Discussion 2: Sick Church

Broken Love and Trust

A story

Calum and Jane (names have been changed) went to school together and were part of churchgoing families which attended the same church. They fell in love and married in that church and attended the same church for nearly ten years. They had two children.

At this point, the marriage failed and they parted, and Calum fell in love with another person from the church. Calum moved in with the new person. He and Jane divorced and came to an amicable agreement about the children. Calum and his new partner and Jane all wanted to continue going to the same church, though they usually went at different times on Sunday, because it just felt too awkward.

This proved very difficult for other church members, many of whom had known all of them for years and had got used to Calum and Jane and the children being a family. Some people felt they couldn’t be friends with both of them anymore, or with the new partner and had to choose a side. Some people in the church felt personally affronted by the marriage breakdown, especially as they felt they couldn’t now ask Calum or Jane to ‘do’ things in the church in case it looked like favouring one or the other.

Some people ‘solved’ the problem by ignoring all of them. People who had been friends of the couple now cut themselves off and left them alone ‘to get on with it’. Gradually, this confusion about former friendships, inclusion in activities, even chatting to the children, turned to blame, sniping and a generalised sense of hurt throughout the congregation.

Some church members, noticing that the church felt ‘sick’ decided that Calum and Jane were to blame for this sense of dis-ease and put it to them that they should leave and find somewhere else to worship. Both were devastated.

Relationality within a church setting or within different social networks cane be profoundly challenged by events which disturb the harmony within them. Sometimes congregations, Christian movements or whole communities are rocked by scandals affecting leaders or other trusted people within those settings, throwing everyone for a loop and wondering what to do next and how to recover from it. How do we continue to live together in love in the face of destructive events; how do we deal with blame and distress, – the ‘sickness’ that can afflict a church?

One of the important questions about relational church, is how we develop the ability to create resilience within the community and how to create reconciliation when things go wrong. In a context which focusses a lot on church growth in the face of decline, resilience, reconciliation and forgiveness can be overlooked, meaning that those who are hurt get sidelined or ignored altogether.

What do we need to do to help heal ‘sick’ churches, and toxic experiences? How can being more relational help us to develop these skills?

Reconciliation Statue -- 15th and East Main Streets Richmond (VA) 2013

Some questions for discussion and reflection

  • What do you make of this story? How would you have felt as a member of this church?
  • What do you think it was like for Calum and Jane over the course of their marriage, their divorce, and their ongoing lives?
  • Why do you think people choose not to talk about things, ignore difficulties, or do or say hurtful things in response to distressing events?
  • What else do you think contributes to ‘sick’ church? Where do you see ‘healthy’ church and ‘sick’ church today?
  • What do you think we need to do to nurture relationships, bring reconciliation and healing where there is breakdown and to create better, lasting relationships which enrich our lives in church and in the world? 
  • How could that church work positively together to change the situation for the better?
  • Have a look at Go Health https://gohealth.org.uk/ as a way of understanding church as a hub for healing and wellbeing.

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