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Bitter about Church

I've said, here and elsewhere, that my church does pastoral care in worship as well as any church I've encountered.  I'm not trying to say we get the worship experience right; there are lots of questions that come with "worship" in large, attractional churches like mine.  But, we do give people permission, opportunity, and space to deal with their pain, struggles, and anxieties in the presence of God and his people.  

A few weeks ago, I got to be part of such an experience.  I'm still hearing from people who were impacted in that worship service.  I think, in part, that's because I addressed an issue our church hasn't addressed much before--being bitter about church.

You can come to our church and deal with depression, bankruptcy, divorce, addiction, abortion, and your relationship with your mother.  Our church provides opportunities for you to address these issues in one-on-one meetings with pastors and even on Sunday mornings.
We take care of people who show up at our church with bruises and scars from their previous church experiences.  They felt used.  They were asked to leave.  They felt judged.  They didn't fit in.  

But the people who receive bruises and scars at our church...well, that's a little more difficult.

We want to hear how you feel.  But we feel guilty.  Or we feel angry and defensive.

It's our decisions, our words, our leadership that have hurt you.

We can apologize for hurting you.  We can listen.  Sometimes, we realize the error of our ways and rectify the situation.  But sometimes we can't change the decisions, the words, and the leadership that hurt you.  Sometimes, we think the decisions, words, and leadership were right.  We hate that they hurt you; REALLY, we do.  But...

And then it gets messy.  

You're hurt.  You took the initiative and summoned the courage to speak with a leader.  You were heard.  But nothing changed.

Now, it's hard to worship with the leader on the stage who hurt you.  It's hard to trust the words of the teaching pastor who hurt you.  

You feel like you don't have a pastor anymore.  I have felt that way, and I've caused others to feel that way.  It's a unique loneliness.

I've been on both sides of the scenario I just portrayed.  I've been the pastor, and I've been the person hurt by the pastor.  I don't have any easy answers, but I think I've learned a few things:

1.  It takes time.  I preached a few weeks ago, telling people to let go of the bitterness, to let the chains fall.  But I know that doesn't happen in four minutes of a closing song.  That takes time.  It takes time that's awkward and painful, particularly at first.

2.  It takes words.  Lots of words.  Sometimes, it means sitting down with the person who hurt you and continuing to talk about it, even if everything's already been said.  Some of these meetings feel pointless, and they're certainly hard.  But, eventually, the words help.  Getting them out helps, and with time, we hear them differently, too.

3.  It takes self-reflection.  I have learned much about myself on both sides of this issue.  I've learned about my own sin.  I've learned about who God created me to be.  I've learned that I've gotten my priorities confused.  I've learned how to say "no" and to set boundaries.  

Just because it's hard for us church leaders to tackle these issues doesn't get us off the hook.  We must.  We must get better at it.  

If you're bitter, then I encourage you to persevere through the pain to get to the healing.  It will take time.  Maybe years.  I encourage you to listen to and to say the words that need to be exchanged.  I encourage you to self-reflect.  Learn from the experience.  Emerge a different, wiser, more aware person.  


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