Remembering Rightly

Every organization tells stories of its past. We pass along the glowing
memories of founding eras, glory days and faithful heroes. We title1-913x400have more trouble with the problematic stories. Shameful stories remain untold. Shame in an organization is like a festering wound that does not heal. The shame eats away at the congregation’s self-identity, destroying any capacity for healing, growth or innovation.

Rightfully remembering the past promotes healing. When we remember rightly we free ourselves from shame by naming the truth about what happened, acknowledging any harm that was done, standing in solidarity with victims of the situation, and freeing ourselves to embark on new paths. How does a congregation go about rightly remembering a troubling memory from its past?

The Wounding

This story is twelve years old. The pastor at First Church abruptly resigned. He had been in treatment for depression and anxiety and had gone on sabbatical for a time of recovery. Returning from sabbatical the pastor mysteriously submitted his resignation saying that the work of ministry had become too overwhelming.  

In the midst of the pastor’s sabbatical, a small group of leaders learned that the married pastor had been having an affair with a member of the congregation. Then they learned that a series of affairs had taken place over a seven-year period, some of which impacted families in the congregation. Further investigation revealed that a member of the governing board had provided the pastor with a regular place (the board member’s condo) to host illicit liaisons.  The congregation is told nothing about any of this. The pastor just goes away.

Rumors surface that board leaders drove the pastor out because they were tired of his depressive episodes. Another storyline emerges blaming the congregation for working the poor pastor to the brink of exhaustion. The congregation develops a vague sense that something wasn’t quite right about this leadership transition, but the secret of what happened remains in the hands of a few. There is a lot of gossip behind the scenes about what may have happened, but no public forum to reveal the truth. The few informed leaders reassure themselves that there is simply no reason for congregants to learn the facts. There isn’t even an agreed upon set of verifiable facts to share.  Why risk harming the innocent families that have been devastated by the affairs?

Eventually a new pastor is hired. She is not told of the prior pastor’s transgressions. Everyone tries to move forward. Things calm down for a while. But the congregation grows increasingly mistrustful of themselves and of their leader. Fast forward and the congregation churns through three pastors in ten years. The families that were personally impacted by the affairs disappear. The congregation fails to thrive and today is about half of its former size.

These days, when leaders are asked to reflect on “the problem era” they don’t have a story to tell. They simply refer to that time as, “The confusing departure of our senior minister.” When pressed to talk about lessons learned, or the “prouds” and “sorries” of that season, no one knows what to say. The secret has become so deeply entrenched that the entire era of history has become off-limits for discussion.

Why Can’t We Just Move On?

Congregations are covenantal communities. They are meant to mirror the nature of our relationship with God, a relationship grounded in trust, truthfulness, mutual care, mutual promise and accountability.  When damaging secrets are kept they destroy the very fabric of our relationship with one another and God.  The trustworthiness of the community is violated and covenant cannot thrive.

If the painful incident is recent, you must seek outside help in crafting a communication strategy. Denominational support and legal help are needed to craft an appropriate immediate response to misconduct.

However, we have a little more freedom in shaping the story when the damaging event is in the distant past, and the perpetrators and the victims are gone.  The current leader must evaluate the congregation’s readiness to explore the truth. When the congregation is ready, the leader can help to free the organization from its shame through acknowledgement, confession and repentance.   

According to Theologian, Miroslav Volf, in his book “The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World,” the rightful remembering of a painful past must incorporate four distinct elements:

  1. Remembering as truthfully as possible. It is never possible to reconstruct a completely objective telling of the past because so many variations of the story exist. However, for healing purposes it is important to recount as factually accurate an account as possible. Untruthful memories are unjust memories.
  2. Protecting victims from further suffering and violence. The shaping of the memory should not cause any further suffering for known or unknown victims. The confidentiality of victim identity must be maintained unless the victims or their descendants have asked to be recognized.
  3. Acknowledging the wrong that was done. The telling of the story must honestly acknowledge the wrong that was done and the complicit responsibility of bystanders. When a wrongdoing is not acknowledged victims and perpetrators both remain invisible. A double injustice occurs-the first when the original deed was done and the second when it disappeared from memory.
  4. Viewing the remembered experience in a new light. When we shape the memory, we can truthfully tell how the event has led to healing and redemption. Perhaps we describe how we have all learned to function with better boundaries. We can tell of better policies that were created, how carefully we cared for the victims, how we dealt with our shame and grew through the experience, or how God’s grace and mercy became palpable to all as a result of the ordeal. In whatever way we shape the story, it must be truthful and hopeful.

Shaping a story that satisfies all of these criteria can be intimidating.  It is important to struggle with the discomfort. It is important to shape the memory into a tellable story that is grounded in redemption. One that makes way for restored covenant and fresh pathways forward.