Listen as you read
Want to listen as you read? Go to the podcast and hit play. Then just follow along.
The dam had burst. My soul was underwater and holding its breath. Somewhere in my mind a small persistent thought rolled around, “If I can just get through this, then there’s hope. If I can just make them understand…” Well, I couldn’t. Mostly because it wasn’t understandable. No words could explain or defend the thing I had done. But I needed them understand how horrible it had been, I need them not to look at me that way. I sat at the short end of the table while they all stared at me with crossed arms waiting for me to say…what? I didn’t know. I can’t now remember much of what happened. I stumbled through the story leaving out most of what I wanted to say. They presented “her version” of what had happened. It was very different from what I knew had happened. They seemed to believe her. I got angry. They took my anger for impenitence and my disbelief as an actual threat. If only someone had understood enough to speak for me…
This is Jilted by St. Asinus, the recycled saint.
I need to say something to church leaders. I know that I’m not the one to say it, because in my story, I was the one who messed up and left them to pick up the pieces. But the truth is, no one else can say it because no one else would think to. I would have never considered it had I not been on the receiving end. I don’t tell this story to shame or speak ill of the people who negotiated my exit from the church where I pastored or the university where I taught. They did as best they knew, they always do. And yet the results did as much to destroy me and my family as any bad choice I had made. And I want the Church to do better.
So this reflection starts with a question—a question so obvious that it usually floats below the radar. Who on the leadership team is charged with representing the exiting person’s story to the group?
Who on the leadership team is charged with representing the exiting person’s story to the group?
You may say, why would you need that? Just have the person in and have them tell their story. I think that is what most churches do, but it doesn’t work. Anyone who’s ever made a grand fool of themselves and been brought before a group to answer for it will tell you—you can’t get the truth out of that person in a large group. And it’s not because you’re not asking the right questions. It’s not even because they have any desire to deceive (although if they do, nothing I say here will be of value). Even the most penitent person, who deeply desires to get it all out on the table, will be hampered in doing so by fear, by the desire to survive the ordeal, by shock over losses already endured. Everything in their being may want to cooperate, but when you bring them in and set them in front of a committee, everything will work against them. They will stutter, stammer, express anger, ramble in response to simple questions, say yes to questions where the real answer is no and not even realize it —all the things that you might associate with a person who’s trying to deceive you. And the truth may only be that they have simply lost control of their lives. They are in uncharted waters, and now see that their little tub is full of holes and is going down. All of their words, true as they may be, are nothing but bailing water on the Titanic.
What they actually need, whether they know it or not, is someone who can speak on their behalf, someone who knows their story intimately. Someone who has taken the time and energy to experience the events from their own perspective and who can articulate them to the remaining leadership without all the soul-crushing shame that paralyzes their every attempt to speak. The Apostle John gave us a word for such a one. It is a word applied to both Christ and the Holy Spirit. They are both called “paracletes,” advocates, one who stands up for, stands next to another, one who fills the gap.
It is a principle of wide application. In a court of law, even a person obviously guilty of the most heinous crimes is provided with an attorney. And the purpose of that attorney is not, I would argue, to ensure that guilty people “beat the rap,” but rather to ensure that the accused person’s story has been fairly told. Such representation is a basic right in any civilized society. Yet, in my experience, it is an idea almost wholly absent in the Kingdom of God.
Sadly when it comes to a pastor or staff member who’s messed up, the leadership circles the wagons defensively and thrusts the offender outside. They discuss the actions of the offender amongst themselves and all from the same perspective—what are we going to do about this person who’s put the institution at such risk? And then they bring the accused in, seat them before the tribunal, and are surprised that things get cloudier instead of clearer.
But what if one of those persons in that leadership team—perhaps one who knew the offender best or was known to be an exceedingly open-minded, or gracious, or articulate person—were officially charged with being “the voice” of the fallen in all subsequent meetings? One who would be a human paraclete? What would happen then? I’ll tell you…
In order to fulfill that role, such persons would have to spend time with the accused as well as his or her family. They would have to learn the story inside and out as it looks from the accused’s perspective. This would do two things. First, it would show to the accused that they were not alone, that someone knew their story and, without condoning what they did, was going to stand with them through the process. Second, that paraclete would have a far greater chance of actually getting the full and true story. It is simply a fact that accused persons will often share—are able to share—a more candid version of their story with one caring person over coffee, than they can before a tribunal of glaring men in grey suits—or whatever the equivalent of that is in your church.
Now sometimes a leadership team or committee does need to interact with the exiting person en masse, sure, but you should keep in mind that in such moments, that person will be too busy trying to manage their own emotions to be a reliable source of information. You may want to save those meetings for other purposes. With a paraclete in the mix, however, you would have access to the accused’s perspective at every meeting, especially the sensitive ones that the accused could never attend.
Further the paraclete can also serve as the conduit for information back to the accused. They can ensure that nothing gets dropped or misunderstood. Having such a representative gives the accused a sense that they are being heard and have some control over their own story. When the university put me on leave in order to review my case, I felt like an outcast in large part because no one ever asked me about my story. They reached their conclusion without ever interacting with me once. Of course, knowing the story from my side may not have changed their final decision, that’s not the point. The question is, do you or do you not want the accused to retain their faith, be restored, or even survive this difficult season? If so, then don’t enact a process that leaves them on the outside looking in, which only reinforces their impression that they are worthless. In my case the lack of communication by both church and university only bolstered nagging suspicions that I was unworthy of redemption…a belief I continue to struggle against to this day.
If you want the accused to retain their faith, be restored, or even survive this difficult season, then don’t enact a process that leaves them on the outside looking in, which only reinforces their impression that they are worthless.
I cannot of course know how this idea would be best employed in your unique situation—who knows, if you have a situation with an accuser and an accused, you may need more than one paraclete—one for each side. But I’ll offer one final suggestion for the sake of those who will serve in these special roles. Make sure the charge you are giving them is patent and public. Everyone in the room—the whole congregation perhaps—should know that this person has been charged with speaking on behalf of the accused. Everyone should be reminded that the paraclete is not necessarily speaking his own opinion. He too needs assurance that he will not be censured because of this role, which is in many ways is the most difficult one at the table. In fact such representatives will often have to say and defend things that are contrary to their own beliefs on the grounds that the accused person thought or believed such things. That’s the paraclete’s job—to represent the fallen one’s story to the group. So make the charge public, and repeat it often, so that no one in the room forgets.
I can think of few nobler or more Christian actions than to take up the cause of a fallen brother or sister, and ensure their just treatment. It is very nearly what Christ has done for each of us, in that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” The church very much needs people who will stand beside the fallen and raise them up. And I think she has them. Many, I think, would serve in that role, if leaders in Christ’s church would have the wisdom to let them.
This has been Jilted by St. Asinus.
The Saintly Mule would like to thank you for listening to his ravings. If you don’t want to miss any of them, be sure to subscribe to the podcast at ITunes or Google Play and if you’d like to support the production of these little essays, please visit his Patreon page. We’ll see you next time at the Homilies of St. Asinus, reflections of a recycled saint.