This month we approached Craig Vernall, our Baptist National Leader, to reflect on hurt in church life. Craig sometimes has to get involved with the fallout when things go wrong in our churches. He shares some of his learnings and reflects on this sensitive subject here.
Maybe it’s because church promises so much: A place where Jesus is preached, hopes and prayers are valued, relationships are deep and rich... all this seems like a little bit of heaven on earth and creates an environment where we become open and vulnerable. Then wham! The ideal is broken. Someone disagrees with you strongly and comments are taken personally, another jumps to your defence and takes on the offence. Then a bit of history raises its head of where someone has done something similar. People take sides, lines are drawn, and a feud has begun. The summary becomes... “The church has hurt people...again.”
Do you know anyone who has been hurt by someone or something in church? If you ask them about church attendance, a familiar story emerges of how the church has hurt them. Because of this, there is a lack of church participation. There might still be a belief in Jesus, but even as they share this, you can feel the strain in their voice and see the pain in their eyes. Yes, they have been hurt and it still hurts.
The following article attempts to address some of the issues surrounding the hurt that results from commonplace interpersonal conflict. I’m not seeking to address the issues of sexual abuse, physical abuse, or spiritual abuse. These important subjects need their own forum.
Why do people get hurt in church?
Church, by definition, is a place where sinners go. We know this at a theological level. But not everyone accepts this at a personal or practical level: We all need to accept that we can intentionally or unintentionally do wrong, with other people becoming our victims. Equally we can become the victim of someone else’s sin. Maybe every church needs a hazard warning stating: “Beware—within these walls are sinners. See your Bible for details.”
The Bible makes this potential for hurt to occur very clear to us. Genesis 1-3 provides its own hazard warning to the human race concerning our sinfulness and our potential to cause hurtful harm to one another. Deceived and fallen, cast from the garden, the first family saw murder between siblings as a result of their sinfulness.
Let’s get this right: Cain didn’t become a sinner because he killed Abel. Cain killed Abel because he was a sinner. We are born with the capacity for sin. That’s the legacy of our first parents, Adam and Eve. Even within a New Testament covenant where I’m “born again,” I still have the capacity for sin. Romans 7 tells us through Paul’s experience that even during the sanctifying process of becoming more like Jesus, we’re all going to wrestle with making righteous decisions.
Paul says,“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate” (Romans 7:15). Therefore, maybe I too should carry a warning label.
I mention the above not to depress us, but to remind us of the biblical worldview that Christians live within. Without embracing this biblical worldview, we have little capacity to handle the hits that can come from living amidst a community of sinners. This community is more commonly referred to as the church.
Pastors get hurt too
Pastors will quickly learn that ministry life is thwart with challenges that can pick away at the joy of the call. This is a polite way of saying we get hurt too. After twenty-one years of ministry, there’s very little left in my life that has not either been challenged or had people take offence over—the clothes I wear, the company I keep, where I take holidays, my theology, my decisions, my spirituality, my wife, my children, my integrity... At some point, all of these things have been questioned or challenged.
In addition to this, the sanctity of the confessional means that pastors are at times unable to offer a defence: Pastors can be left looking guilty for something they cannot defend with only God to vindicate certain actions—at these times, God never seems to work as fast as we want him to!
All this to say, it’s really important to have a very defined understanding of our shared sinful human condition— otherwise we remain wide open to being surprised by the hurt others can inflict upon us. When I attended Carey Baptist College, our principal Brian Smith insisted that we didn’t study pastoral care until we’d studied the doctrine of original sin. His rationale was that we had to understand and accept our human condition before we could ever consider how we might help in the healing or restoration process. This was good advice.
Churches are places where we learn about God and also learn about ourselves. We like to learn more and experience more of God, but we are often reluctant to learn more about ourselves—especially the tough stuff. Yet church life is designed by God to create opportunities for personal and corporate growth.
The apostle Paul had no problem challenging the saints of Corinth about their behaviour. Of course some of their behaviour should make a grown man blush: They deserved Paul’s attention and God’s rebuke. But there are two key things that we need to take note of, in order for correction to have any effect.
Firstly, we need a humility that’s centred around a biblical worldview. We each need to admit that we are sinners in need of ongoing saving. Every time we sin, we need to remind ourselves that we are sinners. Thank God for Jesus and the ongoing work of sanctification in our lives.
Secondly, we need to be mindful of the fact that correction of sinful behaviour is made much more difficult if we do not choose to remain in the fellowship we originally chose. Sadly, what is often the case is that someone will leave a church if they’ve been accused of hurting someone. Rather than facing up and working it through, they will find another church down the road. A perfect church maybe?
Those who have been hurt can also leave without allowing for a reconciliation process to be undertaken. Maybe the thought of having to work through conflict is not very appealing, but where do we expect to learn the hard lessons that produce the fruit of perseverance, patience and long-suffering? Certainly not by escaping a difficult situation in the hope of finding a spiritual utopia. Life is less about what happens to you and more about how you respond to what happens. So changing your setting won’t resolve anything for the long-term.
How then do we respond?
Hurt people, hurt people. That little bit of wisdom has given me the ability to bite my tongue and have a few seconds more to respond when people are saying tough things to me or about me, especially if that person is emotional at the time.
How I respond to criticism in that moment is going to largely determine the outcome of that conversation. So each of us should have a strategy that minimises the risk of things being said that may be regretted afterwards. Let’s look at two scenarios—firstly criticism about you.
When someone challenges you about something you’ve said or done, you need to have a strategic plan that allows your mind to follow a preconceived process. I’ve heard lots of clever ones, like reflecting back to the complainant, “Why me?” “Why this subject?” “Why now?” But honestly, this takes quite a presence of mind to be so formal in response. I don’t always have this state of mind, especially on a Sunday morning.
I always figure that time is my friend during a difficult conversation. I respond by using time to get my thinking clear on the matter being raised. So when confronted I politely say, “Thanks for feeling free to raise this with me. I know it’s always difficult to do this. Could you let me have a few days to consider what you’ve said—I’ll get back to you later in the week and we can catch up and talk again.” I’ve never had anyone not allow me this grace of time.
This grace of time is something I truly need to get my head around problems. My first response may be anything but gracious as I’m sometimes really surprised by what’s being stated. So buying some time allows me to process before God the validity of someone’s complaint. The way my mind shifts over those few days is quite remarkable. If I’ve been hurt by the initial accusation, then I need time to process this and see if there is anything that I need to learn. If it turns out that the accusation is valid, then I need to change accordingly. If I don’t agree then I have time to consider a gracious response and not an aggressive reaction. What I’m saying is that I know myself well enough to know when I’m vulnerable to saying something inflammatory. My response is my responsibility.
When we’re confronted, the key question I ask myself is whether the issue of concern is a matter of principle or preference. Principle is very important. If someone suggests that you’ve acted inappropriately or your theology is heretical, then this is a matter of principle that needs to be responded to with sincerity. An issue of preference however, is simply a concern about choice.
A common issue of preference might be the choice of songs we sing. These choices aren’t issues of principle. Regardless of how strongly someone feels about their preference, it will never become an argument about principle. The difficulty in these sorts of scenarios is that the preference is seen as principle by the one who has strong preferences.
A question of gossip
The second scenario to consider is criticism about someone else. The foundation stone for Christian conflict resolution must be Matthew 18:15-17: “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses....”
Sadly, the natural order of things seems to flow away from Matthew 18. If someone has a concern about another member, they will tell someone else their concerns rather than going to the person who has offended them. This is called gossip. You can make gossip seem virtuous with spiritual language and concern... but it’s still gossip. Matthew 18 says you have to keep the offence between the parties concerned. This gives an opportunity for resolution without escalation. Everyone wins when conflict is handled humbly and appropriately.
If someone comes to you and tells you of their concerns about another person then you need to suggest to them that we follow Matthew 18. If they don’t want to do this, then suggest you go with them to talk with the other party. If they still don’t want to do this, then there is nothing you can do to help them except warn them that gossiping doesn’t create an opportunity for reconciliation.
Church life is a melting pot of broken humanity being formed into Christ-like character. It’s an amazing body where people of different strengths, experiences, personalities, and preference mix together around the life-changing encounter that is the person of Jesus Christ. Being prepared for potential disagreement or conflict without defaulting into cynicism is a healthy way to build into the life of the church.
Everyone belongs in church which means that everyone has the potential to be hurt. So we shouldn’t be surprised when broken people hurt one another in even the healthiest of environments. But with good biblical process and humility that acknowledges that we all get it wrong at times, hurt can be minimised and relationships restored.
Story: Craig Vernall
Craig is the National Leader of the Baptist Churches of New Zealand.
- Who or what comes to mind in reading this article?
- Is there anything you need to do about this?
- What do you think about the description of gossip?
- If you have left a church because of hurt, is there anything you can do to work towards reconciliation?
Photo credit: Sean M/lightstock.com
Scripture: Unless otherwise specified, Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.