Caught stealing

When a pastor betrays the congregation

I belong to a large church that I love. However, it’s recently come to light that our senior pastor, whom I’ve always admired, has been embezzling from church funds. I’m considering leaving the church, but I don’t want to be rash and abandon the people I love. How do we as a community carry on when our trust and faith in our spiritual leader has been shaken?

“One of the joys in life is realizing there’s going to be challenges and trials, and if we stay and work through it, we’re going to grow,” said Pastor Rick Cole of Capital Christian Center.

Having grown up in the “church world” with a pastor father, Cole understands that everyone, including the most admired church leader, has “the potential to goof up.” As a young pastor in Houston, Texas, he was shocked when news surfaced that the “kind and loving” senior pastor with whom he had worked was caught misusing church funds.

“We’re humans, and people do make mistakes and they can recover, but when those things happen, there should be a process to regain trust and healing,” said Cole.

David Tralle, a musician who co-founded with his wife the Center for Music Medicine, also has experienced a similar situation. The lesson for him was that the church is not the pastor. “The church is a group of people connected to something larger than themselves: their vested hearts and friendships, their sense of community in accomplishing so much more together than they do individually,” he said.

Though Tralle now subscribes to a less traditional spiritual modality than the Lutheran church of his childhood, he still looks to community to provide healing support. In the late 1970s, after a back injury rendered his wife incapacitated, Tralle discovered that music “played a miraculous role in her recovery,” thus spurring a decade of scientific and medical research into the healing properties of music. Through the Center for Music Medicine, Tralle and his wife teach, lecture and provide experiential performances in music as an adjunctive health practice and also provide musical support to the Unity Center of Davis.

To help heal as a community when trust has been broken, Tralle emphasized accountability rather than condemnation. He pointed out that “the lesson will repeat if you come at it in fear, anger and revenge.

“Do I carry it as tragedy and victimhood, or do I see it as a possible reflection of myself and forgive me for any transgressions, thus allowing me to forgive somebody else?”

To avoid such “major indiscretions” in his own church of roughly 7,000 members, Cole sets up “systems of accountability.” For instance, “Nobody is alone with money, ever. Nobody should have that pressure on them.” Denying access to temptation is a method he uses in his personal life as well: Cole and his wife decided that she set the parental code on their home satellite dish, to block programs like pornography that he considers “counterproductive to my health.” Instead of setting himself up for possible temptation, Cole said, “I set systems in place that protect me from that. It’s not meant to be a box. In fact, it feels very freeing.”

I’m a 26-year-old woman in a serious relationship. My parents are Christians who still lay on the guilt about premarital sex. I haven’t been promiscuous—if anything, I’ve had too little sex, after being raped in my teens by a friend of my father. Now I’m finally in a healthy, loving and sexually fulfilling relationship, and we’ve decided to move in together. But I’m afraid to tell my parents. How do I shake off their judgments and feel free to live my life?

“At some age, I think that if we are in touch with ourselves and who we are and where we’re centered, we can embrace the trust of our own heart to know what is right for us, rather than trying to live life to the expectations of others, be they spoken or unspoken,” Tralle explained.

“Most of the judgments that we face are coming from between our own ears anyway.”

Speaking as a father of three, Cole raises his kids “to release them from our care. That’s the goal of life: to have kids become independent adults and released from the tether.” Yet at times, even as an independent adult, Cole still craves the approval of his 74-year-old father.

Though he believes that God created sexuality for a man and woman in marriage, Cole tries with his own kids to “find a place with dialogue to overcome fear.” He never says to his kids, “Because I said so.” Rather, he encourages an environment where “it’s safe to disagree.”