A man in an authority position with a track record of abuse and anger management issues has vowed to change. He told his community that he would be a different kind of leader from here on out.
That’s an important step for anyone who has made mistakes. We can all relate to a guy who wants to change. We all have our baggage that we’re trying to unpack, sort out, and leave behind.
I don’t have anything to say about any one person in particular. I just think this situation is a great time to talk about forgiveness and stupidity. When an authority figure apologizes, we can fall into two extremes: skepticism and naivety. The skeptics won’t believe anything that person says, while the naive take everything said at face value and leave themselves vulnerable to be hurt or disappointed in the future.
This could apply to a pastor, but it could also apply to parents, politicians, bosses, and any other authority figure who wounds others and tries to make a change.
For starters, we are free to even forgive people who don’t understand the harm they have caused. We don’t have to wait for an apology, since we can forgive and move on. However, whether or not that figure has apologized, we shouldn’t move on with complete disdain or belief in what the leader has promised.
Forgiveness doesn’t hinge on a leader’s authenticity or future actions, and that’s why it’s so critical to stay alert and engaged in a leader’s restoration process. Here are some things I’ve been considering lately when it comes to restoring an abusive or troubling leader:
Did the Authority Figure Actually Apologize?
There’s a world of difference between an authority figure who makes a mistake and wants to avoid making the same mistake because it caused real harm to his reputation and an authority figure who feels genuine empathy for the harm he has caused to others through his mistakes. The latter has moved beyond his own ego, accepting that it’s not all about him.
It’s pretty awful to pick apart someone’s apology in order to determine whether it’s worthy of acceptance, however, we all know that some carefully chosen words can sound apologetic without actually acknowledging culpability. An apology owns up, and if a leader is dancing around the facts with phrases like, “I’m sorry if you were hurt” or “I’m sorry you took my words that way,” we have every reason to demand a real apology that “mans up” to the harm caused.
Does the Authority Figure Have Set Patterns and Habits?
It’s great to see an authority figure repent of wrong-doing, but even if he’s sincere, that doesn’t mean he’ll be capable of making the changes he desires. Habits and patterns related to control, abuse, and manipulation are tough to leave behind.
When an authority figure with a history of abuse and anger management issues repents, we should recognize that act for what it is: Apologizing for sin is only an apology. Nothing more. Nothing less. It does not promise different actions.
Perhaps we have some residual Calvinism impacting our relationships: In order to have a healthy relationship, one must actually treat people in healthy ways.
Declaring that things will be different does not make them automatically so.
That declaration is an important first step, but there’s a whole other set of steps that follow–the steps where a leader actually lives differently. Repentance goes way behond a declaration.
Abusive Authority Figures Do Not Get a Free Pass
There is forgiveness, but forgiveness does not grant authority figures a free pass to jump right back into their relationships as if nothing has happened. The victims of abusive leaders need time and space to heal even after forgiving these figures.
Restoration is not a free pass that restores every relationship to where it used to be immediately. Some damage to relationships may never be repaired.
When people have been hurt and abused, they will need time to be restored as well. The last thing they need is an uppity “repentant” leader screaming in their faces and demanding total and immediate restoration. In fact, the “repentant” leaders sometimes accuse their former victims of withholding grace, completely overlooking the fact that cleaning up their messes may actually take time.
In addition, we’re talking about a restoration process in the first place because abusive leaders have to overcome their habits and patterns that caused all of the problems in the first place. There needs to be counseling, prayer, accountability, and lots of frank conversations in order to overcome these ingrained habits.
Hope Doesn’t Turn Off Our Brains
If I hear that a leader with a history of abuse wants to make any kind of positive change, I’m 100% for it. That’s the very thing we should all hope for. We’re supposed to hope for the best in everyone after all. Heck, we’re even supposed to love our enemies, and one of the worst enemies in my immediate context is a church leader who hurts people and alienates them from the love of Jesus.
Hope is precious and wonderful. We should use it, but we shouldn’t waste it on people who deep down either have no intention of changing or possess no capacity for change.
Let’s keep our eyes open and minds engaged every time an abusive leader confesses and repents. We certainly hope and pray for health and healing for all parties involved, but neither will happen if we have unreasonable expectations for a statement of intent.
May God give us the grace to forgive, the wisdom to protect ourselves, and the patience to see complete restoration for our leaders and our communities.