A few years ago I attended a church that was on the brink of closing down. A previous pastor had left the church in a difficult situation that he’d successfully hidden until it was nearly too late. I was heart sick over the thought of losing our church.
Where would we go if it closed? Would we lose touch with all of our friends?
I really liked our pastor and the simple liturgy they used each Sunday with a focus on communion. They had a lot of great ministry partnerships with groups outside the church. I felt like I was surrounded by people who were on the same page with me.
This was the church where I began to heal from my previous wounds and missteps from evangelicalism in the past, and I hated the thought of losing it.
As I look back at my attachment to that church, I’m both nostalgic and uneasy. Is our attachment to our churches and our leaders part of the problem today? Is our first instinct to preserve our communities even in the midst of scandal?
In following up on my previous post about evangelicals’ permissive culture toward sex abuse, author Mary Demuth sent some news stories my way that show we still have a long way to go in protecting women and children rather than our denominations and churches. (Trigger warning below for a wide variety of sex abuse crimes.)
This isn’t old news. This stuff keeps happening over and over and over again. And the fact that they continue makes me wonder if our first instinct is often to protect our churches rather than the people who are abused. Here’s a round up of just a few recent stories:
A Roman Catholic Diocese had hidden potentially damning images collected from a priest’s computer and then fired the whistleblower.
One blogger documents several cases where churches have protected their pastors from prosecution after molesting minors.
The president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary encouraged churches to keep their affairs private and to avoid reporting potential crimes to the local news media or legal authorities.
What if saving our faith communities has replaced the call to save people?
If our leaders have caused damage, there’s no doubt that our communities could be at risk. They could be legally liable. They could face court cases. They could go bankrupt.
And so a trade is made in some cases.
It’s much easier to sacrifice a few wounded people than deal with the toxic infections in a faith community.
However, there’s one big thing that is overlooked in the situations above: a church with abuse or a culture of abuse is already falling apart.
I think I know how the people in these communities feel.
Speaking for myself, I personally struggle to confront my own issues. It’s hard to call my sins out, to put real, powerful words to the sources of my shame. In addition, I don’t want to disrupt a place where I’ve found friendships. However, I end up only perpetuating a charade where I never truly address my problems, take upon myself the needs of those suffering in my midst, or make it possible to heal.
Personal confession is the only way to heal and move forward in wholeness. Pretending that I don’t have problems to confess and deal with only pushes back the date of my break down. At a certain point it’s impossible to keep running.
The same goes for our communities.
When the pastor of my previous church announced one Sunday that the church would be able to stay together, he also took a bold and important step: he told the truth. It was bracing to hear a pastor speak so openly about past failures (I also want to make it clear that the past failures were not illegal or involving abuse that required contacting the police).
Our pastor spoke frankly about the ways the leadership and members of the congregation had failed. He recognized that hiding past failures would never create an environment where growth and healing can take place.
Past pain and abuses will destroy community without honest confrontation.
I’m grateful that I got to spend some time in that church. With the failures of the past in mind, our leaders set a new course with greater accountability and transparency. They brought themselves under greater accountability, created a new culture, and essentially planted a new church in many ways.
It wasn’t easy. It took years to iron things out. Sometimes people leveled accusations or left the church. However, I saw life emerge from a difficult situation. I saw the people of God process difficult realities from the past even if confronting them meant they could risk losing their church.
In a sense, they did lose their church. The church of the past was gone, but once we faced what needed to change, we found hope in the new things God could do with people who have been healed.
We all fear the unknown, but the fear of the unknown should never prevent us from pursuing healing and safety in our communities.
Abuse or indiscretions among church leaders are significant wounds that threaten our communities in multiple ways. However, if we want to preserve our communities, we need to rethink what “preserving” means. Moving forward with true confrontation and healing demands confronting our real failures and making things right with those who have been wounded.
Anything less just assures we’ll limp along, certain to dramatically fall one day soon. Worse yet, we may never rise again.