Every church will go through painful experiences at some point. It’s true. Moral failure, loss, division, and the list goes on. These times are so difficult for everyone, creating hurt, confusion, and even fear. And as pastors, our ability to process the event and lead our congregation through the pain is crucial.
I was on a personal coaching call recently when my coach made a startling statement. While reviewing some results of the personality assessment, he commented, “Dale, let’s imagine you came upon a house that was being engulfed in flames and you thought someone might be trapped inside. You would immediately run into the house, without hesitation, to make sure no one would get hurt. You wouldn’t even give it a second thought!”
To be honest, the first thought that immediately popped into my head was, “Isn’t that what anyone would do?” However, he explained to me that most people would be paralyzed in the moment. They would miss the chance to make a difference by over-analyzing the situation.
You see, timing is everything when a situation is quickly escalating out of control!
It is my firm belief that most pastors would run into the burning house, too. It is just a part of the DNA of someone with a divine calling to pastor God’s people. Their nature is to sacrifice themselves for the sake of others.
However, it is also true that many pastors tend to be paralyzed when the church has gone through a difficult situation that has more emotional ramifications. Events such as a marital affair between prominent members, the sudden death of a highly respected leader, an abuse situation within the children’s ministry, financial improprieties, and other traumatic events can all be perpetuated by a lack of confident leadership.
Doing nothing when everyone is looking to us for answers can cause already bad circumstances to become much worse. (And doing something too soon can do the same.)
Timing Traits for Confronting Painful Church Events
Here are a few practical leadership principles to assist you with communication following painful events:
1) Admit that you are hurting too.
Painful events in a congregation are also painful to you as the leader. In fact, I believe the leader often is hit the hardest because you often blame your leadership for allowing certain events to happen. You will eventually erupt like a volcano if you continue the practice of burying your own hurts in order to appear like you have it all together. That pain boiling beneath the surface will eventually spew out with an explosion that will devastate those closest to you as well as those you are entrusted to lead.
There is such comfort in transparency both for the congregation as well as yourself. You do not have all of the answers! And it is not expected of you to be superhuman.
2) Commit that you will be diligent to seek answers in a timely manner.
It is extremely wise to admit when you do not have an answer to a question. And remember, there are some questions that may never be answered. And there are some questions that may not need to be answered. However, it is detrimental to a bad situation to simply ignore it.
Painful events happening in a congregation are similar to being punched in the stomach. The shock and impact of the situation makes you want to take some time for yourself. But once you have absorbed the impact of the event, it is important to communicate that you are aware that answers need to be sought. Even if you do not have them immediately, let the congregation know that you are diligently seeking out next steps.
3) Enlist a few seasoned leaders to stand with you.
Nothing communicates stability better than having the most trusted leaders in your congregation team up with you. In most cases, these leaders have been in the congregation for a long time. People look up to them. They also draw comfort from the experience, longevity, and wisdom of proven leaders.
Painful events are not the time for you to become a lone ranger. This will only create skepticism, suspicion, and distrust in your leadership.
4) Act swiftly to contact the proper authorities when appropriate.
This obviously has to do with legal issues such as abuse or misuse of finances. Churches are bound by law to report cases of abuse. A lack of swift follow-through in this type of situation communicates a tolerance of the injustice.
While we are to provide grace and forgiveness as Christians, grace does not allow us to ignore laws designed to protect the innocent. Conversely, we do not want to be enablers to the abusers. Your reputation in the community will be damaged permanently if you fail to follow-through here!
5) Develop a plan with flexibility built into it.
It is important to communicate very soon after painful events. However, you do not necessarily have to feel like you need to provide a rock solid plan with all of the answers. I find it best to communicate the plan with the understanding that things will change as you move forward. Plans communicated firmly without the possibility of change can allow the painful event to be reopened in the future.
6) Allow time for mourning, grieving, healing, and restoration.
I had quadruple bypass surgery three years ago. Although the surgery was an obviously traumatic experience, the real challenge for me came in allowing my body enough time to recover afterwards. I could have easily caused major damage if I had picked up where I left off within a few weeks of the event.
The same is true for your congregation. They need time to heal from a painful event. Rushing the process will only lead to scar tissue and an incomplete healing.
Everyone is going to encounter painful events in life. That is just how it is. However, a painful event does not necessarily need to last for years. The long-term effect of a painful event correlates with how it is dealt with in the early stages. And mature leadership is a must. Leaders have to be proactive in dealing with these type of issues rather than reactive.
Plan now to embrace these timing traits for painful events to help you avoid analysis paralysis in the moment!