What would your church do?
Member of Ambler Mennonite shares the church’s walk with a sex offender.by Scott Eldredge
In 2002 Joe (a pseudonym) visited our church outside Philadelphia. Following that visit, our interim pastor was contacted by Joe’s probation officer alerting our church that Joe was a convicted child sex offender under court supervision. Joe attended our Sunday morning service a second time while the pastor and Elders met to gather information and consider the implications of Joe’s attendance in our small congregation.
Our church is a small congregation 65-80 attending just outside Philadelphia. Membership represents a diverse congregation—economically, educational levels, age, racial and ethnic backgrounds and political leanings. Our history has been an ability to converse across hot topics and difficult issues while maintaining love, unity and a genuine positive regard for each other. Monthly fellowship meals demonstrate this ability to talk across tables and bless each other, despite varying points of view—at times, agreeing to disagree in love in keeping with the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective.
As leadership learned more about Joe’s specific situation, a congregational meeting was held to share information regarding Joe’s offender status. Leadership believed that with some discussion and close supervision that Joe could safely worship with us. Some in our church reacted strongly to Joe attending our worship service—concerned that in a small church such as ours, with children very visible and up front—that boundaries could easily be crossed.
Joe was asked to not attend the Sunday morning service to give us some time to process the implications of his presence in our church. This request came from leadership as they learned that one of Joe’s previous offenses occurred with children in his home church setting and that one of his previous victims had attended our church as a young person and that this person’s parents were current members at our church. Fear increased as this new information came to light. What would your church do?
An off-site Sunday school class was formed at a member’s home for Joe to prevent contact with children. The Sunday school class became a small support group, gathering around Joe, caring for his spiritual and physical needs—home repair, finances and assistance with his mental health treatment. Leadership arranged for several additional congregational meetings to discern a way forward.
A new full-time pastor was called, who began to engage with our processing of the “Joe issue.” Persons meeting with and supporting Joe learned to know him and began to believe passionately that the Gospel compels us to accept Joe fully into our midst- specifically the Sunday morning worship service. Leadership brought in several excellent resource persons and held open informational and discussion meetings.
A new concern emerged as several adult members disclosed their own sexual abuse histories. In some cases the church where the abuse occurred had played a harmful role at the time of their childhood abuse. This group of survivors painfully shared with us their stories including the hard work of treatment and their journeys toward healing. Some felt that sitting in a worship service with Joe would set back their own progress and stimulate painful abuse memories and a re-occurrence of trauma.
This was confirmed by an outside resource person, Diane Langberg, a sexual trauma expert and therapist assisting our church. She advised us to go as slow as the slowest person- meaning allow each person time in their healing and processing and not force Joe’s presence on anyone as we sought to understand God’s purpose and listen with each other. We were encouraged to wait patiently with each other in love. What would your church do?
Division, hurts and misunderstandings began to sharpen. A hurtful article appeared in one our churchwide publications condemning our church and providing a one-sided version of our struggle. As leadership struggled to manage the growing divide within our close knit church family, several “congregational listeners” (including myself) were charged with visiting each person in their home to listen and discern God’s way forward for us together.
A sexual abuse task group was formed (in the spirit of full disclosure—I chaired this group) to put in place child safety policies and practices, care for the needs of survivors, support the work of those caring for Joe and allow leadership to engage in other neglected areas in caring for the entire congregation as the “issue” had consumed the focus of leadership and our entire church. Persons from all perspectives were represented on this task group—child safety advocates, survivors, Joe supporters and persons with no strong group affiliation—hurting to see our church divided over this issue.
Some good things happened—child safety steps were implemented, the needs of survivors hidden in our church life became visible with survivors demonstrating enormous courage in sharing their stories and becoming vulnerable. Supporters of Joe at times felt isolated and frustrated with the slow process. Meetings across points of view were arranged with individuals to encourage direct communication. Some survivors met with Joe to hear his story, both as a child victim of sexual abuse and later as a perpetrator. Some concerned parents and grandparents met with Joe. We were encouraged to speak with each other directly in love and avoid speaking about each other in groups of like minded persons.
What would your church do? A monthly Sunday evening service was created primarily for adults to help incorporate Joe more into our corporate worship experience and lessen the isolation of those ministering to Joe. Everyone joined in blessing this next step. As Joe came off probation, a group was formed for Joe to add accountability and support in addition to the Sunday school group. This group was modeled after the excellent MCC Canada program for sexual offenders. Joe never really engaged with this group and he stopped attending this group soon after the group began.
Some persons left our church as we all tired of the long process and some felt concerned for their young children. Others left with more than one reason including life transition issues—retirement and our failure to welcome Joe into our Sunday morning service.
Some thoughts as I reflect on our five-year journey.
What we did well: We provided alternative opportunities to care for Joe and be the church (imperfectly- but isn’t this true for all of us?) beyond our physical church boundaries. We listened to each other- not without missteps. We facilitated listening, both with outside resource persons and our own members across passionate points of view and in the midst of the struggle which is not easy. We utilized outside resources and found this very helpful in hearing God’s purpose and gathering important expertise and information. We provided a measure of support for the survivors in our midst.
Some lingering questions: There are many. Here’s a few of mine. Some felt during the process that leadership should make a decision and let the chips fall where they may. Meaning, have Joe attend Sunday morning service and let those opposed leave if they must. Or, decide Joe cannot attend and let his supporters decide if they can worship in a setting where Joe is not welcome in our Sunday morning worship service.
As painful and long as the process was, I agree with our outside resource person specializing in work with perpetrators and survivors of sexual abuse and trauma: “We need to go as slow as the slowest person or risk missing the healing God intends for all.” I am not known for going slow—ask anyone who has ridden on the back of my motorcycle. I feel for the frustration of Joe’s supporters, we all grew weary of the long journey.
My own view: Throughout the process I did not share my own point of view. I felt that I needed to stay neutral in my opinion in order to help lead the process. I believe that our church and other churches can implement policies and procedures to keep children mostly safe. I say that knowing that no one can absolutely guarantee child safety at church, school, home, family retreats and holiday gatherings. I believe that Joe could have been incorporated safely into our Sunday morning worship. However, I was not ready to force his presence on those struggling to heal from their own sexual abuse experiences. Some in this group were ready to have Joe join our Sunday morning worship. Others were at various points in their healing journey and were not ready to sit with Joe in our worship service.
Joe expressed his desire to not attend Sunday morning worship until all felt ready. He understood as a child victim how harmful his presence may be to someone not ready as they continued to heal. I believe that we were the church to Joe in a powerful way and he expressed how important our church’s support was to him in his own recovery. I am sorry that some set up attendance at our Sunday morning worship as the litmus test for gauging if we are a welcoming church and faithful to the Gospel. I understand this point of view and respect the passion of those who felt this way. I just feel that this was an unfortunate and false line to draw.
December 2007, Joe informed his support group that he would not continue to meet weekly during the Sunday school hour or attend the Sunday evening service or participate in the support and accountability group. Coming off probation, I believe, gave Joe a new sense of freedom to move past this chapter in his life. Also this year another survivor, initially very opposed to Joe’s attendance expressed her readiness for Joe to attend our worship service, as God’s grace and healing has brought her to this place.
I see God at work as others continue to heal. Healing may not mean for everyone, acceptance of Joe in our worship service. Some may never come to that place. I trust God for His work of healing individually and among us. I know some still hurt from this experience in our church and we all deeply mourn for those who have left.
We did not find any easy answers. What would your church do?
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