Monday, June 6, 2016

Reconnecting with Believers after a Severe Betrayal

I freely admit it. I have had a major disconnect with other Christians since I experienced a severe betrayal and deceit at a church six years ago.

Although I have attended another church for the past four years regularly -- and have received a gracious welcome and support from my pastor, his wife and some key people there -- I find myself still on the fringes. For a long time, I told myself that was okay. I reasoned that I couldn't fully trust people -- but I could trust God -- so I would attend church as a loner. I would worship at the edge of the sanctuary, sitting alone, not interacting with anyone unless I was forced to shake hands at that awkward time when the pastor commands it.

I have inched towards more involvement, but it has been at a snail's pace. And I have been very guarded, very quiet, very reserved, very cynical, very ill at ease.

These people at my current church had nothing to do with what happened at the former church. But the experience I had previously shook my world to the ground. It was a contributing factor (not the sole factor but a contributing factor) to the end of of my 10-year marriage. It was one of those things that I had to confront and face uncomfortable realizations that I had been duped -- which in turn led to fierce anger, bitterness and, let's face it, rage.

So I arrived at this new church wanting to give it another shot, wanting to be open, wanting to trust, wanting to accept, wanting to be part of a community again ... and yet, I have fought it simultaneously. I feel at war within myself, every time I step foot into the place, knowing that no one there is guilty of the wrongs of others but still pushing against any semblance of true belonging.

I write this background (in case you didn't know it already), because I know there are a lot of you out there who have had similar experiences. It doesn't have to be my former church -- the story is the same. You gave it a shot, and you feel like people let you down. What's the point of going back? I want you to know that I get it. I get it more than you realize.

All that said, there is a glimmer of hope for me -- and maybe by sharing some insights, you might see there is a glimmer of hope for you, too. If you have been hurt by a body of "believers" and want to go back to church but are unsure how to take that step -- or even if you should take that step -- here are some things I have learned lately. Take them or leave them, but at least consider them. I don't claim to have all of the answers to this dilemma, and truth be told, I am still working it out.

But here's a short list of things you can do to test the waters at a church again:

1. Start with worshiping alone.  Grant it, I realize this sounds lonely, but "alone" does not necessarily mean, "lonely." It just means that when you enter church for the first time after an absence, find a place to sit where no one will really notice you. And then spend the time at the church service solely focusing on what God has for you.

For months, this is where I was. It was all I was capable of. I'd find the most unobtrusive place to sit and sometimes spend most of the service with my eyes closed in prayer or cast down reading my Bible. I took copious notes during sermons, partly to sink into what was being said, but mostly so that I wouldn't have to interact with anyone else.

I know it sounds anti-social, but when you've been hurt badly by people, this is a "safe" way to reintroduce yourself to just "being" in a church service. Your focus is taken away from human interaction, and you focus on the Holiness of God, which is pretty profound. He will work wonders in your heart, trust me.

2. When you feel ready, ask the pastor for a sit-down chat. I actually didn't start with my pastor. I asked my pastor's wife to talk to me. I unloaded everything I had experienced, and then about a year after that, I sat down with the pastor and ran through it. I think that when you finally feel ready to make that connection, it is a vital step towards reconnecting.

3. Volunteer with a group that you know can't hurt you. For me, it's the infants. I volunteer in the church nursery once a month. You might think I have some altruistic reason for helping young mothers, but it's really for me. I get a lot from being around innocent, pure souls who want nothing more than to be cuddled and cared for. If you're not a "kid person," then ask the church office if they have a need for hospital visitation ... or if you're an outdoorsy person or a DIY lover, ask if the church needs help with lawn maintenance or repairs. Find an outlet where you don't have to worry about whether others are going to lie to you.

4. If you have children, be careful about conveying cynicism to them. Just because you were hurt doesn't mean your children should suffer spiritually. I am very careful about not discussing my past hurts with my son and encouraging his participation in kids' activities. He also takes music lessons from the youth pastor, and that connection for him has been extremely helpful.

5. Give to specific funds if you have trust issues with money. A big part of the deception at my former church was rooted in the misuse of finances. However, I feel strongly that giving is a strong part of my exercise of faith -- because when I give, it means I am trusting God to provide for my needs while showing gratitude for His blessings. This presented a huge conundrum for me, because while I WANTED to give, I didn't know if I could ever give to a general "church budget" again.

One thing about my current church is that they are great about providing a line-by-line budget (something the former church did not do). Even at that, however, I was still skittish. So I categorize my giving by special funding pools. We have a "benevolence fund" for needy people who wander in the church needing help with groceries or utilities or rent or other emergencies. I give to that. We also have different opportunities to help specific missionaries. I sometimes give to those requests. At Christmas, the church collects toys for Appalachian children in Eastern Kentucky. I participate in that. And every Father's Day, we have a pile of baby bottles that we fill with coins. The bottles then are given to a clinic that helps women with unplanned pregnancies and supports them in other ways to avoid abortions. I usually write a check for that and place it in a bottle.

You can find something that your church is doing and give to that. Then ask God to open your heart and heal any hurt connected to the betrayals of others in the past over money. Just because one group of people took advantage of you doesn't mean all churches are in the same boat. Don't let one bad group paint a bad portrait of the rest. You'll miss out on a lot of joy in giving to others.

These are just a few things to get you started, and I hope that sharing my experience might help someone out there. Don't give up. Don't lose heart. Don't lose hope. I do believe that God wants all of us to experience community. When a "community" lets us down, it's very discouraging, but just remember that God is not guilty for the wrongs that people commit. Ask Him to heal your hurts and build your courage. And if you need any encouragement or have questions for me, feel free to post them below.

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