A few months ago, I read an article in one of our district newsletters where the writer was suggesting that local pastors and their congregations might be facing people attending their congregations who are convicted sex offenders. Due to all the possible ramifications, he thought it prudent to ask an insurance company representative to suggest how this might be handled for the congregation’s protection.
While such advice is always welcome, I was surprised that this was the major thrust of his article – how we should protect ourselves and our congregants from liability.
I get it, on the one hand, some of those in leadership have special obligations and often have a heightened fear of being sued. And I know that sexual offenders have become today’s equivalent of Legion (Luke 8:22ff) – people to be isolated. While I have never worn the once popular WWJD bracelets since I’m not sure I could ever do what Jesus would do, it seems an appropriate question to pose concerning how the church responds to sexual offenders who want to find a healing community of faith. According to the Gospel, Jesus seemed to make it his regular practice of going out of his way to minister to the needs of those whom society defined as outcasts.
Rather than first turning to those who work in the legalese-steeped professions of our day, my hope would have been that this leader would suggest some other possibilities or even ask what others might be doing in their local churches to deal effectively with this issue.
It is pretty easy to identify a convicted sex offender, since you can check the website sponsored by the county sheriff. But, as I discovered, the offender often contacts a pastor first before ever attending to ask if it is all right. As a local pastor who has encountered this on a few occasions, I found the following a graceful way to welcome those who are convicted sex offenders, while protecting both the congregants and the offender:
- Sit down with the sex offender and write a covenantal agreement;
- The covenant should be one that does not permit the offender to be in the church facilities without another responsible adult;
- It should also include a prohibition of working with children or youth, when the offense for which they were convicted involved a minor;
- The offender should be prohibited from certain leadership positions that might render them and others vulnerable; and
- Finally, connect them with a Stephen’s Minister or a layperson in your congregation of the same gender, who will both support them and hold them accountable. There is training available for such situations.
We are to be the body of Christ and as such, in loving service, we must carry out our mission to share the Gospel and to bring healing and reconciliation to people in times of trouble. And we must be all inclusive in those efforts, just as Jesus would be, even though such efforts may carry certain risks. While we may need the help of the legal system at times, it must not be the first place or only place to which we turn when dealing with challenging issues.
Sometimes I believe we do not hold the church sufficiently accountable for sharing the Gospel and for dealing directly with troubling issues, because too often we place greater emphasis on protecting ourselves and the institution to which we belong. We must always keep in mind that we can deal with the troubling issues of our day in ways the world cannot.
Unless we are willing to accept these challenges and act on them, we become more a part of the problem than its solution. So, what would Jesus do, I believe he would welcome the convicted sex offender into the community and at the same time hold him, as well as all members of the community, accountable for their actions.
Mac Hamon, pastor