I remember feeling the anguish surface again. The pain of dealing with a fractured ministry, and the resulting fallout, all came rushing back when it came time for public restoration. Was this the right course? Would members trust us? The easy path would have been just to leave it in the past.
Take sin seriously.
The restoration process takes time. In our case, two years. It takes time for the seed of repentance to bear the fruit of a changed life. It also takes time for those who are hurt to be ready to trust again and extend that right hand of fellowship.
As time passed, and as the restoration team reported progress to us, the words from 2 Corinthians 2:6-8 were becoming very real to us, “The punishment inflicted on him by the majority is sufficient. Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him.”
As elders, we were quick to forgive, but it took time for us to be ready for full restoration. We were dealing with the consequences of the sin. We were focusing on the health of the congregation at large and spending considerable time reestablishing credibility with members and the community. The process was time-consuming and stressful and created some additional wounds that took time to heal. Only after some time had passed could genuine restoration fully take place.
Take forgiveness seriously.
We believed that if we took the lead in extending restoration publicly, others would follow our example. Just as we learn other aspects of Christian maturity (teaching, praying, giving) by having it modeled by others, so can we learn how to forgive and how to mend broken relationships.
We elders had the privilege of one-on-one reconciliation with our former minister. Now it was time to encourage the congregation to be reconciled as well. Because the sin was public, we came to believe that the forgiveness should also be public.
Not all in attendance were ready, but we challenged them to follow our lead. We also knew there were other relationships that needed healing. At the conclusion of the service, we prayed individually with members who sought reconciliation in those relationships as well.
To his credit, we had a repentant former ministry staff member who wanted restoration with the elders, staff, and the church body. In retrospect, I see how we could have been more proactive and intentional about seeking that restoration and providing the means for it through the whole process. Frankly, had it not been for the work and advocacy of the restoration team, we may not have ultimately taken the step of a public celebration service of reconciliation. Our hope is that our experience will give other churches a more deliberate path to follow.
Sin is debilitating.
The whole downward spiral might have been avoided had we more closely followed the mantra, “Trust, but verify.” It is the same with demanding moral accountability from staff in other areas. I still wrestle with how we, as elders, can help our staff dodge the land mines of Satan in vulnerable areas of moral failure.
We learned how deeply the hurt extends to the minister’s spouse, children, other family members, and close friends. We could have more effectively reached out to these loved ones, assuring them that our concern for them was independent of the course we were pursuing.
Forgiveness is liberating.
We learned that the church welcomes a model of reconciliation. We all live with fractured relationships. The celebration of restoration service was a powerful example of how God restores us to himself and gives us the grace to be reconciled to one another.
Was it easy? No. Was it the right course to follow? Absolutely. We learned firsthand that the pain and separation caused by sin can be restored, mended, and turned to joy by the grace of our Lord. Forgiveness that flows from God, through us, to others, is a powerful and liberating force for those who live in Christ.
Brad Neal is a financial adviser who serves as an elder with Lincoln (Illinois) Christian Church.