“Forgive your enemies, but never forget their names.” – John F. Kennedy
As we discussed in Part One, no longer feeling anger or resentment towards another for an offense, is an evolution of an emotional state and may not involve reconciliation.
Many offenses resulting in litigation involve a violation of trust. When trust is violated, forgiveness can take place, but trust takes much longer to re-establish. This is because the offense involves such profound deception that trust is all but impossible to rebuild.
Forgiveness is not the same as complete trust. You can have forgiveness without complete trust. The fact that doubt lingers does not mean forgiveness was not extended.
The question is, who receives the benefit of the doubt? Is it the deceitful offender who may have changed or the other people in the church?
CAN THERE BE FELLOWSHIP AFTER LITIGATION?After the litigation is resolved, can a deceitful offender return to and continue in church ministry in any way? Once they have violated the trust placed in them, should they be restored completely without restrictions? In some instances, some restoration is possible. In other cases, no restoration may be possible or desirable. A partial restoration may involve the deceiving offender resuming worship in the congregation, but fully trusting a deceitful offender may be a more difficult matter.
A deceitful offender may be forgiven, but still be required to refrain from volunteer ministry. This is because many view people in volunteer ministry as completely trustworthy. Allowing a deceitful offender to volunteer would shout that they are completely trustworthy when such is not the case. Foolishly entrusting a deceitful offender does not demonstrate forgiveness. It only demonstrates foolishness and poor judgment.
In these situations, many state that we cannot judge the person and the sincerity of their repentance. We are not capable of discerning whether or not someone has changed. We cannot judge such things, but we can and must judge behavior and past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior. Past behavior demonstrates a weakness or a tendency. It is all we have by which to predict the future. Better to have a deceitful offender forfeit the honor of volunteer service than returning them to a position of trust where the church and some of its most vulnerable can be harmed again.
While we must leave the sincerity of the repentance to God, we must also understand that the deceitful offender’s primary tool is deceit. While this may seem harsh, it is needed to reach a balance between restoration and maintaining a safe worship environment.
WHEN AN OFFENDER SHOULD NOT BE RESTOREDLet’s explore three examples where a “deceitful offender” has caused harm to the church and should not be restored to their former position of trust within the congregation:
- Child Abuse – Individuals who have been convicted of child abuse need to be carefully supervised whenever they return to worship with the congregation. These individuals should not be allowed to work within child or youth ministry programs.
- Theft or Embezzlement – Individuals who have stolen church property or funds should not be allowed the opportunity to steal a second time by returning them to positions of trust which provide financial opportunity.
- Fraud on Church Members – Individuals who have engaged in fraudulent schemes or scams should not be allowed to hold leadership positions that will give them easy access to church members and their personal finances.
In each of these situations, trust has been violated through the use of deception. Innocent individuals and the congregation’s ministry and reputation have been harmed due to these willful offenses. The individual who caused this harm can be forgiven for their actions, but church leadership must be mindful of its fiduciary duty to maintain the safety of its members and ministries.
WAYS TO RE-FELLOWSHIP AFTER LITIGATIONWorking with deceitful offenders who have violated trust given in the past can be very challenging. Pastors and church leaders need to seek opportunities for these individuals that will minimize the temptation to harm again. Sincere individuals should appreciate appropriate restrictions by a church that shows its concern for the person, but still seeks ways for them to use their talents in some meaningful ministry.
Be honest and forthright in discussing any restrictions with the individual so there is clear understanding by all parties. Seek their input on areas where they believe their talents can be best utilized in the congregation. For certain categories of offenses, such as child abuse and embezzlement, prior acts may make future similar acts by those forgiven individuals uninsurable. Church leaders should take this under advisement and check with their insurance provider to understand the risk involved.
If church leaders believe the person can still safely contribute to the congregation’s ministry, the privilege of serving can be extended once again. Requesting forgiveness means accepting consequences and owning past harmful acts. Added restrictions are a small price for restoration in a congregation.
Forgiveness is needed and we should freely seek it and grant it to others, but it does not repair everything. Deceitful offenders who are restored must still be monitored. The sound counsel of U.S. President Ronald Reagan, “Trust, but verify” is still true today.