Since starting Collective, I have encountered lots of wounded people who feel that their wounds are the result of a former church experience. I have lost count on the number of times I have heard people say,
“I was burned by a church,” or
“After that happened, I never wanted to go back to a church again,” or
“I can’t believe a church could treat someone that way!”
Or some variation on these statements.
There are lots of people who left (or were forced to leave) a church under dark, negative circumstances.
And I sympathize. In my life, I have been involved in a handful of churches—sometimes as staff and sometimes as layperson—and I have experienced the dark side of church just like lots of other people. When I left my last church job—before deciding to start Collective Church—I thought I was done working in churches for good.
(There’s a whole other conversation about what working for a church can do to a pastor or staff person, and I’m sure we’ll get to that at some point here on the blog.)
Whenever I hear someone’s story of mistreatment or unfairness within a church, my first emotional response is to get angry and silently promise myself that I would never allow something like that to happen in a church where I was the pastor. I listen as people grieve their past experiences, and I feel superior because I tell myself that Collective Church is above that kind of behavior.
But we aren’t.
After that first rush of self-congratulatory piety, my feet return to the ground, and I remind myself that I—along with every other person who attends my church—am fully capable of infliction pain on other people. Going to seminary didn’t immunize me from being short-sighted, and a decade and-a-half spent working in churches hasn’t protected me from waking up in the morning as a deeply flawed human being.
A few years ago, I randomly started thinking about a conversation I had with a high school student when I was a youth pastor. She came to me seeking counsel, and--as I remembered the conversation--I knew that I had given her bad advice. My heart was in the right place, but I didn’t know what I was doing. So—as I relived this event in my memory—I sent this young woman (now a full grown adult, graduated from college), and I told her that I was sorry and that I hoped she could forgive me for giving her poor counsel. She replied and was very gracious; she clearly remembered our conversation from years before, and she recalled with a great deal of accuracy what I had said to her. She said she knew that I had meant well, and she appreciated that I reached out to say I was sorry.
Here’s something most pastors don’t want you to know: we frequently have no idea what we are doing. We might pretend we do, but we don’t. Most of us went to school and learned a lot about Greek and Hebrew and Martin Luther and how to preach a sermon, but almost none of us have any great insight on how to help people in exactly the way they need to be helped all the time. Sometimes we get it right; but we get it wrong just as often.
When we first started Collective Church, I secretly agonized over the fear of making a mistake and making our church the object of someone’s “I-was-burned-by-a-church” story.
If you think about it, it’s pretty inevitable. Everyone has expectations over what their church should do and what people should say in a given circumstance, and when we don’t meet those expectations, people get upset. If a person misses church for three weeks in a row and they don’t receive a phone call, that person might complain that “I was gone for three whole weeks, and nobody cared enough to even pick up the phone!” But then someone else could be absent for three weeks, receive a phone call from a church staff person, and then complain that “I was only gone for three weeks, and then they started badgering me!” Believe it or not, I have heard both of these complaints, almost verbatim, from different people about the same church.
Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that a church—any church—is made up of human beings who are certain to make mistakes along the way. If you are part of a church for any length of time, there will come a day when you feel frustrated with that church. I guarantee it.
Nadia Bolz-Weber—a pastor in Denver—writes this in her book Pastrix:
Every human community will disappoint us, regardless of how well-intentioned or inclusive. But I am totally idealistic about God’s redeeming work in my life and in the world…. I wanted [the people in my church] to hear me: This community will disappoint them. It’s a matter of when, not if. We will let them down or I’ll say something stupid and hurt their feelings. I then invite them on this side of their inevitable disappointment to decide if they’ll stick around after it happens…. Welcome to [our church]. We will disappoint you.
Don't get me wrong: There are times when leaving is the right choice. I know of pastors who preach sermons or write blog posts about how it’s wrong or selfish to leave a church, even if you’re miserable. I won’t say that. Sometimes you need to go. If there has been abuse or chronic, systematic mistreatment of people, there comes a point when you may feel that your very presence in that place is a way of condoning the behavior—as if continuing your participation in that church somehow makes you complicit in the dark patterns. If you need to leave because of an injustice or because the situation cannot be redeemed, then you should go.
However, if you have been disappointed because of a misunderstanding or because of a personal conflict or because of some other inevitable side-effect of being in community with a bunch of other flawed, broken people, then can I invite you to look for reconciliation? Most churches are filled with people who insist that there is resurrection in the world, and sometimes we need to be agents of that resurrection. Sometimes we need to be the ones who allow for the possibility that redemption is still possible in this place.
Like Nadia Bolz-Weber says, I am idealistic about God’s redeeming work, and sometimes that means allowing a church to heal from the inside and hoping for some kind of renewal. Maybe the most honest experience of church some of us will have will be in the moments when we forgive and are forgiven.
As I said before, sometimes you need to leave. If you are in a toxic, destructive environment, you owe it to yourself to get out of there.
But if the conflict can be resolved—if an apology, a cup of coffee, a hug, or a handshake can somehow bring healing to a situation—then I hope you will keep trying. You owe that to yourself, too.
The church can be a beautiful place, even if it is filled with screw-ups like me.