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Dealing with the offender: When crisis comes to the church – Part 3

Part 3 of a 5-part series. I will post one part each day this week.

There are eyes everywherePeople are watching you. Working in the church, you have probably been aware of that for some time, but now it is even more acute. Your congregation is looking for normalcy and stability in the midst of an unsettling time. Be aware that you are setting an example on a whole host of issues, including how to feel and act toward the “offender.” That lead pastor who was asked to leave because there was money missing, the youth pastor accused of using church equipment to access porn, that children’s director on leave of absence because of inappropriate disciplining of the children in her care was once your coworker, friend, and/or boss. Others are conflicted about how to relate to this person who used to be their pastor or leader. You have an opportunity to set the tone.

This is not an easy task. You must offer grace without accepting the behavior. Those two ideas need to be kept in tension.

1. Don’t protect the “offender” – That may sound crazy, but when you are in this situation, it is often our instinctual response. You know the “offender.” You know he or she is not a bad person. You can name dozens of things she has done in the church throughout her career. You may have admired him as he mentored you in ministry. Part of you will want to come to the defense of the offender on some level.

Let me put this plainly: DON’T DO IT for at least two reasons. First, your defense will appear to trivialize the hurt of members of your congregation. Do not be matter of fact about the infraction, try to explain it, or remind the congregation of the positive things he/she has done. There will be time for remembering positives, but that comes much later, not in the midst of the crisis.

Congregants have been hurt and need to work through their pain. It is counterproductive to do anything to hinder that growth toward healing.

Second, the offender is not your responsibility. The congregation is. As a staff member to a congregation in crisis, your primary duty is to advocate for the health of the body and each of its members. As stated in yesterday’s post, be as transparent as possible, even in the face of pressure from the congregation or denominational leaders to sweep the crisis under the rug. Yes, some actions may hurt the “offender,” but your primary concern must be the health of the congregation. Your job is to do what is best for them.

One of the mantras I have heard from those who have been through church crisis is simply this – “short-term intense pain that leads to healing is preferable to chronic dull pain.” Think of it like surgery. Surgery hurts, and there is a quite a bit of recovery time but eventually the patient regains strength, mobility, and full functioning. Healing comes. When surgery is refused, the intense pain is avoided, but the wound festers and a lifetime of dull pain may ensue. At no point in this process can you be afraid of the pain of surgery and rehabilitation. Stay focused on being an agent of healing for the congregation.

2. Don’t attack the “offender” – At the same time, don’t go overboard the other way. Be pastoral when speaking of the one who has caused all of this pain.

If you have followed this plan, you are dealing with your anger, frustration, and/or guilt with a counselor, colleague, or in another appropriate way. Don’t let your feelings surface inappropriately. Stay in control. Stay pastoral.

As a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ, you are a purveyor of grace. You have sin in your life for which you have been, and will be, forgiven. Every member of your congregation also knows of sin in their lives. Name that from time to time. The “offender” is a sinner under the grace of God also. Do not lose sight of that.

As Edwin Friedman teaches, diagnosing someone as the problem (or the one with the problem), does not fix anything. Instead, it can make things worse. You and the congregation can get so focused on the “offender” as the diagnosed patient that you can place all the ills of the congregation upon their shoulders. This is unhealthy as it will allow the congregation to skip the step of transparency and putting policies in place to keep the offense from reoccurring.

Walk the line of grace, and focus on the flock.

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