In our book, re.CLAIM.ing – A Handbook for Developing a Restorative Culture in Your Church, we talk about how some churches can be toxic toward people who have experienced public failure of some kind, especially if it happened in that particular church or even in the surrounding community. Often, churches are averse to restoring broken leaders and believers and do not even know it. We highlighted one such church in the book (see chapter four, page 55-56), where a fallen pastor was asked not to come back to a church in the same county for fear people from his former church would find out and the reputation of their church would be harmed.
If you have no anecdotal evidence that your church has ever helped a fallen or hurting pastor or church leader get back on their feet or find a safe place to heal, you should at least consider the idea that the culture is averse to restoration, or even toxic toward broken believers. There are some signs you can look for and some things you can do as an individual pastor or church leader to address the issue if those signs are present.
A Church Toxic Toward Broken Believers Will Allow People to Drift Away
The most telling sign that your church is not a safe haven for broken people is the absence of people from the church who once served and worked diligently but after some cataclysmic event or sin in their life, they are simply gone. No one in the church leadership or among the deacons has any contact with them anymore. They most likely are out of church altogether.
The general consensus of the leadership is that, “He (or she) would probably not show their face around here anyway, so why should I waste time reaching out to them?” It is the proverbial “out of sight, out of mind” thought process that allows people to completely fall through the cracks.
Fortunately, God has orchestrated a church strategy to keep people from falling through the cracks. If that person has not been through a formal church discipline process, in all likelihood, they are still on the membership list, and as such, the church is to steward that membership. One of the tools toxic churches use is to simply vote to remove broken and neglected people from the membership list without sending someone to talk to them.
No one knows if they have repented of the sin, if they have found a church to take them in and let them heal, if they have found assistance to deal with their failure, or if they have worked through to some closure with the previous church. If you look around and determine that everyone who has failed in any way is no longer in your church, and no one is actively pursuing them (or really cares what happened to them), you might be in a toxic church.
A Church Toxic Toward Broken Believers Will Have Unresolved Hurt
Another sign of a church that is toxic toward broken people and failed leaders is a church that has never dealt with its own pain caused by a previous leader. Psychologists often say that “hurt people hurt people.” While that is probably true, so is the corollary. Hurting people don’t help people.
When churches suffer as a result of a pastor that had an affair, embezzled money, or just presided over a church split, and don’t work through it, they often find it hard to move on as a congregation. But just as importantly, they find it impossible to love broken people who come their way – especially those broken people who used to be leaders in another church somewhere.
This results in a church that has been broken staying broken because the very thing that might bring them some healing causes them to have to face their own brokenness. Helping a broken brother and hearing his story may cause them to realize that, while they may not have caused the past failure in their own church, their story might include some mistakes for which they have never confessed and made amends. As in divorce, a church conflict is rarely 100% the fault of one side or the other.
A Church Toxic Toward Broken Believers Will Have a Long List of Former Leaders
While there are likely many more we could talk about, there is at least one more sign of a toxic church that few people talk about. If there is a long list of former staff members and pastors who have left amid tension or some unresolved conflict or disagreement, you might be in a place that is toxic toward restoration.
In fact, while this is a conversation for another day, if this sign is evident in the church, it may have turned toxic toward leadership in general. When churches have experienced a major upheaval or a series of smaller ones, they will often build mechanisms into their policies and procedures that are really just there to protect the congregation from the pastor or staff, leaving them no room to follow the leadership of the Spirit. When that is the case, the whole system turns toxic and there is room for neither restoration or any other significant ministry.
A good way to evaluate this is to make a list of former pastors and staff members (and even deacons and elders) of your church who are no longer there. Then put a check mark by each one you would feel comfortable having back to speak or participate in a homecoming or anniversary celebration.
Is It Time to Take a Soil Sample of Your Church Culture?
When I came to the church where I currently pastor, they had been through a number of pastors, interim pastors, staff members, and even deacons who were no longer in the church. I wish I could tell you I was just wise enough to know this, but I stumbled onto this strategy by mistake. I first started meeting with each of the former staff one-on-one to hear their story. I talked with our leadership team about each of those staff members. In the process, I learned there was a great deal of bitterness that flowed both ways for some of them in the way the process had played out.
Over a two-year period, I had every former pastor and staff member back to preach or participate in a service in some way. That gave people a chance to speak and make amends where possible; and in some sort of supernatural way that I did not anticipate, created good will that opened the doors of communication. Along the way, the church became known as a place of restoration. I am convinced the church had to be right with its own past leaders before they could love others who had been mistreated or had failed in some way.
Before you decide to take on a restoration project in the church where you serve, pay attention to what my co-author calls the soil. Is it fertile ground to restore the broken, OR is it toxic? If it is toxic, the first step is to work on being a healthy church, so that when broken people come, they will find a safe place to heal and grow.
Pastor Pete Tackett and Michael Stover deal more with helping broken churches heal and prepare for cultivating a restorative culture throughout re.CLAIM.ing – A Handbook for Developing a Restorative Culture in Your Church, but especially in section two, which deals specifically with your church’s culture.
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