by Susan Nienaber

He was by all accounts a rising star. Young, energetic, dashing, and engaging, the 26-year-old new associate pastor was a welcome contrast to the congregation’s introverted and shy senior pastor. A man so misfit with laity and local culture that beyond sermons on Sundays, no one seemed to know him or hear from him. So when a year after his arrival, the associate pastor was called to head a large congregation out of state, the church community was devastated.

But that loss would pale in comparison to what would happen a year later, when the rising star was unmasked in his new congregation as a child molester.

As news cycled back to his first congregation, members had to come to terms with some difficult realities. The same leader they knew and loved had molested members of their congregation, yet no one, save the victims and the aforementioned senior pastor, knew about it. Recalls church member David (whose name has been changed for this article), the congregation was suddenly confronted with two horrible “phenomena: the child molestation, and the cover up by the senior pastor.”

It would be the beginning of a long and arduous journey. The senior pastor would resign; the man whom no one knew very well knew all about the molestations and told no one. The former associate pastor would be criminally charged and jailed. Large numbers of people would leave the congregation—a not-unexpected consequence—and one relatively small, dedicated band of individuals would be left behind to pick up the pieces. The recovery process would take decades. Even today, years later, outstanding lawsuits mean that those who lived through the ordeal must remain vigilant, ever aware that at any time the wounds they had worked to heal could re-open and fester again.

Common Story, Little Coverage

Whether the result of criminal activity or natural disaster, personnel changes or untimely deaths, leadership changes or internal political splits, most congregations will at some point be faced with a trauma that may threaten their existence. The stream of materials designed to help congregations avoid such problems, or deal effectively with them in the midst of the crisis, abound. What isn’t known so well are the stories of congregations that have survived these traumas and lived to tell the tale. Of course, avoiding the escalation of conflict is desired. But avoidance isn’t always possible.

In 2006, I undertook a non-scientific study of congregations. Called, appropriately enough, the “Resilient Congregations Study,” it looked at a dozen churches and some 40 individuals involved within the first 5–10 years after the period of trauma. Enough information emerged from a broad enough swath of individuals to generate some conclusions about high-level conflict. Some were boringly predictable. Churches, for example, that endure major conflict or traumas will likely:

  • Often lose large numbers of parishioners
  • Realize financial stagnation or loss
  • Suffer lingering fears of conflict re-arising, well after the catalyst event has passed
  • Lose energy and morale, and negativity will increase.

But other findings were not as predictable. Among them, the fact that recovery time of congregations enduring significant trauma averaged an astonishing 4.75 years.

Why would anyone willingly endure almost five years of struggle in a divided congregation when options for worship elsewhere abound? Even David commented that there were “five churches within a touchdown pass” of his congregation. But David is no stranger to hard times. A physician, he daily had to deal with not only the joy of seeing people heal, but talking with people about the reality of death. So his decision not to run early on was understandable—he’d faced difficult situations many times before.

But even David had his breaking point. When that point was reached, he and his wife were ready to leave the congregation behind, to find a healthier setting for themselves and their families. It was then that a letter arrived from his mother. Herself a survivor of a congregation undergoing conflict, she took the time to write her son and encourage him on—regardless of how dark and dire the situation had become.

She wrote that she knew it was difficult to keep going when things looked bleak, but she urged him to stay with it and to continue to work for the best interests of the congregation and its call. “I’ve kept that letter to this day,” David remarked. “It’s what kept me going when things got really tough.”

That letter tapped into a core fact of congregational life for many people: changing religious communities is not equivalent to switching from personal computers to Macintosh, or changing your allegiance from Wal-Mart to Target. Church is not simply a house of worship—it is home.
Fighting Spirit

That’s what Peg and her husband found when they moved to a small Midwestern farming community and settled upon a local congregation in which to worship. A good thing for Peg’s family, as there were few options apart from this congregation. It was established, and traditional, but an influx of younger members were making their presence known. In effect, a generational divide began to emerge. A divide aggravated by the arrival of a minister from Texas who appealed to the young and young at heart. His style, however, was not universally appreciated.

In fact, his presence exacerbated the generational riff, with factions forming in the congregation that eventually proved fatal to the Texas cleric’s leadership.

His successor fared no better.

The next leader suffered from depression and was unable to handle the divided congregation. Rather than recognize that and resign, however, he hung on. A church task-force was formed, on which Peg sat, and it ultimately forced him out. The damage was done, though. Membership declined, as well as giving.

But in the midst of the difficulties lay the foundation for the congregation’s recovery. “The conflict helped ease the generational divide,” Peg recalls. “We had to ask ourselves, ‘What do we need to do to survive?’” The thought to give up on the church never really occurred to Peg, nor to many others.  “I’m a fighter. I don’t quit,” she said. “This is my home.”

Ultimately, it was the arrival of a new husband and wife pastoral team that pulled the congregation back from the brink. The two engaged a program aimed at growing healthy congregations that the bishop had recommended. And from that began the long process of healing.
Choosing to Heal

The route to recovery following a major conflict trauma can take a variety of paths. There are no set models for doing this. But congregations that lived through it display some similar traits, as my study discovered.

  • Lay leadership matters. In both David and Peg’s churches, when the official leadership collapsed, the unofficial leaders emerged. Each was faced with unique decisions. In David’s church, the revelation about the associate pastor, and the subsequent revelation that the senior pastor had covered the episode up, was never generally known by the congregation. “Even today,” David recalls, “there are 30-year members of the congregation who do not know the details of what transpired.” In this case, a relatively small group of leaders in the then large congregation managed the crisis. At Peg’s church, the problems were universally known. There was no keeping the most painful information contained within a small group. “There’s nothing hidden in our church. Things are publicized. The people who are here are very involved. It’s a very democratic movement…. It’s all of us with the same kind of interest in moving forward.”
  • Calm leadership matters. Both David and Peg were people comfortable with uncomfortable positions. As a physician, David has had to face difficult discussions with patients as a regular part of his practice. As a teacher, Peg valued discipline. David is more reflective, Peg more assertive. Both exude calm confidence. And in the midst of a storm, little is more important.
  • Clerical Leadership matters. At Peg’s church, it ultimately was a new ministerial couple, and the program they deployed, who set the congregation on the path to healing. Of course, no program or leader alone will create the change. But together, they set the church on the right foot. The same was true in David’s church: “The interim minister was a healing factor.”
  • Putting the congregation first. In times of trial, it’s easy for a strong personality to become a dominant leader who sets the agenda. What’s needed, however, is a strong leader who allows others to the table, and always keeps the needs of the community ahead of his or her own. Both David and Peg were such leaders.
  •  Have faith. Congregations are founded on belief and spirituality, and recognition that grace can intercede. For David, that grace came in the form of a letter from his mother. For Peg, it came in the form of new leaders and a program that set the congregation on the right foot.

Underlying all of these points is a conscious decision on the part of congregations and their leaders to heal. Facing such challenges requires a commitment to getting healthy again, and recognizing that the congregation will not come through it the same as it was before. It can come through better.

The Congregational Resource Guide’s Martin Davis contributed to this story.

Questions for Reflection

  • Has a leadership collapse occurred in your congregation? How did the pastoral/lay staff deal with it? What can be improved upon should an incident happen again?
  • What can be done in your congregation to increase communication and reduce the risk of secrecy and deception? How can you prepare yourself as a congregation for this possibility?
  • What is your breaking point? What are you willing to endure for the sake of the congregation? How can you be encouraged to “tough it out” and stay through to the end with the congregation?
  • As a clergy leader, how can you connect with your congregation on many levels so as to avoid any kind of leadership collapse? What are you struggling with now that could come to a head in the future? What are you willing to begin doing or give up to strengthen your role and connect with your parishioners?
  • What kind of lay leadership is set up in your congregation that will help alleviate the aftermath of clergy leadership collapse?



Congregations, 2011-04-01
Volume 1 2011, Number 1