Grace as Our DNA
What started out as incredibly painful has turned our church around.
Valley Church’s journey of grace and truth was born less out of intentional design than out of one leader’s sinful choices.
Prior to coming to Valley, Joe1 and his family had been part of one of the largest evangelical churches in the community, where he enjoyed a wonderful reputation. For many years he even played the part of Jesus in the Passion play.
Joe came to Valley Church shortly after it was planted. Due to his character and reputation, he began to lead our worship service. As at Joe’s previous church, he was deeply loved and admired. This mutual love was greatly tested, however, the day Joe confessed a life of duplicity.
While working for a financial company whose owner also attended Valley, Joe had been secretly embezzling funds in a Ponzi-like scheme. Unable to keep up the charade and loaded down by guilt, Joe confessed his sin to our senior pastor, Quintin Stieff. Joe’s boss, Jim, was still unaware of this illegal activity, and Pastor Quintin advised Joe to confess to Jim.
Confronted with a confession of sin involving illegal activity, the pastors, leaders and people of Valley were thrust into a situation that required a response. We knew we didn’t want to “shoot our wounded” but instead administer God’s healing grace.
A very public confession
Fortunately, since Valley’s inception, we have been a “recovery church”—a place of healing after a pastor has fallen due to his own sinfulness or has been wounded by difficult church experiences. I have served as team leader for a number of such pastors, not only at Valley but also at other EFCA churches. And it’s a joy to see pastors restored to proper relationships—with the Lord, their spouse/family, the church and the community.
However powerful, the recovery process is still time-consuming and difficult. Many churches avoid restoration, and those that do often short-circuit the process by prematurely deeming someone ready to return to ministry.
When a pastor becomes disqualified for ministry due to his own sin, time is needed for him and his family to heal. Trust has also been broken with the church/denomination, and time is needed to witness consistent character in Christ before he can pursue ministry again.
Joe’s vulnerability emboldened others to confess their sin, and Valley has since built a reputation as a place of grace.
Shortly after Joe confessed his sin to the pastors/leaders and to his boss, he also shared his confession with the church. This took place because Joe held a public role as our music and worship leader. At this meeting, the leaders wanted to send a clear message that we extend grace and forgiveness to those who are repentant. This message was amplified when Joe’s boss also publicly extended grace and forgiveness.
Joe’s vulnerability emboldened others to confess their sin, and Valley has since built a reputation as a place of grace. Many other pastors, leaders and lay people have experienced healing and restoration as well.
“Count me in”
But Joe’s story doesn’t end there. After a two-year restoration process that included six months in a federal prison and six months house arrest, Joe stood before his church family during a worship service to retell his story. Together, we celebrated his restoration.
Following the service we held our usual newcomers class. I was leading that particular Sunday, and I wondered what type of response we would receive from our newcomers. I have to admit: I assumed that the previous hour was not going to be very endearing to our guests, because I was focused on the “airing your dirty laundry” side of the equation.
Boy, was I wrong. A number of our guests said, “If this is the type of church that comes alongside those who have fallen, count me in.” Obviously, they had focused on the restoration side of the equation.
Scripture makes it clear that the church should gently restore those who have been caught in sin (Galatians 6:1). Historically, many evangelical churches have done a poor job of obeying and implementing this verse. Restoration should be the rule, not the exception. Over the last two decades,2 the EFCA has been building a reputation of restoring the fallen. It is my passion to continue to build on this reputation.
It’s deeply rewarding to see the body of Christ employing its gifts to come around a family in need of healing.
Here are some valuable lessons Valley has learned over the years:
Obedience to God’s Word really does pay off. That admonition from Paul in Galatians (“Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently”)—it’s really possible. And as Joe’s story demonstrates, the results are powerful.
Doing the right thing is hard work. Those seeking restoration are deeply wounded and/or have inflicted great pain on others. They are entering the emergency room, not simply needing a routine checkup.
Restoration is much like a puzzle. In the initial stages of recovery, expect the truth to come out in pieces. What is initially confessed is not always the entire picture.
Patience and grace are required on both sides. Those on the restoring side of the equation must voice upfront that they will not proceed perfectly. Those on the recovery side must admit the same. Two imperfect parties are seeking to obey the flawless Word of God.
Restoration includes not only forgiving and comforting but also rebuking and confronting. Everyone involved in the restoration process will be stretched. Some are naturals on the “soft” side of recovery, and others are naturals on the “hard” side. Both are necessary.
The level of one’s restoration is in direct proportion to one’s repentance. Many have asked, “How successful is the Recovery Church process?” Simply put, it is 100-percent effective for those who are repentant and submit to the Lord, but there is a 100-percent failure rate otherwise.
Leaders must coach the congregation. Unfortunately, the process of restoration is new to many people. For example, some church members need to understand that while forgiveness can be granted immediately, trust is built over time. Proper coaching and modeling by the leadership helps maintain unity in the body.
Restoration/recovery efforts involve the entire family. One of the biggest mistakes in recovery is focusing all efforts of healing on the offending party. The church should roll out the red carpet for each member of the family.
One open confession emboldens others to do the same. James 5:16 is a command directed to all of us to confess our sins so that we may be healed. While God used a very public leader with a very public confession to get the ball rolling at Valley, not all who followed his example were leaders and not all confessions were this public.
Restoration is a team effort. It is deeply rewarding to see the body of Christ employing its gifts to come around a family in need of healing. Those who enter a recovery process often need guidance vocationally, spiritually, maritally, financially and emotionally.
Think long term. Restoration is not fast and easy but long and hard. Time + consistency of behavior = restoration.
Twenty years later, Joe and his family still attend Valley, and Joe is often seen leading our worship. Joe has been one of our biggest champions in reaching out to others with the grace and love of Christ, and Valley continues to practice restoring the fallen.
While time-consuming and traumatic, restoration has proven to be one of our most rewarding ministries. There is great joy on the healing side when pastors are restored in their walk with Christ, their marriages are flourishing, their children have experienced love in action and the body of Christ is united.
Meet Joe and his former boss, Jim, and hear more of their story in this brief video.
1Joe has given permission for his story to be told.
2Under the capable leadership of John Herman, former national director of Pastoral Care for the EFCA.
Linton Lundeen serves half time at Valley Church (EFCA) in West Des Moines as pastor of care and counseling, and half time as national director of Pastoral Care for the EFCA. “A key verse throughout my ministry has been 3 John 4: ‘I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.’ The recovery process has seen many pastors walking in the truth, and thus my joy has been great.”