One of the most important roles of the church is that God designed it to grow its members up: “From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Ephesians 4:16). For this to happen, people must learn to trust each other deeply, and the pastor’s relationships and direction are a large part of this.
However, lots of individuals you will encounter will be carrying some sort of relational baggage. They will have a difficult family of origin experience, a business relationship struggle, or a messy divorce, for example. And, with the pain of those tough times in the background, they will have trust issues, and be hesitant to connect deeply with others.
They may have had to set limits, boundaries or even withdraw from a toxic relationship. However, they often don’t know how to re-engage with the right people back into their lives. This can lead to isolation, depression, disconnections within the church membership, leadership problems and a host of other issues.
When you encounter people who have withdrawn and have not reconnected, there are several critical things you can do to help them re-enter relational life. You can make significant improvements and progress with them. Here are a few:
Teach them that a non-relational life is no option. Often, Christians who have been hurt in a tough relationship will avoid learning to trust again, and will do this in a number of ways. They will throw themselves into their work. They will engage in ministries that involve them giving to others, but no one giving to them. They will spiritualize the issue, and say that God, not people, should be trusted. This is all designed to protect them from further hurt, though they are often not aware of it.
As their spiritual leader, teach them the Bible’s principles on our need for safe human relationships. Passages such as I Peter 4:10, “we are the stewards of his manifold grace”, can help your people understand that the best life, full of the grace of God, is one in which they reach out to God and to others for support, acceptance and comfort. Show them that a life without needing others is not normative Christianity.
Help them to grieve, heal, forgive and let go. When a person has a relational struggle from the past where they have had to set boundaries, there is often long-standing hurt involved. Perhaps they feel judged, or unloved, or were made to feel powerless. Help them pay attention to this, and work through it.
People often have the tendency to “move on” quickly and try to put it all behind them. They will shortcut the healing process, fearing that if they are not instantly victorious, that they are not being good Christians. And the unhealed issues often get in the way of finding new and better connections.
Individuals with hurts need for you to teach them that letting go and healing are a process, not an event. So many of Jesus’ parables on growth are about plants and the fruit they bear: “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit” (Matthew 7:18). Fruit is never instant, but takes time. Let them walk through a process of letting go, and teach them that God created a season for growth, not an instant makeover.
Help them require that any new significant person be surrounded by healthy relationships. A critical sign of a healthy and safe person is that they surround their lives with healthy and safe people as well. That is, that they have open systems supplying grace and truth to them, as opposed to closed systems in which they are not spending quality time with the right people. “Bad company corrupts good character” (I Corinthians 15:33) and so good company helps develop good character.
Give your people permission to require that those they want to open up to be individuals who intentionally have other healthy people around them, irrespective of how the relationship is going. Often, a family member, spouse or dating relationship will “be connected” to a church or support group, only to keep the other person happy, or to comply with them in some external way, not a heart way. Help your individual to know that anyone they trust must be actively interacting with growing people, such as within a healthy church, small group or spiritual director.
Help them see that risk is the only way to get the relationships we need. Often, a person will become stuck in a comfort zone and insist that they shouldn’t be vulnerable and take risks. They will say, “I need to find people who are absolutely safe so I won’t be hurt.” They do need safe people, but unfortunately there are no absolutely safe people, no perfect ones.
No one has ever had a great family relationship, friendship, business partnership or marriage, who did not take a real risk of being hurt. So, while you want to help them grow and become stronger, also don’t let them stay passive. Help them jump out of the boat and into the water with the right people. Show them that God is the ultimate risk-taker because of His desire for authentic relationships with his people. Every day, He is vulnerable with us and knows we may reject Him, but he continues to pursue us.
Jesus shows us this vulnerability in his passionate statement about His city: “’Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing’” (Matthew 23:37). They should not take impulsive risks to be vulnerable with the wrong folks, but they should take measured risks with people who have shown themselves to be good people.
You will be surprised at all you can do to help your people become motivated to open up and connect at deeper levels. And you should see not only more community in your church, but also more ministry and outreach as well.
You can find more principles on this issue in Dr. John Townsend’s new book, Beyond Boundaries: Learning to Trust Again in Relationships (Zondervan Publishing, 2011). His website www.drtownsend.com.
Consider starting a Celebrate Recovery ministry in your church.