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November 28, 2013

A Master Class in Grief

When I lost my mother, I learned a lot about how to (and how not to) comfort grieving people

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Losing our parents is an inevitability. If it hasn’t happened to you already, it will. It’s how life works.

Perhaps I should reframe that. We don’t “lose” them; they pass away, depart this life, go on ahead, are called home, are promoted to Glory, are no longer with us. Oh, so many ways of not saying it. They die.

At least, their physical bodies cease functioning and life continues in a dimension we’re unable to access. Our complex history of connection is punctuated by death’s rude interruption.

After the sudden death of my father, my mother collapsed, lost consciousness, and a week later died. Any other woman would have shirked the effort it took to stay alive in that last week. Not she. She was an Island woman who had weathered many a wild winter storm. Constancy and perseverance were her watchwords even to death.

In the vigil, the color contrast on reality was hiked all the way up, the saturation levels of faith came into sharp focus, and we become aware of each pixilated minute. A stray hair, a scuff on a bedside shoe, a snaggy fingernail that would never need to be trimmed.

Into this sacred space, others ventured. Some tenderly. Some ignorantly. We're all encompassed at life’s end by the living. Family, friends, pastors, strangers. Each embossed with experiences that determine how they walk alongside, how they touch those of us holding death’s hand.

As my mother died, those who encircled all meant well. Each made effort to accompany our grieving. I documented the interactions in order to hold the learning. I wrote knowing that I soon would be them, standing by a friend or stranger as they had their close-up with death. I wanted to make sure what I said, how I was, what I did would be helpful, useful, good, that I wouldn’t add injury to those already bruised and insulted by death’s thievery.

There was much to learn from them. Practical things, personal things, important things. The most impactful, though, was a surprise.

It makes absolute sense that when confronted by the discomfort of another’s death, the experience inevitably drops a large bucket into the reservoir of our own painful memories. Such remembrance can illicit the “Gosh! Your mother’s [crackly/stilted] breathing is exactly what my grandmother/uncle/best friend did…It was awful/weird/just minutes before they died…of complicated pneumonia/liver cancer/brain trauma…last June/in 1965/about four years ago last winter…or was it summer, I can’t quite remember.”

Not helpful. At all.

Why? Because the grievers’ plates are full. There is no room for another’s past grief. In the expression of grief there are always senders and receivers. The job of receiving is being fully with the grievers in their sorrow. There isn’t space at a deathbed to mourn those out of reach. To put it crudely, the freshest grief trumps all others. This is their time to mourn. Please, for the love of God, let's not interrupt the newly dead and dying with our own stories. Not yet. Important and life shaping though our experience is, there will be ample time later to discuss the echoes, but not while the dead lie still unburied.

The other invaluable lessons learned at my mother’s deathbed can be found by downloading How to Help a Family in Grief. The wisdom of the house of mourning serves me well. I’m praying it does the same for you and those you love and serve.


Christine Jensen is a wife of one, mother of two, sporadic writer, and wholehearted pastoral worker based in Cornwall, England. Originally an occupational therapist, she subsequently graduated from Talbot School of Theology, California, with an MA in Christian Ministry and Leadership. Having served in the local church for the last 20 years, she works to see real relationships flourish and loves to see freedom break out through the transforming power of God’s love.

November 25, 2013

Healing Wounds from Sexual Violence

There’s power in men and women working together

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The White Ribbon Campaign (WRC) posters hanging all over Ryerson University’s campus caught 17-year-old Miranda Hassell’s eye. “Make up…or concealer for bruises?” read the text on one poster, images of a compact and a brush.

Started by men for men in the 1980s, WRC works to engage men in ending men’s violence against women, while inspiring them to be the best versions of themselves. Today it runs workshops on gender and language in 60 countries. WRC offers specific resources geared to male mentors working with boys, and it works vigorously to highlight the need for male involvement in ending all violence against women through innovative campaigns like Walk a Mile in Her Shoes and What Makes a Man conferences.

The WRC posters lit a fire in Miranda. That first year at university, she went to every workshop WRC offered on campus, needing to learn all she could about violence against women and pulled in by the candor and conviction with which the men running the workshops talked about the issue. Before WRC, she’d never heard men acknowledge that men inflict the majority of violence against women. “And here [they] were talking about how they could do something to stop it,” she recalls. That very year she volunteered to be co-chair of Ryerson University’s WRC.

Five years earlier, a close family friend, Christian and near to Miranda’s age, had sexually violated her. “I was scared. I couldn’t breathe. I froze. I didn’t know what was happening,” Miranda remembers. No one had explained sexual touch or feeling to her. She had no idea what was appropriate or not. “I didn’t say yes. But I didn’t say no either.” Time slowed down. “It could have been five or ten minutes later…or an hour. I don’t know. I made up the excuse that I heard Mom calling my name. I just ran away.”

The freezing that began that day deepened. Ultimate trust and mutual love didn’t mean that the males closest to her couldn’t also “do that.” After all, a family friend she’d trusted had done it and so hugs from her father made her feel uncomfortable. The first person she told, her best friend, didn’t believe her. Miranda didn’t tell her parents for two years and only then because their ongoing compliments about the family friend and his achievements made her angry. She had to set the record straight.

Her distrust and discomfort didn’t stop there. She distrusted the Christian leaders—camp counselors and youth group leaders—in her life who talked about sex. “Sure, I mostly believed what they had to say because of what was in the Bible, but I didn’t think that any of them had experienced what I’d gone through.”

On the physical front, holding hands shocked her. She had her first kiss “way later” than her high school girlfriends. Indeed, one of her best friends in high school was gay and yet she felt fearful around him. She flinched the first time her husband held her arm.

At 17, Miranda’s life slowly changed. Relationships with straight males, Christians and non-Christians, who didn’t “want anything,” brought a degree of respect and equality that felt safe. She sought counseling and walked through a mediation process with her abuser and his family. “Jesus was with me and Jesus gave me the courage to do that,” she admits. When she walked onto Ryerson’s campus her first week at university and saw the WRC posters, she’d forgiven her abuser. Yet her anger remained, bottled up perhaps because she couldn’t reach out to her female or male mentors at church: None of them were addressing sexuality. “No one in church talked about this issue, so I needed to find my support outside the church.”

That was three years ago. Since then Miranda, a straight-A student, has been involved in three WRC walkathons, co-led two What Makes a Man conferences at Ryerson, led numerous workshops in the university’s residences, recruited and trained volunteers, and canvassed on campus to engage people in what WRC does. Over the years, her leadership within Convention Baptist circles in Toronto and Ontario, Canada, has also grown: Sunday school teacher, camp leader, staff member at both Avalanche and Blizzard, the convention’s weeklong winter retreats for middle- and high-schoolers, attended by hundreds of Convention Baptist young people and their peers.

Miranda holds up a mirror and asks leaders to speak the truth, without flinching, in love. “Youth leaders will talk about some tough things but not about sex, gender, language, and violence against women.” So let’s talk.

Don’t Deny the Issue

Being a Christian or going to church regularly doesn’t mean you or your children won’t be victims or abusers. Male violence against women remains an issue, within and without the church. Parents, youth pastors, and leaders need to access a plethora of online resources, including WRC’s, on this issue. Perhaps we need to own that, with this particular issue at least, “secular” experts continue to define its nuances and offer resources at a pace that far outstrips Christians. “Kids need to receive resources and have the conversations with their parents, Sunday school teachers, camp counselors, and youth leaders. And the conversations must be grounded in the facts,” affirms Miranda.

“Youth grow really close at camps and even in youth groups,” she continues. “Especially at camps, you’re living in a bubble and we know that somewhere between 60 and 80 percent of abuse and violence happens from people you trust. And if there isn’t education at churches about consent, then it will happen.”

Resist Demonizing Men and Boys

It’s easy to say that men and boys are the problem. Not so. God didn’t create men to inevitably hit, assault, rape, or kill women. Men are not de facto, born-to-be rapists. And while many of us say no to violence against women, how many of us call out the men in our church groups who play Grand Theft Auto and talk about “doing” the prostitute out back (part of the game)? (If we can’t speak the truth in love in our small groups, then where can we?) How many of us challenge our sons or nephews when we hear them talk about raping their last semester’s exam? How many of us, in church, have excused the bad behavior of our boys, youth and men by saying, “Boys will be boys.” Really? Let’s never forget that we’re all responsible for cultivating the standards by which we live. Let’s also never forget that we are all broken. We are all are precious in God’s eyes and we have all fallen short of his glory.

Remember That Jesus Was a Carpenter

Sunday school majors on our heroes: Moses, David, Samson, even Paul. These men fought with their hands, with swords, and with words. In the action-hero flurry of Sundays, have we forgotten that Jesus was a carpenter? That we’re described as sheep being led by a shepherd? When did we stop teaching our boys and girls that men are called to be nurturing?

Start with Language

At some point Sunday school stories wane while video games and online communities beckon the majority of male tweens on the cusp of adulthood. Are youth group leaders prepared to unpack the language of those video games with them? Sexualized language is more often the norm than not in youth groups. According to Miranda, “Stop being a girl,” or more vulgar gender-based accusations are the norm for youth group kids to say to each other. It doesn’t stop there. “That’s so gay,” she’s heard youth group leaders tell each other, in front of youth. Boys say this charged phrase to each other and levy it against the ones who’ve done something kind or nurturing for a girl. Imagine hearing your church youth leader casually throw out that phrase, not knowing that you struggle with your sexuality or that your parents are part of the LGBT community.

Affirm, Affirm, Affirm

Boys and male youth do need to hear that God loves them, that they are valuable. They need to hear from all of us, women leaders too, that they are everything they need to be. They don’t need to posture or rack up notches on their belts. “I just want to hug their bravado away,” Miranda quietly offers. She’s silent for a moment. “I’d hug them and tell them, ‘God loves you.’ They don’t need to prove anything to their peers about how much they’re worth.”

Miranda remains convinced that if her abuser had had the benefit of just one WRC workshop, her encounter would not have happened. “It happened due to peer pressure,” she reflects now. “Guys in his school would have contests to see who would slap the most girls’ butts.” WRC gives her hope for the future of boys because they’ll have access to the education and knowledge WRC offers.

Her journey from survivor to healer reflects roots that grow deep in Jesus. “God and healing are so much bigger than the institution of church,” she says. “So often when you’re young, church is all you know…I couldn’t lean on the church—the institution—so I had to lean on God, on Jesus.” She has learned to believe, deeply, that God loves her; that she was and is valuable; that she was and is everything she needs to be. She enjoys her father’s hugs now.

Renee is the communications director for Canadian Baptist Women of Ontario and Quebec and a regular contributor to Gifted for Leadership. She blogs on change, big and small, at ReneeJames.org.

November 21, 2013

How Should the Church Handle Adultery?

God’s mercy provides a way out…do we?

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Have you been marred by the sin of adultery? Has your heart ever ached for a friend’s or relative’s marriage that has been battered by adultery? The church has ways to handle adultery, but do we handle it as Jesus did? Have you seen the church mishandle people affected by adultery? How do we extend mercy for such a despicable sin that disrupts so many marriages, homes, children, and precious lives?

No Definition Needed

Most people understand what adultery is, even if we masquerade behind false pretenses. We all understand how marriages can be affected by the sin of adultery, or worse, even destroyed. Often, we forget to delve into how the body of Christ views the sin of adultery and all the parties involved. It would seem in such a sexualized culture, with the spiritual condition of the church being what it is, that anything goes. The contrary is true. Sin has never been tolerated by God; neither should it be tolerated by the church. But for every sin that has been committed or that will be committed, the penalty has already been paid by the blood of Jesus.

Adultery is an ugly thing that has very ugly consequences, but despite the ugliness, incredible mercy and redemption can result. If we as Christ’s body handle adultery as Jesus did, more people would be restored back to God.

Caught in the Act

There are a few definitions for the word caught: came upon suddenly; surprised, and detected. Many of us in childhood were “caught” doing some stuff we knew we had no business doing. My mother used to warn her children, “Your sins will find you out.” As I have children of my own, I find this such a true statement. When you are caught in the act of wrongdoing, the emotions are indescribable and often unbearable. As a child, I wanted to disappear when caught in some act, when my parents found out my “dirty little secrets.” To make matters worse, can you remember being caught doing something when “everybody” knew you did it? How awful!

Many marriages have been plagued by adultery; the statistics are alarming. According to Focus on the Family, an estimated one-third of men and one-quarter of women have admitted to engaging an extramarital sexual act. I am certain that there are even more cases that have not been reported, guilty parties who have not been “caught.” By no means am I making light of such a sensitive subject. We have already established that adultery is sin, but how we as the body of Christ handle it could be the difference between restoration and reprobation.

In John 8:1-12, an adulterous woman was brought to Jesus by the scribes and the Pharisees; for the sake of this article we will call them “church people.” The church people told Jesus that this woman was “caught in the act of adultery” (John 8:4). The church people quoted the laws of Moses that demanded punishment for this woman. They asked Jesus, “What do you say?” They were not really concerned about the sin of the woman, the missing man, or even the law of Moses; they had concerned themselves with how to tempt Jesus.

I love how Jesus addressed this very delicate matter. Jesus stooped to the ground, and with his fingers wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not. As a child, I imagined Jesus writing, “What about you, what have you done?” The Bible tells us that the scribes and Pharisees continued to address the adulterous sin of this woman before Jesus. As always, Jesus spoke with conviction and redemption: “All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” (John 8:7).

I find it amazing that even in the body of Christ today, when a person is overtaken in a fault or sin, rather than restore them as Paul admonishes us in Galatians 6:1, we expose their sin to others. Worse, we expose their sin to the world, often through social media.

If we follow the example of Jesus, we see nothing of the sort. We see Jesus covering this precious woman with love and mercy. The Bible declares, “Love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8b). As Jesus delivered his convicting words to the scribes and Pharisees, and stooped down again and wrote on the ground, something happened on the inside of those church people.

Convicted by Our Own Conscience

John 8:9 declares, “When the accusers heard this, they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left in the middle of the crowd with the woman.” I am convinced that if the members of the body of Christ were more convicted of our own conscience, we would less likely deliver our brothers and sisters up to be punished. If the light of God’s Word shined in some of our very “dark” places, we would find grace easier to extend. Not only did her accusers leave, but there was no one there to accuse her. Jesus’ final response to this woman is both incredible and convicting: “Neither do I [condemn you]. Go and sin no more” (John 8:11).

Jesus’ final word to this adulterous woman gives a death blow to the self-righteous heart in the body of Christ. The self-righteous heart in the church is evident when we as believers seek to bring justice to every sin without taking the time to see the sinner. How can we let adultery go unpunished? Is it easy? Of course not, but the church must follow the example of our Savior. How can it be that Jesus did not condemn the woman caught in the act of adultery? Jesus came to seek and to save those who are lost. Well, what about believers who commit adultery? Jesus came to redeem all of us back to God; he desires that no one perish.

If we allowed our conscience to convict us, we would repent more quickly, forgive more easily, and love wholeheartedly. But I am afraid that this cannot happen until we have a real encounter with the grace and mercy of God. I used to be one of those “church people” until I found Jesus for real. I used to be one of those people not convicted by my own conscience, until I needed the grace and mercy of God when I was being delivered up to be punished because I was “caught.”

Extending Mercy

It causes me great grief when members of the body of Christ find more pleasure in execution than in restoration. What picture does this portray about the wickedness of the heart and the depravity of the soul that would rather “rip apart” than restore? The scribes and Pharisees were rebuked constantly for their outward salvation and their unregenerate hearts. Jesus extended mercy to the woman caught in the very act of adultery. The scribes and the Pharisees wanted her to be stoned. Have we demonstrated this mentality in the church to an already dying world? Do we operate out of the same unregenerate hearts when prominent people, especially Christian leaders, fall from grace? Rather than institute a prayer meeting, we send Facebook messages about them, tweet and Instagram our opinions of their failures and what an embarrassment they are to the body of Christ. I must mention this is modern-day stone throwing.

If the scribes and Pharisees were with sin in the time of the adulterous woman, what about now? The Word of God decrees that where sin abounds, grace abounds much more (Romans 5:20). It is the responsibility of the church to live this concept to a world in need of a Savior. The church must handle the sin of adultery with mercy. Every sin, irrespective of our disgust for it, must be handled with mercy. The church’s focus should be on redemption and restoration. We need to be delivered from finger-pointing and engage in good old-fashioned intercession for our brothers and sisters and those who are in need of Jesus.

The Way Out

I know many passages in the Bible speak on adultery and those who commit adultery. And I believe them. What we as the church have failed to do is point sinners to the cross, where they can find help and healing. Directing people to Jesus was the way then, and it’s certainly the way now. If we direct people to Jesus, condemnation is crippled and lives are restored. It is our job as the church to be the eyes, ears, mouth, and feet of Jesus. We cannot do this if we are unfamiliar with his methods. We must do a couple of things if we are going to help restore those caught in the act of adultery.

First, we must show them there is a way out and it begins with the mercy of God. We must show love, the kind of love that covers a multitude of faults (1 Peter 4:8). Our love must give them room to make mistakes, and we must extend grace and receive them. We must show compassion. Compassion that is laced with sympathy for the pain the adulterer feels and the pain the spouse feels, even compassion for the partner in adultery. It can be hard, but it must be done.

As the body of Christ, we must extend forgiveness; it is in this atmosphere where Jesus found us. We must show mercy. If Jesus did not condemn, we must follow his example, especially when a person has committed to sin no more. Finally, we must present the offending party opportunities for restoration. Opportunities for restoration include high levels of accountability, prayer support, and continued encouragement as all parties struggle to rebuild their lives.

Sin has always mattered to God, but creation matters much more. God sent Jesus to give the adulterer a merciful way out.


Domeniek L. Harris is a writer, speaker, professional educator, women's ministry leader, Bible study teacher, and founder of By His Side Ministries, a multicultural, inter-denominational, and international ministry for ministry wives. She is a co-laborer in pastoral ministry, and pastor's wife at Dominion Living Ministries in Memphis, Tennessee.

November 18, 2013

One Way the Church Can Welcome LGBT People

How our communities might foster love instead of loneliness

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In the last few years, we have seen a remarkable shift in church culture’s attitude regarding the LGBT community. Churches are wanting to be open and welcoming to these folks. In my opinion, the struggle churches and Christians have is not with “loving the sinner,” as it’s been said, but with how far that love goes without compromising Scripture.

The greatest tension in the church’s welcome and even acceptance of LGBT people comes from the desire to be faithful to Scripture. Many Christians believe the love of God extends to all, but somehow have come to believe that if they go as far as welcoming a gay person, it means they have abandoned their loyalty to Scripture.

An “unwelcoming” shows up when a gay person who has been attending church all of a sudden wants to be on the worship team. This is when the welcome mat is pulled out from under the person’s feet, often leaving him or her devastated. An institutional church has no choice in this matter, no matter how much love they have for this individual. Scripturally, they cannot allow this person to lead. The same moral code for heterosexuals involved in any kind of sexual fornication applies to our LBGT friends.

I often wonder what this looks like to well-meaning LGBT people who are genuinely wanting to seek Christ but still struggling with living the lifestyle. To them, their sexual orientation is part of who they are, not an activity they feel they can just cease. We often don’t realize how much they give up in order to follow this path. Many lose their families and homes. Their conviction of their orientation must be strong in order to endure such heartache. This is something for us to keep in mind when building relationships with them. How would we feel if someone told us in order to be accepted and given opportunity for involvement, we would have to deny our attractions and be celibate? We are asking a great deal of them—and only so they can be involved in official roles, serving Christ within the context of the institutional church. When the apostle Peter stated that we are living stones being built together (1 Peter 2:5), I wonder if that really meant excluding the seeking LGBT person.

I believe we need to return to what God’s dream of church was and still is. It wasn’t a dream of building an organization with “every member a minister” (Romans 12:4-21) only to include the options of greeting, teaching Sunday school, being on the worship team, or visitation as the only possible manifestations of royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9). God’s ultimate dream and purpose for the church is for it to be family—his family. And he “places the lonely in families” (Psalm 68:6). Honestly, I can’t think of a sector of society who experiences degrees of loneliness more than the LGBT community. The strong sense of family and community they create among themselves shows their rejection by society and their attachment to those who will love them for who they are.

Considering this, how can we prevent these precious people from ever experiencing rejection from the body of Christ without compromising biblical truth? I believe there is a way, and I’m thankful to share it with those who have echoed the same question.

First, we need to remember that God’s standards for church leadership were intended for a church government that looks completely different from what we see today. With only touching on the subject (it’s a topic for another article in and of itself), we need to understand that the principles laid out for elders in the early church were meant not primarily to exclude, but to honor those who were seasoned believers who displayed wisdom and the ability to lead (1 Timothy 3:2-7; Titus 1:6). They weren’t meant to be strict adherences for worship teams, hospitality groups, volunteers, and greeters to be measured by—because such roles didn’t exist outside our modern organizational idea of church. Even in the early church, a homosexual person wouldn’t have been considered as an elder of a church, but that wouldn’t have look like exclusion as only seasoned believers were given that role. Our “volunteer ministry roles,” and the expectations we place on those who hold those positions, are our ideas. It’s a sad day when a homosexual person just wanting to volunteer at the door is refused because of orientation, or is refused when wishing to volunteer in the nursery because of unfounded fears that he may just be a pedophile. To such a person, and to the world, this looks a lot like discrimination. I wonder how Jesus sees it?

The early church met in homes, where they welcomed the weary, the weak, the lonely, and the poor. They loved on one another and all shared openly in meetings about Christ. They ate together. They became a community. They were family.

I feel that today, the safest possible place for an LGBT person to find a true welcome that never comes to a screeching halt is in churches that meet in homes. In a home setting anyone can share, engage, and even just sit back and observe. All can help serve dinner, clear the table, wash the dishes, welcome a newcomer without a list of biblical guidelines excluding them. Anyone can question a passage of Scripture without judgment and engage in meaningful conversation. All can pray and be prayed for. What an amazing, safe environment for anyone to feel at home in. All of a sudden, the Holy Spirit can do his work in people’s hearts—whatever that may end up looking like—rather than be excluded by what we have created and are now bound by. Frank Viola has some interesting thoughts on what house churches look like in his book Reimagining Church.

Much of the tension churches feel in relating to LGBT people is only going to increase in the next decade. Now is the time for us to engage in healthy conversation about how we can see LGBT people come to Christ and be able to grow in a loving community. A community where the welcome doesn’t run out and spiritual transformation can take place.

Connie Jakab is a blogger and author of Culture Rebel: Because the World Has Enough Desperate Housewives. Connie is an active speaker and worship leader, and lives with her husband and two boys in Calgary, Alberta Canada. She can be found on twitter @ConnieJakab.

November 14, 2013

Ladies, Beware!

Protect yourself from ministry predators

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It all started my freshman year of college. It was my first time away from home, and I was excited. I was eager to meet new people and explore the world. I came from a small town, so with great excitement also came naïveté.

I volunteered that fall during campaign season to make some extra money; that’s when I met Pastor Brown.* He seemed to be such a godly man. He invited me to his church and even picked me up from campus. His church membership had only two adults and the rest were children, but that was okay; I didn’t mind. I was just happy to hear a message from God and worship with other believers. Pastor Brown asked me to volunteer at his church right away. I always loved serving God and the community, so I said yes! In the beginning, everything seemed fine.

After a short period of time, he seemed to develop feelings for me. He started to act more like a man who was pursuing me than a pastor who was three times my age. I began to receive hugs that seemed more like squeezes. They just didn’t feel right, but I thought I was overanalyzing it. It wasn’t until my roommate and her friend began to discuss their observations with me that I realized something wasn’t right.

I was very uncomfortable, but I loved the kids, so I kept serving. The next school year, my boyfriend made the same observations. I guess I didn’t want to believe it. Finally, a sergeant from the campus police department saw Pastor Brown pick me up one day and received negative vibes (or maybe discernment). I’m not sure what caused his concerns: the pastor picking me up in his freshly polished Cadillac, his flashy outfit that looked as if he were going out for a night on the town, or the awkward embrace he gave me that almost cut off my circulation. Whatever it was, the sergeant had a talk with me the next time he saw me. I was a work-study student in his office, and I guess he felt the need to protect me. He asked me many questions about the pastor and expressed his concerns for my safety and well-being. That’s when I finally took heed to my intuition and my friends’ observations. I stopped serving at Pastor Brown’s church. However, Pastor Brown continued to call me and ride around campus looking for me for approximately one year. It frightened me and hurt me at the same time. How could a married pastor do this?

Unfortunately, this was only the beginning of my encountering pastors and ministers inappropriately seeking me. Over the last 10 years, I have come across several men telling me and other women that God told them we were their wives. These men had no intentions on marrying me or my sisters in Christ. I’ve also encountered leaders making inappropriate comments to me and other women. I’ve seen men invite women to be part of a ministry, only to invite themselves into their lives.

I believe this problem is more prevalent in churches where the pastors or ministers have no accountability. The churches are not connected to a denomination, and/or the pastors started their own churches. From my observations, they find it easier to prey on single women, divorced women, or women having problems in marriage. In my case, I’m single. So I say to my fellow sisters in ministry, Be careful.

Setting Proper Boundaries

It is important to set appropriate boundaries when serving with men in ministry. We are serving the Lord based on the calling he has placed on our lives. We do not have to be treated as objects when we serve. It is important to address inappropriate comments when they are first made. It has been my experience that the more you allow inappropriate comments to be made, the more the comments continue and become even more offensive. We need to address the comments directly or report them to the proper authorities.

If a crime is committed, report it to the police. Do not allow church personnel to handle criminal behavior. In my experience as a former prosecutor, many times churches cover up sexual abuse. If it is not criminal behavior, I recommend going to another trusted leader in the church. If the matter is not appropriately addressed, you should seek another church where you can be safe. You should also know that you are not alone and it is not your fault. You should be free to serve the Lord without harassment.

“You’re My Wife”

I don’t know if this is in a handbook somewhere, but this line is used frequently in the church. Many men use this line with both new and mature Christians. I’ve heard it more since I’ve been serving in leadership roles. Many ministers have indicated to me that God has called us to serve the body of Christ “together.” Some men use these lines in an attempt to win our hearts, but they really haven’t sought the Lord about marriage. Ladies, we need to seek direction from the Lord for ourselves. When we get connected to the wrong men, it will affect not only our lives, but also the people we are called to minister to. I have discovered that I am not alone in my experience. I have found numerous websites that highlight thousands of women who have been victims of clergy misconduct.

In fact, Baylor University conducted a study of the prevalence of clergy sexual misconduct. This study defined clergy sexual misconduct in this way: “ministers, priests, rabbis, or other clergypersons or religious leaders who make sexual advances or propositions to persons in the congregations they serve who are not their spouses or significant others.” This study found that in an average congregation with about 400 people, where women made up 60 percent of the congregation, on average, seven women reported being victims of clergy sexual misconduct. Of the entire sample they used, 8 percent of people reported having knowledge of clergy sexual misconduct in their own faith community. Based on this finding, an average of 32 people in a congregation of 400 reported being affected by clergy sexual misconduct in their own congregations.

When clergy sexual misconduct occurs it affects everyone. The Baptist General Convention of Texas released a report in 2000 which noted that in the 1980s, 12 percent of ministers said they engaged in sexual intercourse with church members and nearly 40 percent acknowledged sexually inappropriate behavior of some kind. Richard Blackmon, in an unpublished 1983 doctorate thesis, quoted the same statistics. He went on to say that in the study, 16 ministers refused to answer the question about sexual intercourse with parishioners, so the numbers may have been even higher. Unfortunately, there is no true way to determine how many victims there are, since no national database tracks clergy abuse.

Ulterior Motives

The word of God warns us, “Look, I am sending you out as sheep among wolves. So be as shrewd as snakes and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16). Ladies, we must use wisdom and discernment when accepting ministry opportunities. In my experience, some people will ask you to serve in their ministry only to get to know you better. These individuals recognize your gifts and will use them to their advantage. They see your heart for God and your passion to serve in ministry. They’ll use them to start a relationship with you. When the opportunity presents itself, they will make their advances; therefore, we must pray and ask the Lord to guide us before accepting ministry opportunities.

Going Forward

It is a privilege to serve the Lord. It is an honor to be called into ministry. We must protect ourselves from the individuals who want to distract us. We are called to work alongside men in ministry to advance the kingdom of God; however, it is important to be wise. We need to trust the Holy Spirit living inside us to lead us away from danger. So let us continue to serve the Lord with boldness and with wisdom. I have learned the hard way, but it is my hope that others will not make the same mistakes I have.

If you have been a victim of abuse, it is important to seek counseling right away. I would also recommend reading more about clergy abuse at Hope for Survivors or Sharon’s Rose. These websites offer hope and encouragement for victims of abuse.

Ladies, let us continue to serve the Lord and let nothing distract us from this precious message we have been entrusted with.

*Name has been changed to protect identity.

Carmille L. Akande is a licensed minister, attorney, speaker, writer, and blogger based in Dayton, Ohio. She has a heart for outreach and discipleship ministries and blogs at CarmilleAkande.com.

November 11, 2013

When Men Misinterpret Pastoral Care

All our interactions should be marked by love—plus caution and wisdom

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They met at a professional conference. Valerie was a young pastor, and Charlie was a recent college graduate interning with a campus ministry organization. He mentioned that he was discerning a call to ministry, so Valerie engaged him in a conversation about his vocation. He asked her some questions about seminary. And then he invited her out for ice cream after the conference. “I said ‘of course,’ recounts Valerie, “thinking that I would love to talk through vocational discernment more with any young person. In my role as a chaplain, I understand conversations and listening to be a huge part of what I do.”

Perhaps you see it coming, though Valerie didn’t, and I wouldn’t have either. During their conversation at the ice cream shop, Valerie referenced the role of her significant other in sustaining her ministry. Charlie dropped his cone and blurted out, “You mean, this isn’t a date?”

When I asked some female clergy colleagues if men had ever mistaken pastoral attention for flirtation, the stories poured in. Valerie’s tale was the mildest; that she and her accidental date were mortified by the gaffe was the extent of the miscommunication. Several situations escalated to the point that external authorities had to be called in—bishops, lawyers, even the police.

Women who experience this crisis of pastoral relationships speak of a newfound hesitance to reach out to the men in their congregations. Will her phone call to check in with a bachelor after his mother’s death be interpreted as a pass? If the third person who was supposed to attend an informal meeting cancels at the last minute, should she still meet the married man at the coffee shop as planned? If she smiles too warmly at an older gentleman during the Passing of Christ’s Peace in worship (or, heaven forbid, offers him a chaste hug), will he decide she’s actually secretly in love with him?

We know this happens to male clergy, but there is a difference: many of them expect it. It is common enough that they are warned to avoid such misunderstandings. Several of the women with whom I spoke had never been cautioned to pay attention to the way men interpret their pastoral care. Additionally, in many church cultures, women in ministry are a recent reality. It is still new and novel for men to receive spiritual guidance from a female pastor. “I have noticed that some male parishioners, especially the more lonely, light up when I connect with them,” confided Grace, an Episcopal priest. “They don't exactly try to come on to me, but I feel this slight aura of sexuality when they respond to my interest in how they're doing, or even sometimes just when I walk in the room. It's a tiny bit creepy sometimes, but I've gotten used to it. There are so few people out there with someone to listen to them or tell them they're special, even just in God's eyes.” Emily, also an Episcopalian, concurred. “I think there is something about the holiness and emotion of giving and receiving communion that can be misunderstood.”

None of these women engaged in unethical behavior. Clergy misconduct is a very real and damaging issue, but this is not that. Valerie certainly didn’t mean for Charlie to think she was asking him out. Grace isn’t being coquettish when she inquires about the well-being of the men in her church. And of course Emily desires to connect with her parishioners when she leads them in the liturgy of the Eucharist—as their loving and faithful priest.

Shelly, a Lutheran pastor, shared the most chilling story. She had been asked by the leadership of her small congregation to visit each of the members during her first year of ministry. When a gentleman named Mark started worshipping with the congregation, Shelly went out of her way to be welcoming—as is often the case with very small churches, new people receive a lot of attention from both church members and pastoral leaders. Shelly sat with Mark at a church potluck, but her intuition kept her from inviting him to meet for a one-on-one conversation. Her instinct was right. Mark handed her a love letter after a Lenten service, despite the fact that he’d met her husband. Shelly struggled to recount the complicated and frightening aftermath. As it turned out, Mark was mentally unstable. He took the rejection poorly, telling church leaders that they had been involved in a sexual relationship. Thankfully, Shelly had the support and trust of her congregation (and the local police, who were reluctantly called in to ensure her safety.) Mark has since moved on to a different church, and Shelly admits that she now reaches out in Christ’s love with a “thick layer of skepticism.”

We can ponder what clergywomen might do differently to avoid such situations, but there are limitations to the helpfulness—and even fairness—of that question. Yes, pastors of both genders should be judicious when ministering to the opposite sex. Keeping the office door ajar is always a good idea, literally and metaphorically. So is being mindful of one’s intuition, and having the wherewithal to identify red flags before they are in the rear view mirror. But the sad and vulnerable truth is this: There is nothing an individual can do to control the way her words and actions are interpreted.

The best-case scenario for women is that they will minister in congregations that cultivate healthy boundaries and strong lay leadership. If a clergywoman feels uncomfortable about the way one of her parishioners is behaving toward her, she might safeguard herself and her ministry by informing a trusted elder about her concerns. She may also consider calling a mentor for consultation. If subtly reinforcing appropriate boundaries does not work, she is wise to not be in isolation as she prayerfully contemplates a sensitive and effective resolution.

Just as men can offer meaningful pastoral care to women, so too can female pastors tend to the spirits of the men in their congregations—but we must be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.

Katherine Willis Pershey is ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and currently serves as an associate minister at the First Congregational Church of Western Springs. She is the author of Any Day a Beautiful Change: A Story of Faith and Family and a contributor to Disquiet Time, forthcoming from Jericho Books in 2014.

November 7, 2013

The Ministry of Passion in Marriage

I learned to put my sex life before church life

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How many women do you know who are serving in the church, on the board of their children’s Christian school, at the local mission serving food, sponsoring prayer meetings—doing mighty kingdom work for the Lord—all while neglecting their husbands, who are at home waiting to make love? Yes, make love—the anomaly of countless marriages.

I know of several women who epitomize this kind of lifestyle; in fact, I know one woman very well—me. My life looked that way as a new Christian. With all the passion and zeal I had inside me, I allowed ministry to be the purpose I longed for while my marriage was simply an added byproduct.

From the time Omar and I were married, we added children to our family, argued very little, trusted one another—enjoyed each other’s company; however, our marriage was passable at best. Enhancing passion was not a concern I had. My thoughts were, I’m married, I have four children—passion is a misleading invention created on television.

My surmise, however, was completely out of line with God. And unfortunately, a lot of marriages today represent that same thinking: sex is a formality rather than a sacred union between man and woman, and this mindset creates nothing more than a methodical presence. The Song of Songs is a gentle reminder of pure romantic wedded love. It’s almost hard to read the book of Songs without feeling as if you’re imposing on two people madly in love. God wants us to know that while he calls married couples to be fruitful and multiply, planning children is not the only reason a couple should be making love, and women in leadership are obligated to be well-versed in the biblical example of passion in marriage.

God Takes Control

While I was on my whirlwind serving adventure, God eventually took control. All of a sudden, one at a time, ministry opportunities were no longer part of my life. All of a sudden my value and self-worth, as I thought, were slipping away. I had to learn that while God calls women into leadership, ministry must fall in order of his plans.

In The Power of Prayer to Change Your Marriage, Stormie Omartian lists 16 reasons marriages will fail, and one fact on the list is to make something other than God or our spouse a top priority. It’s easy to assume dividing our time between several ministries is putting God first, but that’s actually a false reality. Putting God first means to be in agreement with his alliance by doing all we can to ignite a passionate flame in our marriage. My husband and my home were often neglected as I spent all my time at church, and God will never ask us to disregard our home for any reason.

God is first in our lives. Our families—or better yet, our husbands—come second. Then extracurricular activities, jobs, volunteer work, and so on. When things fall in this order, we will see God move in many areas on our behalf. When I became a Christian I should have allowed God to first enhance my “okay” marriage instead of going over and beyond my call to serve at church.

We cannot effectively lead any ministry if we do not believe marriage is the second-highest priority in our lives, and I do not mean marriage coupled with children; I mean marriage, to our husbands. The Bible tells us in 1 Timothy 3:5, “If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?” (NIV). The importance of a passionate healthy marriage is essential to women in leadership as more and more marriages in the church suffer a fate not designed by God. Perpetuating an already existing epidemic within women’s ministry causes a mockery of God’s Word.

I Took Control

I considered my husband a nuisance when it came to making love, and I found myself in the midst of other women in leadership who were often complaining about their husbands’ annoyances. These women seemed unhappy in their marriages and I did not want to join their company. I did not want to think of my husband as a nuisance for wanting to make love; instead, I wanted to adore and dote on him and enjoy his love for me. I wanted to be exactly what he desired.

I went to God and asked him to help me change my marriage, and God answered when I “just happened” to be in a women’s prayer meeting one Friday evening and the speaker, a 70- year-old little woman, blurted out that she started praying for her daughter’s sex life. We weren’t even there to discuss sex; however, with her daughter right beside her, she went on to say that we cannot take our sex life for granted and we must pray that our husbands never lose their desire for us. Omartain affirms the same: just because something is not a problem in our marriage today, does not mean it won’t become a problem in the future. In other words, if lack of sex and passion are not a problem with your husband now, that does not mean it won’t become a problem in the future.

I finally understood that God wants all marriages to have passion, and I wanted nothing more than to honor God and my husband. I was excited to transform our marriage into something beautiful. I first learned that in order for couples to have great passion, they first need good communication. Omar and I spoke words to one another all the time, but we did not spend a lot of time talking intimately together about our pains, our worries, and our happiness. We started doing devotions together, increased our date nights and movies in bed. I began praying daily for his dreams to come true, his perfect health, integrity that his children could admire, that he would desire only me, that he would be obedient to the Word of God.

The next thing I began to do was pray for our sex life like never before. I began to pray in our room when I knew it was “one of those nights.” I began praying to myself by inviting the Holy Spirit in while we were making love. My husband had no idea what came over me. I was a totally different person. We were no longer going through the motions—just doing it because he wanted to—instead, we were both enjoying what God ordained in marriage. My husband was so appreciative that I cared enough about him and our marriage that I sought God to enhance our passion.

Moving Ahead

Marriage is a sacred union between man and woman, ordained by God, and consecration will only release God’s supernatural power in your marriage and ministry. Marriages will face many trials and tribulations; however, a couple committed to the sacrifice will exemplify the inherent discipline Jesus taught by living together in selfless humility. Our husbands are men created in God’s own image, and if they follow Christ, they are perfect in the eyes of the Lord. They will fall and they will stumble, but that cannot be an excuse to hold up a barrier creating distance in the marriage. A couple committed to daily prayer for their marriage will break down those barriers and the Holy Spirit will move in areas that were once depleted. The self-worth I thought ministry gave me now comes from my passionate, healthy marriage to the husband I once thought a nuisance. Our once “okay” sex life is now exciting and fun. My once-stalled women’s ministry is moving again as more and more women are reading God’s words through my writings.

God has a plan for you in his kingdom, and that plan includes your husband walking beside you. Remind yourself daily that you are an amazing woman of God and your value as a daughter comes from God and not activities. Remind yourself of the wonderful man God blessed you with. Remind yourself of the love and patience your husband has given you. Remind yourself that with God at the center of your marriage, it can only be astounding, extravagant, incredible. So call the sitter, light a few candles, and have a boisterous, passionate night tonight!

Saleama A. Ruvalcaba is a Memphis-based writer and speaker. She is a wife to Omar, mother of four, home educator and Bible student. She writes devotions on her blog at www.salruv7.com.

November 4, 2013

Embracing Gay People at Church

Sometimes Christians have trouble acting as we say we will

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Norman approached my husband, Brad, who spoke at an interdenominational Good Friday service. Brad learned that Norman had been involved heavily in the gay lifestyle and was now suffering from AIDS. In further conversations, Brad found out that Norman’s mother was a Christian and had been praying that he would come to Christ before he died. He did.

Never was a man more radically changed. From the outset, Norman told Brad that he didn’t know if he could change his orientation, but he knew he could change his behavior. My husband said that was good enough for him. At that moment, Norman became a part of our family. He came to a Bible study in our home each week and sang worship songs with the vigor of a man who knew he would soon be meeting the one he sang about. He soaked in Scripture as if it were his last drink of water before entering a long desert journey. We visited him frequently in his ever-increasing hospital stays.

However, we were surprised to find that not everyone at church responded to Norman as enthusiastically as we did. Older men, particularly, kept their distance—although moms with young children were a close second. Through our experience with Norm, we learned some things that I would like to have put into a sermon for our church.

Affirm a person’s choice to follow Christ, even if you don’t understand that person.

The older men, it seemed, just didn’t know what to do with Norman. He was different from the kind of man they were used to relating to. Granted, that may have been more because he taught theater than that he was gay, but it was clear they felt very awkward around him. Men who had always been particularly warm to newcomers kept their distance from Norm.

At the time, my husband and I didn’t know what to do about that. If I could have pulled them aside to talk to them about this, I would have encouraged them to find a way to affirm Norman’s radical, life-changing decision. They didn’t have to be best friends with him, but they should reach out and let him know he is a welcome and valued member of our congregation. Also, they could consider going the extra mile and learning a little about theater and why he loved it. It may not be as easy as talking about sports, but it would show they care about his life and what made him tick.

Children learn love when they see us embrace those who are repentant.

Young moms in our church, however, seemed to be frightened that whatever Norm had was catching—and not just AIDS. They were completely unprepared to talk to their children about embracing a person whose lifestyle had been so radically different from what they approved. In their desire to protect their children, they made sure they and their kids kept their distance. They didn’t want to take the chance that Norm might influence them to become gay and, worse, they feared he might be a pedophile.

But knowing Norm was a rich experience for our children. Because Norm had full-blown AIDS, he spent a lot of time in the hospital with secondary diseases. Our children had never been around anyone who was very ill. They learned compassion for one who was slowly, painfully letting go of this life and preparing for the next. It helped them evaluate what was important as they saw him gradually let go of all the trivial things in his life. Our kids also saw Norm’s love for God’s Word, his concern for other people, and his grace in the midst of suffering.

Our children were young at the time, so we didn’t try to explain what it means to be gay. Instead, we talked about how to help him as he struggled with illness. But if they’d been older, we would have used this as a teachable moment to explain what it means when a person says they are gay, why we don’t believe a person should engage in sex with a person of the same gender, and how to lovingly come alongside someone who is struggling in a new faith that often doesn’t seem very welcoming.

No matter what a person has been through, we are commanded to love. That doesn’t mean we excuse sinful behavior, but it does mean we listen, understand, and sacrifice our own comfort and preconceived ideas to represent Christ well. Through Norman and our relationship with him, I discovered the importance of listening before condemning and of offering the same grace that Christ shows me in spite of all my faults and foibles.

JoHannah Reardon has been involved in church leadership for more than 30 years. She blogs at johannahreardon.com and is the author of numerous novels and two devotional guides.

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