I’m pretty sure my jaw dropped open when I heard the counsel a workshop presenter was giving me. We were discussing congregational dynamics, and he asked for a case study that could be discussed as a group. I shared about a family in the congregation of which I had recently become the pastor. This family had been hurt, and some of them had begun attending another church. What was I to do?
After some clarification questions and discussion, he looked me in the eye and declared in a matter-of-fact tone, “You meet with your board, and have them sign a letter of repentance to that family. Take a board member with you to their house and read it to them.”
In spite of my surprise, I attempted to receive the counsel in a composed demeanor. As the discussion moved on, I silently pondered how to proceed with this situation in the church I pastored. Did I really need to repent? I mean, I personally hadn’t done this thing to them that had caused major hurt. No one on the board had done anything. The people who originally caused the conflict had already packed up and moved on. Why did I need to have our board repent?
I decided if there’s one thing I know, it’s that I don’t know much. This presenter and the other pastors had far more experience than I, and I needed to trust them. So I set off to compose a sincere letter of apology and love. When I explained the situation to the board (this was the first time many of them even knew anything happened), they were deeply concerned and readily signed the letter. They agreed that I should be accompanied by one of our staff pastors.
As we arrived at their home, the family cautiously welcomed us. We sat down and I read the letter to them through tears. Three members of their family were weeping by the time I finished reading. They shared with us their hurt and appreciation for the apology, and we prayed together. Driving away, my colleague expressed his amazement, “Thanks for letting me be part of what just happened. That was incredible.” He was right. The Holy Spirit had visited the room where we sat. It had been sacred space.
I wish I could tell you the family came back and stayed at our church. They did not. But reconciliation took place that day, and each time I or another member of our church sees them around town, while there is some awkwardness, mostly there is love and acceptance. They know our doors are always open to them.
This experience taught me some valuable things about confession. First, repentance opens doors for healing and reconciliation. I suppose this shouldn’t surprise me; it is true to the gospel story of the Lord’s faithfulness to bring healing and reconcile us to God through Christ. And while repentance can’t be expected to “fix” relationships, it is an essential part of what we are called to as “ministers of reconciliation.”
Also, this experience taught me when there is hurt, there is also opportunity for repentance. It does not always need to come from the person or people who directly caused the hurt. This idea was reinforced in my own life when I had the chance to speak with one of our Nazarene denomination’s General Superintendents. He was a man I greatly respected, and we were talking about an unrelated topic when he initiated a word of repentance to me. He offered confession to me, as a female minister in our denomination, for the ways the Church has not always loved and received me as a minister. Had he ever personally done anything to me to inflict this pain? Not at all—he had only ever expressed love and support. But as he offered repentance, I felt a touch of healing over me where I had not even realized healing was needed.
After experiences like this, I began to learn the value of repentance even and especially in a holiness denomination. I wonder if we are sometimes afraid to offer confession for sin, whether individual or corporate, because that would mean acknowledging we are not the perfectly loving and holy people we want to be. It is uncomfortable to acknowledge sin. But as anyone knows who has acknowledged sin in one’s own life, past that discomfort is healing and freedom. Why would we not take any opportunity we can to experience that and offer the experience to others?
This concept began to unfold for me in a corporate way a few weeks following a tragedy that made national news in the United States as an issue of racial tension. The church I pastor is located in a city that experiences high racial tensions, and as I observed a sense of indignance in a fellow pastor about the tragedy, I felt convicted to do something. But how can a pastor of a small church, thousands of miles away from a tragic situation of which no one in the church was involved, do anything of significance about it? Perhaps there are many things, but I could only think of one.
I put together a responsive reading—a prayer of corporate confession—for our church to pray together that coming Sunday. Together we confessed our tendency to turn a blind eye to acts of injustice around us. We repented for the ways, conscious or not, we have participated in the sin of racism. We asked the Holy Spirit to bring healing to our hearts and to those involved in this situation so far away. And we prayed the Lord’s will to be done here on earth as it is in heaven. Following the service that morning, one of our members approached me to express appreciation for the prayer. Had it brought some measure of healing to his own soul? He had not indicated it to me. Did it make any kind of difference in the incident that aroused the prayer? Only the Lord knows. But a sense of faithful obedience was felt in our congregation that day.
Not two years later, another instance of racial tension took place much closer to home. It seemed a natural response for our people to come to prayer over it. While we prayed for several specific aspects of the situation, we also confessed corporately—again—this sin of racism.
I can’t speak for everyone in our little church, but this act of confession has become a regular rhythm in my own life as a pastor (and, if I’m honest, as a wife and mom too!) On more than one occasion, as I have visited a parishioner in their home, I have seen hurt and perhaps anger in their heart. Sometimes it has been over something I have done, other times not. But it seems the Spirit consistently convicts my soul to get on my knees before them and repent. I don’t think it’s ever something that becomes automatic. The heaviness and intentionality of the act is always at hand. But the difficulty and hesitancy with which my heart used to wrestle have faded.
How does God call us to participate in corporate confession? What effect does it have on the hearts of God’s people? These are things I’m still learning. I do know my understanding of God calls me to love, and as a sister in Christ I am named a minister of reconciliation—to reconcile people to our Lord and to each other. For we who are pastors, I suppose it feels at times like an unrelenting work. So I find myself thankful for the One who says to me: my grace is sufficient for you.
Deanna Hayden serves as the lead pastor of Southwood Church of the Nazarene. She lives in Raytown, Missouri, with her husband Ben and their two children, Josiah and Hannah. Deanna is an ordained elder, born and raised in San Diego, and has spent time living and teaching in South Korea. She loves culture and coffee shops, being silly with her family, and serving the Lord in the never-dull adventure of life in ministry.