyone.

There is no silver bullet for our churches to be a prophetic witness to Christ and His Kingdom that they are called to be.

 

But if we’re honest about our flaws, patient with people, and prayerful about our character and the culture it produces then I’m confident that the Spirit will continue to make us into communities of wounded healers. 

 

 

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