On Owning Hurt in the Church

If you’ve been around the Church for any length of time, you’ve more than likely been hurt by someone in leadership.

Maybe it was a pastor. Maybe it was a ministry leader, Sunday school teacher or elder/board member/council member (whatever your particular church calls their leadership team). If you’ve been hurt by someone in the Church, it’s probably been someone in a position of authority.

In the same way, if you’ve been a leader in a church for a while, you’ve probably hurt someone. I’m sure it wasn’t intentional. Most people who get into ministry either full-time as pastors or even as a volunteer in some capacity do it because they have a desire to see people become more like Jesus. And yet, in spite of that desire, we can still hurt people.

Last week we talked about four ways we can hurt people. If you missed it, you can check out that post here.

But what do you do if you realize you’re the one who has hurt people? What do you do when you recognize that, despite your best intentions, some people have less of a desire to know and follow Jesus because of your words and actions?

First of all, accept what you did. Admit you’re at fault; that you actually hurt someone. It’s not just that the person happened to be hurt in an innocuous interaction, your words and actions actively hurt another person. You’re responsible.

Too often I’ve seen church leaders dismiss the damage they’ve done by trying to explain why they said what they did or how the hurt person simply misunderstood them. That may be the case, but you’re still responsible for the hurt someone experienced.

As church leaders, we need to be aware of how our words and actions have power. People listen to what we say and watch how we act. We shouldn’t expect others to do the hard work of trying to figure out our motivation or our meaning if we’re not willing to do the hard work of figuring out the best way to say what we mean.

You are responsible for your words and actions. If someone tells you that you hurt them, own up to it without trying to make an excuse. All we do when we make excuses for our actions is communicate that the person is wrong to feel hurt. And when we tell people they’re wrong for feeling hurt by us, we erode trust.

Secondly, if you realize you hurt someone, apologize. Admit to them you were wrong, and acknowledge that you caused them pain. This is going to take humility, but an authentic apology can go a long way in helping others heal.

And when you apologize, ask for forgiveness, don’t demand it. This should really go without saying but if you hurt someone, you don’t get to make any demands in the process of seeking restoration.

I understand how this can happen. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve been guilty of this as well. Apologizing and asking for forgiveness is an act of vulnerability. When you ask for forgiveness for past hurt, you’re giving the other person the ability to either accept or reject your attempt at reconciliation. This can feel incredibly jarring, especially to those of us who are used to being in positions of authority. We don’t like feeling powerless. The temptation in those situations is to take back control by demanding forgiveness.

Of course, we rarely think of it in terms of demanding, but that’s exactly what it is. Sometimes we will dress it up in religious language. Maybe we’ll talk about how Jesus tells us to forgive (and thus the person you hurt should forgive you). We might even quote a Bible verse about how we need to forgive in order to receive God’s forgiveness.

Whatever language you might use, if you imply that the person you’re apologizing to needs to forgive you, you’re abusing your position of authority. That’s exactly what spiritual abuse looks like.

Should people forgive? Of course. The person you hurt will be better off if they decide to forgive you. But forgiveness is for the benefit of the hurting person. We don’t get to decide the timetable on which someone else forgives. It should never be demanded or expected simply because you feel uncomfortable.

In addition to taking responsibility for our actions and apologizing to our victims, as leaders we need to learn to listen. Assuming those you have hurt are willing to sit down with you, it would be helpful to listen to their stories. Listen to their perspective; what you did, how you made them feel.

Beyond that, church leaders should be willing to hear and learn from anyone who has been hurt by the Church. Regardless of whether you caused the hurt yourself, there is something to be gained by listening to those people who have experienced pain at the hands of the Church.

Some of them still attend our churches while others have checked out and moved on. Find them. Ask them to share their stories with you. What was said, what was done, how did they feel. How have those painful experiences shaped their perspective on the Church and on what it means to follow Jesus?

And when you listen to these stories, whether it’s one-on-one, in a small gathering or in an open setting, ask questions. Try to understand their perspective. What did you say? What could you have said differently? How could you do better in the future?

Sometimes people have answers to those questions. Other times they may have no idea what you could do differently (remember, it’s not their job to help you improve). I’ve found, even when the people I’ve hurt don’t have any idea on how I can be better in the future, just knowing I’m genuinely interested in their perspective helps the situation.

Finally, in everything you do, don’t be demanding. We’ve already touched on this in a few of the ideas above, but when you’re apologizing, when you’re trying to reconcile with someone you have hurt in the past, you need to realize the person doesn’t owe you anything.

They don’t owe you forgiveness. They don’t owe you a conversation. They don’t owe you an explanation. Those things would be helpful, but you can’t bully someone into helping you better yourself. That kind of defeats the point.

As leaders in the Church, we need to recognize our own depravity. We need to recognize how much we still need Jesus to save us from ourselves and our ability to hurt those around us. We need to recognize all the ways we can cause pain to people in the one place they should be able to come for healing.

For so many people, it’s not the initial offence that hurts nearly as much as how we respond to that offence. If we make excuses, if we disregard our responsibility, if we half-heartedly apologize and demand forgiveness in the process, what we reveal is that we’re not really that interested in reconciliation. We show that we don’t really care for those we’ve hurt. And unfortunately, that all too often leads people to leave the Church. Not just our local church, but the Church; Jesus’ church.

People have enough reasons to not follow Jesus on their own; it’s hard, it requires sacrifice, you have to die to yourself on a daily basis. Let’s not give them another reason by the way we handle the hurts we’ve caused.

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