What should a congregation do when confronted with embezzlement—either by a staff member or a volunteer? Congregations often are reluctant to prosecute such an offense. In some cases, they hope to work out a way, through the use of attorneys, for the parishioner or church employee to pay back the funds, depending upon the amount.
But sorting out the monetary restitution often is easier than restoring the relationship—especially if the church member wants to remain connected to the congregation. Some people will say, “Let’s just forgive and forget. Isn’t that what the church is all about?” Others, however, feel strongly that they will not be able to relate to this member in the future, especially if the offender doesn’t appear remorseful or makes excuses.
In such situations, a congregation might consider the use of restorative justice, which is “an approach or response to crime/harm that, to the extent possible, produces healing, restoration of health, and a re-establishment of the relationships and wholeness for the parties and the community.”1 There is no pure model for the various techniques used in restorative justice but rather a hodge-podge of processes that some practitioners in the field of conflict resolution refer to as “restorative dialogue.”
Howard Zehr argues that injured parties often need several things. First, they want answers to questions such as, “Why did this happen?” Second, many welcome the opportunity to tell their story, talk about the impact of the behavior, and receive some acknowledgement of the harm caused. Third, after being violated, people need to feel a sense of empowerment and an opportunity to regain control. And lastly, it can be helpful to explore the various other ways to make things right other than financial restitution. (A well-worded apology can go a long way toward healing.) Those individuals who cause injury also have important needs: accountability that allows them to feel responsibility and empathy; an opportunity to transcend their shame; and a way to be supported back into a sense of community.2
Restorative justice is a term that has been around for decades. The practice goes back to the indigenous cultures of North American and New Zealand that valued being in right relationship with one another and within their community. Canada is given credit for formally beginning the movement. In the early days of the movement in the United States, it was referred to as the victim-offender reconciliation program or victim-offender mediation.
Restorative dialogue is not an option in every situation. For those who are ready to make forgiveness and healing more than mere words, however, facing the pain and finding ways to reconnect after injury through a facilitated dialogue process can be a profound opportunity to experience God’s grace and human forgiveness.
1. “A Vision of Justice” by Barbara E. Raye and Ann Warner Roberts in ACResolutions: The Quarterly Magazine of the Association for Conflict Resolution (Summer 2004).
2. The Little Book of Restorative Justice by Howard Zehr (Good Books, 2002), pp. 14-15.
To learn more about restorative justice, visit:
Restorative Justice Online. http://www.restorativejustice.org/
An “online notebook” provided by the National Institute of Justice. http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/nij/rest-just/index.htm
An online assessment instrument provided by the Fresno Pacific University Center for Peacemaking and Conflict Studies. (Some translation is needed for the congregational world, but the tool still is useful in understanding which situations might benefit from restorative justice.) http://peace.fresno.edu/docs/rjassess.pdf
Preventing Sexual Abuse in Congregations: A Resource for Leaders by Karen A. McClintock
Are you ready to abuse-proof your congregation? If one child or adult is spared the confusing ordeal of unwanted touch, it will be worth your time to read this book. In this comprehensive resource, Methodist pastor and pastoral psychologist Karen McClintock demonstrates that sexual abuse in congregations is preventable and gives clergy and lay leaders the tools they need to prevent sexual abuse in congregations.
“We don’t talk about controversial issues here!” That seems to be the unspoken rule in most faith communities. The unfortunate results of such no-talk rules are that congregations are noticeably absent from the public forum and members of faith communities fail to develop “social capital.” People within congregations do not form significant connections with one another. In this book, author Katie Day invites congregations to begin engaging in difficult conversations, a process she hopes will become habitforming, a new way of being communities of faith.