The pain of church conflict does not go away.

Even years after the events that caused a rip in the fabric of the ministry of a pastor and their people, the pain remains.

In one succinct sentence in her book Atlas of the Heart, Brené Brown explains why: “It’s possible to heal betrayal, but it’s rare because it requires significant courage and vulnerability to hear the pain we’ve caused without becoming defensive.”

Violation and betrayal are the terms I have often used to describe what happens when a church descends into turmoil over a pastor’s leadership.

My one experience with a difficult church led to my resignation after seven-and-one-half years, which at that time was somewhat of a record for that congregation.

Known as a “preacher killer,” their reputation was widely known in the Texas Panhandle and directly correlated to a small group of people who wanted to control the church. Oddly, they were frequently fighting among themselves over budgets, emphases and power.

My way of dealing with the betrayal and violation early on was not to deal with it. I realized I should not dwell on the pain of the past, the people who were so malicious and dangerous, so I pushed it away and pushed it down.

When we came to Crescent Heights Baptist Church as pastor and family, we fell into the loving arms of a congregation which seemed to have an intuitive sense of gracious comforting.

I have never believed I should universalize my personal experience or struggles. Yet, when I called a friend who had been terminated to touch base with him, I simply said, “It helped me to name the hurt and I settled on ‘violation’ and ‘betrayal.’” He responded, “That’s it. That’s how I feel.”

It is incredibly easy to close one’s heart to the possible risk of vulnerability and compassion because of one bad church experience.

Many ministers have built a wall to avoid ever being hurt again like their previous pain and experience. It is here that ministry spouses can lose their enthusiasm for their role of ministry in succeeding congregations.

However, what I have learned is that healing is never, ever in the hands of those who injured or anguished the ministry family.

There are some solid reasons why this is generally the case. First, the injurer is often oblivious to the pain they have caused. Second, the party who injures most often rationalizes the actions they took. And finally, the person or group lacks the spiritual capacity for repentance.

So, when one has been betrayed and violated by a congregation that has broken faith and the bonds of fellowship, what is the minister and family to do to move beyond their experience?

First, reading the passion week of Christ helps us to understand the pain and rejection Jesus suffered had absolutely nothing to do with anything he did wrong.

This can be a powerful moment of insight into suffering in this world for the cause of Christ. He who knew no sin was persecuted and driven to the cross.

Second, we should consider Jesus’ cry from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).

Those persons who reduce the fellowship and witness of a congregation to something to be held and controlled have no idea what they are doing.

Third, Jesus points the way when he invokes the power of forgiveness.

Over the years of preaching, I attempted to ruthlessly distill down the “theological” jargon to simple, practical, understandable steps which could be taken by a person willing to forgive.

Forgiveness is about three actions the one hurt or betrayed or violated takes.

First, there is the action of “letting go of the particular ‘sin.’” I use the analogy of the clenched hand embracing and holding on to the hurt. The first, essential part of forgiveness is “turning loose of the sin.”

Second, there is “turning loose of the sinner.” Jesus from the cross spoke of them, and this step requires us to forgive people, not just what they did.

Third, it is all done with grace. One of the ongoing great pictures of the forgiveness of God is how graciously God forgives our sin.

Jesus spoke of it when he told the story of the prodigal son welcomed home with an open heart by his father. Hebrews speaks of it when it commands us, “Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).

Interestingly, while I loved all four of the churches I served, and most of the people, the last 15 years spent with Crescent Heights Baptist Church in Abilene, Texas, was a period of unexpected blessings and productivity locally, around the state and around the world.

This taught me that a broken, betrayed heart and the violated spirit is best healed in the fellowship of a congregation whom God has given a special healing heart.

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