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18 May '13

When churches come undone and need to heal

Posted by T.J. Addington
I have been called into many hurting church situations over the past several decades and counseled many others from a distance, often once a week including several days ago. What I have learned  over the past years is that when a church comes apart it takes more time to heal than people realize.

We often underestimate the healing process. We think that if we address the presenting issues (which do need to be addressed) that we will be OK and we can then move on. The truth is, however, that all healing takes time, usually more time than we want or expect. I am still healing from a severe illness some five years ago. Congregations that have been severely traumatized also take years to heal.

I have three suggestions for churches that have come undone and are in need of healing.

First, healing may well be the main work of the church for a season. While I didn't like it, coming out of hospital five years ago my main job for a season was therapy. The same is true for a wounded church. Relationships have been impacted, divisions have been caused, trust has been breached, sides have been picked. While many will simply want to move on what is really needed is a time of guided healing from someone who can help address the critical issues. Healing and health are not side issues but the central issue when a church as come undone.

Second, trust must be re-established. Congregations are like families and when trust has been broken there is nothing more important than to re-establish trust where that is possible and relationships where they have been broken. This not only takes time but it usually takes the facilitation of an outside neutral third party who can help parties hear and understand one another and hopefully reconcile. While many want to skip this hard step, underlying hostilities will dog the church for years if not resolved in a biblical manner.

Third, there are usually underlying issues that need to be addressed that either contributed to the church's trauma or might have prevented it in the first place.  While we cannot foresee future events we can learn from past events. It is not uncommon that in retrospect we see things that we should have noticed or paid attention to. Whatever they are we want to learn from the experience and put appropriate safeguards in place that would help us see and deal with dishealth in the future.

All of this is best facilitated by an outside facilitator or intentional interim pastor who has the skills to understand the dynamics involved and guide the congregation toward health. When this does not happen the congregation either repeats the dysfunction down the road or suffers additional pain from unresolved issues from the trauma it experienced but did not properly address.