Your phone vibrates. You open it and find a text message from a church friend: “Did you hear about Joe?”
“No,” you reply. “I didn’t see him in church this week. What’s up?”
“I know he’s your buddy,” your friend writes, “so that’s why I’m giving you a heads-up. Joe says he’s never coming back. Didn’t say why. But he sounded really mad.”
Your stomach twists. “Thanks,” you say. “I’d better get in touch.”
So now what?
It happens sooner or later in every congregation. Someone—let’s keep calling him Joe—gets hurt by the church and stops attending. As his friend, you’re concerned, and you want to help. Is there anything you can do?
As you probably realize, this can get really complicated. Part of it depends on Joe’s own personality. If it’s a bit quirky, the chances are that his departure may not surprise you that much.
You think, Maybe Joe is like my own father—supersensitive. Dad was a loving and lovable Christian, but once in a while he would brood about someone who may have “looked at him funny.” Mom, who didn’t have a supersensitive bone in her body, would try to convince him that perhaps the other person’s glance didn’t really mean anything. Maybe the glance giver was having a bad day. Sometimes Mom’s reasoning calmed Dad down; most of the time it didn’t. Dad actually quit attending church because he didn’t like to be with even small groups of people. He was just really shy.
Or maybe Joe has a hair-trigger temper. A political discussion at potluck turns into a shouting match, and Joe stomps across the parking lot to his car, “hurt by the church.”
Perhaps Joe comes from a culture of grudge holders. Maybe he’s been programmed from birth to feel that he needs to defend his honor, or the honor of his family, from even a minor discourtesy.
Maybe Joe is pretty toxic himself. Perhaps people have had to walk on eggshells around him for years. And when somebody finally does stand up to him, it sends him bounding away, snarling about how glad he is that he’s finally free of “that bunch of hypocrites.”
And let’s be frank. Maybe Joe is so toxic that he really shouldn’t come back—at least to this congregation. I once knew someone in a church I pastored who caused so much turmoil that three families left the church as a result. We all felt it was time for the antagonist to start over again somewhere else. Joe may need professional help, and his fellow members deserve to come to church for other reasons than trying to soothe and baby him while bracing for his next outburst.
Or maybe Joe isn’t toxic; perhaps he’s a genial, gentle soul who truly has been hurt. Maybe an immature church leader or even an inexperienced or dysfunctional pastor said or did something really stupid, and now Joe feels like he’s been kicked to the curb.
That’s the kind of Joe I’m talking about in this article, a nice, nontoxic guy who has genuinely been wounded.
How to help Joe
Based on three and a half decades of pastoring, plus training I’ve received, here are my suggestions for dealing with Joe.
Talk face-to-face. Don’t try to discuss his hurt by email or text message, or even on the phone. You need to see his face and watch his body language. First, pray that God will give you gentleness and humility and a listening ear. Then call him up.
“Joe,” you could say, “I just got word about the situation between you and So-and-so. I’m feeling really bad about that. Do you mind if I come over and visit a while? Not to twist your arm or anything, just to get your side of the story.” If Joe starts talking about the conflict right there on the phone, see if you can get him to wait until you meet.
There’s a possibility that when you call, Joe might say angrily, “I don’t want to talk about it.” Back off. Say, “OK, no problem. I just missed you at church. Keep me posted if you need a listening ear.” Then give him a call a week later if he misses another church service.
If you decide to meet at a restaurant, try to get into an older restaurant that has high-backed booths so that you can have some privacy. (A lot of Mexican restaurants still have these.) And keep the conversation neutral until after you’ve eaten. Then say something like, “I heard you had a bad experience with So-and-so.” Then stop. Don’t say anything more. Let there be silence. Most likely, the dam will finally break and you’ll get an earful.
Listen. And that’s all. It’s possible that Joe is feeling like nobody has heard his side of the story. He needs someone to settle back and hear him out. As he talks, you’ll probably be tempted to jump in with a “Yeah, Joe, but, . . .” and then offer advice about how he could have handled the conflict better. Don’t do that. Just listen. If silence happens, let it happen. It’ll make you uncomfortable, but let him break the silence and tell his story. When I let hurting people just talk, I’ve noticed that if they’re allowed to tell their story without interruption, they sometimes start to see how they themselves might have handled things differently.
Pray silently. This is a spiritual battle, even if it concerns misunderstandings that could have been avoided. Whether the conflict was silly or serious, the effect has been the same: Joe is hopping mad and has vowed to stay away from the church.
And that’s not good, of course. God has always worked in groups. He calls us as individuals—but He calls us to a group. The Bible examples of this are numerous.
Don’t jump in and start telling your own story. Maybe you too were once hurt by the church, and you feel your story would help him. It won’t, at least not now. Joe needs to get his own story fully and completely into a pair of sympathetic ears, and he’ll scarcely listen to yours. The more you listen nonjudgmentally, the more Joe will trust you.
Don’t take sides. That is, unless you are one of the sides. In that case, if you need to apologize, let your grief and embarrassment show. But if the dispute is between Joe and someone else, just listen.
Even if Joe thinks you’re part of the problem, just listen. Remember how Jesus behaved at His trials before various leaders? He was accused of many things, yet stayed humbly silent. If Joe criticizes you, keep your same expression, and listen carefully. If there’s something you need to apologize for, do it immediately and humbly, and repeatedly if necessary. And don’t offer an insincere apology like, “Joe, I’m sorry for anything I did that might have offended you.” That’s not a real apology. Instead, a genuine apology says, “Joe, I feel very badly about what I did, and I understand why you feel hurt. I apologize.”
If you’re not an offender in this issue, don’t jump in with scathing comments about Joe’s opponent. Joe might tell you about the sins of that person and say, “Now if you were me, how would you feel?” Just keep silent, or say, “I’m so sorry” or something like that.
Joe probably wants sympathy and might even want to be able to tell other people that you are firmly in his corner. If he pushes you for a response, say something like, “You know, I wasn’t there at the time. I didn’t see the body language, and I didn’t hear everybody’s vocal tones. I’m just really sorry you have to go through this.”
Don’t try to fix things. When I was a young pastor, a woman came to talk with me about a problem she was dealing with. The more I listened to her really terrible dilemma, the more I realized that I had nothing to suggest.
Finally, when she finished, I feebly said, “Well, maybe one thing you could do is—” and she cut me off.
“Oh, that’s all right, Pastor,” she said. “I already know what I need to do. I just needed somebody to talk to.”
Along with my inner gasp of relief came an important lesson: unless you’re a trained and licensed counselor, don’t try to fix someone else’s major dilemmas. Just listen. Even professional counselors will brainstorm with a counselee to draw from that person any possible solutions.
Don’t offer to close your discussion with prayer. That’s strange advice from a pastor, right? The reason I say this is that if you ask Joe if you can offer prayer, that immediately jerks you away from the position of Friend-With-a-Listening-Ear and thrusts you into the position of a pious Spiritual Authority. And as you pray, Joe has to sit there, eyes closed, and listen to whatever you say.
Another reason to avoid praying is that it could be tempting to “preach” at Joe during your prayer, even slightly, and that’s unfair to him. Of course if Joe asks you to close with prayer, do it—but in a very gentle and non-preachy way.
But if Joe doesn’t mention prayer, just close the conversation. As you get to your feet, say something like, “Good talking with you, Joe. I’ll be praying for this whole situation.” Remember, you’re not taking sides.
Be prepared to listen to Joe’s story several times. It’s rare that one conversation will make things right, especially if Joe feels like he’s been badly hurt.
Many years ago I was asked to visit the home of a man who hadn’t attended church for years but who was sending signals that he’d like to find his way back. Because of a disillusionment in childhood, he’d gotten into the habit of looking for flaws and hypocrisy in church leaders, and since these are often easy to find, he had allowed each new example to increase his contempt.
When I arrived at his home, he began passionately recounting all those bitter stories. I just sat and listened, nodding and making occasional sympathetic noises, like “Ohhh,” and “Wow.” When he was through, I asked whether he wanted to meet again, and he eagerly agreed.
We met two more times, and each time, he told me those very same stories. It’s as though my sympathetic listening was allowing him to finally be heard, and he was getting these past hurts out of his system. I believe that as he put these disappointments into words in the presence of a neutral person, it allowed him to listen to the things he was saying and finally process them. And shortly afterward, he did return to a nearby congregation in our denomination and got involved in fulfilling its mission.
I hope this helps. May the Great Reconciler be with you as He uses your humility and patient listening to reflect His love to those hurt by your church.