They called it “bloody Sunday.” It was a day of devastation at the church. The congregation gathered as part of an inquiry into financial indiscretion by their senior pastor. It did not take long for shouting to start. Accusations flew like mortar shells. As the yelling died down, a courageous but very uncomfortable youth pastor explained discrepancies he found in the church’s financial records. The more they listened, the more the congregation grew quiet.

The senior pastor looked down on the chaotic scene from his seat on the platform, his body language communicating disinterest in the proceedings. His demeanor changed, however, the moment his collusion with the church administrator came to light. Together, they “cooked the books.” Suddenly anxious, their “shepherd” now claimed he only used a small amount of the church’s money, a sum he could easily repay. Once the forensic accountants were done examining the ministry’s financial records, that “small amount” was actually $110,000!

It’s not the pastor’s embezzlement I want to focus on, that sin is obvious enough. Rather, it’s the reactive climate to leadership that enveloped the church on that “bloody Sunday.” You see, it was not the first time a pastor broke trust with this congregation. The church folk maintained an emotional “high alert” due to a breach of trust by a former senior pastor.

Since that first loss of trust, the church became a reactive, rather than a responsive, environment. That’s what happens when trust gets broken by a leader. Leadership failure creates corporate suspicion and anxiety that expresses itself in reactivity and resistance. People react way out of proportion to any perceived offense, like using a grenade to kill a housefly. Objectivity and reason go out the window.

On a human level, the loss of objectivity sets the church family up to be wounded again. They scrutinize their next pastoral candidate to avoid repeating the last painful situation. However, operating in such self-protection blinds them to serious weaknesses in their future candidates.

Jesus does not overlook the unhealed wound caused by the first pastor. He waits for the church to deal with the pain (and sin) which has infected the congregation. Like “the sins of Jeroboam” in 1 and 2 Kings, Jesus allows the pattern of pastoral pain to continue and repeat itself until leaders address the deeper issues and cleanse the defiled role of pastor.

Most churches are slow to deal with such deeper issues. They either don’t realize how leadership failures impact their church or want to “get on with things” and leave the bad stuff behind them, or they want a “quick fix.” The “quick fix” usually consists of finding a new pastor as soon as possible. Their urgency to fill the vacancy adds to their future vulnerability.

What can a wounded church do?

  1. Corporate reactivity and suspicion are signs. If your church experiences episodes of reactivity, resist the temptation to overlook them. God is sovereign and has a purpose for what is happening. You need to discern Jesus’ purposes for the pain your church is experiencing. If you don’t learn these lessons, the pain will continue, like the case I describe. It’s just a matter of time.
  2. Avoid dealing with major trauma without informing the congregation. I know leaders need to exercise discretion in how they handle leadership failures. However when lay leaders circle the wagons without informing the congregation, it leaves parishioners suspicious about sudden, unexplained changes of staff or policy. If trust has been broken, then a lack of transparency breeds more reactivity toward boards, sessions, diaconates and even denominational leadership, setting you up for worse problems down the road.
  3. Remember who Jesus is among you. When wounded churches seek healing, they discover a Savior who is gentle with them if they are truthful with Him. They find a Redeemer who longs to bandage their wounds. They need to seek Him about the real reasons behind the pain they face. When they listen and respond to Him, He leads them to healing and recovery, with the promise of greater fruitfulness for the Kingdom.

That’s what happened in the church where “bloody Sunday” went down. On another Sunday, two years later, in honesty and humility they brought their past to the Lord for cleansing.  They experienced a powerful manifestation of His Spirit when they did. They repented as a church for the unaddressed sin and reactivity in their history. They sought to cleanse the roles and heal broken relationships within the congregation. They now face the future with a clean corporate conscience, not to mention a new spirit.

No sin is beyond Jesus cleansing and healing, even sins that devastate an entire congregation, so don’t ignore corporate reactivity and suspicion and what they indicate: broken trust. Such wounds leave many ministries in a repetitive cycle of pain that drains them of energy to accomplish their mission.

Rev. Mark Barnard serves as President of Blessing Point Ministries which works to heal ministries that have been wounded by painful crises. Mark authored Diagnosing the Heart of Your Church among other works. For more information visit blessingpoint.org or contact mark@blessingpoint.org.

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