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Surviving Church Scandal

Valerie Von Kooten

How to keep your children's ministry strong during church turmoil -- from people who've been there

Consider these recent headlines pulled from news outlets nationwide:

  • Donations Bought Priest Porn;
  • Pastor Admits Sexual Immorality, Apologizes;
  • Ex-Church Secretary Accused of Embezzlement Turns Herself In;
  • Sunday School Teacher Accused of Abuse;
  • Wife Charged With Pastor Murder;
  • Pastor's Lover Denies Jealousy.

Churches have been rocked by scandal stemming from human failure for hundreds of years. Within the past year, churches have been the sites of very public moral failings that've left congregations and communities shocked and picking up the pieces. Abuse, deception, theft, violence, molestation, adultery -- all these sins against God and people have played out in the public view in small churches and large.

When scandal hits, where does that leave your children's ministry? Here at Children's Ministry Magazine, we've heard stories about children's ministries that've thrived under what seemed impossible circumstances. And we wondered how they did it.

Church turmoil isn't a topic many people want to discuss. It's not fun, or warm and fuzzy, or joyful. But it's one many congregations in this country have faced or are facing. How do you keep your children's ministry strong when your congregation is in the middle of scandal or turmoil? When rumors, hurt feelings, and all kinds of information -- right and wrong -- swirl about you, how do you keep your head clear to lead a successful children's ministry? Here are nine in-the-trenches tactics from children's ministers who've survived church scandal and emerged -- along with their children's ministries -- intact and healthy.

Listen. A church in Texas that offered weekday preschool was nearly shattered when it learned through a criminal complaint that one of the teachers was "disciplining" kids by locking them in a refrigerator for 15 minutes at a time. After multiple complaints from parents, investigators found the refrigerator, shelves re- arranged to accommodate the small children. The teacher was arrested; the congregation was flabbergasted.

In the midst of scandal, so much "stuff" may be flying about that it's hard to tell what's true and what isn't. Don't contribute to the fray if your information isn't accurate, experts say.

Lisa Burney, now minister to children and families at Highland Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, left a church of about 1,800 several years ago that was in the middle of a dispute over a land purchase. The vote to purchase land to build a new facility was very close; subsequently, many members left the congregation.

"People immediately get alarmed," remembers Burney. "They hear this and that and another thing. What I learned to do was listen."

After listening to what church members had to say, Burney would often clarify the situation by saying, "Would it help you to know this is what actually happened?" She said she thought it was important to give factual information versus the rumors the congregation was hearing. "Sometimes not talking is the worst," she says. "But just letting people come to you as they need to and then redirecting them is important."

Be real with children.

Karen Holder, now the children's ministry coordinator for Living Hope Christian Fellowship in Brigham City, Utah, was part of a church trauma in another state that resulted in half the congregation staying and the other half leaving. Holder was teaching preschool and involved with the congregation's high school youth group at the time.

"The kids sensed the trauma I was going through," says Holder, "and I couldn't hide my emotions. At the time I couldn't stop crying. I was honest with them -- not in particular details, but in that I loved and cared for them and that wouldn't change."

Kristi Pinegar, a leader of GEMS (Girls Everywhere Meeting the Savior) at First Christian Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa, had similar thoughts. Her church went through a nasty split years ago that resulted in 60 percent of the congregation's members leaving and joining another denomination. The split left very few children and young people in the congregation, and those who were left behind were bewildered.

"Kids can spot a phony or a fake a mile away," Pinegar says. "We tried very hard to answer their questions on their level and not bog them down with a lot of what we were going through."

Communicate with parents.

One church, thriving by all accounts, was dealt a blow when the youth pastor came to leadership with terrible news: He had AIDS. People said it was one of the most difficult and sad situations they'd ever experienced, but the church rallied around the pastor, supporting and loving him until his death from the disease. Throughout the ordeal, though, remained the question: How do we talk about this with our children and parents?

If your children's parents are members of your congregation, they probably already know what's going on. But if you have community kids, be careful about what you tell them, while being honest and available to talk. Ask yourself, How much do these children's parents need to be brought into the loop? At the very least, encourage parents to speak with their children about what's happening in the congregation.

"Let parents know that the children are picking up on it," says Burney. "Children are aware; they're listening. And if you as a teacher don't feel able to deal with it, the parents need to."

Provide continuity for children.

Scandal rocked one smaller church when it received a sizable grant for its outreach programs. The pastor emptied the bank accounts and disappeared along with a female staff member. The congregation was devastated. Staff members were angry and bewildered. And the church was on the brink of closure. People had to decide -- quickly -- whether they would stay or go.

You may be unsure if you're staying. But if you're certain you'll stay, make that known to the children and their families. Kim Bogart is a director at Southpoint Community Church in Jacksonville, Florida, where she's seen many staff members come and go.

"In a season of turmoil, make sure you verbalize that you're in it for the long haul," Bogart advises. "When there are so many people leaving, if you as a leader aren't saying anything, you're going to cause insecurity." While the pull to leave may be strong, if you've decided to stay, you can be a blessing to the congregation, Bogart adds. "It's a blessing to be the one who strengthens those who remain," she says.

Focus on your ministry area only.

When things are falling apart in your congregation, there's a lot not being done. But you most likely can't be the one to step into other roles without letting yours suffer. Tracy Folkerts is the associate pastor of children's ministry at First Baptist Church in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, a congregation that's gone through "turbo change and compacted transitions and loss," Folkerts says. A youth pastor left to plant a new congregation, a senior pastor resigned, and several administrative positions were cut. Later, a staff member committed suicide and then an associate pastor resigned. As a result, Folkerts was the only pastoral staff member left in the congregation.

"Keeping morale up was very difficult," she admits. "But I knew I needed to stay focused on my area only and not try to solve problems in other areas that needed attention. For example, people weren't being visited in the hospital, but I needed to put up strong boundaries for me to stay healthy personally and for the children's ministry to stay healthy."

She adds that this can be very difficult to do as the pressure within the congregation mounts, but that by scattering your time and energy, you'll end up not doing anything well -- including the children's ministry you've committed to.

Give yourself permission to get to the basics.

As much as you want to provide consistency to children and their families, you may have to cut back. Maybe that huge mission fair you've run every year since time immemorial needs to be downsized a bit this year. Maybe the Christmas party that's a mega blowout for the kids needs to bring in more parents and outside help to make it happen.

Folkerts, who now has 90 children in her program, lost most of her leadership team throughout her church's turmoil.

"I finally gave myself permission to trim back on programming," she says. "I wanted to do the basics and do the basics well."

Continually cast a vision for the future.

Violence disrupted a normally peaceful congregation when several people fell ill and one died after drinking arsenic-laced coffee at church. A police investigation revealed that a disgruntled parishioner was probably to blame; the man later committed suicide.

How is it possible to look ahead and focus on the future in the midst of devastation? Your church members and their children may be so bogged down in the mess of the moment that they can't imagine or dream about the future. Step in with a positive vision for the church and the future.

"Talking about future events and plans is hugely important in times of crisis," says Bogart. "Saying things like, 'Isn't VBS (or Spring Fling, or whatever) going to be great?' helps children and their families see that the church isn't falling apart."

This may also be the time to recast some of those past events in a new light. Maybe an event that's been flagging for a couple of years needs to be reborn into something with a new angle or a new vision. Now is the time to do it.

If you're simply struggling to keep your head above water and can't think down the road to the future, Bogart suggests asking friends and family from outside the congregation to come in and help.

"I was tired and very emotional and had lost a lot of good colleagues and friends," she says. "I can't tell you the strength that came from asking people whom I knew were on the same page as me to come in and help."

Take care of yourself.

A smaller church in New Mexico found it had a significant problem when the new senior pastor exploded at a community meeting, blasting church board members, the public, and congregation members for being out to get him. It came to light that the pastor had a drinking problem, issues with rage, and was abusive. Several of the staff members bore the brunt of the pastor's abuse before he was replaced in a very public and embarrassing spectacle.

You may find yourself personally involved in the situation at your church, or you may be so emotionally connected to what's happening that it threatens your personal well-being. The fact is, when your congregation is experiencing problems -- with the people and children you love in the middle -- you're going to be tired physically and emotionally. These children's ministers agree that you can't get so wrapped up in the life of the church that you neglect yourself physically or spiritually.

One thing several of our sources recommended was finding someone outside the congregation as a confidante.

"Don't ever use a parishioner as a listening ear to process things," Folkerts says. "That puts them in an awkward place. I challenged myself to minister to everyone, no matter what side of the issue they were on. Stay as neutral as you can."

Personal lives can also begin to crumble if you don't nurture them. "Don't forget your hobbies, and invest in your own family," says Folkerts. "It's hard to give to others when you don't have it yourself." And don't be too quick to rule out counseling, she adds. "I couldn't be too proud not to ask for outside help," she says. "With a counselor, I was faced with my own issues, and I was open to what God had to teach me."

One of the most important factors, all agree, is not neglecting your devotional or prayer life. Now, more than ever, you need to keep your relationship with Jesus on an even keel.

In addition to your own needs, your volunteers also need encouragement. They're probably feeling a little overwhelmed with added work and stress. Meet with them, pray with and for them, and outline steps they can take to ease the burdens they're having. Work may need to be restructured. Others may need to find extra help. Curriculum may need to be revised. No one wants to complicate a bad situation in the congregation by having volunteers pull out. Be sure you are taking oversight of your flock.

Provide closure for children and families.

Another church impacted by scandal saw its pastor admit to the sexual abuse of children. The news was so devastating and the flood of accusations that emerged so appalling that it was too much for many of the staff and congregation. Some people felt called to stick it out and attempt to pick up the pieces of their ministries; some felt God telling them it was okay to go. Many left.

You or your teachers may decide to leave the congregation. If that's the case, providing closure to your children is painful, but necessary. Holder, who ended up leaving her congregation in turmoil, said she told her children that while she wouldn't be back, she still loved and cared for them. Simply disappearing into the night without a word will cause confusion and mistrust among your children, especially if they're going to continue to see you around town.

"Closure also allows God to bring about healing and creates an atmosphere for ministry to go forward," Holder says.

Having an exit strategy for families who are leaving is also a good idea, says Bogart. While many congregations don't follow up on why a family has decided to pull out, Bogart says you'll gain many insights into your children's ministry if you employ tactful strategies.

"When we heard through the grapevine that people were leaving, we called them," she says. "We asked their opinion of what the children's ministry was doing right as well as what could be improved. This is healthier for everyone and also leaves the door open if they want to come back."

Change in a church is painful. But by listening to the stories of those who've been there, you can make your children's ministry a rock in the uncertain world that can be congregational life. cm

Valerie Van Kooten is a freelance writer in Pella, Iowa.


VITAL STATISTICS

  • Surveyed church leaders ranked wisdom as their weakest character point, behind possessing a loving heart and modeling servanthood. They ranked having a conscience that's sensitive to sin and morality as their two strongest character traits.
  • 53: Percentage of people who said they have complete confidence in teachers. 16% said they had the same confidence in ministers and priests.
  • 55: Percent of people who believe greed or immorality was at the root of recent scandals. 10% believe bad decisions without illegal or inappropriate motives is to blame.

Source: The Barna Group

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