Wherever there are people, there will be broken commandments. Our churches are no exception, as today's question reminds us:
How should we deal with petty theft in the church?
We have one person who attends regularly (not a member), whom we suspect of "lifting" small items from time to time. Items displayed at the coffee hour for sale have gone missing, or someone's purse is gone through and change or candy is missing. It's not children, as we have only two attending, one is an infant of two months and her 3-year-old sibling is always accompanied. I have personally witnessed this person opening packaged gift baskets that were for sale and removing the items from it, "so I can see what all is in it." There's a general lack of respect for personal space from this person as well (stands too close and when you step back, steps forward; will handle other people's property without asking--a cell phone left on a table, for example), the crowning example being her curiosity about my tattoo (it's in the centre of my chest, so not always visible, but one day on a retreat I wore an open-necked shirt). She actually reached out and touched my tattoo, my chest, without asking permission. I stepped back and told her lightly that "no one gets to do that," but I am not sure she understood. I am not entirely sure if she is dealing with some cognitive issues, mental health issues, cultural issues, or what.
We (the Board and clergy) have previously suggested to worship leadership that they leave valuables in the church office (which is always occupied or locked) when they cannot hang on to them (preparing for worship, leading worship, etc.), in order to nip anything in the bud, but of course people forget or "just this once," leave a purse out in the sanctuary or in the fellowship room.
Ideally, we would have a policy or plan in place so that when/if it happens again, we will be able to deal with it swiftly. Right now, I feel it is inadequate to tell someone who has had their purse rifled that, "Well, we don't really know who did it," and I don't want to "blame the victim" by reminding them they should have left their purse in the office.
I have two questions--how do we (clergy and church leadership) help the congregation feel safe (or that their belongings are) and minister to this person as well? I know we need to minister to the congregation AND to this person, but I am not sure how to do this.
Have others dealt with this and if so, how?
Muthah+, who blogs at A Stone of Witness, responds:
I have not had quite this problem but I did have an instance where a child's behavior was threatening the safety of members. I must admit that it did not go especially well but I do not think I would have done it differently:
With the head of my board, I spoke to the parents of the child very frankly about the issue. They threatened to leave the parish, but they didn't and the behavior was changed.
I am a firm believer that the pastor and a lay leadership need to set some significant guidelines and then meet with the individual. Do not accuse but merely say what is expected. If she denies it, just reiterate what you have said. Do not be severe, but be quite clear about what you are asking her to do--no touching other people, their things without their permission, etc. If she is unwilling then she will be asked to leave. Then if she is observed doing these things, some action can be taken.
Do not speak to her alone as it will be seen as personal, but if lay leadership is also involved, it will be seen as expectations of the whole community.
I have always tried to remember that the pastor's job is not just the individual souls in her charge but as the leader of a community of faith. It 'ain't fun', but some intervention is the most faithful thing that can be done in such situations.
From Martha, blogging at Reflectionary:
As someone who had her purse stolen during a Women's Bible Study brunch many years ago (with $200 just withdrawn from the bank to pay for a birthday party!), I know the feeling of having something taken from a place you believed you were completely safe. It's awful.
If it happened in my congregation, and primarily around worship times, I believe I would ask the Deacons for their input on safeguarding belongings. It sounds like you've begun that by suggesting worship leaders lock up their belongings. If you have warned people over and over, and they still leave things out where they can be rifled through, at some point it *does* become the responsibility of the person who doesn't follow your advice. That's not the same thing as blaming a helpless victim.
Where the person in question is concerned, it sounds like it might be time to find out more about her situation so you can intervene appropriately. Can you take a Deacon or other lay leader with you and visit her? I would imagine given that she is not respectful of your physical boundaries it doesn't seem like a good idea to go alone. If you have a canny lay leader available, one who can help you assess what you're dealing with, I would take that person. When you have a better sense of where the loose boundaries originate, you'll be in a better position to devise a plan with your lay leaders.
And from Kathryn:
Great question and one that is very timely for me. We have a similar situation here.
In our case one of our pastors and two Elders are planning on sitting down with Karen (made up name) and telling her firmly that she is welcome to come and worship and eat with us (she shows up for events that include meals), but we will not accommodate belligerent behavior. It is also not our responsibility to provide her with 'to-go' containers for her boyfriend.
We are also working through a security plan that has us teaching folks how to be more observant about what is going on around them, including where they leave their own belongings and the assumptions that they make about how safe their coat and its contents are out on the coat rack in the hallway. We have also been known to have someone 'shadow' Karen. This has not been anything official, more of a quiet, behind-the-scenes kind of thing when she comes to events.
I'm looking forward to what others have to say. This is a tough one, especially when the clergy and other leadership see the difficulties in someone's behavior and other members of the congregation wonder why we're not being more hospitable. When is one no longer allowed to hold an entire community hostage?
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May you live in God's amazing grace+