I’ve been a Christian for 25 years. In total, I’ve had positive church experiences for about 7 of those. Like many, my experience has also included several instances of experiencing hurt from pastors, churches, and ministry leaders.
Unfortunately, my story isn’t unique. Over the last few years stories of church hurt have filled the internet. It’s likely that if you’ve been involved in churches or ministry settings for long, you’ve been disappointed, maybe even downright hurt by a spiritual leader. If you haven’t, congratulations! I’m really happy for you, truly. But that means that it’s probably coming. It’s best to be prepared.
I know that sounds overly negative. Maybe it is. But it’s also born out of personal experience and the observation of close friends, family, and students over a period of 25 years.
Churches are filled with people with a variety of personal hurts and disappointments. Because every person is in the process of becoming whole in Christ, we are likely to interact with people who are still dealing with hurts of their own. And, as the saying goes, hurt people hurt people. Until we are all made complete in the presence of God in Heaven, we will carry the capability to hurt other people. Just because we interact with them in church doesn’t insult us or them from hurt.
It Shouldn’t Be This Way
Being hurt by a spiritual authority shouldn’t happen. But it does because, for all of their excellent qualities, leadership skills, and spiritual depth, they’re still just people. They make mistakes. They have blind spots. They struggle with pride, ego, and vanity just like we all do. They often are driven to accomplish what they believe is a holy vision and, in all honesty, because they’re just like us in many areas, they probably don’t know how to handle conflict all that well.
The reasons for spiritual hurt are myriad. I’ve heard lots of stories, all with different particulars and some with overarching themes. Unfortunately, I’ve also heard similar stories of the same kinds of hurts being suffered by the same leader over a period of years more than once.
Heck, the podcast sensation of last year was The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill which detailed the experiences of countless individuals who suffered under various types of spiritual abuse under the leadership of Marc Driscoll. This year there are several podcasts about the behind the scenes disfunction of Hillsong. #ChurchHurt has trended more than I’d like. Movements like #churchtoo and the Exvangelicals have given voice to the ways Christian leaders have often actively done harm to others for a variety of reasons and under a variety of circumstances.
Conceptually, the reality that Christian leaders often and regularly cause harm has become an apologetic issue, especially with young people. I often hesitate to share my occupation with new people because the tone of the conversation instantly changes. People are skeptical of ministers.
No, not all ministers are bad. No, I don’t think ministers are any worse than anyone else. But the expectation and standards are higher for those who profess to know Jesus and serve in ministry. The potential for significant spiritual harm is just greater. I think it’s one of the reasons that James warns that “not many of you should become teachers.” (James 3:1)
This is Personal
I became a Christian when I was 14. The first 4 years of my walk with Christ were, in many ways, an ideal situation.
Within weeks of my profession of faith my pastor began personally discipling me and another guy in the youth group. He taught us how to study the Bible, pray, share our faith, and much more. He picked us up every Friday morning before the sun came up, took us to breakfast, and spent about an hour and a half with us. And this wasn’t one of those things where he gave us stuff to do but did other things for himself. We studied the same books of the Bible together. By the time I had been a Christian for a year and half I had completed a verse by verse study of Romans with him.
Our relationship was one of the factors that played into my deciding to stay in my hometown to attend college. I had a good thing going at my local church. Why mess with it?
Things changed in college. I’m not entirely sure why, but his demeanor towards me was different. He was skeptical of my “liberal” education (ironically, I was attending a Southern Baptist college). My family also had a falling out with a deacon in the church. The pastor took his side and said some demeaning things to my parents. That was 20 years ago. My parents haven’t attended a church since then.
What followed was a succession of negative experience with ministers. From my college ministry, to church during almost the entirety of my seminary experience (the pastor that ordained me threatened to take away my ordination for… reasons? I’m still not sure), and regularly frustrating interactions with ministry leaders/pastors while spending almost 10 years in state-level denominational work, it’s been quite a journey, friends.
I don’t say this to pile on to ministers or to engender sympathy. Only so that you understand that, while I have an understanding of the conceptual nature of church hurt and disappointment in leaders, this is definitely a personal issue for me.
Why Do You Still Believe?
Over the last year and a half as I’ve spoken more openly about my experiences with church hurt and leadership failings I’ve encountered exasperation and bewilderment from people who either have never believed or who formerly believed.
“Why do you stay?” is the common question.
It’s a good question. Honestly, it’s one I’ve asked myself several times since I was 18. There have been times when, in all honesty, I’ve wanted to walk away. The pain, disappointment, frustration, and and bewilderment have dragged me into depression a few times.
What keeps me around? As corny as it sounds, it’s Jesus.
No matter what individuals or groups who represent Jesus do, I can’t shake the reality that I think it’s more likely than not that Jesus was real, he was crucified, and he rose from the dead.
If those 3 things are true, then I can’t allow the conduct of any other individual or group to alter the substance of my faith.
For sure, the particulars have changed. I don’t have the same faith I did as a 14 year-old and, regardless of the faith or lack thereof that you possess, I hope this is true for you, too. My views have grown, evolved, and changed. I’ve developed more discernment about who I trust and under whose authority I’m willing to sit. My views on Scripture, the roles of women, the polity of the church are not the same as they were 5 years ago, much less when I was 14. My fundamental approach to how I pursue Jesus has changed several times.
But the substance of my faith remains the same because I’m convinced in the historical reality of the person of Jesus. If those 3 things are true– Jesus existed, Jesus was crucified, and Jesus rose from the dead– then it would be helpful if other people who believed those things were always the most noble, pure-hearted, well-adjusted, and healthiest people, but it isn’t necessary for me to believe.
I Like Your Christ, But I Don’t Like Your Christians
Ghandi once said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” His quote is a good summation of many people’s attitudes towards Christianity, Christians, and church. Making matters worse in an American Christian context, many of the folks who harbor these negative attitudes developed them out of personal experience with the church and Christians. Ghandi’s experience was primarily observational.
If you’re struggling to believe because you’ve been hurt or just because you’ve seen too much, I get it. I know how hard that makes things.
But how does that alter your understanding of who Jesus is?
I’m not telling you to jump right back into church. I’m not telling you that every self-professed Christian is worthy of your trust. I’m not even suggesting that you and I will end up agreeing on all of the particulars of what it means to follow Jesus (we probably won’t).
But I am suggesting that there is something about believing and following Jesus that transcends all the mess that I’ve seen, heard, and experienced. I am suggesting that Jesus may want to use your pain to influence others and help transform the church and ministry for the better. I can identify how the negative experiences I’ve had have turned me into a more conscientious, compassionate, patient, and understanding minister. Make no mistake, I would have rather learned those lessons another way. But pain is an excellent teacher if we lean into the tension and listen.
Hope to Carry On
I find a lot of comfort in the reality that it was often the most religious people that Jesus struggled with the most. It was in the Temple that Jesus turned over the tables. While he showed incredible compassion to lepers, tax collectors, prostitutes, the ill, and the socially downcast, it was against the religious leaders that Jesus leveled his harshest rebukes (Matthew 23:13-39).
There’s something beautiful in a faith that persists in the face of difficulty. Perhaps God is doing a new thing in the hearts of people who have been hurt to bring about the renewal of the church. Perhaps He’s calling you to be part of it.