Wednesday, August 21, 2013

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.  

Monday, August 5, 2013

From Ruin to Redemption

Yesterday I got to preach at church about Naomi's journey from ruin to redemption.  You can watch the service here.  As Beth Stoddard, Creative Arts Director, and I planned the service via Google chat last Monday, it was clear that God was at work.  He gave Beth and me a unified vision of what the service would look and feel like.  A talented team of musicians and a young actress I'm very fond of pulled off our vision with passion and humility.  God worked in and through us yesterday, and that's a mysterious honor that continues to surprise me.

In the past 24 hours, I've heard from lots of people.  The support and encouragement have been overwhelming, and I thank you.  The stories of hurt, grief, and bitterness have burdened my heart, and I am grateful for being entrusted with them.  Yesterday I got to hug a girl who was bitter toward me; we both cried, and redemption was realized.  I got to hug my friend, Lori, and finally try to thank her for the difference she made in my life.  

Yesterday, I made a couple passing statements that I'd like to highlight now:
My family passionately and protectively stuck with me.  Some of the people who still do ministry with me every week stuck with me each of those painful weeks, too.  But I wasn’t available to them.  I wasn’t much of a friend, a wife or a mom, a leader or a pastor. 

Of all the emotional statements I made yesterday, that last sentence was the most painful.  The people I love the most were hurt, neglected, and taken for granted while I wallowed in bitterness.  I'll never get that time back, and I regret that deeply.  I don't know that I'll ever speak publicly about how the trouble at work affected the other areas of my life, but the damage was significant.

My family passionately and protectively stuck with me.  My parents, my sister, and my husband listened to more than their fair share of venting.  Their support was persistent.  At one time, I could only walk into church with my sister on one side and my husband on the other, serving as a human shield.  

I've written before about how competitive I am.  When I was called the most competitive woman my boss had ever met, I responded with, "That's because you don't know my sister very well."  My competitive sister channeled that drive into protecting me.  She did so defensively, and she went on the offense, too, putting her own status at church on the line for my sake.  

My husband took the brunt of it.  He lived every day with a woman who was nothing like the one he'd dated, fallen in love with, or married.  He stayed faithful to me and was steadfast in his commitment to me, even when coming home to me was dreadful.  When he thought I was in real trouble, he sought help for me, too.  Of all the comments about my message yesterday, his meant the most.  He's never been as proud of me as he was yesterday.

Some of the people who still do ministry with me every week stuck with me each of those painful weeks, too.  Without Angie Sposa, Jackie Heberle, Aimee Krueger, and Mandy James, I would not be at PCC today.  That's not exaggeration or over-statement; it's simply fact.  Those women found a way to be both faithful to PCC and to me, which at the time, was like rooting for both the Redskins and the Cowboys.  They loved me, believed in me, advocated for me, and advocated for student ministry--the God-given passion that unites us beyond anything else.  

My family and the women above joined Lori in seeing me through from ruin to redemption. 

Yesterday, someone thanked me for staying at PCC.  Thank Sammy, Mandy, the other Angie, Jackie, Aimee, and my parents.  Thank the small group I've written about before--the ones who are now seniors in college, working, and in the military.  During the years of bitterness I spoke of yesterday, a counselor I respect and admire told me to leave PCC; it was damaging me.  (Apparently night terrors are a bad sign.)  I couldn't leave that small group, so I planned to leave when they graduated.  But by the time they graduated, I was moving from ruin to redemption, and I stayed to see it through.

I am redeemed.