Lent is an introspective time aimed at repentance (turning ourselves around) and growing in closeness to God. Lent is thus a good time (among other times) to think about hurts and sadness that can arise whenever we are part of a congregation.
Congregations can be easy places to get our feelings hurt. I’d guess this happens in congregations of different religions, but I know for sure it happens in churches. The following thoughts aren’t meant to be comprehensive, address comparatively small problems that can seem big, and don’t reflect any particular church or situation.
It’s easy to understand why we’d get our feelings hurt in church. We come there not only to worship but also to find support, friendship, and guidance. We also come to church to find opportunities to serve. But there is an emotional vulnerability to these things. If we need support (for instance, someone to call on us when we’re sick or bereaved), we can feel disappointed, even betrayed if the support isn’t forthcoming. People have stopped attending church when they didn’t feel “missed” after a period of time.
In the case of service: we look forward to offering our talents to God through service. But if we’re criticized, or if our talents are spurned in some way (or not needed), we potentially feel disappointed and unvalued. Again, we feel emotionally vulnerable because we stepped out–sometimes out of our comfort zones–in order to grow in our relationship with God, and thus we’re prone to hurt feelings.
You may simply feel that a church was rude to you, the way a store or restaurant offers indifferent or peremptory service. Sometimes, you might just get a church staff person or a volunteer who is disorganized, has imperfect “people skills,” is neglectful about returning phone calls, and so on. Churches are places of worship but they’re still very human organizations that are welcoming and attentive, or have room to grow.
Congregations experience change and have “seasons.” People we care about move away, and then the congregation seems lonely rather than fulfilling. Sometimes we feel sad in church because people we loved (including pastors and other staff) moved away, and we realize that, in certain respects, our spiritual well-being depended upon a certain pastor’s preaching emphases, a musician’s tastes in music, a youth leader’s charisma, or just the special caring that you received from that previous person who has now moved on.
As a Facebook friend commented after I first posted this essay, one thing we can do is to focus in church on worship, the way God may be speaking through the service and music, and generally to have the person and work of Christ at the forefront of our hearts and minds. Hurt feelings can be a way we focus on ourselves, however, valid though our feelings may be. So, as we refocus our hearts and minds concerning worship, we may start to see other aspects of congregational life with a different perspective.
I found a few internet sites that addresses the problem of hurt feelings: for instance, http://www.gotquestions.org/hurt-by-church.html, which helpfully points out that “The pain caused by a church is a ‘silent killer'”, in the sense that these hurts dig deeply into one’s soul and poison a person’s heart. The author urges us to examine ourselves to see what really is causing the hurt: the behavior or incident on which we’re focusing, or some other, earlier pain that is the true source of the hurt. The author notes suggests that we guard our hearts and attitudes (citing Proverbs 4:23), focus upon being humble and never vengeful (Prov. 3:34, James 4:6), and also focus upon being forgiving (Matt. 18:22, Mark 11:27, Rom. 12:19, Eph. 4:32, Col. 3:1: all these are the author’s citations). Certainly we should rely upon God’s love and power (Matt. 28:20, Eph. 3:16), as noted there.
Another site–which I read a while ago and, when I find it again, I’ll post it here—quoted that remarkable story in John 5, where Jesus healed the paralyzed man. The story is remarkable in part because of Jesus’ question, “Do you want to be made well?” (vs. 6), and his command, “Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you” (vs. 14). In the first case, the man’s 38-year infirmity makes the question seem absurd, while the command of vs. 14 seems to minimize the man’s decades-long suffering. But the point is: we can become so used to hurts–both psychological and physical–that we stop knowing how to function without them! We begin to surround our personal identity around that pain. If your pain has resulted from a hurt at church, it can keep you bitter, unforgiving, and separated from church fellowship for many years.
Still another site, http://www.victorious.org/leavechu.htm (content by Dale A. Robbins) also has several ideas if you’re unhappy at a certain congregation. One caveat I have with this author’s list is the contention that worship and preaching styles are always “shallow, external things.” After reading Corinne Ware’s Discover Your Spiritual Type (Alban Institute, 1995), I think that a person can feel sad and disconnected at a church because of issues of style, not because they’re shallow issues but because we all have different “learning styles” in our spirituality. Ware points out that people can feel unhappy for years in a congregation because they are “mismatched” spiritually. But understanding one’s “spiritual type” does require self-honesty and self-examination, and those things are important for Robbins, too, in this article.
Hurt feelings aren’t just a matter of one’s personal introspection and Spirit-led growth, although those things go a very long way. I think our congregations have a responsibility to become places that respond compassionately to hurting people. For instance, church folk may scoff a bit at people’s need for affirmation. We say, “He was too sensitive,” or “She just needs to grow up!” or “He wants to serve because of his emotional needs rather than self-giving motives.” But when we talk like that, we betray how much our congregations have accommodated themselves to the cultural rather than biblical values. But the Bible call us to accept one another and to build one another up (Eph. 4:11-16).
The apostle Paul actually takes the side of people whose faith are struggling at things we might consider irrelevant! 1 Corinthians 8 deals with the issue of eating food to idols. Some Corinthians ate this food, rightly arguing that since the gods represented by idols don’t exist, then there is no reason not to eat the food. But others had scruples about such things and were hurt in their faith when their friends ate this food. Paul comes down on the side of the hurt people! “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up,” he writes there, “take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling-block to the weak… when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.”
Romans 14:1-4 is a good, related passage: “Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarrelling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.”
Paul wants us to care for one another, no matter where we are in terms of emotional maturity, spiritual development, or whatever. Paul urges the Galatians to “Bear one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2), even though we all must also “carry [our] own loads” (6:5). He writes earlier, “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ If however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another” (Gal. 5:14-15).
I admit that Paul’s vision can be very difficult to implement in a congregation: it takes a lot of love, transformation, patience, and leadership committed not just to specific ministries but also to growing the sense of love and mutuality in that congregation. Paul’s vision in 1 Corinthians 8, in fact, makes me uncomfortable, because you can see how a person who is weak in his or her faith could force people to accommodate their needs and thus never grow or confront their own faith-weaknesses. Paul does, however, call us not only to uphold those of us who are weak (or hurt because of some comparatively minor situation) but also to avoid quarreling and situations that would upset church fellowship.
We need to always remember that church people are human and imperfect. It’s not just that “the church is full of hypocrites,” as the saying goes. The church is full of people at different stages of spiritual and emotional maturity, and that will always be the case—and you’re one of those people! Pastors and other staff members may be your leaders in a congregation, but they’re flawed, have annoying habits, have areas of immaturity, misunderstand things, and fail—just like you. Also: if your feelings were hurt, remember that all church people are not only human, but they can’t just “know” that you’re upset. If someone has hurt your feelings try to address the situation constructively if you can, as the articles I mentioned earlier advise. If you think you must “church shop,” do so prayerfully and without rancor. (Again, in all these non-comprehensive reflections, I’m talking about those conflicts and misunderstandings in churches that are more comparatively minor “in the big scheme of things”—e.g., people forgot to check on you when you were sick, or someone was cross with you, or you prefer communion in cups but the church switched to intinction, etc.—or which have to do with a prayerful sense of how you grow spiritually and your compatibility with a particular congregation. But “the little things” do become big problems, in our hearts or in churches or both.)
I think the cultivation of a sense of humor should be a requirement in discipleship programs and new member classes! There will always be shortsighted thinking, differences of opinion and practice, frustrations, and human foibles in congregations. You might as well accept that fact up front and above all remember that you and the rest of the “gang” are people whom God loves! But God wants our joy to be full (John 15:11).