by Pastors Kevin Wiebe and Jacob Enns
On Oct. 29, 2017, New Life Christian Fellowship, which meets in Stevenson, Ont., held a reconciliation service to apologize to Jake and Anna Enns, the former pastoral couple at the church, for wrongdoings committed against them which led to their dismissal.
Despite our church being less than 20 years old, it is no stranger to conflict. I don’t think any church is. Earlier this year our church board was taking stock of events of the past, and the various conflicts that have occurred. As the conversation continued, one board member took note that there was one incident that stood out from our past, where we as church leaders had not done our part in properly reconciling matters. Our church, and our leadership specifically, acted deceitfully in the dealings with the former pastoral couple, a mistake which led to the painful dismissal of Jake and Anna Enns from their position as our pastoral couple.
In this conversation about those events, a board member proposed that we hold a reconciliation service where we as a church would publicly take responsibility for and confess our poor treatment of Jake and Anna. After discussion, prayer, and more discussion, we decided to approach Pastor Jake and see if they would be willing to take part in such an event.
Moving Beyond Empty Words
As the current pastor of NLCF, I have often said that confession without repentance is just empty words, but repentance without confession leaves a relationship without proper restoration. In our situation, it was definitely the latter. Repentance had taken place, but there had been no formal confession to mark the official close of that chapter in our church’s history. Even in the midst of the wrongdoing against them and to this day, Jake and Anna have continually been gracious with NLCF, and they again demonstrated that by humbly agreeing to come and take part in this service.
The service was held as part of the morning service on Oct. 29, 2017, and the church board and ministerial all came forward with Jake and Anna, where an apology was read to them by our church’s lay minister, Bill Friesen. The apology was sincere, and it was an emotional morning for all of us. Here are the words of apology that were read:
Jake and Anna, this church as an institution and the leadership team during your time here sinned against you by dealing with you deceptively. This resulted in the ending of your fruitful ministry in this place. We accept that this church as an institution is responsible for the situation that caused you so much pain. Today we as the leadership of New Life Christian Fellowship recognize and confess that you were sinned against by the leadership of this church. We publicly commit to doing things differently, and we apologize. As representatives of this church, we humbly ask both God and you to forgive NLCF for those past wrongdoings.
Following the apology, Jake took a moment to offer a moving response and sincerely grant his forgiveness to the church. A painting the NLCF building, painted by Emily Wiebe, was given as a gift to Jake and Anna to mark the occasion. A few weeks after the event, following some reflection of those events, Jake said, “It was a healing event for myself, and according to scripture, it was the path to go.”
Pastoral Reflections by Jacob Enns
Often when conflict and pain happens, people just cover and bury it, hoping it will go away. This unfortunately happens in churches. It is wrong.
We have clear examples in scripture where leaders reflected on the histories of their people, and realized what had gone wrong, and recognized that repentance was needed. Both Nehemiah and Daniel took ownership and responsibility for what happened among their people, even though as far as we know, they were personally not responsible for what had happened.
In the Bible we have the story of Joshua, how he made a binding agreement with the Gibeonites not to destroy them. The treaty was a trick on the Gibeonites’ part, but Joshua would not violate it because it was on his part a binding oath. Over three hundred years later, King Saul violated that treaty and he tried to wipe out the Gibeonites.
Then some years later, under King David’s rule, God sent a famine in response to the wicked deeds of King Saul for violating that old treaty. And it fell to David to deal with the situation, and he took ownership of the matter, and dealt with it. The stories are found in Joshua 9, and 2 Samuel 21.
In Nehemiah 1:6 we find that Nehemiah took personal ownership of the sin that had been committed that had resulted in the current state of affairs for the city of Jerusalem. And Nehemiah prayed for forgiveness and decided to do something about the situation. He rebuilt the wall that had been destroyed.
In Daniel chapter 9, Daniel writes the sad story of the rebellion and punishment of his nation. Daniel was a youth when he was taken captive to Babylon, and therefore not responsible for what had happened. But in Daniel 9:4-19 we have the prayer, and we see how he took ownership and responsibility for the sins that had been committed.
In our time today, as church leaders, we also need to take ownership of the sins that have been committed, even though we personally may not even have committed them.
As in the story of Achan in Joshua 7, the whole community was implicated by a withdrawal of God’s protection when Achan sinned. So too, sometimes the whole faith body suffers when sin has been committed and is not dealt with.
When a faith community takes ownership of what happened, and addresses the deeds that happened and calls them what they are, and works toward reconciliation by repenting and asking for forgiveness, it opens the doors to restored relationships, to new opportunities and fresh growth. That was our experience at NLCF.
Even though there were no bad relationships between us, Anna and I, and the current leadership of NLCF, we were grateful for that church to see our dismissal for what it was when it happened, and to take ownership and show repentance.
For the leadership of NLCF to take ownership of the events that happened and call them what they were, that showed that they were sorry and repentant for what had happened. It also showed that they were seeking healing from that event, and wanted us, the terminated pastoral couple, to experience healing as well.
A Measure of Relief
Personally, even though we had forgiven the people who wanted us gone and we on a personal level had always been in good standing with NLCF, I as a former pastor of that church sensed a measure of relief. It was as if my bond with NLCF was again a little deeper now. It was also somewhat bittersweet. I could not help but think, what could have been had the people who wanted me out, “not” done what they did.
The current pastor and leadership team took ownership for what had taken place and with the reconciliation service showed the church and community they had repented of those events and wanted reconciliation. I was blessed by that.
When something like this happens (in my case a wrong termination), my recommendation to church leaders would be to consider and pursue the possibilities of reconciliation when relationships have been damaged. This will do a number of things.
First, it is biblical to pursue reconciliation. We have clear mandates from scripture to do that. Second, it may very well expose those with pride who are struggling with selfish motives. Third, it tells the congregation that the leadership is united, and has the best interest of the people at heart. Fourth, it sends a message to the community that this church takes ownership and responsibility.
As much as one does not want to go through a church conflict where one is terminated, with God’s guidance, and surrender to Christ, God can even use that to produce a harvest of spiritual growth.
Kevin: If your church is thinking about offering a public apology, Dr. Jeremy M. Bergen wrote a paper that helps churches consider and plan such events. Whether and How a Church Ought to Repent for a Historical Wrong is available at https://www.academia.edu/25636051/Whether_and_how_a_church_ought_to_repent_for_a_historical_wrong.
Jacob: A good book in working toward peace and reconciliation is Jim Van Yperen, Making Peace: A Guide to Overcoming Church Conflict (Moody).