I’ll never forget that awful Sunday morning when my pastor’s adulterous affairs were made public to the congregation. That pastor also was my grandfather. It was a double blow that devastated my family and led to the end of my church.
In nearly 14 years since that terrible day, I’ve watched other churches fall apart in the wake of a pastor’s moral failing. This summer, Perry Noble, pastor of NewSpring Church, one of South Carolina’s largest, was forced to step down after admitting to an alcohol problem.
While it’s discouraging to see this happen, things don’t always have to end badly. Churches can take steps to provide support, ensure accountability and facilitate healing.
Perhaps a helpful starting point can be found in adopting the Hippocratic Oath: First, do no harm. As the faculty editor for Harvard Health Publications, Robert H. Shmerling, a physician, writes, the dictum to “first, do no harm” is a “reminder that doctors should neither overestimate their capacity to heal nor underestimate their capacity to cause harm.”
The same principle can be applied to spiritual healing. While many Christians often are eager to jump-start the healing process, that very eagerness can become a potential pitfall.
Rushing toward forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration actually may cause more damage and re-traumatize already-wounded people. It is wise to proceed slowly, gently and with much tenderness. To paraphrase Shmerling, churches should neither overestimate their capacity to heal nor underestimate their capacity to cause harm.
With that in mind, here are ideas for congregation care in the wake of a traumatic spiritual event:
1. Protect the innocent.
Protect them first, last and always. Welcome their truth-telling. Protect their physical safety and personal identity. If the involved people are consenting adults, protect their identity and never subject them to public scrutiny by the congregation. If the pastor has committed a crime, notify the proper civil authorities immediately.
Do not wait until the next prayer meeting to decide whether God wants you to report the crime. Do not wait until the next deacons/church council meeting to decide whether you should report the crime. Do not wait for a congregational vote to decide whether you should report the crime. If a crime was committed, nobody needs approval before calling the police.
Never handle things privately or “in house.” Even if the victim does not want the police to know what happened, please remember the best way to protect the victim—and potential future victims—is by involving the proper authorities.
It’s also important to note that sometimes the congregation as a whole can become collateral damage in a pastor’s fall, and so the church itself must be protected from the pastor.
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SOURCE: The Baptist Standard
Elizabeth Esther is the author of Girl at the End of the World and Spiritual Sobriety. Find her online at elizabethesther.com.