Hurt by the Church
By Michelle VanSlate
Slamming the telephone onto the receiver, I flung my words of frustration at my husband, who sat in the family room watching the latest episode of Star Trek. “I can’t believe it! It’s not fair.” Bryan lowered the TV volume. “Who was it?” “Pastor Don. He said ... he said that I....” My throat closed over the rest of my sentence. I curled up on the couch and grabbed a box of tissues as tears spilled down my cheeks. I loved the church and had poured my heart into it, but now we were being pushed out. When my husband first took the job as an unpaid associate pastor, the church was positive and supportive. But as times got tough, the new guy and I, his wife, were taking the blame. These most recent allegations from Pastor Don were only the latest in a growing list of petty grievances against us.
Hurt, frustration, and confusion welled within me as Pastor Don’s accusations rang in my mind. “You should have…,” “You were wrong to...,” “This was your doing,” “You’re not being faithful.” And with each statement, I felt as if someone were jabbing me with a red-hot poker.
I hadn’t expected to be hurt like this, especially in the church. But with three tissues wadded in my fists, and my eyes red and puffy, there was no denying it: I had been burned by the church.
In the weeks to follow, I found that my emotional and spiritual wounds were a lot like physical injuries. How I acted and reacted would determine whether the wounds healed or became infected, whether I grew stronger or was left with an ugly scar.
How, I wondered, could I recover with my faith intact? What should I do?
Keep the wound clean.
As I huddled on the couch, mulling over “Why me?” and “How could this possibly have happened?” it occurred to me that maybe my situation wasn’t as strange and unusual as I first thought. I wasn’t the first one to be burned by spiritual leaders: It happened to Jesus, too. It was the religious leaders who arrested Him and demanded He be crucified. They accused Him. They mocked Him. They hurt Him.
And what was His response? The Apostle Peter tells us in 1 Pet. 2:23: “When they hurled their insults at Him, He did not retaliate; when He suffered, He made no threats. Instead, He entrusted Himself to Him who judges justly.”
When Jesus faced hurtful accusations, He did not curse, defend, or blame. Although He had every right, He didn’t point an incriminating finger at His accusers nor strike back at them with a list of their own sins and failings. Instead, He put the situation into God’s hands.
Christ had given me an example, but had I measured up? I needed to ask God to search my heart and show me where I had failed. How had I contributed to the situation? Where had I reacted with selfishness and anger? Had I lashed back with stinging words of fault-finding and self‑defense?
When I compared my actions and reactions to those of Christ, I found that my response was not so exemplary. I had certainly said a few things that Jesus wouldn't have said. Through my un-Christlike reactions, I’d sprinkled some dirt into my wound, and if I allowed it to fester, my own wrongdoing would soon impede my recovery.
Like hydrogen peroxide, which stings at first but also cleans out the germs and dirt that cause infection, repentance cleans our spiritual and emotional wounds and prepares us for healing. It was hard for me to admit that I, too, had been at fault during the conversation with Pastor Don. But only when I examined myself, confessed my failures, and repented of my angry words was I truly ready to begin healing.
Don’t blame the doctor.
“How could God let this happen to us?” I remember drilling Bryan with that question a dozen times in the week following my phone conversation with Pastor Don. Finally, tired of my ranting, Bryan said matter‑of‑factly, “I don’t know. Why don’t you ask Him?”
Ouch! His words stung. Yet, Bryan was right. I was blaming God for the hurt instead of going to Him for healing. Confused and feeling betrayed, I had withdrawn from the only one who could heal me. Instead, I needed to pour out my feelings and fears before Him, ask for His help, and trust Him, as the Great Physician, to heal me.
When we’ve been hurt in the church, Ronald Enroth, author of Recovering from Churches That Abuse, says, “Above all, learn to trust God again. Renew your walk with Him; rebuild a quiet time; don't give up.”
I discovered that when I felt the most like pulling away from God, that’s when I needed to draw closer to Him by spending additional time in prayer and Bible study. As I continued to come to God with my pain and confusion, and as I studied the book of 1 Peter, God began the healing process in me.
Obey the doctor’s orders.
Through studying Scripture, I found God’s prescription for healing. His first order was that I “forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Col. 3:13). Again, Christ was my example. Hurt, betrayed, and dying, Jesus hung on a wooden cross. With eyes blurred with pain, He looked at those who had nailed Him there and said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk. 23:34).
Of course, saying that I had forgiven Pastor Don was a lot easier than actually ridding myself of the bitterness and resentment. As author Lewis Smedes says, “Forgiving is a journey, sometimes a long one, and we may need some time before we get to the station of complete healing.”
I needed to release my situation to God and let Him make things right. It wasn’t up to me to make sure Pastor Don paid for hurting me. God could take care of us both. Through much prayer and by continuing to surrender my bitterness to God, I could eventually move on.
Take off the bandage.
Just as no one keeps a bandage on forever, it was essential for me to become vulnerable again - to allow the air of Christian fellowship to continue God's healing process. Ronald Enroth says, “You will need to trust again, in stages.... Don’t give up on the church, despite its imperfections.”
Within two months we determined to join a a new fellowship, whether we felt like it or not. Then, within six months, we would begin whatever new ministry God opened for us. I knew that if I allowed my feelings to determine when I recommitted to a church, a few weeks would turn into a few months, which would turn into a few years, until my relationship with God would slide into great disrepair.
At the end of two months, I hesitated to open myself to a new church. But as I stuck to the time schedule Bryan and I had prayerfully established, I found that my pain and fears lessened with each new step I took. A few months later, when a music ministry opened to us, I discovered that the way to get beyond my feelings of fear was to try something new in ministry, to pull off the bandage and take a risk, even if it meant being hurt again.
Don’t reopen the wound.
I had just thrown a can of chili into my shopping cart when Marcie’s voice sounded behind me. “Hey, what happened to you guys? Pastor Don just said you’d left.”
I looked into Marcie’s inquisitive face. “Well, it’s a long story,” I began as I told her what had happened to us. For the moment, it felt good to spew out all my anger and frustrations, but the more I talked, the more I remembered and relived the painful experience.
Each time I repeated Pastor Don’s words, my anger and pain worsened. Besides spreading discord, I was undoing the healing work that God was accomplishing in me. I was “picking the scab,” causing my wound to bleed and become infected all over again.
Solomon wrote, “Without wood a fire goes out; without gossip a quarrel dies down” (Prov. 26:20). I needed to remove the fuel from my conversations, to stop picking the scab, so my hurt could die down.
I needed to find one mature, objective Christian (not someone involved in the situation) to counsel with, to help me through my hurt. Susan, a pastor’s wife in town, was that person for me. With her, I could share my feelings and work through my fears. Together, we prayed, talked, and looked into Scripture.
Healing is a choice.
In speaking with others involved in ministry, I’ve discovered that just about everyone who ministers in the church will be burned at one time or another. I was no exception. But, God, the Great Physician, provided the way for me to be healed. He taught me that a burn, even one incurred in the church, doesn’t have to leave permanent damage. In fact, He often allows the burn to occur to give me an opportunity to become more like Jesus. It is my choice whether I heal or become infected. But I am never the same again. I struggle, I learn, I surrender, I change. Now, I can even be glad for the harsh words spoken by Pastor Don.
Author Hannah Hurnard reminds us, “Every trial, every test, every difficulty and seemingly wrong experience through which you may have to pass, is only another opportunity granted to you of conquering an evil thing and bringing out of it something to the lasting praise and glory of God” - even when we’re burned in the church.