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Archive for the ‘Burnout and Depression in Ministry’ Category

My wife and I have been searching for a church home in our area for months.  We’ve attended scores of churches but can’t find a fit.

We aren’t looking for perfection, but we are so uncomfortable sitting through most church services that we’re in despair that we’ll ever find another home church.

Kim and I visited still another church yesterday.

The congregation is a church plant that meets at an elementary school.

When Kim and I arrived at the school, I was shocked at how few cars were in the parking lot.  The Mother Church, about thirty minutes away, is a megachurch so I would have thought that the new church would have had a larger core group.

The church had the requisite banners, donuts, and coffee before the service.  The atmosphere was anything but festive.  When Kim and I entered the small auditorium, I was shocked again at how few people were present at the starting time of 10:30 am.  We sat in a back row.  Quickly looking at the makeup of the congregation, I whispered to Kim, “We don’t fit here.”

Kim later told me she wanted to leave multiple times.

The worship leader was a woman wearing weird glasses and although she had a good voice, hardly anybody was singing, even as the room gained more worshipers.  As she sang, she waved her hands in strange ways.  I felt very anxious.

The church celebrated its one-year anniversary a week or two ago, and in my view, they aren’t doing well.  The pastor talked about his three-year vision of hundreds of attendees and dozens of small groups (possibly reflecting the expectations of the Mother Church), but based on what happened yesterday, I don’t see that occurring.  At one point, I counted less than fifty people in the room.

The auditorium was mostly darkened with light on the stage coming from the back of the room.  The pastor told us that he’s thirty years old, and when he set up his podium to preach, it was tilted diagonally and positioned out of the light.  As he spoke, he pranced all over the stage … into the light, then out of the light, then into the light … throughout the whole service.  He spoke for a solid hour.

At one point, he walked down our aisle and stood near Kim, who was seated a few feet away.  We both squirmed in our seats.

This is the third church in a row we’ve attended where the speaker talks as fast as possible.  The first two churches ended up being charismatic churches (the pastor at the second church sang in tongues for a few minutes before his sermon).  I don’t think the church we attended today is charismatic, but I can’t be sure.   The websites of most churches don’t identify their worship style or their distinctive beliefs.

When we entered the auditorium, we were handed a folder of “sermon notes.”  While my folder had some notes inside, Kim’s was blank.  The outside of the folder contained one word: MESSY.

And that pretty much described the sermon.  It was a mess.  While the pastor read some notes that he had included in the folder, I couldn’t discern any structure … or many coherent thoughts.

But that wasn’t the main problem.

The pastor spoke in a stream-of-consciousness style … as fast as he could.  So fast that he could not, in my view, think about the next thing he was going to say.  This resulted in his repeating himself over and over again:

“If you’ve been through a divorce … if you’ve been separated recently … if you have financial problems …” And a few minutes later, he’d utter the same lines.

About 2/3 of the way through his sermon, the pastor told us that when his child was born last December, his wife contracted postpartum depression, and he said he’s been having a hard time handling their child’s teething episodes as well.

And I thought to myself, “Today’s sermon is titled ‘Messy?’  I don’t like saying this, but you’re a mess.”

He began talking faster and faster and louder and louder.  I thought he was going to self-destruct in front of us.  When he ended his sermon, he ranted loudly during his prayer.  At one point, I softly cried, “God, make it stop.  Make it stop.”

The pastor offered two responses after his sermon, and evidently some people raised their hands for salvation and some kind of dedication, although I could not follow his train of thought.

When the sermon mercifully ended, Kim and I practically ran out of the auditorium, and on the way to the car I told her, “He’s sick.  That man is not well.  He’s ready to have a breakdown.”

I don’t think I’ve ever said that about a pastor after a sermon before.

I went to the church website to see if they offer any recordings of the pastor’s sermons, but they don’t.

A well-known pastor in nearby Chino Hills committed suicide recently.  He was only thirty years old and left behind a wife and two children.  Even though he received months – if not years – of psychological care, he killed himself anyway … inside the church building.  I’ve been thinking about that situation for weeks.

So maybe I’m reading that tragedy into yesterday’s service … I don’t know.  While I’m not a mental health expert, I’m very concerned about this pastor, and fear that he’s headed for a breakdown, if he wasn’t having one during yesterday’s service.

I was so upset by the service – especially the sermon – that I wanted to break into tears on our short drive home.

I’d like to ask my readers two questions:

What, if anything, should I do about this situation? 

Let it go?  Talk to someone at the Mother Church?  Just pray about it?  We’re certainly not returning.

Is it trendy for pastors to speak at a lightning speed?  If so, why? 

It makes my wife and me highly anxious.

Thanks so much for any counsel you can offer me.

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While sweeping the kitchen floor yesterday, it came to me that I’ve been in a really good place emotionally for the past several years.

After serving as a pastor for 36 years, I was forced out of my last congregation in the fall of 2009.  Of the scores of stories I’ve heard about pastors being terminated since my departure, mine still ranks among the top three worst stories I’ve ever heard.

Despite ten-and-a-half years of successful ministry, my wife and I were abused … slandered … hated … and shunned, especially during our last few weeks at the church and in the months following.

And yet today, I feel completely healed, to the point that I don’t think about those events much anymore.

What kind of stages does a terminated pastor go through to experience recovery?

Let me offer six stages … three today, three next week … and these ideas are mine alone:

Stage 1: Shock

As recounted in my book Church Coup, my fifty-day conflict began on a Saturday morning with a regularly scheduled board meeting.  The board and I were supposed to finalize the church budget for 2010 … only the board made an announcement ultimately designed to push me out of my position.

I was shocked that:

*the board had been plotting while I was overseas.

*two board members who had been supporters were involved.

*the board didn’t hear my side of the story before making drastic decisions.

*they thought they could lead the church better than I could.

*they acted like they knew what they were doing when they really didn’t.

My disbelief continued when I asked the board for documentation of the offenses they claimed had been committed … but they never produced anything coherent.

I thought I knew the six members of the board pretty well, but I was dismayed to discover I didn’t.

And I was especially shocked because I didn’t see the conflict coming.

But most of all, I found it hard to believe that Christian leaders would treat their pastor of more than a decade in such an unjust fashion.

What do I mean by “unjust?”

A pastor is treated unjustly when church leaders violate Scripture … the church’s governing documents … and labor law in their attempts to force him out of office … and when they do it all with a cold, calloused attitude lacking in compassion.

When I talk with pastors who have been forced to leave their churches, they resonate best with that last statement: that they would be treated so unjustly by professing Christians.

The shock lingers on … for months … sometimes years.

The more sensitive you are, the longer it lasts.

You never forget the moment you’re told that someone you loved suddenly died.

And you never forget the exact time a board member tells you, “Your tenure as the pastor of this church is over.”

Stage 2: Searching

After the shock wore off a little, I had two primary questions I needed answers to:

*Who was in on this plot?

*What are they saying that I did wrong?

I wanted to know the “who” before I discovered the “what” because most of the time, the “who” determines the “what.”

For example, if you told two women, “Jim did this … can you believe it?”, one woman might say, “That’s terrible!” and the other woman might say, “That’s nothing!”

It’s often how people interpret the information they’re given that determines whether they oppose or support their pastor.

So who wanted me gone?

I pretty much knew the answer to that question:

*people who wanted our church to have closer denominational ties.

*a handful of individuals I wouldn’t let into church leadership because they didn’t meet the biblical qualifications.

*people who had close ties with my predecessor and longed for his return, even though he had officially retired nine years beforehand.

*a small contingent who didn’t think my wife should be a staff member, even though she made the church go.  (I maintain to this day that some women were jealous of her success and hated her because of it.)

*people who didn’t like the church’s longstanding outreach orientation and wanted to pare down the church so they could better control it.

In a few cases, some people fit all five categories.

Some people weren’t comfortable with the church’s size anymore because they became small fish in a larger pond.  They felt more significant years before … and wanted to feel that way again.

What did they say I did wrong?

There are two sets of answers to this question … what they said while I was still at the church and what they said after I left.

While I was still at the church, the main issue was that my wife was on the church staff … and seemed to have too much influence.

And after that infamous board meeting I mentioned above, I was accused of deviating from the way the board wanted the conflict handled.

What did they want?

My wife’s resignation, followed by my own.  (And I’m convinced the board would not have offered me any kind of reasonable separation package.)

But neither one of us was going to leave voluntarily until the board made their case to our faces.

Two board members met with my wife … at my request … but they failed to convince her to resign.

And they never accused me of doing anything wrong to my face … only behind my back.

Months after I left, I was told that a small group in the church wanted to remove me from office, but they knew they couldn’t win the required vote so they decided to attack my wife instead.

That’s valuable information to have.  It’s hard enough for a pastor to leave a church under pressure … but if you don’t know why you were pushed out, you’ll spend months … if not years … blaming yourself when you don’t know the truth.

And then after I left, I was accused of all kinds of wrongdoing.  You name it, I supposedly did it.

For example, several people of influence claimed that when we built our new worship center, we should have paid for the whole thing in cash.

That would have been nice, but that wasn’t the position of the church board at the time.

Even though we raised more than half the funds, the church voted unanimously to take out a reasonable mortgage for the remaining balance.

And when I was pastor, we had plenty of people and plenty of income to pay that mortgage.

The company that loaned the church the money wanted to make sure that I had no plans to leave the church … that I was going to stay and keep the church stable.

I gave my word that I would stay … but after I was forced out, attendance and giving eventually went down … and from what I understand, the church had some challenges paying that monthly mortgage.

And some claimed that was 100% my fault.

But to this day, nobody has ever convinced me that I did anything worthy of leaving.

If anything, people’s false accusations were designed to make themselves feel better, even though they railroaded an innocent pastor.

Faultless?  No.  Flawed?  Yes.

But guilty?  No.

This stage … trying to figure out who opposed you and why … is so painful that many pastors never work through it.

It’s like being married for years to someone, and then they want you to leave the house … without any explanation.

For me, I wanted to know the truth, painful as it might be, so that I could heal.

Stage 3: Panic

There are two primary kinds of panic after a pastor has been terminated:

*Emotional panic

*Economic panic

Emotionally, you feel rejected.  Months or years before, the congregation voted you into office, and people were glad you came.

But now some … or many … are equally glad you’re gone.

When a pastor is pushed out of a church, there is usually betrayal involved … and nothing hurts more than that.

Someone you worked with … someone you trusted … someone you socialized with and prayed with … suddenly switched sides and joined forces with those who wanted to take you out … and you didn’t know when or why they flipped.

It could be the board chairman … the associate pastor … the church treasurer … or the head of men’s ministry.

Eleven of His disciples stuck with Jesus in the Garden.  Only Judas switched sides.

But how that must have devastated Jesus!

When I was a kid, I betrayed a friend, and couldn’t believe what I had done.  From that moment on, I determined that if someone was really my friend, I would stay loyal to them no matter what … and that included the five lead pastors I served under.

So to this day, I can’t understand why betrayal came so easily to some adults.

Why did they have to hold secret meetings?  Why didn’t they speak with me face to face?

Economically, a pastor depends upon the donations from people inside his church … and when he’s forced out of office, those donations disappear.

If a pastor is given enough severance … a minimum of six months … then he can methodically put together a plan to rebuild his life.

But if he’s only given three months … or less … the combination of emotional rejection and economic deprivation can cause him unbearable stress.

If the pastor has sufficient savings … if his wife has a job with a solid income … if he has skills that he can quickly use in the marketplace … his panic will lessen.

But most pastors are living paycheck to paycheck, and if they’re given a token severance … or none at all … they feel as if they’re in real trouble.

Why do terminated pastors feel such panic?

Because they trained and studied for years … went through the ordination process … sacrificed financially … gave their all to their congregation, trusting that they would care for their pastor … and then found themselves kicked to the curb.

My wife and I now run a business where we invoice our clients every month.  We provide a service, and they pay us for that service.  And when our clients fall behind on their payments, we remind them of their obligations.

But to have your income depend completely upon donations, as I did for 36 years … it takes great faith to believe that God will take care of you through His people.

And when it all turns south, it can cause even the best of pastors to become alarmed.

I will share the next three stages next time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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As some of my friends know, I’ve been rummaging through our old family photographs recently and posting some of the more interesting pictures on Facebook.

I’ve been startled by how happy I look in photos from forty and fifty years ago.  I had a wide, joyful smile that I exhibited freely and often.

But over time, that smile dimmed … at least, at church … largely because of certain individuals.

Kim and HBF Women Mid-1980s 001

This is a group of eight men from my second church ministry.  Six have gone home to be with the Lord.  George – the gentleman on the far right – is still living.

George and Wendell supported me for years, and when I think of them, I definitely smile.

But three of these men turned against me … and one is my all-time worst antagonist.  (Can you pick him out?)

Then I found this photo of some women:

Kim and HBF Women Mid-1980s 1 001

Two of these women were loyal, faithful supporters, including Bonnie on the right side, but three also turned on their pastor.  My wife Kim (third from the left) was smiling in this photo, but several years later, she wasn’t.

And neither was I.

This article isn’t about church antagonists … I’ve written plenty of blog posts about them … but about a question I’ve often wrestled with:

Should pastors be happy?

During my seven-year tenure at this church in Silicon Valley, I was not only unhappy most of the time … I was downright miserable.

Our church was the product of a merger.  I had read that merger math is 1+1 = 1.  In other words, if you put a church of 80 with a church of 50, you’ll eventually end up with a church of 80 … or 50 … but not 130.

There are many reasons for this: a clash of church cultures … differing ministry philosophies … a duplication of leaders (what do you do with two head ushers?) … varied shared histories … and a pastor who suddenly needs to become acquainted with 80 new people … which makes the group he came over with feel ignored.

My first pastorate was in the Silicon Valley city of Sunnyvale.  We met in a school, but after two years, the city planned to bulldoze it down for new home construction.  We needed a place to go or our ministry would be over.

A sister church (with 80 people) five miles away invited our church (with 50 people) to merge with them … provided that I became the pastor.

I didn’t want to do it, and looked everywhere for another ministry, but at age 29, I had few options, so on the day set as a deadline … October 2, 1983 … I reluctantly signed an agreement.

Our district minister predicted that our church … which averaged 105 people … would have 300 people within two years.

But two years later, most people who came with me from the Sunnyvale church left in anger, and our attendance … and finances … were in free fall.

And as attendance and giving dwindled, I sank into depression.

Every other Monday, I wanted to quit.  Most of the time, it’s because the Sunday before didn’t go well.

The smaller churches get, the more people just want to be cared for.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but carrying out the Great Commission is not on the frontal lobes of most people.

As the church shrank in size, so did my self-esteem and self-confidence.

By the summer of 1986, I was barely functioning.  I was constantly depressed around the house, and my wife finally said, “Jim, you need counseling.  I”m going to find someone who can help you.”  I told her, “Then find the best counselor you can.  I want someone with a string of degrees.”

My wife finally found a Christian counselor with two doctoral degrees.  I visited him twice a week for four months.  If there was something inside me that was keeping our church from moving forward, I wanted to know what it was so I could make corrections while I was young.

After taking all kinds of tests and discussing matters for hours, the counselor told me:

“You have your problems and idiosyncrasies like everybody else, but you’re basically normal.  Your problem is your church.  Get out of it.”

I ended up staying, but I wasn’t any happier.

_______________

During my time in that second pastorate, I found a book that helped me survive those difficult days.

The book is called Coping With Depression in the Ministry and Other Helping Professions by Dr. Archibald Hart.  The book was published in 1984, but its lessons are equally relevant today.

Listen to Dr. Hart’s wisdom:

“Contrary to what many laypersons believe, depression is a major occupational hazard for ministers.  For many ministers, surviving the ministry is a matter of surviving depression.  Mostly the depression is not a positive experience.  It robs the minister of power and effectiveness and destroys the joy of service.”

Dr. Hart continues:

“It is impossible for anyone who has never been a minister to understand the loneliness, despair, and emotional pain that a large number of ministers must bear.  Not a few leave the ministry altogether because of the debilitation of depression.  Others exist in their pastorates in an unhappy, dissatisfied, and disillusioned state rather than leave their churches or change vocations.”

I read various parts of Dr. Hart’s book most Sunday nights before bedtime.  The book kept me going for years.

Why are pastors so susceptible to unhappiness?

Let me briefly offer five reasons:

First, ministry is often both slow and invisible.

Ministry is slow because people change at a snail’s pace, if at all.  The pastor-congregational dynamic usually entails less than an hour on Sundays and is confined to the pastor’s sermon.  The people have limited exposure to their pastor and he has limited exposure to their lives.  The pastor isn’t like Super Nanny who would stay in a family’s home and advise them on how to raise their children.

In fact, most people don’t want their pastor anywhere near their home!

I can recount many people I ministered to who never seemed to change at all.  Maybe God’s Spirit was working in them, but I never saw any visible progress.

Ministry is also slow because like most organizations, congregations change slowly, if at all.  Pastors usually know the direction they’d like the church to go, but they can’t wave a wand and make things happen.  Pastors first need permission from the board … staff … key leaders … and often, the entire congregation.

Pastors become absorbed with attendance and offerings because those are visible emblems of success.  But changed lives are much harder to measure.

Dr. Hart writes:

“People coming into the ministry from other areas of endeavor often say that it is far more difficult to set standards for evaluating their accomplishments in the ministry than it was in their previous employment.  I understand this problem because I experienced a similar one when I moved from engineering into psychology many years ago.  My engineering accomplishments still stand – bridges, reservoirs, buildings, and freeways.  They are easily recognizable, enduring, and satisfying.  But where are my psychological accomplishments?  Sure, there are many – healed hearts, homes and bodies.  But they are not as tangible and easy to pinpoint as those of engineering.  And pastors may find it even harder to identify their accomplishments once they get their eyes off money, buildings, and church attendance.”

When I preached or counseled someone, I knew the Holy Spirit was working … but He didn’t usually make His work evident to me.

Second, I rarely felt like I was done working.

I never finished my to-do list.  There was always one more call to make … one more email to answer … one more hospital patient to visit … one more sermon to research.

And if I didn’t do that “one more thing,” I often heard about it.

Many professions involve similar challenges.  But for me, as for many pastors, we never felt we could hit the “off switch” on our bodies, minds, or spirits.  We always had to be “on.”

For example, in my last ministry, I had to be “on” when I went to the grocery store because I’d always see people from church.  I had to be “on” when walking through the neighborhood … when going to the movies (I once sat next to a board member at an Adam Sandler movie) … when going to the mall … or when going to see the Giants or A’s.  I saw people from church in all of those places.

I remember one Christmas Eve.  We’d held two services at our church, and our family finally went home to open presents and relax.  But at 12:10 am on Christmas Day, I received a phone call from security that one of the doors at church had been left wide open after the second service.  Security couldn’t reach anyone else … only I answered the phone … so I had the privilege of going over to church to walk through the entire facility and then locking the door … something I did many times.

And that stuff happened all the time.

Third, I carried people’s problems around with me.

My counselor told me my greatest strength … and my greatest weakness … is my tenderness.  Wisely or unwisely, I feel what others are experiencing.

While my empathy made me a good pastor, I could not shake off people’s problems very easily.

The larger our church grew, the more varied … and difficult … people’s problems usually became.  For example, around the year 2000, three government inspectors were killed by the owner of a factory.  The story made national news.  The supervisor of those inspectors was supposed to be there that day and would have been murdered along with his colleagues.  This supervisor went to our church and had to speak at the funerals of his murdered colleagues.  I did my best to minister to him, but his sorrow sent me into despair.  How could it not?

Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 11:29:

Who is weak, and I do not feel weak?  Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?

Like Paul, I usually felt what my people were feeling, and carried those feelings around with me for weeks or months at a time … even when I was with family or doing something fun.

Dr. Hart claims that “compassion fatigue” is another term for burnout.  If a pastor doesn’t demonstrate care for people, he comes off like Dr. Ellingham on the hilarious British TV show Doc Martin: rude, surly, uncaring.  But if he feels people’s problems too deeply, he might end up burning out.

Dr. Hart writes:

“The work of ministry, when it is undertaken with great sincerity and earnestness, is bound to open the way to attacks of despondency.  The weightiness of feeling responsible for the souls of others and of longing to see others experience the fullness of God’s gift; the disappointment of seeing believers turn cold and pull away; the heartbreak of watching a married couple destroy each other, unable to utilize love and the grace of God in repairing their broken relationship – all will take their toll on sensitive and dedicated ministers.”

And in the end, they certainly took a toll on me.

Fourth, I never knew who was going to come after me.

Several weeks ago, I ran across a batch of photos taken when the merger mentioned above took place.  The photos were closeups of everyone in the church at the time.  I forgot I even had them.

Jim and Olive Webber at HBF 1983 001

This photo portrays Jim and his wife Olive.  Jim was the board chairman – and head of the search team – in my first pastorate.  Jim believed in me and lobbied hard for me to become pastor.  I’ll always be grateful for his support.

Jim was the “songleader” at the merged church at both the Sunday morning and Sunday evening services.  He led the hymns.  But as he aged, Jim began to lose it.  He started selecting the same songs constantly and repeating the same stale stories.  (“Can you smoke and be a Christian?  Yes, but you’ll be a stinking Christian!”)

One Sunday morning, I asked Jim if he would lead a specific hymn for the Sunday night service.  He refused, telling me that no pastor had ever told him which hymns to select.  I asked Jim again, and he became angry.

He went to the board with seven complaints about me.  For the good of the church, I probably should have sacked him months before, and now he was going after me.  He left the church the next day and I never saw him again until I conducted his memorial service.

This stuff happens all the time in churches.  Someone draws close to the pastor.  The pastor thinks, “This person likes me.  Maybe we can be friends.”  And a few months or years later, this person suddenly attacks the pastor verbally, or wants the pastor removed from office.

I can tell you story after story of men and women I thought were my friends … people I thought I could trust … who ended up betraying me.  In fact, every pastor can tell similar stories.

And it’s hard for a pastor to be happy when he’s constantly wondering, “Which of the people in our church are going to attack me next … and possibly end my job or career?”

 

Finally, I was too much of a perfectionist to really be happy.

I wanted everything the church did to go well … especially those ministries that required my leadership.

When I first took Sermon Prep in seminary, my professor would critique our sermons after we preached.  For years after I took that class, I’d get up to preach on Sunday and hear his voice:

“Don’t look to the left and gesture to the right … your looks and gestures need to match.”

“Don’t tell us that Sandy Koufax was a great pitcher because he threw hard.  A lot of pitchers throw hard and get rocked.  Koufax was great because his fastball moved.  Most people don’t know that, but a baseball fan will.”

“Be careful when you use irony.  Most people don’t get it.”

As a pastor, I heard a lot of voices in my head … the voices of professors, and fellow pastors, and critics … especially critics.

And those voices often prevented me from feeling happy.  They reminded me that my church wasn’t big enough … that our offerings weren’t strong enough … that I always fell short in some area.

If we had two or three Sundays of declining attendance … or poor giving … regardless of how well I’d written or delivered a sermon … I’d feel like a failure.

Even when our church was full … as in the photo below … I often didn’t enjoy it.  Instead, I’d wonder how long the good times would last.

BFCC Worship Center

Dr. Hart writes:

“I once asked a surgeon friend who every day made decisions that could affect the life or death of a patient how he handled the responsibility of his work.  His answer was most illuminating…. He replied, ‘You come to terms very early in your career with your fallibility.  It’s okay not to be perfect and to make mistakes!'”

But when pastors make even a small mistake, there are always people willing to magnify it into something horrendous.  It’s as if they’re saying, “Ha ha, pastor, you’re just like the rest of us!”

And, of course, we are.

_______________

My wife and I run a preschool in our home.  She runs the preschool downstairs, and I handle business matters from my upstairs office.

The Lord has blessed us significantly, and we’ll do this as long as we’re able.

I’m far happier doing the preschool than I was in church ministry:

*I can see children learn and grow much quicker than I ever did adults.

*My wife and I have our nights and weekends free.

*I only carry a handful of people’s problems around with me … usually those of family members or close friends.

*I no longer worry about people attacking me.

*I’m still a perfectionist about some things, but little bothers me anymore.

But in the end, I’m not sure that the happiness of pastors matters to the Lord.

Moses wasn’t always happy.  Neither was David … just read the Psalms.  Isaiah and Jeremiah weren’t all that happy.  And neither was Jesus.

God isn’t looking for happy pastors.  He’s looking for faithful ones.  But even when pastors are faithful, there’s no guarantee they’ll be happy.  Sometimes being faithful means that you’ll be unhappy.

And that’s not a happy thought to ponder.

_______________

By the way, when I took “The Pastor’s Personal Life” class from Dr. Hart for my Doctor of Ministry degree at Fuller Seminary, I wrote him a note at the end of my final paper, telling him that I believed he was a gift to the body of Christ.

I still feel that way.

If you don’t have a copy of Coping With Depression in the Ministry and Other Helping Professions, I urge you to secure a used copy on Amazon.

It just might save your ministry … and your sanity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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In the following article, I use myself as an example of a pastor who had many advantages, yet still suffered burnout.  Could this article describe you or someone you know?

While reviewing some computer files recently, I stumbled upon a note I wrote to myself in July 2005 … and I was startled.

Four years later, right before a major conflict broke out in my church, I went to a Christian counselor, who tested me and revealed that I was “severely burned out and headed for a breakdown.”

What startled me about that file from 2005 is that I had all the symptoms of burnout four years before.

At the time I wrote the note to myself, I had many advantages:

I had a great family (still do) … had a regular quiet time … exercised regularly and vigorously … lived in a place some might consider paradise, just off the San Francisco Bay … engaged in several fulfilling hobbies … finished the course work for my D.Min degree … enjoyed time off that past year to Europe, Hawaii, and Washington D.C. … and was coordinating the final stages of the construction of a new worship center.

The board chairman … the person I respected most in that fellowship … always supported me and told me, “You are a home run for this church.”

God had placed me in a church setting that seemed optimal given my training, experience, temperament, and giftedness.

And yet, I wrote to myself in 2005, after 32 years in church work, that I was unsure if I wanted to stay in ministry.

Here are my actual words:

*I am tired of all the “church crap” that I have to endure: people leaving over trivial issues, sniping remarks – without being able to “fight back” at all.

*I am hurt by people I love criticizing me with unkind and unjust statements, either to my face or behind my back.

*I am already overwhelmed with all the pastoral duties I have, which will only get worse when we grow in size – and we aren’t staffed for an outpouring!

*I love Jesus and the church and ministry but no longer love church ministry.

*I have a board that wants me to manage the staff better but won’t give me the power to fire anyone.

*I make less money than my son and far less than a new pastor would cost the church.

*Rather than spending 70% of my time in the area of my giftedness, I spend about 30% in the area of my giftedness and 70% in areas that frustrate me.

Then I wrote out a list of my current symptoms:

“My thinking is slow … my eyes hurt continually … I feel kind of numb … I’m kind of detached … I don’t feel very spiritual … I don’t seem to appreciate anything God does through me … I don’t want to be visible, but invisible … I can’t seem to remember names … I want to be home at night and not work a 50-hour week.”

And four years later, I felt exactly the same way … and it led to my exit from ministry.

Why was I feeling that way?

*Our office manager … the best I’ve ever worked with … had just moved away, leaving me with an interim office manager and thus a fresh pile of work.

*I had been dealing with a family for months where both husband and wife had affairs and the husband had twice tried to commit suicide … thankfully, failing both times.

*I had spent hours preparing a Father’s Day message … one of the best I ever wrote … which was widely criticized by two younger dads.

*The project manager for our new building – along with his wife – were continually sniping at me about our upgraded services.

*I had received a critical note from a long-time, trusted friend whom”I don’t believe I can trust anymore.”

*We’d had three deaths … one right after the other … with more looming ahead.

What was really happening?

I was dealing with the two issues that I struggled with most in ministry: management of my energy and my emotions.

Let me differentiate between them:

Energy management: I wanted to work a regular work week when I could predict when I’d have time for rest and relaxation.  It didn’t matter how long my “on” button was operating as long as I knew when I could switch it off.

My wife and I run a preschool in our house, and when 5:30 pm comes around, we’re done for the evening, and even though we both work weekends, we don’t have to.

But in church ministry, you’re never, ever done.  For example:

*the pastor has to work every Sunday, so he doesn’t get weekends off.

*he may not go out on Saturday night so he can be fresh for Sunday.

*he has to work several evenings a week because that’s when people are available.

*he may have a designated day off, but that can easily be interrupted, especially when important parishioners end up in the hospital … or die.

It’s not the number of hours that wore me down.  I often work 50+ hours a week right now but the work is enjoyable and appreciated.

No, it was the start-stop-start nature of the work that got to me.  I’d been doing it for years, but suddenly I couldn’t handle it anymore.

Maybe this is because I’m more introverted than extroverted, and introverts need time by themselves to recharge their energy.

After a long day of work, when I came home for dinner, I wanted to stay home and recharge for the next day, but I often had to go back out for a meeting… and I began to resent it.

I did good work.  I was always prepared.  God used me in many ways.  Our church grew steadily … and was the largest Protestant church in our city for years.

But for me … as with many pastors … the way I managed my energy was a key as to whether I felt like a success or a failure.

Emotional management: As a pastor, whenever I felt anger, pain, frustration, depression, anxiety, despair, or fear, I wasn’t always sure what to do with those feelings … especially if they overwhelmed me.

This is how I usually handled my feelings:

*I told the Lord how I felt.

But most of the time, He listened but didn’t respond.  (Wish the Lord gave hugs.)

*I told my wife how I felt … as we drove to and from church (she served on the staff) … when we went out to lunch or dinner … or when we walked or drove around together.

And she was usually very helpful, but sometimes she didn’t know what to do or say anymore.  I can be an emotional enigma.

*I told a Christian counselor friend periodically, and his counsel was always beneficial.  We’d go out to lunch and talk, and he could quickly name my issue and tell me how to handle things … and he was usually right.  But he was more than an hour away, so I could consult with him once or twice annually, but I couldn’t lean on him.

*I told some good friends who lived far away, and they were good listeners, but I always felt like I was bothering them.

Years before, I had received help from:

*A pastor friend.  We met for breakfast every week, and our friendship helped both of us cope with ministry pressures.  But in my last church, I reached out to several pastors, yet never found one that I clicked with.

*A small group of pastors.  I had formed such a group years before, and it lasted several years, but everyone had scattered, and I lacked the energy to start another group.

*Friends within the church, like a staff member, a board member, or a layman with whom I resonated … but most of my emotional issues involved people in that church, and I felt it was unethical to share how I truly felt about those they knew … and possibly liked.

As I’ve said many times, when a pastor is stressed out, he’s having physical issues, but when he’s burned out, he’s experiencing emotional issues.

And the body recovers much faster than the emotions do.

Let me conclude by sharing five lessons for pastors on managing energy and emotions:

First, a pastor can’t work for a church board and then tell them his problems.

By their very nature, boards are designed to maintain and advance the mission and vision of the church.  They are far more interested in a pastor’s performance than his dysfunctions.

They will pay attention to the pastor if he’s physically injured or needs an operation, but most of the time, they won’t show much concern about the pastor’s energy level or emotional management.

Years before, at another church, I once shared some deep feelings with the church board, and they just stared at me, as if to say, “We all have our problems, Jim.  Work it out yourself.”  That single incident … rightly or wrongly … affected me the rest of my ministry life.  I wasn’t willing to take the same risk after that.

Second, sometimes events converge that the pastor can’t control, but he has to do them anyway.

When a pastor is leading his church well, it usually takes everything out of him.  At the most, he can add one more project … temporarily.

But I added two: a Doctor of Ministry degree, and the construction of a new worship center … and I couldn’t delegate either one.

During the first six months of 2005, I attended my last D.Min class … had to write a paper for the class … started my final project, which ended up being 225 pages … and had to oversee the last few months of the worship center construction.

I had to finish my degree … which was a job requirement … by early 2007, and the worship center was dedicated in October 2005.  Both projects had deadlines, and I couldn’t renegotiate either one of them.

I was expected to complete them both, so I pushed ahead … and paid for it later.

Third, try and keep ministry from invading your time off.

When I first came to my last church, I proposed a sabbatical policy to the board, and they accepted it.  After six years of ministry, I was supposed to have three to six months off.

My sabbatical was due at the very time the worship center was going to be dedicated.  I couldn’t be gone during that period … or for months afterward … so I proposed that my sabbatical be delayed one year, which is what happened.

Then I made a big mistake.  I should have taken three months off, but since the church had never given the pastor a sabbatical before, I told the board, “I’ll just take six weeks off now, and more time in another six years.”

Only I never got that far.

I went to Europe with my daughter Sarah for the first leg of my sabbatical, but while I was there, the reader for my project kept emailing me about various corrections.  One time, I spent an hour using a computer at a library in Blackpool, England, working on those corrections while my daughter waited and waited for her dad.

I could never fully hit the “off” switch anywhere.

Fourth, every pastor needs a group from within the church that he can trust.

The church board can’t do this, and neither can the staff.  (If a conflict erupts, the pastor’s humanity can and will be used against him.)

Maybe the best way to do this is for the pastor to handpick several older, wiser saints … meet with them on a regular basis for prayer, counsel, and emotional support … and ask them to intervene for him with the board should the need arise.

Of all the things that bothered me, the one I wanted to change most was my job description.  Administration sapped my energy … leadership took much from me … but studying and teaching pumped me up.

But when I tried to make changes in my job description, they weren’t accepted.  Should I have been more forceful?

I once heard Chuck Swindoll say that if a pastor is out too many nights, the church won’t be able to keep him.  He’s right.

Finally, if a pastor burns out, the church should bear at least some responsibility for his recovery.

If I’m carrying a 100-pound box, and it falls and breaks my foot, my employer will pay my salary through workman’s comp until I’m well enough to return.

Why?  Because my injury happened on the job.

Ministry burnout happens on the job.  Yes, pastors are sometimes responsible for pushing too hard and failing to care for themselves, but much of the time, the pastor drops the box because he’s expected to carry too many loads.

When the pastor enters the burnout stage … and that requires a professional diagnosis … the board should work through a plan to help him recover … even if that takes extra time and money … and even if he eventually leaves the church.

But I never told my board about my burnout.  I couldn’t.  I remain convinced they would have asked for my resignation immediately.

And this is why so many pastors are either stressed out or burned out and don’t feel they can tell their boards … or anybody else in the church.

They’re afraid they will be quickly terminated.

It’s interesting to me, however, that God did not treat Moses that way.

While reading through the Book of Numbers, I’ve been noticing how many times Moses tells the Lord that leading Israel is just too much for him.

For example, in Numbers 11:11-15, Moses tells the Lord, “Why have you brought this trouble on your servant?  What have I done to displease you that you put the burden of all these people on me?  … I cannot carry all these people by myself; the burden is too heavy for me.  If this is how you are going to treat me, put me to death right now … and do not let me face my own ruin.”

The Lord didn’t tell Moses, “Suck it up, Moses.  You need to have a longer quiet time.”

No, the Lord told Moses to gather seventy elders who could help him share the load.  The Lord recognized that Moses needed help emotionally and quickly moved to assist him.

The question that haunts me is this one:

If I took care of myself … and I did … and if I had a successful ministry … and I did … and if I had many advantages that other pastors don’t have … and I did … and yet I still burned out, why did that happen?

What is it about the nature of church ministry that causes so many pastors to fry emotionally?

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I could not have published what you’re about to read when I was a pastor.

Over 36 years in church ministry, there were things I did that I hated doing … and things I loved doing.

If I hated an activity, it took me a while to start and finish it … and I’d count the minutes until it was done.

If I loved an activity, I’d clear my calendar, focus like a laser beam … and pay no attention to the clock.

My guess is that the longer a pastor is in ministry, the more things there are that he can’t stand doing.

When I was a kid, the great Bible teacher Wilbur J. Smith came to our church to preach.  My parents invited him over for dinner, but he declined, stating that he no longer accepted invitations for meals.

He loved preaching … and hated dinners.

I can relate!

Here are five things I hated doing as a pastor:

First, I hated editing church publications.

It’s my belief that everything that a church publishes for public consumption has to be perfect.

Just one misspelled word or a phrase with garbled syntax can lessen a church’s image in the eyes of some people.

Many years ago, the church I served as pastor spent $5000 on a full color brochure that we gave to our guests.

I was on the marketing team that designed the brochure and had reviewed it repeatedly for errors.

A prominent evangelical leader was so impressed with the brochure that he wanted to include it in a book he was writing.

I was thrilled … until I noticed that the word “activities” was spelled “activites” instead!

And that sunk our chance to have the brochure included in anybody’s book.

After that misstep, I was doubly conscious of only putting out perfect publications.

So every week, I reviewed the bulletin/program.

And every month, I proofread the church newsletter.

As a perfectionist, I’m a good proofreader.  I edited and proofread my book Church Coup and have discovered only two errors in the 289 pages of the paperback version.

I don’t mind proofreading my own writing, but I hate proofreading other people’s writing.  (One staff member had dyslexia and couldn’t write a decent sentence.  I had to rewrite everything he gave me, which ticked him off.)

Why didn’t I farm things out?

Because publications have to be read both for grammar and for content … and I could do both quicker than anyone else.

But after years of proofreading, I dreaded it more and more.

Second, I hated performing weddings.

I created four criteria for marrying a couple: they both had to be Christians; they had to attend our church while undergoing counseling; they had to agree to four to six counseling sessions with me; and they had to agree not to sleep together until their wedding day.

After reading those conditions, the majority of couples found someone else.

But if a couple met my conditions, I’d marry them even if I thought they were a mismatch.

The worst wedding I ever did involved a couple I can’t adequately describe.

They wanted to get married on a beach in Northern California.

I dressed up in my suit one summer day and drove 90 minutes to this small parking lot … then had to walk about a half mile over sand to the site of their wedding.

The guests sat on driftwood … all 15 of them.  The groom dressed like Sir Lancelot, and the bride dressed like Maid Marion.

I kept asking myself, “What am I doing here?”

After the ceremony, I waited a solid hour for my honorarium of $100, which didn’t come close to paying for my humiliation.

Another time, I married a couple at the chapel at The Presidio in San Francisco.  Before leaving home, my wife agreed to be in charge of my clothes.

When we arrived at The Presidio for the wedding, my wife had left my suit coat at home.

I had to borrow one from the chauffeur!

But those stories don’t reflect why I didn’t like weddings.

If the wedding was held inside our church, then I was in charge, and my anxiety lessened considerably.

But if the wedding was held away from church … and most were … then others were in charge … and my anxiety could go through the roof.

More times than not, I represented the spiritual part of things … and the rest of the festivities seemed to contradict the spiritual.

In addition, a wedding usually involved a rehearsal and dinner the day before, with the wedding itself the following day … which meant I’d invest anywhere from ten hours to more than a day … and sometimes, I’d never see the couple again.

The last wedding I did involved 32 hours on my part … and the couple stiffed me on the honorarium.

Just another reason why I came to hate most weddings.

Third, I hated the logistics of getting to a hospital.

Rather, I hated driving to hospitals and finding a parking place.

Once I found a patient’s room, I loved talking with them, and reading God’s Word, and praying with them.

But getting to the hospital was often another matter.

During my last ministry, the area hospitals I visited lacked reserved parking for clergy.

Whenever I had to go to Kaiser Hospital in Oakland, for example, I’d have to fight through all the signals and traffic, search ten or fifteen minutes for a parking space near the hospital, walk at least a quarter mile, ascend crammed elevators, and hunt for a patient’s room.

Once I got there, I was in my element.

But getting there could be maddening, and the entire round trip could take two hours.

In addition, most medical emergencies happened either on Thursdays (when I studied at home) or on Fridays (my day off) … and that time was precious.

And as pastors know, one emergency situation can throw your entire week’s schedule off kilter.

I loved being a pastor to people in the hospital.

I just wish I’d had a chauffeur.

Fourth, I hated board meetings.

Early in my ministry, board meetings made me anxious.

I never knew who was going to surprise me with criticism or a dumb suggestion or information about someone I didn’t care to know.

In my middle years, I loved board meetings, because that’s where I received approval for the agenda items that God had given me.

When I knew the board members personally, and I knew they stood behind me no matter what, I enjoyed attending them and found them productive.

But when I didn’t know the board members well, and they collapsed on me when I needed them most, those meetings became chores … and bores.

I once heard Bill Hybels say that the elders in his church held their meetings in homes.  They’d have dinner together, let him give a report, and then sometimes dismiss him and carry on without him.

You can do that if you trust the board.  You can’t if you don’t.

My last few months in ministry, I didn’t trust the board, and had to endure meetings long into the night … and wished I was home instead.

Finally, I hated staff confrontations.

I once spent several hours with a nationally-known church consultant.

He asked me some questions about my staff at the time, and then queried:

“Jim, are you a highly responsible person?”

I replied, “Yes.”

He continued, “Do you only have to be told to do something once?”

I replied, “Yes.”

He concluded, “But Jim, not everyone is like you.”

He was right.

I couldn’t understand staff members that came in late … left early … didn’t show up for events … left their offices a mess … were always disorganized … and never got their work done.

I couldn’t live with myself if I acted like that.

I was never a “helicopter pastor.”  If we hired someone, I expected them to do the job without constant reminders or warnings.

But if they weren’t doing the job, I had to intercept entropy and confront them … and I hate confrontation.

This is why I always liked Steve McGarrett on the original Hawaii Five-O TV show.  McGarrett had no problem confronting anybody, whether it was a two-bit thief, a local gangster, or an international agent like Wo Fat.

Chuck Swindoll once said that half the time he confronted someone, it worked out well, and half the time it didn’t.

Most of my confrontations seemed to fall in the latter category.

If I had to confront you about something, things had gotten really bad.

I always did it … I just hated doing it.

Pastors are all different.

Some hate administrative work … others hate social events.

Some hate preparing their sermon … others hate making small talk.

As time goes by, pastors are often able to rewrite their job descriptions so they’re doing what they love and avoiding what they hate.

If they can negotiate such changes, they can last many years in ministry.

If they can’t make such changes, they may burn out prematurely.

Because burnout isn’t about doing too much work … it’s about doing work that’s unpleasant and unproductive.

In one of my doctoral courses at Fuller, our professor told us that pastors should spend at least 70% of their time doing things they love and 30% doing things they don’t.

But if you’re spending 30% of your time doing what you love, and 70% doing what you hate, that’s a recipe for failure.

The problem many pastors have is that (a) we either view ourselves as indispensable, meaning we have to do everything and be everywhere, or (b) we believe that people expect us to do everything and be everywhere.

Both are common … but are recipes for disaster.

If you’re a pastor, which areas of ministry do you despise doing the most?

If you’re not a pastor, which areas of ministry do you think he dislikes the most?

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There is a sense in which a pastor can survive church ministry only if he learns how to manage depression.

In 1984, Dr. Archibald Hart published his classic book Coping with Depression in the Ministry and Other Helping Professions.  (There are 26 used copies on Amazon as of this writing.)  I devoured the book … memorizing many of its lines … because at the time, I was depressed at least some of the time every week.

In 2001, I took Dr. Hart’s class “The Pastor’s Personal Life” for my Doctor of Ministry program at Fuller Seminary.  It was the best class I’ve ever taken, and he was the best teacher I’ve ever had.

Dr. Hart believes that whenever a person … or a pastor … is depressed, that person won’t improve until they discover their core loss.

They need to answer the question, “Why am I really depressed?”

When a pastor is forced out of office, he nearly always undergoes depression, but because his thinking is cloudy, he may not understand for many months why he’s depressed … thus delaying his healing.

Let me share with you eight possible reasons why a forced-out pastor almost always undergoes depression:

First, pastors instinctively feel that the way they were treated was wrong.

The sinful, rebellious, irrational behavior that many of us in ministry have experienced at the hands of church leaders is not in Scripture … doesn’t line up with what we’ve preached … goes against how we live … and is completely foreign to our thinking.  We would never treat another Christian … much less a pastor … the way we’ve been treated.

Much of the time, board members don’t know what they’re doing when they dismiss a pastor, choosing to “fire” the pastor like they would fire an employee in a small business.  Jesus’ prayer from the cross fits here: “Father, forgive them, because they don’t know what they’re doing.”

Sometimes only one board member opposes a pastor … for personal reasons … and he convinces the others to take “official” action … never revealing his true agenda.  If the board was firing a staff member, they’d consult with the pastor, and it would be a team decision, but when the board fires the pastor, the board doesn’t consult with him, and they can make a mess of things.

Second, even though many pastors experience forced termination (28% is the last stat I’ve seen), the topic is still hush-hush in the Christian community. 

It’s not openly discussed.  When it is, most Christians naively blame the pastor for his departure because they are ignorant of the facts.  Pastors are blamed at the denominational level for political reasons (so the district guy keeps church revenue flowing into district coffers) and they’re blamed inside their former church because those who pushed out the pastor have convinced themselves they did right.

The wider Christian community is far more driven by politics than Scripture or spirituality.  The same spirit that caused the Sanhedrin to approve Jesus’ execution (it’s advantageous for one man to die to spare the nation) is alive and well in our denominations.  The leaders know what’s going on out there, but they aren’t doing anything about it because it’s not politically advantageous.

So many of us – and I include myself – feel abandoned by the wider body.  Our loyalty to the denomination was not reciprocated.

Third, if we’re over 55 and undergo termination, we instinctively know that our pastoral career is over. 

We’re done.  Few churches will hire an older pastor.  It’s wrong, but ageism is alive and well in the Christian community.  As Neil Diamond sang 46 years ago, our time as a pastor is often “done too soon.”  We always envisioned retiring on our own terms, but power-hungry laymen decided to retire us long before we were ready.

Some churches … usually small ones … will hire an older pastor.  There was a church 90 minutes away that I contacted many years ago.  It was a church of 60 people.  Kim and I drove there one day, but the valley where it was located looked like the back side of the moon.  There was nothing there!  Depression City.  No wonder they couldn’t find a pastor!  Those churches will always be available, but they pay very little, and the congregation’s dysfunctionality negates even the best pay package.

Pastors believe something that isn’t true: “If I’m loyal to my denomination/district, when I really need them, they’ll be there for me.”  But they won’t be.  It’s this finality, in my view, that causes much of our depression.  We’re still waiting for the district/ denominational guys on white horses to come and rectify our situation.  But they aren’t coming.  They never come.  They’re company men who are unwilling to take risks.  That’s why they were hired in the first place.

Fourth, for a pastor, our whole lives are centered upon our churches. 

We are fully committed to our congregations.  One guy I read called this syndrome a “total institutional mindset.”  The church supplies our income … our friendships … and our self-esteem.  When we put everything into our church, and then its leaders spit us out, it feels like a massive betrayal.  It’s like getting a “Dear John” note from your wife when you’ve been the best husband you could be.  The church can be a cruel bride.

My wife once told me that she felt I gave too much to my last church.  Maybe I did.  Maybe I wasn’t distant enough.  Maybe I cared too much.  But I think this is true of most pastors.  I think of U2’s song “With or Without You”: “And you give yourself away, and you give yourself away, and you give, and you give, and you give yourself away …”  That’s the life of a pastor.  The call of God upon our lives translates to giving ourselves away.

So when you’ve given all you can to a church, and they turn around and kick you in the teeth … it takes a long time to recover from that blow.  It takes a minimum of 1-3 years to heal from a forced termination, and I think the more a pastor loved a particular church, the longer it takes him to heal.

Fifth, the church is the place where most of a pastor’s friends congregated every weekend.

I had few friends outside my last church, but I had dozens of friends inside that church.  When I resigned, I lost most of those friends overnight.  Most never spoke with me or contacted me again.  I still grieve their loss.

Not only were my friends in that church, but so was my support system.  And then BOOM … it was gone overnight.

Pastors are somebodies inside their churches.  Everybody wants to be their friend, so pastors don’t have to work too hard to make friends.  They’re just there.  But when a pastor is forced to leave a church, those friends disappear.  And it can be hard for a pastor to make friends outside of church because nearly all his friends over the years have come from inside the church.  You lose your pastoral identity.  I’m no longer Pastor Jim – a somebody inside a church – but just “Jim” – a nobody outside the church.

Sixth, by their very nature, pastors are tender, sensitive individuals. 

77% of all pastors are feelers on the Myers-Briggs temperament test.  Even though I’m a thinker on that test, I feel things very deeply.  Most pastors do.  That empathy makes us great pastors but not always great leaders.  Sometimes we’re more concerned about one lost sheep than the entire flock.  So when we go through a horrible experience like forced termination, we feel it so deeply – and take it so personally – that it makes recovery very difficult.

So when we’re “fired” or pushed out … we take it hard.  We forget that Jonathan Edwards … Billy Graham … and a host of other great pastors have walked this road before us.  We aren’t better men than they were, so their suffering can give us some perspective.

By the way, I highly recommend two chapters in Charles Spurgeon’s classic Lectures to My Students: one called “The Minister’s Fainting Fits,” which is on depression in ministry; the other called “The Blind Eye and the Deaf Ear,” which is on handling criticism in ministry.  I’ve loved that book for 40 years – there has never been anything like it – and it can be purchased dirt cheap as an e-book on Amazon.  The chapter on depression has always lifted my spirits!  (Dr. Hart even recommended it in class.)

Seventh, Christian churches have not devised fair processes for handling complaints inside churches concerning pastors. 

It’s all black or white thinking: either the pastor stays or he leaves.  The board doesn’t think in terms of other solutions, like bringing in a mediator/consultant, or giving a pastor a sabbatical/time off, or talking to the pastor honestly about an issue in his life/ministry.  Pastors may assume that board members possess these skills – or that they will acquire them while they’re on the board – but they’re usually clueless.  I can’t emphasize this enough.

As I’ve written many times in my blog, I probably needed to leave my last church when I did.  I was clinically burned out, and had little left to give.  But the way I was treated was wrong – especially the lying.  I was accused of a host of charges that weren’t true because nobody ever brought them to my attention.  My reputation outside of my last church is excellent.  My reputation inside that church changed overnight.

Even though church bylaws were clear about how to handle problems with the pastor, the board chose to ignore the bylaws.  I’ve learned how frequently this happens in the Christian world.  When people become emotional, they easily bypass procedures and then create a rationale why they don’t apply.  They don’t want to resolve the issues; they want to win and defeat their detractors.  Many former pastors become depressed about this kind of thing because they were never presented any kind of forum where they could tell their side of the story. WE HAVE TO CHANGE THIS INSIDE THE WIDER CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY.

I’m grateful for the work Dennis Maynard has done in this area.  (He wrote the book When Sheep Attack.)  He says that whenever a pastor is forced to leave a church, that church can’t heal, and subsequently grow, until the people are told the truth as to why their previous pastor left.  I agree with him 100%, but it rarely happens because it isn’t politically expedient.

Finally, there isn’t any opportunity to reconcile with those who hurt us. 

For us, our dismissal was personal, but the church board will claim it was just business (although it is personal in all too many cases.)

Pastors are trained to engage in reconciliation, and when they’re dismissed, it’s a confession by the board that reconciliation isn’t an option.  This inability to reconcile doesn’t seem to bother board members but lingers on in the memories and souls of pastors who just want to know, “What did I do wrong?”  And the answer is almost always, “You did nothing wrong.  You may even have been dismissed because you were such a godly, holy man that the other board members felt uncomfortable in your presence.”

Just remember that Jesus never reconciled with Judas … or Pilate … or Caiaphas … or the Sanhedrin … or any of the people who put Him on the cross.  He died to make reconciliation possible, but without repentance, reconciliation – or bilateral forgiveness – cannot occur.

_______________

I believe that after a forced exit, a pastor has to accept the following truisms in order to fully heal:

*I was treated wrongly … but I forgive my opponents.

*I will endeavor to speak openly about my experience whenever appropriate.

*I accept that if I’m over 55, my pastoral career is probably over … but I will be open to other ministry opportunities.

*I will center my life upon the Lord and my family, not a local church.

*I will seek out friendships wherever I can … not just in my church.

*I will remain tender but toughen up where I can.

*I will speak up for a fair and just process anytime I hear that a pastor is undergoing turmoil.

*I will accept the fact that those who pushed me out of the pastorate will never seek or be open to reconciliation.

What are your thoughts about what I’ve written?

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While cleaning out some boxes kept in storage yesterday, I ran across a photo taken of me at an event from my last church … and I instantly felt a twinge of pain inside.

Then I started to feel sadness behind my eyes … like I wanted to cry but couldn’t.  That feeling lasted for about half an hour.

I’ve had these feelings for years now, and I don’t like them.  They come upon me at unexpected times, especially when I focus too much on the conflict that propelled me out of church ministry seven years ago.

Even though I’ve written extensively about pastoral termination and church conflict over the past six years – having written nearly 525 articles – I haven’t written much about the feelings that a pastor has after he’s been forced out of office.

While I can’t speak for every pastor who goes through this horrendous experience, maybe it would be helpful to describe what’s healthy … and unhealthy … after a pastor undergoes termination.

So offering up my own experiences as a model, let me share five emotions that I experienced in the aftermath of my departure from ministry in 2009:

First, I was shocked by the viciousness some people demonstrated to get rid of me. 

Some people I served as pastor did everything in their power to destroy my position as pastor as well as my reputation.

And I mean destroy.

There is no way to sugarcoat what they did or said.  These professing Christians intended harm toward me, their pastor.

It was revenge … and personal.

Only I didn’t know then … and don’t know today … what I did or didn’t do to illicit such hatred from them.

That shock lasts a long time.  In many ways, I’m still not over it.

I never preached with a hateful tone nor a hateful manner, so those feelings did not originate with me.  They either came from an internal or external source.  My guess is that they came from someone outside the church who fanned the flames of anger inside the church.

The attitude of these people was not, “We disagree with your views on several subjects,” nor, “We think you’ve lost effectiveness and should go.”

No, their attitude was, “We hate you, Jim, and we want you to leave and never come back.”

These were people who professed to love Jesus, His Word, and His people … so how could they demonstrate such rage against their pastor who had served them faithfully for 10 1/2 years?

I have no idea.

When I was nineteen years old, I became a youth pastor.  One night, after finding out that two of my former Sunday School teachers were involved in sexual immorality, my pastor told me, “Jim, don’t ever be shocked by what Christians do.”

Over the years, I’ve tried not to be.

But sometimes, I still am.  Sometimes, the whole conflict invades my soul without warning, and I shake my head and say to myself, “I could never, ever treat a pastor the way I was treated.”

If I’m shocked at anything today, it’s that not even one person responsible for pushing me out has ever apologized for their actions.

Second, I engaged in a lot of self-reproach.

I have this really unhealthy habit of believing bad things people say about me while ignoring the good things.

It’s not so much a self-esteem issue as it is blaming myself for not being perfect.

So when the church board attacked me privately … and their allies attacked me publicly … I figured that I must be who they said I am: a horrible person and pastor.

Nearly every charge made against me was a partial or complete falsehood, and I knew that at the time, but I still blamed myself for not being everything they wanted in a pastor.

Whenever someone severely criticized me, I used to tell myself, “How arrogant of me to think that I can please all 400 adults in this church.  I can’t, and nobody else can, either.”

That’s a healthy way to view criticism.  But when your critics all align together, and pool their complaints, and fire them off into the ether, it’s natural to think, “They must be right.  I must be a colossal bozo.”

That’s why going to counseling was so important for both me and my wife.  We needed an outside, objective, different perspective.

We saw two counselors: one who practiced a few miles from that church, and another who practiced in another state.

Both told me the same thing: the way you were treated was wrong, and your critics failed to demonstrate any love or redemption, the tip-off that your opponents were not very spiritual.

Let me quote from Dennis Murray in his book Healing For Pastors & People Following a Sheep Attack:

“The attack on you is not information about you.  It is information about the handful of ringleaders who organized the battle…. Healing begins by recognizing that you did the right thing.  You were blessed with an incredible ‘manure detector’ that allowed you to see exactly what was happening.  You have been blessed with a perceptive intelligence that allows you to distinguish truth from lies.  Your intuition is highly developed and you were able to separate fact from fiction.”

Although I still don’t know why my attackers hated me so much, I no longer blame myself for the conflict, and realize that while I made mistakes in ministry, nothing I did justified the way I was treated.

Third, I experienced a normal amount of depression.

Dr. Archibald Hart is the best teacher I’ve ever had.  He taught “The Pastor’s Personal Life” class in Fuller Seminary’s Doctor of Ministry program.  (And he told me that he would put my book Church Coup on his reading list.)

Dr. Hart believes that whenever you’re depressed, you need to find the core loss, and only then will you start to recover.

My wife and I lost so much after my resignation: my position, my income, my reputation, our house (it was underwater and was sold in a short sale), our church family, our credit rating, and worst of all, most of our friends.

That’s a formula for depression.

When my wife and I attended a Wellness Retreat sponsored by The Ministering to Minister’s Foundation the month after our departure, Dr. Charles Chandler and his colleagues stressed the importance of both going to counseling and taking antidepressants to aid in recovery.

Fortunately, my wife and I were both already doing those things.

After we left our last ministry, we moved to another state 750 miles away.  For months, I could either explode in anger or break into tears at the drop of a hat.  I spent weeks just walking around the neighborhood where we lived, wondering how I could ever pastor a church again.

My core loss?  In my view, I had lost my identity as a person … and in a very real sense, was lost both vocationally and personally.

Which means that to go forward, I would have to reinvent myself vocationally.

Here’s what I’ve learned about depression after a forced departure:

*Whenever I returned to the community where my previous church was located, I would become increasingly anxious and afraid.  I can no longer get anywhere near it.  It’s poison to my soul.

*Whenever I took a trip out-of-state, my depression lifted, probably because I felt safe.

*Whenever I’ve talked about my situation in public – like in a workshop for Christian leaders – I feel fine.

*Whenever I write a blog, I rarely feel sad because I’m trying to help others by engaging in something redemptive.

*When I wrote my book Church Coup, and had to look at documents that were created during the conflict, I could feel my intestines tie into knots.  If it’s a difficult book to read, imagine how painful it was to write.  (This is probably why there are very few books written by pastors about their own forced terminations.)

*When I became an interim pastor three years after leaving my last ministry, I felt great most of the time … except when I was drawn into several conflicts.

I’ve been asked if I’m willing to do any more interim work, but right now, the answer is “no.”  Whenever I even imagine myself serving at a church, the pressure behind my eyes builds again, and I start feeling a large degree of anxiety.

For me, healing involves working, and being involved in ministry … just not church ministry.

Fourth, I am completely open about every aspect of the conflict.

Years ago, I determined that I would be a pastor who would express his humanity and describe his feelings if it would be redemptive.  I grew up with pastors who never let us know who they were or what they felt strongly about, and I didn’t want to be like them.

So when the Lord allowed me to go through a 50-day conflict of which I was the focus, I resolved that I was going to make things redemptive by sharing what happened to me so that I could help others.

Many pastors have who been pushed out of their churches don’t want to talk about what happened to them with anyone.  They keep it all inside … for whatever reason.

Maybe they don’t want to relive it.  Maybe they don’t want to dwell on the past.  Maybe they figure they can’t change what happened.

Or maybe it’s all just too painful.

My ministry mentors are leaders like Archibald Hart, Bill Hybels, and Stephen Brown … men who are authentic and transparent about their feelings and failures.

So if someone wants to talk about our conflict, I’m glad to engage.  If someone wants to steer away from the topic, I’ll follow their lead.

Several months ago, I learned that someone who had supported my ministry during the entire time I was at my last church turned against me after I left … and she surely wasn’t the only one.

It hurt me for a moment, but then I figured, “Why should this bother me?  I can’t straighten out everybody.  Besides, the next time we’ll see each other is in heaven, so she can only hurt me if I let her.”

But I felt that sadness behind the eyes again, and had to wait for it to subside.

To write my book, I had to engage in hours of personal ruminating as well as many interpersonal conversations.  My hope was that by writing a complete account of what happened … with commentary from conflict experts … I could put the entire situation behind me.

Writing the book did help a great deal.  I don’t have to revisit any major events mentally because I’ve already recorded them.

I would say this: being open about what happened to me probably wrecked any chance I have of returning to church ministry someday, but it’s made me much more empathetic and effective in helping pastors who have undergone this horrendous experience.

And I think that’s a great trade-off.

Finally, I have felt a strong sense of isolation.

I love Sherlock Holmes, whether it’s Doyle’s original stories, the episodes filmed for Masterpiece Theatre in the 1980s, or Benedict Cumberbatch’s current take on Holmes.

Holmes was a consulting detective which means that people who wanted help with a problem had to seek Holmes out directly.  They came to him … he didn’t go to them.

When I was a pastor, people emailed and called me for help during the week. They made appointments for my counsel.  They sought me before and after services.  As an introvert, I loved it when people came to me for help.

I was a somebody at church.

But when you’re no longer a pastor, you suddenly feel like a nobody at every church you visit.  And God help you if you tell the pastor that you’re an ex-pastor who would like to use his spiritual gifts to make a difference.  Most of the time, you will be perceived as a threat and shunned just for saying that much.

The Christian community simply does not know what to do with its former pastors.

My wife and I live in a desert community.  We have many business clients but no real friends in the area.  We are not only each other’s best friends … we are each other’s only friends.

We do have some family around: 60 miles away … 75 miles away … 330 miles away … and 490 miles away.

And we do have some good friends we see several times a year.

But it’s not the same as when you have church friends that you see several times a week because they live in your community.  We’ve tried going that route, but so far, it hasn’t worked.

In case you’re wondering, I love my life right now.  The Lord retired me early, and I enjoy working with my wife, seeing our grandsons, watching sports, and going to concerts and ballgames.

It hasn’t been an easy road, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

This Monday marks seven years since the beginning of the conflict that pushed me out of church ministry.  As I do every year, I’ll be writing a special blog about that experience and including some things I’ve never shared before.

If I can help you or a loved one who has undergone a church attack, please let me know.  Either leave a comment on this blog or write me at jim@restoringkingdombuilders.org

Sometimes reaching out to someone who understands is the best way to start your recovery.

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