This is a deep topic. It’s also one that many people want to ignore.
Before we dive in, I want to say to you, if you are reading this and you have been hurt by the church or a spiritual leader/mentor, I am so sorry. God never designed his church to wound his sheep. He designed his church to operate in LOVE.
Now, we need to get a few things clear.
God is good. God did not hurt you, a person did, a person with a free-will.
I’m going to speak from my own experience from both sides of the coin. Meaning, I’ve experienced deep hurt at the hands of sheep while my husband and I pastored a church and I’ve experienced deep pain at the hands of leaders as a sheep attending a church.
First, let’s look at the epidemic of sheep being hurt by leaders.
According to Barna data, it indicate that “28% of the adult population has not attended any church activities, including services, in the past six months. That translates to nearly 65 million adults. When their children under the age of 18 who live with them are added to the picture, the number swells to more than 100 million people….of those who avoid Christian churches, one of the driving forces behind such behavior is the painful experiences endured within the local church context. In fact, one Barna study among unchurched adults shows that nearly four out of every ten non-churchgoing Americans (37%) said they avoid churches because of negative past experiences in churches or with church people.”
This shows the need for hope, healing and forgiveness.
People are flawed and people sin. Sometimes people are oblivious to other people’s needs and sometimes people are void of compassion and empathy.
But, there has to be a point where leaders take responsibility for the sheep they have hurt intentionally or unintentionally.
1 Peter 5:3 says, “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is among you, watching over them not out of compulsion, but because it is God’s will; not out of greed, but out of eagerness; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.”
It’s interesting to me that this verse says, “be shepherds” to the people God has placed under your care. The term shepherd and pastor are the same. You can’t be one without the other. If you are a pastor, you are expected to be a shepherd. You can’t say you are a pastor and not a shepherd. The Bible says, be shepherds. They are the same, they come from the same Greek word. Poimén means shepherd, someone who the Lord raises up to care for the total well-being of His flock (the people of the Lord). The word translates in Latin as “pastor”, different translations of the Bible use shepherd/pastor interchangeably. Also, the word used here is different from bóskō which means to spiritually nourish by feeding people the Word of God. While poimḗn focuses on “shepherding” the flock of God (caring for them), bóskō stresses feeding them His Word.
I grew up in a church where the pastor embraced the instruction of shepherding. The church grew and when I was a young married mom with 3 little boys, the church had grown to over 2,000 plus people with 3 Sunday services. The pastor was engaged with the lives of the people. There were certainly issues, but there was authentic genuineness, quick repentance and forgiveness. Each time I went to the hospital to give birth to my boys, my pastor was there, waiting for their arrival to pray over them and bless them. When you wept, he wept, when you rejoiced, he rejoiced. When a dear friend of mine discovered her marriage was over because of infidelity, this pastor went to her house and laid in the floor and wept with her for over an hour as her world was falling apart. I was blessed to have such an authentic, Jesus loving, compassionate pastor in my life.
When my husband’s job transferred him to Florida, we were relocated to Miami (he worked for NBC) and lived there for 5 years before relocating to North Central Florida. We just kind of thought that finding a church would be easy. Miami has it’s own vibe, we may have been a bit naive. Then we relocated to Gainesville. We’ve been here for 13 years. We pastored for 2 years in that time. (more on that later)
My experience was not one that was a blessing. It was an experience of deep pain and struggle. I may write about this in depth later, but for the sake of this blog post, I will condense to get to the point. The focus is spiritual self-care.
We relocated to our current city with 4 children, 3 boys that were born up north in West Virginia and a daughter that was born in Miami. We were heavily involved in a church and did many different things. My husband and myself both taught various classes and were involved on many different levels.
Heart-breakingly, we experienced 5 miscarriages in a 4 year period. (my husband traveled quite extensively with his job several of those years) Now, our closest family is 12 hours away. So, it’s just us here in Florida. No one came along side of us during this period of intense grief and loss. The pastor never once said, “let me pray for you”, only one person came to our home to show concern or compassion after the first traumatic loss. I had been to the doctor’s office and saw the baby on the ultrasound screen, but quickly learned it was not in my uterus. It was as if we were invisible. A couple years after the last miscarriage (we pastored during the last miscarriage) I had to have surgery. I was grieving the loss of never being able to have children again. The surgery did not go as planned, it was supposed to only take 1.5-2 hours, it took 6.5 hours. My teenage children were holding the fort down at home by themselves, while my husband was at the hospital with me, by himself. He actually called our children at home and told them to be praying because he wasn’t sure if I was going to make it out of the surgery. It was taking far longer than expected and he had not heard anything except that they were running into some complications. My children were home absorbing this news alone and my husband was sitting in a hospital waiting room for almost 7 hours alone. No one reached out. No one came to be with him or our children. He kept people aware of the situation via social media, but please understand in the age of social media, it is a far cry from anything that resembles authentic compassion or relationship. The funny thing was, that every-time a pastor or leader would call up my husband to “do” something, he always obliged weather that meant traveling 6 hours to another town for a meeting or handling a problem or being a resource. He always gave, but we never received.
Overlapping in that time, we fostered a baby for 15 months (on our own, no state involvement) while her mother was incarcerated. The baby was the family member of a church member and we agreed to care for her until her mother was released. We did not receive any assistance. We paid for everything, diapers, formula, etc, you name it, we paid for it. Also, during that time, we were connected to a mother who was placing her baby for adoption and we were walking through adoption, while still fostering and raising our 4 other children. We received no helping hand from anyone at the church except for a diaper box full of hand me down clothes. Again, we were invisible.
Then my oldest daughter had spinal fusion surgery. We were very nervous about proceeding with this operation, but we didn’t have a choice. We prayed for healing. The doctors informed us that her rib cage was twisting so much that if we did not have the surgery done, she would eventually suffocate because the twisting of her spine and rib cage was compressing her lungs.
We sat in the waiting room at the hospital for over 8 hours while our daughter’s back was sliced open and each vertebrae broken, rods inserted beside her spinal cord, and each vertebrae fused back together with plates and screws. We sat alone. No one from our church came to sit with us or pray with us. In fact, it was a youth pastor from another church who showed up at 6 am to pray before our daughter went back to surgery. Again, we were invisible.
We continued to serve, even though we were deeply wounded and neglected.
We returned back north for a Thanksgiving break and couldn’t wait to visit our old church. That same pastor has maintained contact with us over the 16 years we have been gone. He always touches base to see how we are doing, especially if a hurricane is coming through. He even sent me a very loving letter when I went through a weekend retreat for spiritual growth.
When we visited our home church, the pastor always stands at the door when everyone is leaving and makes sure he shakes hands or gives a hug to his sheep. He has been entrusted to care for over 2,000 sheep. When we were leaving, he grabbed our hands and began sharing with our children, (three of which are now adults, the three he prayed for and dedicated to the Lord) about the impact our family had on the growth of the church. He shared intimate details of our life with our children. Our children were blown away, that a pastor would remember so many details and share so much love about our family who has been gone 16 years. The only words they could use to describe the whole encounter was “genuine” and “authentic”.
Now, let’s flip the coin. What do you do when you are the leader and the sheep bite you?
When we were asked to pastor a church an hour north of where we live, we had no idea of the dysfunction we were walking in to. If we had known just a smidgen of the history of that church we would have ran like the wind. No, seriously, if anyone ever asks you to do a church re-vitalization, that’s code for dead and needs resuscitated. You better hear an audible voice before you move forward. We did hear the Lord and we know we were were placed there for a season for a reason. But, boy was it a season of pure fire. By that I mean a season of WALKING through fire!
We walked in to a place that was so full of bitterness, unforgiveness, dysfunction and really they brought new meaning to the phrase, hurt people hurt people. I’m not kidding, I wish I was.
We experienced everything in those 2 years that most pastors and leaders would hardly ever experience in their life. We were in boot camp for some reason. We were lied about, eaten for dinner every week and flat out disrespected. If people didn’t get their way, they crossed their arms and said, well, we aren’t going to tithe and we will just starve the church to close. And they did just that. One afternoon we were working around the church and a family that had been particularly nasty to us wanted to bring us lunch as an effort of ‘goodwill’. The odd thing was, they wanted to watch us eat the lunch. (RED FLAG #1) We took the lunch into the kitchen of the church and took a couple bites and then I cut into the brownies. They were in the open room off from the kitchen so they couldn’t see us. They were proudly declaring that their teenage son had baked the brownies for us. As I cut into the brownies, I quickly discovered that these brownies were baked with a secret ingredient! The secret ingredient was a handful of dog hair! When I say handful, I mean handful, not just a few stray dog hairs, but enough dog hair to check those brownies for a heartbeat! One woman called me up on my BIRTHDAY, while recovering from miscarriage #5 right before Mother’s Day to tell me about her family’s conversation the night before where they ripped us up one side and down the other because we weren’t giving in to their demands. I walked in to church that Sunday, heavily bleeding from the miscarriage and all I could do was walk straight up to the front row, kneel down and surrender everything to the Lord. I was deeply broken and wounded.
It doesn’t matter what side of the coin you are on. The truth is the same. The truth doesn’t change based on our ability to accept it.
God is good.
God did not hurt us, people with free-will did.
People are flawed.
We need to separate God from people. He is perfect, people are not.
We cannot control what happens to us, but we are responsible for our healing. If we wait for the people who hurt us to come back and heal us, we will die in our brokenness.
Jesus designed his church to function in love. The Bible says that they (the world) will know we are his disciples by the way we LOVE one another. Love is a verb. It is action beyond WORDS.
Compassion costs us nothing but awareness.
Healing is our responsibility and it often requires forgiveness. Forgiveness doesn’t mean reconciliation. Forgiveness requires one person, you. Reconciliation requires 2 people. You can forgive and loose yourself from replaying the offense over and over again in your mind. The person who hurt you is not thinking about you, but your thoughts are obsessed with them. Forgiveness releases yourself from the poison. Reconciliation requires 2 people and repentance. You can meet with the person or people who hurt you, but an apology doesn’t change anything. Repentance does.
The difference between a person who is sorry and a person who repents is fruit. A repentant person CHANGES.
Healing spiritual wounds requires us to walk out our forgiveness and then do the work of healing. Your process of healing may look different than someone else’s, but the end result is the same. FREEDOM and WHOLENESS. Jesus came that we may have LIFE and LIFE more abundantly. He did not die for us to remain broken, he took stripes upon his back for our healing. Jesus heals people. He is close to the broken-hearted and BINDS up their wounds. Jesus does not leave you broken.
Don’t allow a bad experience with people to ruin your relationship with God or with church. Pray for wisdom as you walk through your healing. Ask the Lord to direct your steps to a church where your needs will be ministered to and you can serve others as well. Find a place where there is reciprocity in compassion and action. Find a place where love is lived out beyond words. Jesus is the Chief Shepherd and he knows how to care for His sheep. He is our example.
My heart is for you to walk in freedom and wholeness, you can heal and you can thrive!