Capstone 2-2: Restitution

Thought #2 ~ For Current and Recent Mars Hill Leaders:

“If you do not show genuine pastoral care now for parishioners harmed in your past, why should anyone think you will do anything different or better in the future?”

From the number of personal stories, articles, and comments posted in social media, it seems obvious that Mars Hill Church has produced a lot of “walking wounded.” Some remain inside the system. Others have gone out or been forced out. While disciples must discern and decide for themselves where, when, and how they will move forward, what do we do if we see they have been hurt in a situation – or will be harmed if they enter it or stay in it? And what will you do if you were part of the system that harmed them?

Sometimes, I’ve been the one who needed a nudge to see the negative impact my involvement with a toxic church was having. Other times, I’ve been given an opportunity to respond to those being abused with messages designed to protect or encourage, leave it with them, and just wait until they’re ready to process it. Other times, I’ve had to actively work to repair torn relationships where my support for an abusive pastor and his sick systems caused the rift.

If we’ve been part of the system that ends up significantly hurting people, we hold some level of culpability for that harm – even if we didn’t do the damage ourselves. Our activity and/or our passivity contributed to our system’s toxicity, and for that we hold some complicity. Complicity – that means we were accomplices – and we have to realize what that means in order to turn things toward a redemptive transformation.

  • So, what are our relational responsibilities when we directly or indirectly inflict trauma?
  • To act with integrity, how long must we persevere to do whatever depends on us to come to peace with the victims of our actions/inactions?

I’ve wrestled with these as real-world questions. That’s because I’ve lived through a few similar situations to Mars Hill, where I myself was in leadership roles in a system that turned out sour. In one particular situation, I took responsibility to do repair work in about 10 important relationships that got torn because of my support for the pastor and his system that turned out to be abusive. Meanwhile, I had to wing things because there weren’t exactly any guidebooks on how to conduct reconciliation or restitution when you’ve been part of the abusive system – at least, not that I was aware of. (This is one motivation for writing now about what I had to wade through and learned then.) So, here are some of the different types of relationships I had to work to repair, some with only minimal time and effort, others requiring years of intensive and intentional work.

General Repair and Maintenance

The work of repair can be moderate. That was more the case when I had to listen as some of my very close friends questioned me about details, as their challenges – whether ultimately proven right or wrong – made me uncomfortable.

  • Some friends had intuitively discerned from the outset that this church would be “bad news.” A few had already let me know that up front, while others told me later when I was questioning if I should stay there and if so, why and for how long.
  • Others had growing concerns that proved accurate when the pastor I’d been supportive of basically tossed aside some key leaders whom he’d previously declared his commitment to working with. They were mostly concerned for the guys who got thrown aside, me included.
  • Still others could see the damage that my involvement was doing to me and voiced their concerns.

All of those men and women were outsiders to this particular church, but they all had connections with multiple insiders. So, once I had left that church situation, these friends were relatively easier to mend fences with in most cases.

However, where it got far more intense time-wise and attention-wise was mostly with those who’d been inside the church.

Quick Reconnection

With one co-leader who was severely harmed when “thrown under the bus” by the pastor and then shunned by most of the church members, we hardly talked for at least a year – though we’d been friends for several years before getting involved at this church, and had always had the deepest of conversations. When I left the church, I took that opportunity to reestablish a connection and apologize. I also offered to answer any questions he had, which led to my sharing details unknown to him about his ending up being under church discipline and people (including many not even involved in the church) being manipulated into completely shunning him. I could visibly see how know this truth released him from some burden he was under, and stress he may not even have known he had seemed to dissolve.

My friend was incredibly gracious and simply did not hold any of my complicity against me. The guilt was gone. However, it still took me many months to recuperate emotionally from the anguish of knowing how spiritually bruised my friend had been by the cruel comments and stink-eye looks and cold treatment he’d endured from people both inside and outside of that church.

Actually, it took me a couple years before I didn’t feel such de-energizing emotional stirrings when I met with him – my fault, never his. He never, ever put out vibes of guilt, shame, or fear toward me, nor, as far as I knew, to any who’d tormented him. Perhaps my roller-coaster emotions were yet another symptom of post-traumatic stress? I don’t know about that, but I do know that eventually the negativity faded. And now, I’d say that our friendship is as strong as it ever was … actually, more.

Resistance and Refusal

Then, there were two guys who got involved with this church because I invited and/or encouraged them. One, I tried to convince to leave shortly after I’d left. He seemed incredibly put out, and said he didn’t want to hear any of it, period! And then he played “The Bitterness Card” – declaring that I just trying to undermine the pastor because things hadn’t gone my way. Well, the last half of that was true, but the first half was off kilter. I’d figured out enough by then to be warning others against someone who wasn’t worthy of trust, not undermining someone who was.

But as it turned out, this pastor seemed addicted to control, and couldn’t stop himself from forcing the church into his own image. Not surprisingly, within a few years, there’d been nearly a 100% turnover – almost every original participant was gone, many due to direct conflict with him. His own actions apparently did the trick all on their own to “undermine” any veracity or authority he’d potentially had.

The Bitterness Card may have trumped me from talking at the time, but it didn’t override or remove the reality of what malignant ministry that pastor kept embodying. “The sins of some men are quite evident, going before them to judgment; for others, their sins follow after” (1 Timothy 5:24, NASB).

Waiting for False Hope to Dissipate

The other man who’d gotten involved at my invitation didn’t want to hear my suggestions about leaving either, but for very different reasons. He still thought the pastor would follow through and let him teach – like he’d promised – and that maybe other things would turn out okay. My words and warnings wouldn’t work to demolish that assumption, so all I could do is persevere.

In fact, the wait took three more years … three years of my silence, prayers, and waiting for my friend to see for himself what was true. When he did, he came to me to talk – not distraught, but glad I’d shared with him so long ago. He sought me out to talk, with some self-condemnation for his own naïve trust in someone who proved untrustworthy. That was an emotion I understood from what I’d gone through already, so that helped me know to do what I could to gently reinforce his gifts and calling to teach. Over the years since, he has many times expressed thanks for sticking with him and waiting, and that the experiences made him stronger and much more aware of being ill-used by people in roles of authority.

Agony, Anxiety, and Longevity

The worst case of a shredded relationship took about seven years of intentional repair work after I left that church for things to return to something relatively normal. We were in an unavoidable work relationship, which made for regular interactions but with erratic dynamics: Which side of passive-aggressive would they display this time? Will I get built up or chewed up? How do I keep calm?

Sometimes the other person was fine (or appeared calm), but other times was in a full-on rage. It was agonizing to feel you were making progress, but then end up three steps back instead of one or two forward. And for years, the course of the working relationship and state of communications were unpredictable, other than predictably messy. But it did finally get to where we could have a string of conversations, spaced out over a long period of time, where they were amiable instead of anxiety-inducing. I don’t think that connection will ever be fully restored this side of heaven, because the situation did so much damage in ways that I’m not free to detail. But it was worth the effort to get to a place of peace.

Final Thoughts

I think there are two basic messages here for people with responsibilities in Mars Hill Church. First, it takes work to “live with no regrets.” If we discern we need to do something, do it. If we’ve done damage that we need to repair, get to it. It takes time and effort, but – if we have a conscience about right and wrong, and compassion about suffering caused by abuse – we’ll do what it takes for the sake of others and ourselves.

Second, we cannot control outcomes or consequences. When we’re concerned about how scriptural principles are/aren’t being applied, the key things are to pray about it, speak up, and follow through with whatever we sense our part is supposed to be. If we play whatever providential role we’re given in challenging sin and evil, and do so as wisely as possible, we have no need to be ashamed, or to take on false guilt for how things turn out.

For some addition concrete thoughts about taking responsibility and restitution, see a guest article I recently reposted as Conducting Restitution When Our Leadership Causes Damage. Here’s an outline of what it covers.

Overview: Restitution should be holistic, deal with past wrongs, and give survivors and their loved ones hope for the future.

Taking Personal Responsibility – #1, 2, 3

  1. We publicly admit to moral, ethical, legal responsibility for failure to report, and accept consequences.
  2. We apologize in person to survivors, their families and supporters – if they will let us – THEIR choice.
  3. We use our own resources to help pay survivor’s fees to counselor of their choice for at least 10 years.

Developing a Safer Congregation – #4, 5, 6

  1. We ensure the church we lead institutes and follows preventive practices against sexual abusers and abuse.
  2. We require prevention, interception, and intervention training on abuse by all paid and volunteer leaders.
  3. We teach regularly on and demonstrate God’s care for those made victims by the misuse of power by others.

Dealing with Leaders Who Refuse Responsibility – #7, 8

  1. Anyone w/ culpability in enabling abuse, but refuses consequences, is fired and whole church is told why.
  2. Any culpable church, ministry or agency refusing their responsibility should be decried and dismantled.

So, I offer that as my “Slate of Eight” concrete suggestions to address enablers of victimization and making restitution.

Finally: Love covers a multitude of sins; don’t let sins of abuse negate covering survivors with God’s love. Restore!