Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Ministry to those hurt by the church

A few years ago I was coaching a bivocational pastor out west. You can read about this coaching relationship in my book The Art and Practice of Bivocational Ministry: A Pastor's Guide. This is one of the case studies I share in this book from various pastors I have coached over the past years. In one of our sessions I asked, "If you could do anything in your ministry you wanted to do, what would that be?"

The pastor hesitated a moment and asked if I really wanted to know the answer to that question. When I replied I was interested she said that no one had ever asked her that question before. She then responded, "I would like to begin a ministry to people who have been hurt by the church." I chuckled a little and told her that if she was able to develop such a ministry her church would not remain small for long. We then spent the remainder of our time discussing what that might look like and how she might begin such a ministry.

Unfortunately, there have been many persons hurt by the church. It is true that the church often does shoot its wounded, or at the very least we send them off into exile. Maybe its not intentional, but some churches seem to send the message that they do not want imperfect people.

Back in the 1970s before I went into the ministry I accompanied our pastor on a visitation. A young girl who did not attend our church had come forward at the close of our Vacation Bible School that year. The pastor wanted to meet the child's mother and talk about the decision her daughter had made.

The mother was pleased at the decision and was willing for her daughter to be baptized, but she wasn't sure she wanted her to become a member of our church. She explained that a few years earlier her family had attended another church in our community and was quite active in that church. One day her husband announced he was leaving her for another woman. She said the following Sunday she felt like she walked into a freezer when she went to church. Former church friends ignored her like she had a disease. When this continued for several weeks, she decided she was done with church. She wanted her daughter to be a Christian, but she didn't want her to be hurt by a church as she had been. Sadly, similar stories are repeated every day in churches across the nation.

Our coaching relationship ended soon after we discussed the possibility of this pastor starting a ministry to people who had been hurt by the church, so I do not know if she was able to develop such a ministry. What steps could a pastor and church take to create such a ministry? I'm sure there are many, but these come to mind fairly quickly.

  • Cover such a ministry in prayer. Of course, this is good advice for any new ministry, but this ministry will deal with people who may still carry deep emotional scars and have serious trust issues with the church.
  • Be a safe place that offers grace and acceptance of people. We don't have to agree with every choice a person makes, but we can accept people as persons created in the image of God and people for whom Christ gave his life on the cross.
  • Pastors need to be more transparent. We need to admit to people when we've messed up and had to ask for God's forgiveness. We need to admit those times when our lives stink and we're struggling just to keep our heads above water. In the mid-1980s I was diagnosed with clinical depression, and it was amazing how many people began to admit to me that they were struggling with the same issue. It opened up many ministry opportunities that would have been missed if I had kept quiet about my situation.
  • We need to quit hiding behind our smiley face masks. Sunday after Sunday people sit in their pews with their masks covering up what's really happening on the inside. It sends a message to others that there must be something wrong with them if they have problems because "real Christians don't have these kinds of issues."
  • Realize that such a ministry will require a lot of time. People who have been hurt by the church will often have major trust issues with pastors and churches. We should not expect them to believe that the church is now a safe place. We will have to earn their trust before we can touch their hearts, and that will require a lot of patience and consistency in our words and behavior.
  • We will have to love people where they are. Sometimes it helps to remind ourselves that God was willing to meet us where we were, and for some of us that was not in a very good place. How can we do any less towards those people we want to minister to?
After reading this you may feel that God is leading your church to reach out to people who have been hurt by the church. That is not a target many churches have in their sights, so you won't have much competition. As I told the pastor I was coaching, if you are able to develop an effective ministry to that group you will have a large plenty of people to serve.

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