Christian Book Reviews, Author Interviews, Excerpts

Author Advises Pastors, Others to Deal with "Messy" Problems

  • Rev. Austin Miles AgapePress
  • 2005 25 Jun
Author Advises Pastors, Others to Deal with "Messy" Problems

Title:  "Facing Messy Stuff in the Church"
Author:  Kenneth L. Swetland
Publisher:  Kregel

What do you do when a convicted pedophile gets saved in prison and upon release wants to join your church? What do you say to him, and how do you confront the issues involved? Clergy and laity may someday need to know how to respond to such questions – and more.

For example, do you inform the church of the former prisoner's being there?  If you do not, are you putting the children in your church at risk? How would you discuss this in a meeting with the church board? And what about pastoral confidentiality? This is one of the delicate cases detailed in "Facing Messy Stuff in the Church:  Case Studies for Pastors and Congregations" (Kregel Publications, 2005).

Every pastor and chaplain who deals with the complex problems of this "anything-goes" 21st century will benefit from this book.  It is also invaluable for every seminary student and new pastor who hasn't lived long enough to deal with many of life's messes on behalf of the God of mercy and grace.

Even so, the "messy stuff" profiled in this book is enough to sober even the most seasoned of pastors. It is frank, raw, and instructive – and at times, overwhelming. And these are all real cases in various denominational settings in various parts of the country.  The challenging (as well as sensitive) messes addressed in this excellent Kregel release are dealt with forthrightly.  It is fascinating, informative, and an easy-read (indeed, a most pleasant, smooth read) of 15 case studies.

In "Facing Messy Stuff," author Kenneth L. Swetland – a theological professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also serves as campus chaplain – prepares church leaders to deal head-on with the messy stuff, rather than merely doing damage control after the problems have erupted.

It offers hands-on instruction for managing problems that affect not just the person with the problem, but a problem that has the potential of causing the church itself great damage if not handled correctly, such as the pedophile case spotlighted in the chapter on child molestation – a chapter that alone is worth the price of the book.

What is especially valuable in that particular chapter is how the pastor approached the issue and the words he used in dealing with it – no-nonsense words that got right to the point with a voice of authority, yet with Christian compassion and concern.

This is an acquired (delicate-balance) skill which permits no back-peddling, softening the impact or significance of the sin, or yielding to the politically correct "understanding and accepting" approach.  In that flawed, lazy method, nothing can really be resolved except to make a person comfortable in his or her sin and get the pastor off the hook.  What a terrible disservice to a troubled individual who needs healing! This book shows how to cut to the chase, how to get to the heart of the problem and deal with it effectively for all concerned.

Other Case Studies

Another case concerns sexual harassment, where an elder of the church "came on" to a young woman in the church. Counseling was necessary for the victim (who was led to believe that she was somehow at fault) and for the perpetrator.

Then it was discovered there were other victims. The elder was indeed a womanizer. The pastor's words to the offender were powerful and to the point. Then the question: Should this man's wife be informed? And should he be expelled from the church?

The first step was to ask him to resign his position as elder. "No," says the offender, "an elder has been ordained an elder for life!" What's more, this wretched counterfeit planned to study for vocational ministry with denominational backing. Now what do we do? What about confidentiality? This is all explained in the book.

The chapter on sexual deviation includes the case of an exhibitionist Sunday School teacher who took disgusting nude photos of himself which he e-mailed to a young teenager in the church, and a transvestite demanding to use the woman's restroom in church.  In the latter case, the individual insisted upon being included as part of leadership (inclusiveness), and (being a professional musician) he wanted to become a part of the music and worship team.

The restroom request was refused. He had actually used the women's restroom. When this was discovered, women in the church admitted feeling uncomfortable and demanded that something be done about it.

In an attempt to accommodate the transvestite, it was suggested that a restroom could be set up for his exclusive use. This idea was roundly rejected – to which he protested as "discrimination" and threatened that he might file a lawsuit against the church.

A similar problem occurred (in another section of the country with a different denomination) with a married man with two children, who turned out to be a transsexual who was preparing for a sex-change operation. He also demanded to use the women's restroom.

He belonged to the local Gay/Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered Alliance, a group that encouraged him to continue his church involvement and to press for change in the church. There also was the possibility of a lawsuit against the church by them on his behalf.

Practical Advice, Not Sensational

At this point, the book resembles a cross between Dr. Phil and The Jerry Springer Show. However, this is not a "sensationalist" book. It is a textbook for counseling and conflict resolution, providing guidelines in handling this kind of messy stuff in the church today.

The book also addresses the problems of gambling, pornography, and divorce. What is shocking is how these problems are becoming more common among ministers. This particular chapter spotlights a "pastor" who is called "Derek."

This man is a composite of every bad pastor imagined – and it surely verifies that a major problem with pastors today is that they entered the ministry as a career choice rather than in response to a calling. This chapter should challenge all pastors to re-examine and re-think their own lives and conduct, and how they are handling the ministry that has been entrusted to them.

While it is a major issue today, not all the book is about sexual issues. There is much more – spouse and child abuse, alcohol abuse, miscarriage and stillborn babies, grief (chaplains especially deal with this almost daily), depression, suicide (one of the most difficult events to deal with), abortion, AIDS (do you let the church know?), and even murder.

Regularity of Problems

These are the problems that are coming up with increased regularity in churches today in a world of chaos and confusion. And pastors and chaplains must be equipped to handle them spiritually, professionally, and most importantly of all ... effectively.  This book teaches how to deal with these problems – as the author states (and teaches) – "head-on."

The only frustration this reviewer has with the book is that each chapter ends with a cliff-hanger. We are not told the outcome of each case.  However, that was the intention of the author, who explains in the foreword that not all resolutions come out the same, even in identical situations.

It is left up to the readers to pursue the cases further, with the aid of the discussion questions at the end of each chapter, and to come up with their own solution as to how it might conclude. There is also an appendix titled "How To Use Case Studies."


"Facing Messy Stuff" lends itself to group studies. It would be well for local pastors' organizations to do this among themselves using Swetland's book as a text.

In addition, this is a reference book that should always be near the pastor's fingertips. A noted chaplain who works in the San Francisco Bay area, Rev. Carson Curcini, after looking over the notes for this review, stated: "This is a very important book for pastors ... especially for this day and age that we live in."

To that this minister can give a hearty "Amen!"  "Facing Messy Stuff in the Church" should be in every pastor's and chaplain's library.

© 2005 AgapePress.  All rights reserved.  Used with permission.