Have you seen this news story? The Church of St. Joseph, a Catholic church in Bertha, Minn., has filed a restraining order against 13-year-old Adam Race, a severely autistic boy, in an attempt to keep Race from disrupting services and endangering parishioners. The mother was threatened with arrest if she went to church and the whole story has prompted a debate about how to accommodate people with autism.
The story has made the national news circuit and has quickly turned into a ‘he said/she said’ battle, with the church giving its story of the 6-foot-tall, 225-pound Race being disruptive, sexually aggressive, nearly knocking over parishioners and needing to be restrained–tied down and sat on by his parents. The parents, meanwhile, give a different view of things, explaining soothing techniques they use and pointing out that the church hasn’t responded to requests to help the situation.
However you see this story, whether the parents need to be more respectful of others in church and find a way to keep Adam from being a danger to others or the church needs to be more understanding of autism and come up with a solution that isn’t court ordered, I think the whole thing is kind of silly.
Thanks to our media’s news cycle that focuses on repetition rather than detail, and the fact that St. Joseph’s has no web presence that I can find, it’s hard to know what’s true and what’s being sensationalized. But here are a few things that are true:
Work It Out
If you’ve got a conflict in your church, work it out. Taking it to court doesn’t go well for anybody (I think that’s in the Bible somewhere). Find a way to solve the issue without turning it into a public spectacle. Because it will be a public spectacle.
Don’t Send the Wrong Message
Using a court order to keep people from your church is generally a bad idea. You want people to come to your church, you shouldn’t be putting your efforts into barring them. Aside from the complications this causes for the initial conflict, using a court order on your own church member sends the worst possible message.
Be Full of Love
If you do get dragged into a mess like this, you better hope you covered your butt with lots and lots of love. The only way a church can come out of a situation like this without looking like jerks is if it’s obvious to anyone that the church bent over backwards to resolve the situation. A visit from the pastor followed by a letter asking someone not to come to church doesn’t seem like you tried everything you could. Love, love and love some more. I think that’s what your sermon was about, right?
Tell Your Story
The best way to deal with a public relations nightmare like this is to tell the whole truth, honestly and sincerely. St. Joseph’s needs to tell their story. Hopefully it’s a good story to tell (see points above), or else it won’t help you much. But get out there and explain yourself. Dispel the image of your church the media is currently painting. And you better show a ton of love, since that’s currently lacking in your public perception.
These are the kind of stories that make churches look bad. Sometimes they’re hard to avoid, but it’s how we react that can determine whether we project an image of love and acceptance, or misunderstanding and reaction.