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Archive for the ‘Burnout and Depression in Ministry’ Category

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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I have a friend who is fond of saying, “Getting fired is the best thing that ever happened to me.”

In the long run, his sentiment may very well be true … but it sure doesn’t feel that way at the time.

When I was pushed out of my position as senior pastor of an impactful church, I could not see what God was doing.

Six years later, I have a much better … and broader … perspective.

If you are struggling with why God allowed you to undergo the horror of a forced termination … or if you know someone who has endured this experience … maybe the following words can provide some insight and comfort.

Why does God allow pastors to be terminated?

First, the pastor has done something that disqualifies him from church ministry.

Many years ago, I heard about the moral downfall of a nationally known preacher.

This man had been called to lead a megachurch where some family and friends of mine had once attended.

When the news broke, I channel surfed until I found a well-known entertainment program.  One of the show’s reporters interviewed that pastor outside his home.  The pastor told the reporter, “Because of what I did, I have no business being a pastor.”

The host of the program commented, “The minister’s attitude is refreshing.”

I have a friend who served on that church’s staff at the time, and he told me that surveillance cameras confirmed that inappropriate behavior on the pastor’s part had taken place.

Being human, pastors occasionally engage in moral failure.  When they’re caught, they usually repent and resign.

But sometimes pastors are successful at dodging congregational surveillance … but they can never escape the watchful eye of Almighty God.

A pastor can be guilty of sexual immorality … plagiarism … alcoholism … criminal behavior … drug addiction … lying and manipulation … or any number of other offenses against God and His people.

And if a pastor’s spiritual and moral integrity are compromised by his actions … especially if he’s unrepentant … then the best thing for everyone involved is for the pastor to leave … and hopefully, repent and receive God’s forgiveness for his actions.

While pastors do disqualify themselves by engaging in misconduct, this is only true of 7% of all terminated pastors.

Just as Peter denied Jesus three times but was restored to ministry, I believe that God can restore and use a once-disqualified pastor again.

Second, the pastor was leading a spiritually hollow congregation.

No matter how devoted a pastor is to Jesus … or how hard he works … or how much influence he has … some churches are never going to grow or have much impact in their community.

In fact, some churches are filled with professing Christians who have rarely if ever grown spiritually.

Unfortunately, I’ve met my share of these people.

For example, the first church I pastored … in Silicon Valley … never should have gotten off the ground.

The congregation began with 38 members … all refugees from other churches.  They had one thing in common: they wanted to attend a church where they could control the decision making.

The church was financially subsidized by a denomination.  The basic rule-of-thumb is that a church needs to become self-supporting after three years.  If not, those outside funds are usually cut off.

When I arrived, the church had been in existence for five years … all five subsidized by the denomination.

Looking back, there was little spiritual vitality in that church.  The leaders were full of bitterness and legalism.

Two years after my arrival, a sister church invited us to merge with them, and my first church passed out of existence.

That church never should have been started … never should have been subsidized … and was never going to last very long.  In fact, they probably hurt more people than they helped.

I wasn’t terminated from that church … I ended up pastoring the merged church instead … but I can only imagine what it’s like to pastor a spiritually empty church for years.

It’s probably better that the pastor goes first than that he goes down with the ship.

Third, the pastor was delivered before things became much worse.

When I counsel pastors who are under attack … or who have undergone a forced exit … I often quote 2 Peter 2:9 to them.

Speaking of Lot, Peter says, “… the Lord knows how to rescue godly men from trials …”  Another version states, “… the Lord knows how to deliver the righteous …”

Sometimes when a pastor initially comes to a church, the wind is at his back.

But by the time he leaves, the wind is blowing directly into his face.

When I first came to my last church, I felt the wind at my back.  It seems like every idea I had … every sermon I preached … every ministry I started … had an impact.

But by the time I left, almost none of my ideas had been adopted for months … many of my sermons were falling flat … and the one ministry I wanted to start was soundly rejected.

The wind was blowing in my face … hard … and I could feel it.

Was I the problem?  Possibly.  But to be honest, I didn’t know how to work with some of the church’s newer leaders.  I was oriented toward outreach, while they were oriented toward survival and maintenance.

Looking back, it was inevitable that we would clash.

Had I stayed even another year, I believe my soul might have been severely damaged.  God in His mercy knew exactly when to remove me.

Did I like the way God chose to do it?  No.  But I wholeheartedly agree with His timing.

Months after I left, someone told me that if I visited the church again, I would no longer recognize it.  A friend visited and told me, “The spirit has gone from this place.”

I’m glad I wasn’t there to see it.

Fourth, the pastor has been given a more suitable assignment by God.

I don’t like to demean my former calling, but pastors are a dime a dozen.  There are thousands of pastors all over America … and thousands more who wish they could be pastors.

A pastor may be special to his congregation … and maybe his community … but in the Christian world, pastors aren’t treated with much respect or dignity simply because there are so many of them.

I believe there are times when God surveys all those pastors and says, “I have some assignments that I need to have fulfilled in the days ahead, so I choose you … you … and you to carry them out.  But first, I need to remove you from your present position.”

If God didn’t remove us … and use some pretty forceful means at His disposal … we’d hold onto our pastorates for dear life.

I have met scores of former pastors doing significant kingdom work.

One man was forced out of three churches … and now he does conflict mediation for churches.

Another man was forced out of two churches … and he now trains Christian leaders for short-term assignments all over the world.

Pastors who were once forced out of their churches now lead missionary agencies … serve as hospital chaplains … plant churches … engage in hospice ministry … serve as church planters … do interim pastorates … and even have writing ministries.

And yes, I know pastors who were once pushed out of their churches who have healed enough to become pastors once again.

For my colleagues who have been forced out of a church … maybe God wants you to look forward toward a new assignment rather than ruminating about the injustices of your previous assignment.

But expect for that process to take you some time.

Fifth, the pastor was pushed out because he was burned out.

Back in the mid-1980s, I did a lot of reading about the symptoms and effects of being stressed out and burned out in church ministry.

I especially devoured the book by Dr. Archibald Hart titled Coping with Depression in the Ministry and Other Helping Professions.

Over the years, I thought I was suffering from burnout on several occasions.  I visited a Christian counselor friend who assured me that I was not experiencing burnout.

But six years ago this summer, I visited a counselor who told me that I was experiencing a severe case of burnout, and that I was primed for a breakdown.

When I asked my wife, “How did burnout creep up on me?”, she said, “Jim, look what you’ve done the past few years here at the church.  You oversaw the construction of a building and you completed your Doctor of Ministry program.”

Just last week, I remembered two statistics that I had long forgotten.

First, I remember hearing that 70% of all pastors leave their churches within one year of completing a building program.

Our entire building program lasted at least four years, and I stayed four years after that.

By contrast, I know a pastor who told me that he left two churches that were in the middle of building programs.

Second, a professor from my seminary told me that 50% of all Doctor of Ministry graduates end up leaving the pastorate so they can pursue other ministry avenues.

I lasted two years after receiving my degree.

I think most pastors do what I did: they minimize all the energy they’re expending when they’re carrying out a task, but it eventually catches up with them.

My last few months as a pastor, I wasn’t myself.  I became detached … irritable … empty … and sad.  In fact, I was near tears almost every day.

I wish someone who knew me had intervened and said, “Hey, Jim, you don’t seem like yourself right now.  Is everything okay?  We love you and want you to be your best.”

For whatever reason, no one did that … until the counselor gave me his diagnosis.

I believe that burned out pastors probably need to leave their ministries so they can recover.  Their churches need more energy from them than they can muster.

But pastors become burned out because they work too hard and care too much, and it seems criminal to me to kick out a pastor in a mean-spirited way because he did his job too well.

So sometimes Jesus says to His weary servants, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest” (Mark 6:31).

And He kindly calls His burned out pastors away from church ministry.

Finally, the pastor’s ministry in that church is over.

Several years ago, I visited a large church and was invited to sit next to the chairman of the board during the service.

Over the previous few years, the church had lost half its attendees.

The music was horrible (the full-time worship director led three songs by himself, without a band), the service was disorganized, and everything seemed irrelevant.

When I told the chairman that the pastor seemed to be preaching well, he said, “His last few sermons have been better because he’s retiring in several weeks.”

That pastor led that church for more than 30 years … but his ministry had ended long before he retired.

I wish that every pastor was given the ability to choose when his ministry in a particular church was finished.

The problem is … the pastor is often the last one to know.

And so God in His sovereignty sometimes says to a pastor, “You’re not going to leave here, are you?  You’re so very committed … and I appreciate that more than you could know.  But I can see the way ahead, and you’re not the pastor this church needs anymore.  You’ve done all that I asked you to do … so I’m going to remove you from office … and it’s going to sting.”

And it does sting … for a long time.

I served the Lord in church ministry for 36 years.  I hoped that I would get to retire on my own terms around age 65, but the truth is that God declared my ministry over nearly ten years before I would have stopped.

But I’m glad He did … because right now, I am far happier and fulfilled than I was as a pastor … and I’m still involved in significant ministry.

Jesus trained at least 18 years for a ministry that lasted only three.  In the end, even the Son of God didn’t get to choose when His ministry was over … the Father did … and the Son cried out from the cross, “It is finished.”

I wonder why God doesn’t intervene and stop innocent pastors from being terminated.

In fact, I’ve devoted my life to doing all I can to help pastors and boards part ways (when necessary) in a truthful, loving, and constructive way.

But regardless of how a pastor is let go … even when it’s done cruelly … every pastor can repeat what Joseph said to his brothers in Genesis 50:20:

“You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good …”

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When a pastor is under attack inside his church, he begins to suffer from a condition I’d like to call Damaged Pastor Syndrome.

DPS strikes a pastor when he picks up signals that an individual or a group are laying the groundwork to force him from office.

These signals include church members:

*Making inquiries about church attendance and giving patterns.

*Requesting copies of the church constitution and bylaws.

*Calling district or denominational headquarters.

*Visibly gathering before and after church … even if they don’t travel in the same social circles.

*Increasingly making negative comments on social media about the church and/or pastor.

In addition:

*The governing board may call itself into executive session without the pastor’s foreknowledge.

*Staff members may begin to resist the pastor’s directives.

*Staffers may become secretive while talking on the phone.

*Some church leaders may limit or avoid social time with the pastor altogether.

*Certain board and staff members may stop coming to worship … especially when the pastor is preaching.

Most pastors – nearly 80% – are very sensitive individuals, and when they sense an attack is coming, they quickly acquire DPS.

Let me share a story from my own ministry to illustrate this more concretely.

During my second pastorate, the seniors’ Bible class rebelled against me.

They didn’t like the new music the board had approved for worship.  They didn’t feel I was paying them enough attention.  And the class’s teacher – a former pastor who couldn’t find a job anywhere in Christendom – began to feel powerful as his class focused on the source of their discontent: their pastor.

Before long, rumors of discontent became reality.

A board member found out that a group of seniors were going to hold a secret meeting at a specific time and place.  He told me about the meeting.

I was afraid and anxious.  I couldn’t think.  And I wondered, “Why doesn’t this group like me?  What have I done to offend them?”

My wife and I went to a movie – a Disney cartoon, as I recall – just so I could focus on something other than that meeting.

In the end, it didn’t come off because the supportive board member showed up at the meeting unannounced and took away all their fun.

But that didn’t stop them.  They rescheduled and reloaded.

Because I didn’t know what was happening … and could only imagine the worst … I shifted into survival mode.

In the end, they created a two-page list of complaints against me, my wife, our son (who was 9), and our daughter (who was 6).

When I found out about this, I called a special board meeting and informed the entire group about the plot.

To a man, they stood with me … even though my district minister recommended that I resign.

But for weeks, I was a wreck.  I couldn’t sleep … couldn’t carry on a decent conversation … couldn’t trust people … and couldn’t think about anything other than the attack.

Because I had shifted into fight or flight mode, I was pumping adrenaline at a furious rate to handle the emergency.

The conflict went on for months … until the seniors and their buddies all left the church en masse … forming a new church one mile away.

Now here’s how DPS becomes relevant: when a pastor is under attack, he will be further attacked for responding to the attack like a human being.

For example, when a pastor is under attack:

*If he becomes depressed, he will be attacked for looking gloomy.

*If he becomes fearful, he will be attacked for not appearing strong.

*If he becomes anxious, he will be attacked for not trusting God.

*If he becomes isolated, he will be attacked for being aloof.

*If he becomes ill, he will be attacked for appearing unhealthy.

In other words, the very people who abuse, betray, and criticize the pastor will kick him around even more for not handling himself the way they think he should.

They will ask people in the church: “How can he be our pastor if he isn’t going to set a better example for the rest of us?”

DPS may be the primary reason why pastors end up resigning after enduring a sheep attack.

It took me six months to recover my energy after that group left the church.  The pastor of one of America’s largest churches told me that after he survived a similar attack, it also took him six months to recover, so this may be a pattern.

The group attacking the pastor is correct: the pastor may not be very effective for a while due to anxiety, depression, and fear.

But the group is wrong about why the pastor quickly wilts.  It’s not because he’s a poor example … it’s because shepherds are never prepared for sheep to turn on them and stomp them into the ground.

Since pastors are attacked while on the job, it only seems fair for the congregation and/or church board to assume responsibility for the pastor’s care while he recovers.  This includes a reduced workload … extended time off … funds for counseling … a visit to a retreat center … and creating safeguards to resist another attack.

Because most of the time, it’s not a weakness in the pastor that causes him to collapse under pressure … it’s a weakness in the church system that allows the attack in the first place.

Think about it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I sensed God calling me into pastoral ministry at age 19.

There was nothing else I wanted to do with my life except study, preach, and love God’s people.

And back in the mid-1970s, there was far more expected of a pastor than there is today.

Pastors attended or taught an adult Sunday School class … preached at Sunday morning worship … preached at Sunday evening worship … and taught a midweek Bible study … on top of all their other duties.

The consensus back then was that if God called you to church ministry, He called you for life … and if you tried to leave the pastorate, you’d be severely criticized.

One time, a colleague left church ministry to do something else, and my district minister scowled and muttered, “God calls a pastor for life.”

But a set of alarming statistics about pastors are screaming at God’s people right now.  Let me share just two of them with you.

The first statistic comes from Gary Pinion’s book Crushed: The Perilous Side of Ministry and makes me want to weep.  He writes:

“Eighty percent of seminary and Bible school graduates who enter the ministry will leave the ministry within the first five years.  Ninety percent of pastors said their seminary or Bible school training did only a fair to poor job preparing them for ministry.”

When I became a solo pastor in 1981, I hit a crisis 18 months into my ministry that made me feel like quitting.  But God had called me to pastoral ministry, and I was determined to fulfill my calling.

But evidently many rookie staff and pastors are leaving ministry far sooner than they ever expected.

The second statistic is one I read for the first time last week.  It’s from J. R. Briggs’ book Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure:

“For every 20 pastors who go into ministry only one retires from the ministry.”

In other words, only 5% of all pastors will begin and end their career in a local church.

Who is to blame for this situation?  The pastors themselves?  Church boards?  Congregations?  Denominations?  All of the above?

Let me share three prescriptions for this sad state-of-affairs:

First, Christian leaders need to put together formal training and support groups for pastors’ wives.

My wife Kim didn’t want to be a pastor’s wife.  She wanted to be a missionary.  But because she loved me, she was willing to set aside her own dream.

And when I became a pastor, she threw herself into church ministry as a volunteer.

Kim bought a host of books on how to be a pastor’s wife because there weren’t any mentors nearby.  (She eventually junked them all and said, “I’m just going to be myself.”)

When I was stressed at church, I would come home and share my concerns with my wife, but who did she have to share her stresses with?

Many men end up leaving pastoral ministry because their wives are tired of sharing their husbands with an institutional mistress, and because they cannot endure how often dysfunctional church life invades their home.

Every pastor’s wife wants to know that she and their children are more important than the church, and if push comes to shove, that her husband will choose his family over the church.

But if the pastor chooses the church over his wife, she may (a) quit going to church, (b) threaten divorce, or (c) find someone else.

I believe that many men are leaving church ministry because their wives are extremely unhappy about what ministry is doing to their family.

How can we rectify this?

Second, pastors need better training on preventing, managing, and resolving conflict.

Why are pastors leaving church ministry?  In their book Pastors in Transition: Why Clergy Leave Local Church Ministry, Hoge and Wenger write that conflict is first on the list:

“… ministers are experiencing a lack of support and support systems, especially when they are coping with conflicts.  They are well aware that parish ministry is fraught with conflict, and they expect to deal with a host of different opinions, ideas, and ways of doing things in their congregations.  But what they are not prepared for is the lack of support they find when they come under serious attack by congregational factions or families or are falsely accused of misconduct.  Some have felt betrayed by a church hierarchy that seems to show favoritism or ignore destructive behavior by other ministers or officials.”

The seminary that I graduated from does not offer core courses on congregational conflict, yet if the statistics are accurate, the great majority of its graduates will leave church ministry due to their inability to handle conflict.

And because pastors haven’t been trained in conflict management, they are unable to train their board members, staff members, leaders, or congregations as well.

So when conflict breaks out in a church – as it always will – neither the pastor nor the leaders have been trained on how to handle matters biblically … which may result in the pastor’s expulsion and the church’s devastation.

I recently asked a top church conflict expert what is being done to prevent major conflicts in churches.  He told me that he just launched a program along this line.  Good for him … but he’s rare.

I believe that most pastors think they know how to handle conflict … until they are personally attacked or falsely accused … and then they fall apart.  They don’t realize that nearly every conflict in a church ultimately involves the pastor.

Until Christian churches recognize and address this issue, we’re going to lose more and more pastors.

How can we rectify this?

Finally, churches need to do all they can to prevent pastoral burnout.

Pastors are experiencing burnout at a rapid rate.  Burnout is not first a physical or spiritual issue, but is primarily an emotional problem.

Toward the end of my last ministry, I was told by a Christian counselor … after extensive testing … “You’re severely burned out and headed for a breakdown.”

At the time, I castigated myself for letting things get to that point.  I was angry for allowing burnout to pursue and tackle me.

I had a daily quiet time with the Lord.  I exercised vigorously five or six times a week.  I went on regular dates with my wife and took all my vacation time.

But in my case, I burned out because:

*I did not know how to work with business-oriented board members.

*I felt that my ministry was being evaluated solely by the ABCs: attendance, buildings, and cash.

*I tried to lead a building campaign and earn a Doctor of Ministry degree … simultaneously.

*I was the sole caregiver for my wife for many weeks when she had medical procedures and surgeries … and I tried to work at the same time.

*I could sense that my ministry was being undermined, but I tried to ignore it and remain above it all.  Mistake!

I don’t believe that burnout happens to pastors because they work too many hours.

I believe that pastors burn out because of the intensity of ministry … going from crisis to crisis … and because pastors don’t believe they’re allowed to make any mistakes.

Pastors who burn out must share some of the responsibility for their condition, but the truth is that churches tend to stand by and watch their pastors burn out without offering any kind of intervention.

During my last pastorate, right before my burnout diagnosis, it was obvious that I wasn’t myself.  I lost my drive and energy … began to isolate myself from people … and became uncharacteristically irritable.

I longed for one leader to ask me, “Jim, you don’t seem like yourself.  Is everything all right?  How can we pray for you and assist you?”

Is that an unreasonable desire?

But that kind of compassion and understanding never came.  I felt like the church was content to squeeze every last drop of energy from me before casting me onto the scrap heap.

I tried to talk to several leaders, but they offered zero assistance.  They could not relate to what I was going through.  (I’m not trying to blame anyone … just share how I felt.)

What could I have done differently?  To this day, I don’t know.

Thousands of pastors will quit church ministry in the next year because of burnout.  The problem is not just personal … it’s also institutional.

Pastors are breaking down not only because of their own internal expectations, but because they tend to absorb the expectations of everyone in the church … and that’s just lunacy.

How can we rectify this?

I wanted to be in church ministry until retirement age, but I only made it 36 years.  At first, I felt that I had failed, until I looked around and realized that 36 years wasn’t too bad.

Caring for pastors’ wives … providing better conflict training … and encouraging churches to do what they can to prevent pastoral burnout.

Those three prescriptions will go a long way toward helping pastors stay in ministry much longer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Did you know that being a pastor may be “the single most stressful and frustrating working profession?”

That’s the conclusion of Dr. Richard J. Krejcir from his study of 1,050 pastors at two pastor’s conferences back in 2005 and 2006.

(You can find the study, titled What is Going on with the Pastors in America? at http://www.truespirituality.org.  If you can find a more recent study, please send it to me.)

Here are some of Dr. Krejcir’s discoveries:

*90% of pastors stated they are frequently fatigued and worn out (not necessarily “burned out”) on a weekly and even daily basis.

*89% of the pastors surveyed considered leaving the ministry at one time.  57% said they would leave if they had a better place to go – including secular work.

*77% of the pastors surveyed felt they did not have a good marriage.

*71% of pastors stated they were burned out and that they battle depression beyond fatigue on a weekly and even a daily basis.

*38% of pastors said they were divorced or currently in a divorce process.

*Only 23% said they felt happy and content on a regular basis with who they are in Christ, in their church, and in their home.

Dr. Krejcir’s findings are also supported by the following research which he distilled from The Barna Group, Focus on the Family, and Fuller Seminary:

*1,500 pastors leave the ministry every month due to moral failure, spiritual burnout, or contention in their churches.

*80% of pastors feel unqualified and discouraged in their role as pastor.

*80% of seminary and Bible school graduates who enter the ministry will leave within the first five years.

*70% of pastors constantly fight depression.

*70% of pastors do not have close personal friends with whom they can confide.

*50% of pastor’s marriages will end in divorce.

*50% of pastors are so discouraged that they would leave the ministry if they could.

*Most statistics say that 60% to 80% of those who enter the ministry will not still be in it ten years later, and only a fraction will stay in it as a lifetime career.

Krejcir concludes:

“The results of the survey are that pastors face more conflict, more anger, and more expectations than ever before.  At the same time, they work long hours and have little pay, little reward, and produce their own dysfunctional families because of their absence.”

I’m going to write more about these statistics next week, but I’m wondering:

Which of these statistics most impact you … and why?

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