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December 3, 2020
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What is forgiveness?

I’ve been hearing a lot of chatter recently about forgiveness. I think there’s some misunderstanding about what forgiveness is, and what it is not. 

Biblical forgiveness is the private, deep inner work between you and the Holy Spirit. It is opening yourself up for Jesus to supernaturally, progressively move you to release the grudge you are holding against the person that injured you. This does not mean what was done was right or okay. Or that you are required to forget the injustice. It means that with God’s help you are seeking to stop deeply drinking a poison that is rotting you away–and not even affecting the accused. It means you will not allow yourself to be bound as a prisoner carrying the weight of unforgiveness in your heart. 

Reconciliation is work done communally. It is public work that is most difficult and takes as much time as it takes. Reconciliation involves, at a minimum, the accused making an account of the trespasses to the injured party. Admittance of guilt follows. A sincere, heartfelt apology and vowing to not do this ever again with the help of God. There may be some restitution in order. Perhaps, the injured party is moved to offer forgiveness, but many times they are not ready for that step, yet. This openwork involves an outside party to serve as a mediator. At the end of the deep work of reconciliation, there may or may not be restored relations. There may or may not be a restoring of trust. Reconciliation does not equal relationship. For example, no one would expect the parents of a 13-year-old girl to remain in a relationship with a coach that molested their child. Abuse breaks trust and breaks relations. 

Forgiveness is the personal, inner work of the Holy Spirit and reconciliation is the open, communal work. But what about restoring a person to a position of power that has abused a sacred trust? This is an entirely altogether different thing than forgiveness. 

There is, rightfully so, a much higher standard for persons that have decided to offer their lives in public service to their community. The power dynamic plays into this. “Me, too” does not work when you are in a position of power because you are not on a level playing field. “Me, too” works with your peers. 

When a doctor breaks the vow of trust with HIPAA violations, she will lose her ability to practice medicine. When an attorney is found guilty of breaking attorney/client privilege, he is at risk of being disbarred. When a mayor is caught with her hand in the cookie jar, she is removed from office. When a counselor, coach, or educator abuses their position of power, they are no longer allowed to counsel, coach, or educate children entrusted in their care. When a pastor has an affair with a person in his congregation, the burden rests on him as the person that has the power in this relationship. The power imbalance makes it impossible for “consent” to be given. This is not “I’m sorry I sinned too.” This is referred to as an abuse of power.  

As a United Methodist clergyperson, our calling comes from above but must be confirmed below. We are required to enter into a Candiancy process that leads to being deemed fit to be a Certified Candidate for Ordained Ministry. An undergraduate and master’s degrees from accredited universities are required. We must undergo psychological tests, physical tests and meet with a doctor and a psychiatrist that must sign off on our fitness for service. We have to give an accounting of our debt load. We stand before our Conference Board of Ordained Ministry and must defend our statements of theology and practice. We are then commissioned as provisional members of our Annual Conference and enter into the Residency in Ministry program. We remain in this provisional state for at least three years, meeting with peer groups, mentors, submitting references, progress in ministry reports, lay onsite visits, and even more. And at the end of this thorough process, we may or may not be voted into the order of clergy. We may or may not be ordained for the practice and appointment to ministry. 

If a charge is brought up against a United Methodist clergyperson, it is taken with the utmost seriousness. Our Discipline spells out the process of seeking a  just resolution. The Bishop is required per Discipline to oversee this process. The just resolution may end in forgiveness. There may be reconciliation. Relationships may be restored. A time of intense, monitored, rehabilitation prescribed by the CBOM in conjunction with our Bishop must be adhered to if there is any hope of being restored to the order you vowed to faithful service in. And maybe, if the actions are not too grievous in nature, this person then must stand before the Order of Clergy and be voted back into the fellowship. Restoring a clergy in this manner is a painful, effacing process, lasting 2-5 years at minimum (assuming the offender is compliant with the process of restoration), and totally at the expense of the offender. It is rarely recommended that the restored offender return to his/her former community since often victims need longer to recover and the breach in that community is often irreparable. Instead, under the advisement of the Bishop and cabinet and reconciling team, a new community is located. Representatives of that new community are then given full disclosure of the minister’s offense, the steps taken to restore the minister and the assistance of the restoration team to join in this new season of the pastor’s return. In other words, nothing is swept under the rug, but the body is included in the process of forgiveness. Our policies and adherence to them are not always perfect. We are better than we used to be, and part of that is accountability provided by the connection. This is how the robust and rigorous process that we have established is supposed to work. 

I sat next to a dear friend that was up for being voted back in and cried happy tears when this brother was restored. I’ve also sat in closed clergy session when names of those that had preyed on their congregation members, stole money from the church or been found unfit to continue the practice of ministry were required to turn in their credentials. Their choices and actions resulted in forfeiting their sacred “privilege” to serve as a professional clergyperson in the United Methodist Church. That is a sad day. No one wants to see a fellow clergy lose their credentials. However, as United Methodists, we will err on the side of victim protection. We will seek to act justly and sometimes the “just” thing to do is to protect the people called Methodists and the greater community from falling victim to someone that has abused their power. 

It goes without saying: pastors are not perfect. The only sinless person to walk the earth is Jesus Christ. Wesley, the founder of Methodism, encouraged pastors and laity to join small bands and the hallmark order of business for the weekly gathering was to “speak each of us in order, freely and plainly, the true state of our souls, with the faults we have committed in thought, word, or deed, and the temptations we have felt, since our last meeting.” (Wesley’s Rules) Confession and admittance of faults is a good, and right and holy thing. It is edifying to hear a pastor offer up their shortcomings and in this way proclaim, “Me, too” I am struggling with sin just like you. 

And so what posture shall we take when someone has abused their sacred trust? Do we forgive those that have lost their ability to serve as a pastor? Yes, with God’s help we extend forgiveness. Are they welcome? Yes, this brother or sister is welcomed in the United Methodist Church. They are welcomed into the body of Christ because all are welcome. They can be forgiven and welcomed into a church family and at the same time not restored to the sacred trust that is inherent to the office of pastor. This does not mean that we are not a forgiving body. Or that we did not offer forgiveness as Christ first forgave us. What it means is that we feel the heavyweight of responsibility ensure to those entrusted in our care are never placed in harm’s way by the very person they are looking up to for spiritual, life-transforming guidance. If a doctor can lose their license, an attorney can be disbarred, a coach can be fired, surely a clergyperson that has abused members of his congregation must be held accountable and not allowed to practice professional ministry in our community again.

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