When The Church Harms Me | UMC YoungPeople
Connecting young people and their adult leaders to God, the church, and the world
December 2016

When The Church Harms Me

By Carl Gladstone (NCJ & NEJ)

Young people all over the world have been giving up on church. Many times these young people are abandoning their faith for all the right reasons.

Christianity is a religion rocked by clergy sex abuse, blurred lines between the world’s politics and the church’s, and instances of complicity in racism and bigotry. It is no wonder that young people might opt out.

For those who work in ministry with youth and young adults we must find ways to help young people share their critiques of the church’s sins. We must simultaneously work for the church’s own honest confession of its brokenness. We must also offer ways forward together that create deep healing. That deep healing can renew forms of Christ-centered community and mission.

Honoring Their Voices

As a thirty-something United Methodist Deacon working in youth and young adult ministry I have recently come to know my own family’s history with the harm a church can inflict on young people’s lives. Generations back, in both my mother and father’s family trees, the church harmed relatives of mine while they were young. On one side of my family, a pastor serving as a counselor at church camp sexually assaulted my relative when she was an adolescent. On the other side of my family a relative and ordained pastor sexually abused a child in his own family. Each incident went unreported for years.

My deepest sadness about these incidents is how both victims felt silenced at the time of their assaults and as they grew up. The church was not set up to protect them. Nor did the church provide avenues for these two young people to speak out about the crimes committed against them.

I am thankful that my parents, each knowledgeable of these incidents in their own family histories, worked diligently to create a safe and holy environment for my sister and me. In fact, this personal experience of the church’s capacity for harm lead them to develop youth ministries in their church work that did protect young people. My parents spent their careers creating Christian communities that encouraged victims of abuse to be heard and to get help. They wanted the Wesleyan rule, “Do No Harm” to benefit the most vulnerable among us. Which includes young people, racial/ethnic minority groups and those who have theologically differing opinions. My parents remembered and lived out Romans 13, “love does no wrong to a neighbor,” in order to push back against transgressions by the church in the past.

I see this trend continuing in the United Methodist Church’s dedication to the practices of Safe Sanctuaries and similar programs. Through that work we create faith communities where young people are safe to pursue deep discipleship. Further, those safe environments become places where real truth-telling is honored and encouraged. People engaged in active listening and sharing expose incidences of both personal and systemic harm and lead us toward the beginnings of healing.

A Transparent Brokenness

Nadia Bolz-Weber, pastor of the House for All Sinners and Saints, experienced a moment of truth-telling about the church’s brokenness and subsequent healing in her book Accidental Saints. One day Nadia sees a plaque affixed to a church in Denver, CO. The plaque commemorated Alma White, a church planter, feminist and future Bishop active in the early 1900’s. Alma White also happened to be affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan and was a known anti-Semite. Nadia remembers feeling excited about finding a possible new female hero, until she read further and found Alma’s faults laid bare in the brass of the plaque. Later a church member at Nadia’s congregation reminded her that even the greatest saints are broken humans too.

Healing comes out of such brokenness when we recognize and talk about our own faults as the church. For my dad this moment came when he was invited to be on a panel discussing clergy sexual ethics. When he shared about his own family’s history, the room became silent. Any dismissiveness in the crowd evaporated as people realized that this was an experience that touched the lives of families they knew and of young people they cared about.

When a church has caused harm, it must be honest and confess that harm. That confession must always be a repentant practice. Young people who are victims of the church’s brokenness should be supported and comfo for their own sake and healing. We must recognize that they may never return to a church that has harmed them. But our own confession and repentance might help us become healthier communities for other young people.

Whether younger or older, lay or clergy, we can encourage anyone who has been the victim of or the perpetrator of harm in the church to seek counseling. Perhaps a home church pastor can be a first step. If not then please seek out centers like those in the Samaritan Institute network or others.

Ways Forward Together

On a personal level, we are called to confess our own brokenness as the church. We are asked to recognize the harm we have caused in individuals’ lives and move on to healing practices together. To accomplish that, we need a destination toward which to move. And sometimes moving forward toward that destination is hard.

In my own family one of the young victims of clergy abuse cut ties with the church. The other continued as an active participant in the life of her congregation but never shared the story of her assault. Each had to find ways to cope. Each had to find the good that comes after such harm, even if that goodness came apart from the church.

But, Jesus’ vision for the church calls us to become agents of healing and to repent of our capacity to inflict harm. It is a vision of a world transformed by love where Christian communities feed their enemies. A vision that allows God’s grace to transform their own brokenness and where the widows and orphans are cared for. This is the kind of church that moves toward anyone hurt or in pain. This is a church that exposes injustice and abuse and works to protect the vulnerable from future victimization.

We may not be able to fix our broken relationship with the young people who have left the church due to the harm they’ve witnessed by the church. But, we may be able to move forward together toward healthier and holier communities through which young people can transform the world in the love of Jesus Christ.