(Like all posts in the Leadership Conundrum series, this post is somewhat of a ramble.)
What do you do with people who refuse to help themselves? And what do you do when, even though you've been trying to help them, they blame you for their not feeling helped?
I spent some time in Galatians 6 this morning, and one passage in particular I feel really applies to such situations, but I can't exactly pinpoint how. Practically, speaking.
Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. Each one should test his own actions. Then he can take pride in himself, without comparing himself to somebody else, for each one should carry his own load.
-- Galatians 6:2-5
Paul commands two seemingly different things here: carry each other's burdens and carry your own load.
Your small group has been meeting weekly for over a year. It has reached a place of initial intimacy; people are opening up, sharing past hurts and present worries. People are praying for each other, offering support and advice to one another, and wrestling with Scripture together. People in your group are experiencing encouragement and help. Except for Sheila, a young woman who brings the same problem to group every week. Week in and week out she expresses doubt that God loves her and worries that she'll never be happy. Every week in "share time" Sheila laments the same things, using the same words, with no discernible change in outlook or approach. Every week the group offers her support, listens sensitively and respectfully, and offers different advice. Every week someone is available for during-the-week support. But nothing changes.
A year later the group is weary of hearing the same emotional struggles from her. They are still respectful in group but some are so tired of what they consider whining, they find reasons not to attend because Sheila sucks up so much of the meeting time repeating the same self-centered complaints and sucks up so much of the meeting energy.
It is hard to help Sheila because while she is clearly looking for help, there appears to be no practical way to help her. Her problems are mostly about feelings, about perceptions, about past hurts. So people listen, people talk, people hang out. But they stop because even social events become "therapy sessions," and it tires people out. People are finite resources, and even helpers need rest to heal when those they're helping are hurting them with infinite neediness.
The Church exists, in part, so the broken (which is all of us) can experience restoration. It exists because following Jesus is designed to be done in community, because no one is supposed to go it alone. The radical mission of grace in Jesus means never giving up on anyone, never writing them off, never treating anyone as expendable or beyond love.
Still. How tough can love be?
When it is discerned that hurting has become whining, is it graceless to step back?
What if you've been trying to carry Sheila's burden but she refuses to make any changes in her life so that she can carry her own load?
What does church discipline in such a situation entail?
What happens when not only is Sheila not doing the hard work of carrying her own load, but she denies you've been trying to help her? What if, because she doesn't feel different or because she isn't experiencing improvement, she blames you and accuses you of not caring about her?
What do you say? What does the community do?
She's not only ungrateful and forgetful, she's hurtful now.
Sheila's participation in the community is bordering on spiritually toxic. A program-centered ministry would have no problem giving her the boot, ignoring her until she finds her way out and into another group. But a gospel-centered approach wants to address the problem, wants to be honest about Sheila's drag on the group but proactive about doing what is right.
There are lots of people in the Church who have been burned by churches or pastors, who've been left hurting by communities and small groups, ignored or marginalized. Many of them have given up on church. Some of them are still trying to find a place of help and healing.
Some are bitter. Some are so blinded by their own issues they don't realize people have been trying to help them.
When is it the community's failure to carry Shelia's burden, and when is it Sheila's self-centered failure to carry her own load?
What does a leader do in a situation like this, with people like Sheila?
Previous entries in this series:
Leadership Conundrum: Challenging Apathy
Leadership Conundrum: Transitioning Generational Ministries
Leadership Conundrum: Rescuing the Trampled On
Leadership Conundrum: People
Leadership Conundrum: People (Again)