Seventeen months ago, my wife and I chose to leave a church that we loved – with a few people trying to push us out the door. When we left, we knew that it was possible that our careers in church ministry were over. What kind of steps can a pastoral couple take to heal after such a devastating experience?
Here is an excerpt from the last chapter of my book, which is nearly complete:
I have been told on good authority that it takes pastors one to three years to heal after an involuntarily termination. As is my nature, there were times when I tried to hurry my healing along. I discovered that if I experienced the depths of depression on a particular day, I would probably feel better the next day, but if I tried to force myself to feel better one day, I’d pay for it with depression the following day. While I don’t consider myself an expert in this area – more like a survivor – here are seven steps that helped our healing along:
*We did little that was productive for the first couple months. (We were both fortunate that we didn’t have to work for the first few months.) I think I wrote three pages on this book. Kim spent time reading and sleeping. Since we didn’t expect much out of ourselves, we didn’t have to worry about expectations. This time was important for slowing down our bodies and our minds so we could heal.
*We didn’t force ourselves to attend church services initially. We didn’t have an aversion to church like some pastors and their wives have after leaving a church, but there was still pain involved because Kim wasn’t serving and I wasn’t preaching. We missed a few Sundays over the first three months or so but have hardly missed any since then. We needed to be in a church where we felt safe, and to be honest, some of the churches we visited felt anything but safe. While some churches continue to debate the propriety of reaching seekers in a worship service, many churches do not realize how many Christians in their congregations are in great pain. It took us six months to find a church because we tried to find a church where we would feel safe and still receive ministry.
*We took the time to grieve. If Kim felt like getting angry, I let her express herself. If I felt like crying, she encouraged it. We both had mini-meltdowns – times when we would go on a rant for three to five minutes – but they never lasted long. Almost every memorable occasion hurts during the first year: Super Bowl Sunday, Easter, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, birthdays, and Christmas. If our marriage had already been strained, the ugly emotions that we constantly felt could have ended our relationship, but because we’ve always allowed each other to be human, our relationship grew stronger, not weaker.
*We both saw a counselor. When you come to a new community, it’s difficult to find a good counselor right away. We sought referrals from several churches and finally settled on a woman who really cared about us. She and her husband had been in a parachurch ministry a few years previously and left in an involuntary manner as we had. The counseling gave us a place to talk about our negative feelings and receive back the assurance that we were normal people who had been through an extraordinary crisis.
*We talked about what happened – a lot. We never tried to tell each other, “I don’t want to hear about the past anymore!” One time, we’d be driving to church and Kim would say, “I still can’t believe that this happened.” Another time, we’d take a walk around our neighborhood and I would share an insight with Kim about what happened in our former ministry. Rather than hush each other into silence, we allowed each other the freedom to share or not share as we saw fit. It’s been sixteen months since we left our former church, and although we still refer to matters on occasion, we’re much more focused now on our future ministry.
*I wrote about what happened to us. I’ve been working on this book for more than a year. People have asked me, “Isn’t it difficult to rehearse the pain you’ve gone through?” There are times when my intestines get tied in knots, but on the whole, writing has been very therapeutic for me. It’s how I figure things out. I’m able to take events and conversations and perspectives that have crowded into my brain and let go of them through the simple exercise of putting things on paper. While I’ve had some rough days, I recommend writing as a way of telling your story and clearing out your brain. There is catharsis through the written word.
One year after we left, I also started writing this blog concerning pastors and conflict. For years, all these thoughts have been rattling around in my head, and now I have an outlet for sharing them. And the funny thing is that the more I write, the more ideas are generated.
*We began dreaming about the future. We went out together every week and reviewed all of our options for the future. Could I pastor again? If so, would I be a senior pastor? An associate? An interim pastor? If not, could I teach in a seminary or Bible college? Would we prefer to go overseas for a year or two? We came to believe that God was calling us to begin a new ministry designed to help pastors who experience involuntary terminations, but we had no illusions that it would be easy. We came up with a unique name – Restoring Kingdom Builders – and slowly but surely began assembling various aspects of the ministry.
One day, I asked a man who has counseled many pastors, “How do you know when you’ve been healed?” He told me to look for three markers: first, you need to grieve your losses; second, you need to forgive your enemies; finally, you need to become involved in a local church once more. From my experience, this is sound advice – but it’s easier to hear than to live.