In the midst of healing from extensive childhood trauma, it was necessary to come to terms with the ways it had caused me to survive and not thrive. I was an outspoken warrior trying to protect the damaged and hurting child inside me. My leadership skills and determination to fight for others and myself often placed me in a firing squad lineup while trying to serve in church and church-related ministries. The problem was that the one they shot was a wounded child with severe trust issues. It was not helpful.
Sometimes the problem was my own doing or the result of my response to a trigger (see my last blog), but more than once I fell into difficult circumstances due to the choices Christian leaders made—for me (for my family). The church has been both my best friend and worst enemy. I am sure in every case, those leaders who made the decision to end my means of livelihood would say they struggled in the night and wrestled with God over their decision. I can neither confirm nor deny what happens in other’s prayer closets; I can only observe how they come out and walk through my life the following day.
I wasn’t alone in the carnage. The walking wounded, fresh from the battle, were all around me. One day someone who had just lived through a devastating ministry experience said, “The problem with the church is there is no HR Department.” Not that I have found HR Departments entirely effective, but in ministry, there is no hope of justice when our damage is proclaimed as God’s will. The question I find myself asking is this: When does deciding that a pain-inflicting decision is God’s will remove us from the admonition to care?
The other day, while scrolling through Facebook, I came across the Senator who basically said we didn’t need to worry about our climate because God was in control (I know, not exactly what he said, but essentially). The implications of this kind of ‘faith’ have been wandering through my spirit all week long. Is this why Christian leaders feel no responsibility for the damage they incur in the lives of others? Do they walk out of their prayer closets with the peace that no matter how devastating their decisions are in the lives of others, it is God’s plan and God will take care of them?
At some level, I understand the importance of believing God will take care of those who are left hurting and in need over decisions that must be made (at least that is the premise). God certainly does help those who find themselves in situations which spiral out of their control. The faithfulness of God is never the question, is it?
I have about a hundred illustrative stories I could tell about this, but I will stick with just one. It fits so well.
One summer, while working on my doctorate I needed a place to stay while I took classes three hours from home. I was grossly underpaid and received $300 a year in tuition assistance—and had been told I could no longer teach online for another college to pay my tuition because the other college had different doctrinal beliefs. A secular college, it was explained, would be fine—just not a Wesleyan college. (Truth is often stranger than fiction.) We were sacrificing deeply to keep me moving toward my lifetime goal without taking out loans. A very kind couple heard about my plight and offered to let me stay in their basement for the summer. I was very grateful for their kindness and openly expressed my thankfulness to someone who was instrumental in the decisions that were making my life so difficult. The response was, “Well, see God takes care of you doesn’t he?”
How could I answer? “Well, since you have made my life so completely impossible and miserable, I guess God needed to step in and have other humans help me.” (I wish I had said that.)
We need to clarify our thinking about what God does. God prompts every single person who could make a difference to step into the gap. God is speaking but not all are listening. God’s prompting and the care provided by the listeners doesn’t indicate the bad behavior (mine or anyone else’s) that caused the mess in the first place is condoned.
Yes, this reflection does grow out of our experiences this past year and I can hear someone say, “Wait! Does this mean you think the leaders made the wrong decision?” No, maybe they did and maybe they didn’t. That isn’t the point. The point is they are responsible for caring about those who are hurting or placed in impossible circumstances because of the decisions they felt they needed to make.
It is way too easy for leadership in Christian settings to feel right (or righteous) about the decisions they make and simply believe that the affected people will be fine because God will take care of them. It is easy to rest on the promises that God gives others. Yes, God will do this, but the lack of caring will leave a scar which may heal but never be erased.
During my thirty plus years of training those entering ministry, I cannot tell you how many graduated with anticipation only to be devastated by the leadership they eagerly went to serve. This has now happened to me/us five times. (Slow learners, but we get it now--when the handwriting is on the wall, if at all possible, get out before the carnage hits--we stayed too long where it wasn't safe. Those in ministry, listen to this wisdom. God's plan doesn't ever require your annihilation. You have choices.)
I do believe leaders are often engulfed with difficult situations and for the most part, do feel some guilt over how their decisions affect others. Guilt is immobilizing and prevents the compassion that would heal everyone involved. Wouldn’t it be amazing if those who truly believe it was necessary to make decisions that affected other's lives would then listen to the prompting voice of God and actually help those who are hurting? This would require being uncomfortable with the role they played, stepping out courageously, and offering more than prayers.
It is not the decision; it is the follow up to the decision that makes all the difference. This is true especially in the cases where the employee did absolutely nothing to cause the situation, but compassion is also possible in termination with cause. What if leaders could walk beyond that line and offer the true love of Jesus? Maybe the decision to terminate an individual’s job is necessary, but does this negate any responsibility to care? When should the angst over a decision drive us to action vs. lapsing into compassionless silence?
There is always more to the story—on both sides. It isn’t the decision that matters, it is the acceptance of the situation as an opportunity to care. How many scars are inflicted because leaders simply can’t move beyond their own angst and step into the hurt of those affected by their decisions. How does hiding behind the promises God gives to others cause us to ignore the prompting voice of God? God does care and provide, but those who do not listen to the prompt, are the losers. In the process of non-acting, more pain and scars are added to those already wounded. My therapy journey was long and intense, but the layers of pain resulting from ministry situations involving hurtful decisions and the subsequent lack of compassion added many unnecessary layers on top of the abuse and trauma. Active compassion in those situations would have been so helpful.