“There’s nothing more remarkable in this world than two people creating a new relationship out of their
—Tom Porter, executive director, JustPeace Center for Mediation
and Conflict Transformation
The Rev. Susan Hill was uncharacteristically nervous that August day when she stepped up to the pulpit at Round Valley Church in Lebanon, N.J. A pastor for 19 years, Hill was uptight, but eager.
“It was a strange day for me preaching. I had to bring up a tough subject,” Hill, now retired, said. “It was a problem everybody had been talking about behind closed doors. It was time for me to bring it out in the open.”
Weeks earlier, Hill and Round Valley trustee Terry Faidley had discovered a large amount of money missing from a church bank account. Faidley found the discrepancy when he was delivered a current bank statement intended for a vacationing church trustee. Most of the church’s $21,000 building maintenance fund was missing.
“The more I got into it, the more incredulous I became,” Faidley said. “The more unwilling I was to believe what I was learning.”
It wasn’t a complete surprise, but it was a total shock. The overseer of the trustees’ account, Linda Drake, had been dodging prompts for bank paperwork for several months. Hill and Faidley both acknowledge that the former Sunday school teacher’s excuses went unchallenged, because “nobody wanted to confront anyone.”
Hill and the trustees would later address their own irresponsibility leading to the crisis, but in the heat of the betrayal they were overwhelmed with anger — and sadness.
“Although we were all hurting, for the trustees I don’t think it was all about the loss of money,” Hill said. “I really think most of our concerns were about the pain Linda and her family were in.”
The mixed feelings made it difficult to decide what to do next. Call the police and file charges? Ask her to leave the church? Let her off the hook? What would Jesus do?
Hill said the church knew it needed “to hold her accountable, but also to reassure her that we would continue to love her as she worked her way through the consequences of her actions.”
Faidley agreed with his pastor. The betrayal went beyond the trustees. “I knew healing needed to occur and that it needed to extend to the entire church community,” he said.
Seeking a way to render justice with love, Hill told her church’s story to another United Methodist pastor. Her colleague introduced her to the concept of restorative justice.
Restorative justice is a mediated process of reconciliation, which gives an offender the opportunity to correct a mistake and do right by the victim. It works in conjunction with the legal system.
“It’s a harder journey, because it calls for personal accountability instead of forced or imposed accountability,” said the Rev. Tom Porter, a United Methodist pastor, professional mediator and restorative justice practitioner.
Porter, who is also the executive director of the JustPeace Center for Mediation and Conflict Transfor-mation, explains, “Restorative justice asks, ‘Who has been harmed?’ and ‘What should be done, and by whom, to make things right?’”
“Restorative justice is the future,” Porter said, “But it’s also what we have been reading about since we were children in Sunday school … biblical justice.”
The 2004 General Conference recommended “just resolution” as the preferred process for handling grievances within the church.
When Hill first began to lobby for a nonadversarial solution to her church’s dilemma, it was hard to find a model.
“Churches just weren’t doing this restorative justice thing,” she said.
“But it felt like the right thing for us to do,” Hill said. “I was worried at the time that people would shun Linda, and I just felt that our church members were the only people in town who could be a support to her. We needed to be an expression of God’s outreaching and unconditional love.”
“Restorative justice, without knowing what to call it, has always been a part of my theology,” Faidley, now president of the trustees, said. “It’s what I’ve seen practiced all through the New Testament, but until this experience, I had never been put to the test myself. I have to admit that, at the time, my faith was a little shaky.”
The trustees voted to try restorative justice. Hill called the Rev. Louise Stowe-Johns, a former prison chaplain and a practitioner of just resolution techniques.
“There is something wrong with a system that assigns blame and punishes the guilty party and then considers the work done,” Stowe-Johns said. “Healing can’t occur when offenders and victims are kept from connecting human to human.”
Now pastor of Community Church in East Norwich, N.Y., Stowe-Johns believes that church members in crisis — whether they have hurt or have been hurt — deal with festering emotional and spiritual consequences when reconciliation isn’t sought as a path to healing.
She agreed to mediate between Drake and Round Valley Church.
She began by writing to Drake. Stowe-Johns recalled, “I didn’t bring with me any baggage of relationships so to face me would be easier because I wasn’t biased.”
Drake and the trustees each had a say in designing the mediation process. Stowe-Johns led six months of give-and-take between the wounded and the repentant, the forgivers and the forgiven.
“In mediation you must have a person willing to admit he or she did something wrong,” Stowe-Johns said. “It takes guts. And it takes a willingness to trust that going back through the pain is eventually going to be healing.”
Stowe-Johns has found that it’s often easier to get the offender to the table than it is to get the victim to sit down and talk.
“The people at Round Valley were eager to forgive Linda, and it was good to be able to reassure her of that,” she said.
Meeting in a series of accountability circles — using a Native American tradition — Drake and different factions of the church agreed to the terms of Drake’s restitution:
- Pay the church back in monthly installments.
- Get counseling.
- Take a course in money management.
- Do community service.
- Participate in a service of reconciliation with other church members.
- If Drake fails to live up to her commitment, she will go to jail.
“Linda’s got some things to fulfill,” Stowe-Johns told a reporter from the Hunterdon County Democrat. “She’s got some emotional things she has to go through. If she stumbles, doesn’t pay for a few months, then issues will come back up.”
“People who think restorative justice is the easy way out haven’t ever had to face someone they’ve seriously offended,” Stowe-Johns said. “That spiritual journey is much harder to take than anything the legal system can hand out … except for the death penalty.
“Self-sentencing is much more likely to work because people will then do what they have promised to do. They have to come up themselves with what would make them feel whole again.”
Now, more than two years since the scandal came to light, the Round Valley congregation continues to welcome Drake into its forgiving fold. Faidley often sits next to her at choir practice.
Their friendship is restored, he said, “but it’s been restored at a new level of awareness. I can accept Linda for who I understand her to be, and I can love her as a church friend, but I’m also realistic about necessary boundaries.”
When first contacted by Interpreter, Linda Drake, now a school bus driver, agreed to an interview, however for reasons that would be purely speculative, she never returned this writer’s phone calls. But, as Stowe-Johns said, “This is a long process that can take months, if not years of struggling to be accountable, so to have gone through with the interview may have been difficult for Linda.”
Susan Passi-Klaus is a freelance writer in Nashville, Tenn., and publisher of Cracked Pots, an inspirational newsletter for women.
This feature story was developed by Interpreter magazine.