When the Beloved Church is Cruel

by Peggy Hahn, LEAD Executive Director

We have all had our feelings hurt from time to time or occasionally felt a bruised ego. That’s not what I am talking about today. I want to offer a moment for us to pause for those (including ourselves?) whom have been truly beaten up by the church.

When people are abused in the very places they expect to be protected and loved, the pain can cut so deep that healing is slow, if ever. I have seen the wind knocked out of some of the finest people serving in leadership of their church: on church council, as pastors, youth ministers, grandparents, parents, youth and children. This abuse is across generations, leadership positions, ethnicities, culture, gender and sexuality. The casualties of Christian community are everywhere. In the name of Jesus.

I’m writing this today because I am carrying the pain of an ocean of leaders who have trusted me with their stories. I feel an anger growing in me that may not be healthy but is defiantly fed by truth.

Friends, why are we putting up with this? Why don’t the healthy leaders stand up against bullies? I have wondered, for over twenty years, what will it take for the Christian community to say to certain people: ”We don’t act like that here.” Here’s what I think is at stake along with at least two steps towards healing:

The stakes are higher than we want to admit. Young people don’t want to be pastors because they see how their leaders are treated – why would anyone want to sign up for that? People don’t want to get into leadership because they want more for their life of faith than defending a few dollars, an aging building and endless meetings quarreling about crazy stuff.

Here is what I know will matter:

  1. Reclaim our prophetic voice as faith shapers – leaders who will pay attention to their own faith formation, recognize they are influencing others, and be a loving, generous witness to a God who created and cares for the whole universe. That is to say, a God who is already way ahead of us, loving people in ways that the church will never catch up with, but could surely try.
  2. Identify the core values that will hold your church together – through the hurricanes of bad behavior, the discouragement of the budget and the decisions that will lean into the future. I am not kidding here. If you want your leadership to have a backbone that feels more like the church the Apostle Paul was striving for (read Philippians 4:1-17), then we have to name what holds us as an anchor in the storm.

LEAD is offering resources to support you in these to efforts. Check out our new growing digital community for FaithShapers at LEADStudio.org, the new website where we will be practicing our faith.

We hear your pain. We love you and join you in asking for forgiveness when the people at church crush our souls. We believe we can and will do better, in the name of the Lord.

6 replies
  1. Daphne
    Daphne says:

    This fall I called out a parishioner for using racist language: “As your priest I am telling you that you can’t talk like that in the church.” I got pushback from the person I was addressing, and I felt horrible! At a healing service in December, the parishioner asked for prayers to “treat everyone the same.” “I’m learning,” he said, “but I still need help.” I wholeheartedly affirm calling out bad behavior. It works.

    • Peggy Hahn
      Peggy Hahn says:

      We usually wait too long out of our fear of creating conflict and in the end have higher stakes. The biggest regrets I have in leadership are times I’ve ignored bad behavior to “keep the peace”. I’m encouraged by your post.

  2. Rosa Rafaela Radcke
    Rosa Rafaela Radcke says:

    Thank you for reaching out and your advise. I thank God for the Apostle Paul and his encouragement and thankgiving because we are in need everyday and what ever trials we face each and everyday ” I can do everything trough him woh give me strenght”- Philippians 4:13. Praise be the God, His Son and the Holy Spirit! Amen.

  3. Tom Brzezinski
    Tom Brzezinski says:

    Not a bad message but…….. seemed to me to be too much of a “downer” in getting to the point. I showed the Disney/Pixar award-winning feature, ZOOTOPIA, to a group of over 100 adults as a part of a Faith & Film Series because of it’s message of discrimination, love and understanding of how we are all different and, at the same time, are all the same. Sometimes lessons can be learned in very simple ways.

    • Peggy Hahn
      Peggy Hahn says:

      So in my experience lessons learned are important but very different than embodiment of core values that align ministry and shape behaviors of authenticity welcome. The leaders I’m representing in this post are wounded by people who have used their theological perspectives like weapons to protect the church from its neighbors. I have a growing awareness that in some cases, as hard as it is to say this, the neighborhood might need protection from the church.


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