Friday, December 19, 2014

A church and its secrets

There is a belief in some churches that it's best to keep troubling news from the congregation.  In most cases, when church leaders keep such news from the congregation they do so convinced that if such news becomes common knowledge in the church and/or the community that it will create enormous problems.  I have seen churches keep information about clergy misconduct from the congregation and other churches do the same when they've found that a church leader has misappropriated funds or done something else unethical or illegal.  In a misguided attempt to protect the church, leaders try to keep these things a secret from the congregation.  Such secrecy seldom ends well.

A church is only as healthy as the secrets it keeps.  A church with a history of keeping secrets will be a church with little trust between the leadership and the laity.  People are not stupid.  They know when there is more going on than they are being told, and since no one is telling them what this is they have no recourse but to try to imagine for themselves what's going on.  This leads to gossip, meetings in the church parking lot, and cherry-red phone lines as church members discuss among themselves what they believe might be happening in their church.  None of these things leads to a healthy church.

Much of this can be prevented with open and honest communication.  I have found that congregations can handle the truth about what is happening in their church.  I have seen congregations presented information that was painful to share and painful to hear, but these congregations were able to process the information and move forward.  As disappointed as they might be in what they have heard at least they know they can trust their leadership to be upfront and honest with them.  As mature Christians they can work together to address the issues and take steps to make it less likely that this same issue will occur again.

What can church leaders do if their church has a history of secret-keeping that has resulted in a lack of trust within the congregation?  The best answer is to communicate.  In fact, over-communicate.  If there are problems, be up-front about them and address them.  Obviously, there are confidentiality concerns that must be protected, but at the same time there is much that can be shared with the congregation.  Don't speculate, but share what you have proven to be true and how the problems are being addressed.  Be kind and gracious, but also be truthful.

A number of years ago a church leader told me he was working with a congregation to help them get unstuck.  He thought he was making progress until one of the people reminded others in attendance that they could not do what they were discussing because of something that had happened in the church years earlier.  Newer members of the congregation knew nothing of the prior event because it was something that was never discussed.  I was never told what the event was, but even though the congregation had long ago locked it away in a secret place it was still impacting the church and limiting its ability to move forward.  That is what secrets can do to any church.  It's far better to address problems openly and correct them so the church is not held hostage by them.

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