I can still see their faces in my mind—after 38 years of pastoring—people who felt deeply hurt by the churches I’ve attended or pastored. Thankfully, these churches contained mostly adorable people, but in the situations these people had to deal with, the hurt was real, and it was deep. I have changed all the names in the following stories.
Fred was a strong-willed, decisive church elder and lay preacher and a hardworking business owner. But he sharply disagreed with other leaders about the direction the congregation should go, so he abruptly left and transferred his membership to a church 50 miles away.
Patty was a crusty senior who taught a Bible class for five-year-olds. The problem was that she intimidated the children of newcomers. Frightened, these kids would beg their parents not to bring them back the next week. So, the nominating committee removed her from that role and gave her opportunities to serve in other areas. She exploded on the phone, to me, then left in a huff, never to return.
Bob and Sally were close friends with the pastor I’d replaced. He’d been asked to leave by our denomination’s leadership, and Bob and Sally didn’t believe he’d been treated fairly. So, they vanished.
Three families stopped attending because of an extremely hostile member’s behavior—and that member later left as well.
Interestingly, none of these people said they were leaving because they disagreed with how their church interpreted the Bible. Most of the “church hurt” I’ve seen has not happened because of doctrine. It has resulted from personality clashes, perceived unfairness, or just plain misunderstanding.
Feeling hurt by the church is tragic. Why? Because even though God calls individuals into His heart, He has always gathered them into groups. Adam and Eve weren’t created on opposite sides of the planet and each given their own set of ready-made children to raise. Instead, God united them as a family. Many centuries later, He gave 12 sons to Jacob, and each of those sons fathered tribes, and eventually, they marched out of Egypt, not as fleeing individuals but as families.
God designed the ancient Israelite tabernacle as a place for people to gather as a group. Later, the Jews gathered in synagogues, and Jesus preached in many of them. Then He sent His disciples out in ever-widening circles to gather other people into “churches.” Paul and Peter, James, John, and Jude each wrote letters to encourage those congregations. Church is good. God has created us to thrive with mutual support.
But sometimes, the church hurts.
if you’ve been hurt by the church
Being hurt by your church can be devastating. You’ll probably feel as though you’ve fallen off a cliff or been run over by a truck. But take a deep breath and try the following before you leave the church.
Make sure you have all the facts straight. News editors caution their journalists not to publish a story with just one source. “Get two sources,” they urge. “Better yet, get three or even more!” If a church member—or committee, or the pastor—seems to have hurt you, talk to that person. “Seek first to understand, then to be understood” is my favorite quote by Steven Covey in his book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.
And rather than roar into that conversation with guns blazing, go cautiously. Say something like, “I was just wondering if you could clear up something for me. From what I can tell . . . ,” then go on to explain what happened to you. When you’re through, just listen. Also, don’t be afraid to apologize for what you might have done to make things worse. As a pastor, I’ve watched quite a few misunderstandings evaporate when people humbly talk things out.
Don’t hash out your hurt on social media. You probably don’t need me to tell you how unwise that would be. People will often shout things with their tweeting thumbs that they’d never say to someone face-to-face, sort of like firing a shotgun blindfolded. Even if someone else posts on Facebook or tweets (or whatever) about the issue, stay above the fray. Even though you’re the one who’s hurt, be the grown-up in the room.
Keep your eye open for a Barnabas. During the time the apostle Paul was still Saul of Tarsus, he was a murderously fanatical persecutor of Christians. But in Acts 9, Jesus met him in a blaze of light, and Saul was converted. But that raised a critical problem: How could Saul convince the Christians with whom he was joining forces that he was safe? Enter Barnabas. Friendly and encouraging, Barnabas listened to Saul’s story, believed him, and paved the way for him to become accepted by the church at large. Maybe you have a friend at church who could be a kindly mediator. If you can’t think of someone, pray for one, or pray that the Lord will help you reconcile some other way.
Go slow on leaving forever. Who knows, the next time you return to church, someone might come up to you, welcome you warmly, and apologize for what happened.
Remember, it wasn’t Jesus who hurt you. It was an imperfect human being. Jesus loves you and wants you to be happily connected to a church family, either in your current church or in another one somewhere else. After all, the Savior Himself was hurt many times by fellow church members. In fact, at the end of one of His synagogue sermons, the congregation tried to throw Him off a cliff! And He was crucified at the request of the nation’s highest religious leaders. But He didn’t abandon His faith. As He hung on the cross, He begged God to forgive His persecutors (Luke 23:34)!
how to help someone the church has hurt
Several years ago, I received some priceless training on reaching out to church members who were no longer attending, mostly because they felt hurt by the church. Here are some of the principles I learned, plus others I’ve picked up along the way.
Reach out carefully to that person (let’s call her Mary). This works really well if you’re friends and if you weren’t involved in the separation crisis. The best way—assuming COVID-19 will let you by the time you read this—would be to invite her to a meal. If you can’t do that, then suggest a social-distanced walk in a park or some other place where the two of you can be alone. Don’t have this conversation by phone because neither of you will be able to see the other person’s body language.
Once you’re together in person, you can say something like, “I heard you had a bad experience with so-and-so at church.” And 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. Most likely, Mary is feeling like nobody has heard her side of the story. So let her talk. You might be tempted to jump in with, “I know just what you mean.” Don’t say it. You don’t know what she’s been through.
Pray silently. This is a spiritual battle, even if it has to do with misunderstandings that could have been avoided. Whether the conflict was silly or serious, the effect was the same—Mary felt deeply hurt and didn’t feel comfortable attending church. So even as you talk, ask God to help you know what to say—and what not to say.
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. It won’t, at least not now. Mary wants to get her own story fully and completely into a pair of sympathetic ears, and she’ll scarcely listen to your tale.
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 Mary and someone else, just listen. Even if Mary criticizes you, keep your same expression and listen carefully.
If you’re a nonoffender in this issue, don’t jump in with scathing comments about Mary’s opponent. It could be that Mary wants your sympathy, so she 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, “You know, I wasn’t there at the time. I didn’t see the body language of the person who hurt you, and I didn’t hear everybody’s tone of voice. I’m just really sorry you have to go through this.”
Don’t try to fix things. Unless you’re a trained and licensed counselor, don’t try to fix someone else’s major dilemmas. Just listen. Even professional counselors will mostly brainstorm with a counselee to draw from that person any possible solutions.
Be prepared to listen to Mary’s story several times. It’s rare that just one conversation will make things right, especially if Mary considers herself to have been badly hurt. Years ago, I listened to a man tell his hurt-by-the-church story three complete times over several weeks. 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 to process them. And shortly afterward, he did return to a nearby congregation 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 who have been hurt by the church.
Maylan Schurch is pastor of the Bellevue Seventh-day Adventist Church in Bellevue, Washington. He is a frequent contributor to Signs of the Times®.