Working on the Church’s Burn Unit

April 4, 2012

Over the course of this blog, I’ve talked with a lot of people who have one thing in common.

They’ve been burned.  Badly. 

And to make it worse, they were burned in church, by other Christians.  A place that was supposed to be safe and free became a place of conflict.  Kind of a huge breach in trust.

Maybe you’ve been there.  It’s not a good place to be.  But I don’t think you can go to church very long without some conflict being inevitable.

Since Easter is this week, I think it’s a good idea to share some of these stories, and finally put them into perspective.

The Floodgates Opened

It all started over a year ago.  Late at night, I tapped out one of the quickest blog posts I’ve ever written.  I called it “Why Church Hurts.”

That simple post has become a perennial favorite for blog wanderers.  It’s been reposted and borrowed by all kinds of people.  And it’s brought all kinds of visitors to me, who’ve shared their stories with me.  Stories like this:

“My church was controlled by several “church lady” and “queen bee” types, and I guess I wasn’t in their inner circle.  Strangely, their little power grabs and social games even played out online.  I was selectively “unfriended” by many people were were closer to the inner circle than I was.”  – Charlene

“I’m a long term missionary, and I’d like to have my church’s support, but every time I’m at church, the pastor literally turns his back on me.”  – Walking Wounded

“I’m as close to being excommunicated as possible after my pastor publicly slandered me.”  – Anonymous

People from all over the place, all kinds of churches.  They’re like burn victims whose spiritual lives are on life support.  And I’ve started feeling like a nurse on the burn ward for the church.

Sometimes, You Have to Burn Bridges

Of course, when I wrote that post and the floodgates opened, I wasn’t writing hypothetically.  I was burned, badly.  You can read more about my story over at Prodigal Magazine (which went up yesterday.)  It is an awful feeling to go to church, knowing you have a target on your back, to not know which Christian “brother” or “sister” will betray you this week.

It gives me a lot of mixed emotions when people say they just can’t go back to church, any church.  Because I’m convinced that people can’t go it alone, even though being with other people always is a gamble.

I had to burn bridges and start over to save my spiritual life.  I hope if you’ve been burned, you won’t let those people steal what belongs to you.  Don’t let them take your spiritual life.  The pain you feel shows how much it means to you.

You Don’t Serve a Church

It took me a long time to realize that church doesn’t really hurt.  The church doesn’t burn people or betray people.  The church is full of sinful people, the same sinful people who exist outside the church.  And you can’t go to church, make friends, get married, have kids, or leave your house without taking an emotional risk.

But Easter reminds me of something.

We don’t serve a church.  A “church” is just a man-made thing, full of broken people.  The church is full of faults, because people are full of faults.  People have done awful things in the name of church.  If you think you’re the only one who’s been hurt by church, just start reading the Bible.  You’re in good company.

But we don’t serve a church, we serve a Savior.

And our Savior is not broken.  He’s not a liar or a slanderer.  He’s not a betrayer or a saboteur.  He doesn’t endorse wars or political games.  People use his name in vain to justify their awful, stupid, selfish actions, and Jesus just says, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

I hope you’ll remember that this Sunday.

I’m so thankful for the people who allowed me to include their story today, because I am sure that it will help someone in pain see they aren’t alone.  So I want to hear from you too!  Tell me about a conflict you had in church and how you resolved it.  Oh, and I’d love it if you checked out my story at Prodigal too.

23 responses to Working on the Church’s Burn Unit

  1. Thank you for the post, Matt. I just got hit again and sent you the details to you in an email. I’m starting to feel like one of those dogs at the pound who will go to anyone who abuses them – only because that is the only thing that the dog knows.

    I’m NOT going to Mass this Easter weekend, but I will remember that Christ Lives! He just happens to be rather busy taking care of children and fools. Thus the reason I have felt His absence in my life lately :)

    • Thanks so much for sharing, Wendy! Remember, even Jesus and Paul couldn’t get more than a few people together without conflict erupting.

      • I can agree with that. It doesn’t take too many people to get a fight started. I work with my sister everyday and most days its just the two of us. We both cussed each other out today over the smallest little issue. Of course, right after that, we went out for a smoke and had some lunch! Maybe that’s all we need in church – a good smoke break every once in a while :)

  2. I completely understand what you mean. I think that as a house church we can often become a magnet for people who have been burned in “institutions”. We’ve seen it over and over. The wounded flock to us believing that in these small fellowships they won’t be hurt. But the fact is that our churches are still made up of people. And people are broken, as you said.

    I have been more wounded in house church than I ever was in an institution. The only difference is that I couldn’t walk away so easily. The relationships I have with these people are too valuable. It took me almost a year, but I finally sought out reconciliation. The turning point for me was the realization that we have an enemy to our souls who seeks to divide us. Because in division, we lose power. The word of God tells us that if we can AGREE as touching ANYTHING it will be done. But if we can’t agree…? What then?

    I’m so glad that I opened the doors of communication. Talked things out. Found forgiveness and reconciliation. As much as it hurt, it was worth it. The relationship is too valuable.

  3. Even if you get a bunch of people together for a common goal like, I dunno, Civil War re-enacting, you’re still going to get infighting and division. It just seems to be human nature.

  4. Matt, I appreciate the heart of what your saying BUT we do serve the church. The church isn’t “man made” – certain versions of it are – but Jesus is building…the church!! A church founded on Him as head. A church that is his body. Paul even mentioned that the church has a few parts that are “unpresentable” (1 cor. 12). But the church is still His plan, His light to the world, His physical hands and feet on this planet. As Rick Warren said, “we can’t say I love Jesus but hate His body.”
    The church is the best place in a community.
    The church is the most caring people.

    Yes, I serve Jesus and I serve the church. Like Jesus I have washed the feet of the Judas’s, the Peter’s, the Thomas’s. I knew they were imperfect, but I served them anyway.

    Nobody has been “hurt” by the “church” more than a pastor; but I still love the church. I am still waiting to meet that elusive person who has given up on the church and is better / stronger / more spiritual / a better evangelist for it.

    I appreciate the honesty of this post and you.

  5. In my view there are two real problems with the manicured American church. 1) It’s run like an American corporation with boards, voting, and a successladder. 2) It embraces lots of logic, education while denying the power of God to do supernatural stuff. Both are anti-Bible.

    People get hurt in church, not because of conflict, but the inability to deal with it in a biblical way.

    The problem is in the foundation of the churchWhen the structure of the church is wrong, what is built will not hold up. This is not the church that “the gates of hell would not prevail” against.

    Until the church (global) becomes Kingdom minded instead of program driven to achieve a corporate structure (success), you are going to have power struggles and division. Division hurts people. It is here that the control freaks prey on the weak, and work to get everyone to adapt. Not Bible.

    The unity Paul speaks of in Ephesians 4 is “of the Spirit”, not in emotional agreement. It is the unity that the Father, Son and Holy Ghost have in each other. They are all loving servants. Resolving conflict is an act of love.

    Thanks for bringing it up.

  6. I am just beginning to come out of a very long, dark spell…my husband is a youth/worship pastor. It’s what he trained to do in college, but it was years after our marriage that he took his first full-time paid ministry position. We were certain of the calling to that first church. We moved 350+ miles from the place we’d called home for nearly 11 years. We moved from a city that was easily half a million in population to a borough with a tenth of that…and that was in the greater borough area, including all the little burbs and towns surrounding it. (The population within the borough was less than 19,000.) Within six months, it became obvious that the EXTREMELY type-A personality senior pastor was not willing to allow Hubby’s more laid-back personality to complement his own. (It could have been an AMAZING partnership.) The senior pastor having determined that Hubby was just a flake, he then set out to try to deliberately force Hubby to quit. He insulted Hubby. He insulted me. When we chose, a little over a year into Hubby’s tenure there, to take in our three nieces for an unspecified amount of time, the senior pastor’s only comment was that “this had better not affect your job.” To the senior pastor, the MINISTRY was more important than the people, than his own family. He expected Hubby to be the same way. Family was repeatedly supposed to be sacrificed on the altar of ministry. When I was sick with strep throat and so were all three girls, and Hubby took a day off to take care of us, he got warned that this should not be a habit. When I served as the volunteer who ran PowerPoint for services, one small error would earn a scathing diatribe against Hubby when he arrived in the office on Monday morning. And it only got worse. By the time Hubby was forced to submit his resignation (which wasn’t a resignation; when your boss chooses the day you “quit,” it’s a firing), the senior pastor had carefully plotted and executed a rather sophisticated plan to sabotage Hubby’s ability to do his job, so that the three-man overseeing committee (which did not have hire/fire power; they only made sure the pastor stuck within his job boundaries) couldn’t argue with the senior’s decision to force Hubby to leave. The senior had made sure Hubby could not meet his yearly goals. He flat-out LIED to other members of the congregation regarding the search for Hubby’s replacement and candidates they were supposedly still interviewing (a new man had already been interviewed and hired before Hubby’s resignation was announced to the congregation, but the senior pastor told the worship team that he would keep them posted on the hunt for a new worship/youth pastor and would let them know “as soon” as they had a qualified candidate). It was a mess. The governing trio had the power to rebuke the pastor if he was acting in a way that defamed the good name of the church and if he was acting contrary to biblical guidelines. He was…and he never got reprimanded, that I’m aware of. I was so disgusted by the whole thing that I lost all respect for the pastor. I realize not every pastor is a people person, but I (to this day) strongly feel that pastoral ministry is truly not his calling, and he either needs to become a traveling evangelist, where he can offend all he wants and not have to be there the next day, or he needs to go back to architecture, his career before he says he was called to preach. It was heart-rending to have the one person who should have approved of and supported what we were doing with the kids be the one person who was disgusted with it, and who vocally opposed it.

    It was awful.

    When I landed in the hospital with severe pneumonia three days after Hubby’s last day on that job, neither of us were pleased when the senior pastor and his wife showed up in my hospital room. Frankly, the last person I wanted praying for me was that man. This was the man who had told my husband that he wouldn’t have been hired if the pastor knew what I “was really like.”

    I began to doubt the calling to that church, because the pain was so severe and the way things fell apart was so explosive. (The call was real. It was also the mechanism to get us close enough to accomplish the higher calling–that of taking in and raising the girls–that God was orchestrating.)

    One of the other youth pastors in the area, a good friend of Hubby’s, had approached his senior pastor and that pastor came to Hubby in the wake of his traumatic resignation. He offered *his* church to us, as a place for us to come and just BE, to be loved and to heal. To this day, I will love the staff of that church for that reason. They made good on their word. They took us in, enveloped us, loved us, let us heal.

    Hubby was out of work for a total of 17 months. For those 17 months, the church was awesome. My hospital stay with pneumonia? Every member of the pastoral staff came to see me in the hospital, although I’d yet to set foot in the church. They prayed with us and supported us through the awful final months of the court battle over custody of the girls. They helped us dedicate the girls after we won. They respected my need for space as I grieved. We hated to leave, even though we knew when we did that we were moving forward to the next place God wanted us. They ordered a big cake for our last fellowship time, and sent us off with their blessing and best wishes.

    The church my husband now serves is equally wonderful. The senior pastor here saw our girls as a big plus when considering Hubby as a candidate for the job he now holds. Family is allowed to be important. In fact, when we moved here (all of a whole twelve miles from where we last were), we even bought a house in the same neighborhood that the senior pastor lives in.

    You’re right; the closer you are, the deeper the hurt.

    However, even in the awful pain of what Hubby and I endured at his first church, we have made wonderful friends. Those relationships have stuck. I can’t regret that. Even with all the agony, without the people of the church–well, then, church is just a building. As you said, relationships are risky. But they’re also what makes life worth living.

    • I’ve seen multiple situations like that – pastor moved across the country, and the church suddenly decides he’s not what they really wanted. And who pays the price? It’s no skin off their noses!

    • A great ending to a tragic story. Many in ministry have that same story with different faces and names. I have that same story as well – young, naive, zealous for Jesus and I met entrenched, obstinate and hateful “christian leaders.” They tried to destroy me but didn’t. I hated that time of my life but I have to say God used it to knock some of the arrogance out of me. God is like that sometimes…uses Judas’s as well as the paul’s who are in our lives. I hope you live out your calling with fantastic blessings from God!!!!!!

  7. Correct me if I’m wrong, Matt, but are you advocating Christians attending church of some kind regularly NO MATTER WHAT? Because it sounds as though while you’re acknowledging the pain and grief that churches cause (repeatedly at that), that there is no threshold beyond which one should say, “I’m really done with that. Forever.”

    Is there NOTHING, nothing any church could do at any time that would make it ok in your opinion to leave and never come back?

    Is there just no limit? I’m asking seriously. If there isn’t, what does that say theologically about God’s character and thoughts toward His people?

    • I think there’s a difference between leaving a particular church and leaving The Church as a whole. And while I would personally be very reticent to leave a particular church over a hurt, I’m sure there are reasons that I would – not the least of which would be God’s calling to go elsewhere for some reason. Heck, as the daughter of a minister of music and youth (or youth and music, depending on the church), we left churches for several reasons when I was growing up.

      But we never left The Church. No matter how much it hurt us. And it did, many, many times. Still does, frequently.

  8. Church = Gods people, on Gods mission, in the world. Church is community, it’s made up of imperfect people—ragamuffins. And like Matt said, “I don’t think you can go to church very long without some conflict being inevitable.” I’ve struggled with church people too, but I’ll never forget the day God allowed me to realize my perspective of church and the people inside needed to change. Grace is what God was asking me to extend to others. Grace. The same grace he extends to me each and every time I burn Him through my sin.

    Great post Matt. Thank you for shedding light on the real, bolder issues of our faith.

  9. Thanks for writing this post, Matt. As always, thought provoking and this one spoke to me. My Christian walk started with a burn! I received the Lord as my Savior early in college, although as a young child I had always believed in Him and spoke to Him – blissful childhood! I remember realizing that I had basically been a “project” for conversion at a Christian organization I attended to when I was in college. I mean, I know that it is our purpose as Christians to share the Good News and lead people to know Christ, but once I was “there” I was left hi and dry. I also wasn’t “Christian” enough, as considered by some standards, probably because I was surrounded by people who had been “Christians” since they could talk. Then, there was disagreement in the church I attended, and they ended up splitting into 2 churches. Oh boy! I thought, if this is what it is to be a Christian, I don’t want to be part of it.

    I walked away from “the Church”, but not from the Lord. My path has been on and off, but when you are Christ’s child, He never lets you get away from His sight, and for this I am so grateful. He has given me grace and mercy, which I don’t deserve. It really wasn’t until recently, as in these past few months, He has made me realize that my mistake was relying on people for my walk with God instead of HIM. Even though I was “burned” by these people – or so I thought, it is really up to ME to know Him. Furthermore, I am called to forgive, pray for them and their healing, and let go. “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven (left, remitted, and let go of the debts, and have given up resentment against) our debtors” (Mat. 6:12 – AMP). We can’t go around feeling people “owe us” for what others may have done to us in the past; we can’t be carrying around the feeling of resentment against “the Church” because we have been “burned” by the Church.

    And like you said, we are full of faults. But Christ isn’t.

  10. A big freaking Amen brother.

  11. I am going through this now. I have been a Christian my entire life and my entire life the people I have struggled with the most are Christians.

    I think they get to a comfort level of believing that no matter what, they are “saved.” I don’t believe in burning bridges, yet the gossip and lies are very hurtful. On the other side of the coin, I have over a hundred thousand people reading my blog and trying to empower and lift me up who don’t consider themselves Christians.

    It just seems really messed up sometimes. I stay focused on the “prize.” I don’t get comfortable. I never want to hurt people the way I am being hurt.

    Excellent post:)

  12. Many of these examples show how churches become social organizations rather than religious organizations. The clashes of personalities of the people “in charge” and the the “outsiders” come up too often and distract from the sacred and spiritual side of church.

    I almost think that an ideal church is one where people could be semi anonymous. Sorry, I just feel that way. Because in church it shouldn’t matter what the person sitting next to you thinks of you or vice versa, it should be your connection with God and Jesus.

    And as for how we SHOULD treat people in church, all pretenses and social hangups should be left at the door. Again, where is the sacred?

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