Owning The Church’s Big Blunder
As a pastor, you will make mistakes. Your staff will make mistakes. Your friends will make mistakes. Your church will make mistakes. Some will be inadvertent and unexpected. Others will be sinful and malicious. Even the most discerning pastor will eventually have to deal with a problem among his own, if not within himself. Jesus had the twelve, and a betrayer among even them.
Pastors and churches have a horrible track record, overall, of dealing with problems biblically. Several times each year there is a national news story about a pastor’s moral failure, financial fiasco or off-color comment. On a lesser stage but no less damaging is a church’s internal issues—an errant staff member, an embarrassing situation, a fight between members, you name it. When dealing with mistakes—sin or otherwise—here are a few pointers to remember.
Drop the broom. The days of sweeping problems under the carpet are long gone. In the age of the internet, bloggers and social media, if a few people know, it’s likely already public knowledge. Assume that more than an “inner circle” are aware of any issue you are dealing with, and handle knowing your in a cauldron of gossip. People are not just going to talk, they’re going to post, update, write and call, from the convenience of their app-laden smart phones. You will likely not be able to deal with an issue quietly and confidentially, so be on your best behavior as you assume all of your issues are in the public eye. Today, you must be aware that your church’s leadership and reputation in how it handles an an issue publicly is often as important as the issue itself.
Get ahead of it. Don’t wait too long to respond. If it looks like a problem that needs to be handled, it probably is. The internet has made “sitting on it for a few days” much less likely. If criminal activity might be involved, call the police. If sin is involved, confront the parties. If a mistake is involved, gather the participants and talk it through. If someone is upset or angered by an action, determine to restore the relationship. “Time heals all wounds” just isn’t true. Medicine heals wounds, and that sometimes hurts up front. “Delay” or “time to think” looks very much like “circle the wagons” in the public eye.
Share the burden. Once you have a picture of what is happening, contact your deacons, elders or other lay or staff leaders that you trust, and share the burden of the problem. Don’t go it alone. You will be amazed at how easy it is to begin to get a handle on a difficulty if you have a trusted group of wise counselors around you to help versus trying to figure it out all by yourself. Don’t have a trusted group of counselors? Start building one now, before there’s an issue. Think about people who are good with confrontation, good in a crisis, and who show grace, mercy and discretion as they exercise sound judgment. Some people have a gift at handling difficult situations, and giving you a frank and honest assessment in terms of Christ-honoring response–know who they are.
Then, take time to think. Once you arrive at a conclusion, consequence or action, now is the time to pull back and mull it over, maybe overnight. I’ve been involved in many situations where a problem’s solution was much better after letting it simmer overnight. Problems really do look a little different the next day. By getting ahead and acting quickly up front, you are giving yourself some room to think at the time when you need it most.
Say it if it needs to be said. If you or someone else messed up publicly, you may need to respond publicly. Not every situation demands a public response, but the fact is more do than do not. Look at a public statement as a teachable moment. Was a sin involved in the problem? Maybe it’s time to preach on that, using the situation as an illustration. Confidentiality does play into this–be careful an issue does not turn into a witch-hunt, or that an external witch-hunt does not become the driving force of your response. The religious of the New Testament hated Christians and were constantly looking at ways to stone them–that’s still true, in many ways, both inside of and outside the church today. Watch it with the rocks.
Follow through and document. Worse than not dealing with an issue at all is not following through on your response. It’s the old “blow-over” syndrome. Get a few weeks out from a problem, and it’s blown over and doesn’t seem all that bad. Remember you are responsible to God, your church and the parties involved. Be firm, follow through, write down notes and file them away in case you ever need to revisit the issue.
Author: Eugene Mason, Communications Director for Cross Pointe Church under the leadership of Dr. James Merritt.