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Archive for the ‘Healing After Leaving a Church’ Category

In my last blog, I wrote “an open letter to pastor terminators.”

The letter was a composite of stories I’ve heard over the years about the damage that members of the church board have caused pastors and staff members they’ve forced out of office.

One friend wrote me on Facebook and asked, “Would you send it?”

If I thought it would do any good, yes, I would send it.

But the odds are that it wouldn’t.

_______________

It’s been nearly eight years since I left my last church ministry.  Two weeks from today, I’ll be writing my annual article about the church coup I experienced.

Throughout the past eight years, I’ve had this fantasy: that one day, just one of the individuals most responsible for pushing me out would contact me and apologize for their actions.

Sometimes, when I go to the mailbox, I wonder if there will be a letter of confession from one of my opponents inside.

It’s never happened.

Sometimes, when I pick up the phone, I wonder if one of the perpetrators is calling me to say, “Oh, Jim, what we did was so, so wrong.  Can you ever forgive us?”

It’s never happened.

I wrote a book called Church Coup about what happened from my perspective.  I have written hundreds of blogs about the problems of pastoral abuse and termination.

The damage the terminators caused was unfathomable.  I lost my job … income … career … reputation … house … and many, many friends.

A nine-person team investigated the charges against me and concluded that “there was no evidence of any wrongdoing.”

But I was lied right out of the church.  It’s the only way “they” could get rid of me.

I was wronged … severely wronged.

But is anybody ever going to admit their part in the conflict to me?

Almost certainly not.

_______________

So would I send a letter to specific terminators, hoping they would have a “come to Jesus” moment and apologize for their actions?

Pastor Guy Greenfield tried to do just that.  In his excellent book The Wounded Minister: Healing from and Preventing Personal Attacks, Greenfield writes:

“When I was pressured to retire early in my last pastorate by the machinations of a small group of antagonists, I wrote each one a lengthy personal letter describing how I felt about what they did to me, my ministry, my marriage, my family, my health, and my future.  I tried to be honest without being harsh.  I felt they needed to know that they had hurt me deeply.  Not one of them wrote in response, called me, or came by for a visit.  Not one said he was sorry.  Therefore, I had to move on with my life, shattered though it was, and start over somewhere else.”

Greenfield made the first move toward reconciliation.  He followed Jesus’ instructions in Luke 17:3-4:

“If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.  If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.”

In essence, Greenfield rebuked those who hurt him.  They didn’t repent … at least, not to him personally.  Should he then forgive them?

Yes, he should forgive them unilaterally, and he did.  He writes:

“For my own sake, I needed to forgive them even though none said he was sorry.  I tried to do that even though it took me a long time.  I wrote a note to each that I was forgiving him of his mistreatment of me, knowing it would be a process rather than something instantaneous.  I had to do it for myself.  I did not expect reconciliation, but I did need to be free of my resentment.  I did not expect sorrow or repentance from them in order to forgive them.  I made a distinct decision not to seek revenge.  There were several things I  could have done, but I chose not to do any of those vengeful acts.  I could not afford to put my future happiness in the hands of those people who made me so miserable by their abuse of me.”

Greenfield exercised unilateral forgiveness.  He “let go” of his anger, resentment, and desire for revenge.  And that’s all he could do.

Because whenever a pastor or staff member are unjustly terminated, biblical reconciliation … or bilateral forgiveness … as outlined by Jesus in Luke 17:3-4 almost never takes place.

_______________

On a rare occasion, I will hear the perspective of the “other” side … from a board member who tried to get rid of a pastor and later felt badly about it.

A friend once told me that his father was instrumental in pushing out his pastor, and that it haunted him for the rest of his life.

I suspect there are other board members and lay antagonists who later were horrified when they realized that their words or actions had destroyed their pastor.

When my father was pushed out of his last pastorate, a woman whose hurtful words had gone viral cried out in a public meeting, “I never meant for it to come to this.  I crucified the man!”

But those kinds of confessions are all too rare.

_______________

It’s amazing to me.  To become a Christian, a person must confess their sins to the Lord and request His forgiveness, which He always grants.

To remain a Christian, a person must continually confess their sins to the Lord … as 1 John 1:8-10 specifies … and again, the Lord promises He will always forgive.

But when those same professing Christians severely wound the person and position of someone God has called to serve their congregation, they stop looking at any sins they might have committed and only see the sins of their pastor/staffer.

They completely exonerate themselves and just as fully blame the person they’ve driven from office.

In the words of Jesus, they’re focused on the “specks” in their pastor’s life while ignoring the “planks” in their own lives (Matthew 7:3-5).

I have a friend who occasionally holds meetings after a pastor has been forced out.  He gathers together the leaders of the church … places an empty chair at the front of the room (signifying the presence of Jesus) … asks for a period of silence … and then lets the leaders say whatever comes to their mind.

There is often a time of confession as people finally admit to others that they did indeed play a part in getting rid of their pastor … and harming their local body as well.

Maybe, since the deed was done with others, confession can only come in concert with those same people.

_______________

I’ve long since given up hope that anyone who meant to harm me will ever admit it to me.

If they did … since I have already forgiven them unilaterally … I would joyfully forgive them on-the-spot.

But I realize it’s unlikely to happen.

In his wise book Healing for Pastors & People Following a Sheep Attack, Dr. Dennis Maynard writes the following:

“Before we can reconcile with another we have to know that they are truly sorry.  We need to hear their words of repentance.  We need to know their contrition is genuine.  To reconcile with those who are not truly contrite is to excuse their offense as though it never occurred…. We are basically giving them permission to hurt us again.  We need to hear the person who hurt us take responsibility for their behavior.”

Maynard then continues:

“Those that target clergy are oblivious to the pain they cause others.  They have actually deceived themselves into believing they have done the right thing.  They are consumed with their public image.”

He then writes something both remarkable and scary:

I have not found a single case of an antagonist seeking to reconcile with the pastor they targeted for destruction.  True repentance would also include trying to undue the damage that their conspiracy of lies brought on their pastor…. Some will rationalize their acts of sin and evil as righteous and justified…. Reconciliation is simply not an option.  To do so would be to fail to hold them accountable for the pain they have caused.  We cannot reconcile with them, but for our soul’s sake we still must forgive them.”

I have a theory that the people who target an innocent pastor for termination have surrendered themselves … at least temporarily … to some sort of dark force.  You can’t be a Spirit-filled, Spirit-led individual and go after your pastor with a vengeance.  Kindly show me one place in the New Testament where God blesses that kind of behavior and I’ll eat my words.

_______________

I now live some 500 miles away from my former church.  I cannot envision ever visiting the church again for any reason, and I have vowed never to visit the city in which the church is located, either.

There is just too much pain involved.

I accept the fact that even successful ministry tenures end.  Casey Stengel won ten pennants in twelve years for the New York Yankees – including five World Championships in a row from 1949-1953 – and even he was forced out after the Yankees lost the World Series in 1960.

But to get rid of a leader, God’s people often throw away their Bibles and engage in satanic shortcuts … adopting the strategy of deception leading to destruction (John 8:44).

Since they can’t force their pastor to resign any other way, they start spreading lies about him.

Lies designed to harm his reputation.  Lies designed to cause others to call for his dismissal.  Lies designed to create pain for him and his family.

And that decision … to get rid of a leader at all costs … is guaranteed to cause the leader … his family … his supporters … and their congregation … immense heartache for many years to come.

_______________

The reason that I wrote this article is to encourage the pastors and staffers who have been forced out to:

*accept that the church of Jesus Christ handles these situations horribly … so you aren’t alone.

*accept what happened to you as being part of God’s overall plan.

*accept that you will never fully reconcile with those who caused you harm.

*accept that you can and should forgive each person who hurt you unilaterally.

*accept that God still loves you and wants the best for you.

So will those who terminated you ever repent for what they did to you?

It’s highly unlikely.

After Judas betrayed Jesus, our Savior let him go.

We need to follow His example.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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When a pastor or staff member leaves a church under duress, they usually discover – weeks or months later – that most churchgoers from their former congregation seem to have forgotten that the leader ever existed.

More than 90% of the congregation never contacts the leader again – not via phone, email, Facebook, Twitter, or any other means of communication.

The leader is left wondering, “What happened to all my friends and colleagues?  Why aren’t they reaching out to see how I’m doing?  Did I mean so little to them?”

I felt this way when I left my last position as senior pastor 7 1/2 years ago.  Thankfully, there were a few churchgoers who kept in contact with me, but I never heard from most of them again.

After devoting myself completely to that church for more than a decade, it hurt to think that so many people – whom I considered good friends – would abandon me so quickly.

But maybe there are good reasons why God’s people don’t contact their former leaders again.

Here are seven possibilities:

First, most of us gradually forget about people – even friends – that we no longer see.

Mrs. Coleman was the first great teacher I ever had.  She taught me in third grade.  After that year, I never saw her again.

Darryl was my youth pastor in my late teens.  He helped me love and know Scripture.  He moved to Colorado, then to Texas.  I haven’t seen him in 40 years.

My father-in-law mentored me in church ministry for decades.  I last saw him five years ago.

I know a handful of people who seem to stay in contact with everyone they’ve ever known, but most of us aren’t that way.  People come and go in our lives.

That’s just the way life is.

I’m appreciative of the influence that Mrs. Coleman, Darryl, and my father-in-law had in my life.  I think of them fondly.  But since we are no longer in proximity to one another, we’ve all moved on.  (And I think Mrs. Coleman died a long time ago.)

It’s just something we have to accept.

Second, many Christians are used to pastors/staffers coming and going.

The longer a person has attended church, the more transitions they’ve witnessed.

Before I entered my teens, my family attended a church where the senior pastor resigned … the Christian Education director was fired … and the next pastor was forced to resign prematurely.

At the next church I attended, the founding pastor resigned … the youth pastor left … an interim pastor came and went … another youth pastor left … the church called a new pastor … another youth pastor left (me) … an associate was hired … and then he resigned.

If you’re a veteran Christian, you might get worked up about one or two of those departures, but if you make a federal case about each one, you’ll die of a heart attack.

In baseball, there’s an adage that managers are hired to be fired.  Many baseball fans express outrage after a well-loved manager is released, but their anger soon dies down, and fans come to accept things as they are.

The same thing happens in Christian circles.

And after a while, each succeeding departure is just par for the course.

Third, many Christians relate to paid church leaders as short-term friends.

I learned this one the hard way.

At my last church, I became friends with a man roughly my age.  He had been a professional athlete with one of my favorite teams.  We went to several ballgames together and had a great time.

Every Sunday, he’d give me a big smile and come over and shake my hand during the greeting time.  After I preached, he’d hang around and let me know I hit a home run.

Before I moved away, I went to visit him one last time at home.  Several nights later, he sent me an encouraging text.

Two years later, I contacted him, told him I was going to be in the area, and asked him out to breakfast.

It turned out to be one of the most awkward hours of my entire life.

He never asked me one time how I was doing.  Instead, he talked all about his family and the church’s new pastor.  (Shortly afterward, my friend and his family left the church.)

I thought our friendship would last for years, but in the intervening months, it had gradually died.

While it hurt me at the time, looking back, I didn’t nurture that friendship because I didn’t want to hear how the church was doing without me.

I’ve learned that while pastors and staffers view some churchgoers as friends, those same people probably view their leaders not as lasting friends, but as short-termers.

Fourth, some Christians no longer feel responsible for a pastor/staffer who has left.

Their attitude is, “As long as Pastor Joe or Youth Pastor Steve is paid by this church, I am duty bound to support them, pray for them, encourage them, and befriend them.  But if they take off, they are no longer our responsibility.  Now it’s up to their new church or their new boss to watch over them.”

When you’ve given so much of yourself to a congregation, this attitude can seem a little cynical.  But in the long run, it’s probably healthy.

For example, over the course of my 36-year ministry career, I probably had 25 or so staff members serve under my leadership.  Although we were on good terms when we parted, in most cases, I’ve lost contact with them … and they’ve lost contact with me.

When Judas left the Twelve, Jesus still loved Him … He just didn’t feel responsible for him anymore.  I am not comparing departing pastors/staffers to Judas the turncoat, but I am comparing Jesus – the Ultimate Caregiver – to many churchgoers today.

Once a church leader has resigned, the majority of Christians won’t initiate contact anymore.

Fifth, some Christians have bought into negative rumors about the departing leader.

I think it’s despicable to spread half-truths and malicious gossip about a former pastor/staffer after they’ve left a church, but it’s done all the time.

The template goes like this:

“I wonder why So-and-So really resigned?”

“Well, I’ve heard that they mismanaged funds … were having an affair … could no longer recruit volunteers … lost the confidence of the church board … upset other staff members … weren’t working very hard …”

And the list goes on and on.

Here’s the problem: if you think that a former pastor/staffer really did mismanage funds or have an affair, are you going to reach out to them or write them off?

You’re probably going to write them off as some kind of defective Christian leader.

I don’t think I’ve told this story before, but several years after I left my last ministry, I was talking with a friend who had left the church (on good terms) before I did.

Eight months after my departure, this friend flew to the new area where my wife and I lived and spent a few days with us.  This friend posted some photos on Facebook of us together … and was instantly unfriended by more than 40 people from our former church.

Why did that happen?  Maybe it has to do with the next possibility:

Sixth, some church leaders either spread negative rumors or fail to correct them.

Imagine that you’re an average interim pastor.  Your ministry as a pastor was never all that successful, but you’ve been called to a church where the previous pastor’s ministry was very effective.

You ask around, “Why did the previous pastor leave?”

If you’re a secure individual, you’ll try and hear all sides.

If you’re insecure – or feel inferior to the previous pastor in some way – you may covertly rejoice in anything negative you hear.

So when people come to the interim and ask, “Do you know why the previous pastor left?”, the insecure interim will respond, “I’ve heard that …”

And after the interim leaves, the next pastor may do the same.

In addition, as rumors circulate among the saints as to why the previous pastor left, even if the interim knows the truth, he will often do nothing to correct them.

Why not?

Because he wants the congregation to forget about the previous pastor altogether so he can look good by comparison.  He wants to loosen the bonds between the previous pastor and the people so he can influence them instead.

Does this stuff really happen in supposedly godly local churches?

Yes … all the time.

And sadly, since this information comes from a “man of God,” many people believe whatever he says … hook, line, and sinker.

Finally, some churchgoers feel rejected when their pastor or a staffer leaves.

When a pastor/staffer leaves a church, some people assume that the leader left of their own free will.

Maybe yes, maybe no.

My guess is that many churchgoers … especially new believers and those on the fringe … don’t know how churches operate, so when they hear that a leader has departed, they assume that the leader wanted to leave … and this makes them feel abandoned at some level.

Although I sensed that I needed to leave my last ministry, I was told that I could have stayed.  Since I chose to leave, is it possible that some churchgoers felt that I had abandoned them?

Of course.

A few years ago, I had breakfast with the president of a seminary overseas and he told me, “We Christians don’t handle transitions very well.  We need to do a better job.”

What’s hard for many of us is that when a church hires us, they act very Christian.  But when they let us go, they almost seem satanic.

I long for the day when God’s people act like Christians whether they’re hiring or firing leaders.

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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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On May 21, I wrote an article called Five Tough Questions about Pastoral Termination.  In that blog post, I answered four questions that a forced-out pastor asked me several weeks ago.

But I didn’t answer this question:

What steps can the family take who has been affected by the trauma [of forced termination]? (My wife is having a hard time considering being back into a ministry position…she does not want to allow herself to be vulnerable again).

Why didn’t I answer this question?

Because the answer is complex and I needed time to think about my response.

If you’ve ever been fired from a job, then you know how humiliating the experience is … how difficult it is to explain to others … and how anxious you feel about finding a new job and being able to provide financially for your family.

But you still have your friends … your church family … your house … and your life.

However, when a pastor is forced out of office, his family usually loses nearly all their church friends … their church … sometimes their house (and credit rating) … and their life as they know it.

And the kicker is that all these losses are inflicted … often with malice and glee … by the hands of professing Christians.

So how does a pastor’s family heal after termination?

Let me offer seven brief ideas:

First, the pastor and his wife need to find several trusting friends they can confide in.

These friends need to be good listeners … empathetic … compassionate … wise … and very, very safe.

It doesn’t matter if they’re inside or outside the church.  What matters most is that they’re trustworthy.

In my case, I confided in two former board chairmen, several pastoral colleagues, and a few other friends.  To my knowledge, nobody turned on me.

My wife had several church friends that came and ministered to her … but she also confided in a few people who later turned on her … to the point that someone once told me, “So-and-So is not your friend.”

If the pastor and his wife discover that someone has definitely sold them out, the most prudent thing to do is to cut off all contact with them immediately… including Facebook and LinkedIn … and this is not an easy step to take.  It feels so final.

Second, the pastor and his wife need to locate a Christian counselor who specializes in counseling Christian leaders.

Most major population centers have plenty of Christian counselors … licensed psychologists and psychiatrists whose primary focus is the local Christian world.

And within that counseling community are counselors who specialize in listening to and advising pastors, missionaries, the leaders of other Christian organizations … and their wives.

I was blessed to have a long-term personal and professional relationship with a counselor who was so valued that some Christian leaders flew into town just to see him.

Why see a counselor?

For three main reasons:

*To properly assess responsibility for your departure: how much was yours and how much was the church’s.

*To express your pain to someone who can interpret it and offer ideas for healing.

*To create a game plan for your future.

How do you find counselors with this kind of experience?

*Ask the pastors who live in your area.

*Ask other Christian counselors that you know.

*Call your Bible college/seminary and ask for referrals.

*Call several megachurches in your area and ask for referrals.

*Contact several counselors and see who can make room for you.

While our conflict was ongoing, my wife and I were extremely blessed to be referred to a Christian counselor in a nearby city.  She had been a pastor’s wife for thirty years and understood both church conflict and spiritual warfare.

And when we moved to another state, we found another counselor who met with us both separately and together.

My research indicates that only twenty percent of all pastors who undergo forced termination seek a Christian counselor for healing.  This means that four out of five pastors try to heal without the compassion and insights gleaned from someone who is trained to help hurting leaders.

How do you pay for this counseling?

In our case, we used our tithe.  Since we no longer had a home church, we designated those funds for “kingdom ministry.”

Faced with the same set of circumstances, I’d do it again.

Third, speak appropriately with family members about your feelings.

Here’s what I mean by “appropriately”:

There are times when it’s fitting for a pastor, his wife, and their children to discuss how they feel about being forced to leave their church.

Such times differ from family to family.

For example, some children may need to discuss their father’s dismissal on a regular basis.  They may need reassurance that God still loves them or that God will provide for their family financially.

But other children may not want to know anything about their dad’s departure.  It’s too traumatic.

So rather than just launching into a tirade unannounced … and we’ve all been there … it might be wiser to ask your family, “I feel a need to discuss how I’m feeling right now.  Is anyone open to hearing my feelings?”

If someone is, speak with them privately.  If they’re not open, then don’t force them to listen.

Although it’s not easy to do, most emotional “dumping” should be done with a friend or a Christian counselor.

On the one hand, it’s toxic to a family’s well-being to discuss the termination all the time.

On the other hand, it’s dysfunctional not to acknowledge the pain involved on occasion.

The general rule of thumb is that the children heal before their parents … and that it can take a terminated pastor one to three years to heal.

I beg of the pastor’s family: give him plenty of room to be human … and don’t expect him to heal overnight.

The older he is, and the longer he was in a church, the more time he’ll need to heal.

Fourth, take some trips/vacations as soon as possible.

After the trauma of termination, a pastor’s family needs to have some fun.

If they don’t have much money, they might take a few weekends off … stay with family or friends in other locales … go camping together … or enjoy a staycation at home.

If they do have some money saved … or if the pastor received a good separation package … then the pastor’s family should take a week and go somewhere that will lift everyone’s spirits.

The time away will help the pastor and his family to feel safe … to regain perspective … and to reconnect with family.

In our case, my wife visited family in Texas, and then we went to the East Coast for a vacation.  (Someone gave us their time share in Virginia.)

You might not have this time again for a while … so take advantage of it.

Make some good memories.

Fifth, the pastor and his wife can benefit from a Wellness Retreat.

About a month after we left our last church, we flew to Tennessee for a five-day, four-night Wellness Retreat sponsored by a Christian organization that specializes in helping pastors who have experienced forced termination.

The retreat was a place to make new friends … tell our individual stories … express our pain … receive encouragement and guidance … and leave feeling inspired.

As I recall, there were about twelve of us attending the retreat, and my wife and I thoroughly enjoyed our time there.

We learned why forced terminations occur in general … received insights into our own situations … and had plenty of time to ask questions and trade ideas.

The retreat is offered on a scholarship basis.  The only cost to the pastoral couple is transportation.

I highly recommend this retreat.  If you’d like to receive more information, please email me at jim@restoringkingdombuilders.org and I’ll be glad to put you in touch with the retreat’s organizer.

Sixth, consider attending church somewhere but avoid getting involved until you’re nearly healed.

Every pastoral couple has several options when it comes to church attendance after a termination:

*Avoid church altogether.  There were Sundays when we didn’t have the strength to get up and go to church (giving us insight as to why some Christians in our ministries missed church!), but we went most of the time.  But when we didn’t go, we didn’t feel guilty and viewed it as part of the healing process.

*Visit many kinds of churches.  This might be a good time to visit churches that you wouldn’t normally visit: mainline churches … charismatic churches … new church starts … smaller churches in your community … and churches where you know the pastor.

*Visit churches so you can find a church home.  In our case, it took six months to find a church home … and we ended up returning to a church we had already rejected and loving it.

*Visit a megachurch and just veg.  Find a good church nearby and just take it all in.  Sit in the back row.  Come a little late.  Leave when the service closes.  Get involved if you want to but don’t feel like you have to serve every Sunday.

*Find a church where you can serve.  During the first year, you’re still wounded … and tender … and emotional.  If you try and serve as a volunteer too soon, all those negative feelings may come pouring back into your mind and spirit whenever something goes wrong.

My wife and I have learned to avoid (a) new church plants; (b) churches that meet in schools; and (c) small churches.  The larger the church, the better … at least for the first year …  and maybe longer.

Finally, unilaterally forgive those who have hurt you without expecting reconciliation.

One year after a pastor and his wife leave a church, my guess is that those who “got rid of the pastor” feel exactly the same way.  They haven’t “seen the light” … haven’t repented of any wrongdoing … and have only hardened their position.

So reconciliation … enemies becoming friends once again … is almost impossible for you to achieve.

Since you can’t meet with those who hurt you … to hear their side, to ask forgiveness, and to express your pain to them … the best you can do is to forgive your detractors unilaterally.

This transaction happens between you and God.  You either:

*ask God to forgive them, or

*tell God that you have forgiven them.

Ask God when and how you should do it … but realize that your healing will be delayed until you take this step.

_______________

It’s been five-and-a-half years since my wife and I left our last church.  In my case:

*I think about our former ministry nearly every day.

*My wife and I still talk about that church from time-to-time.

*I know I will never be a pastor again.

*I still miss certain friends from that church.

*I am grateful for all that God did through us during the ten-and-a-half years we were there.

*I believe that God’s timing in rushing us out of the church was perfect … I just didn’t like His methodology.

I have accepted the fact that I will always be wounded … but that doesn’t mean that I’m bitter.

You may be wounded for the rest of your days as well, but so was Moses … so was Jesus … and so was Paul … and they were all used by God in a greater way because of their wounds.

I recall a quote from A.W. Tozer that went something like this: “God only greatly uses those whom He has crushed.”

If you’ve been crushed as I have, it’s entirely possible that your best ministry isn’t the last one you left … it’s the next one that God has in store for you.

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There is an assumption among many Christians that when a pastor … staff member … board member … or churchgoer remains perpetually hurt about something, this is an indication that that person is bitter.

And as long as they’re bitter, we’re told, they can’t be right with God, they’re automatically divisive, and good Christians should avoid them until they repent.

As proof, Christians like to quote Hebrews 12:15, which says, “See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.”

The phrase “no bitter root” is translated “root of bitterness” in other translations.

I’ve met bitter Christians, and you probably have as well … and we’ve all been bitter in our own lives at times.

But I believe there is a difference between Christians who are bitter and Christians who have been wounded, and that most Christians make the mistake of identifying the two.

So let me share with you three contrasts between bitter and wounded Christians:

First, a bitter Christian stays that way over the years, while a wounded believer gradually begins to heal.

Let’s say that I’ve been a volunteer at my church for years, and one Sunday, my supervisor (also a volunteer) tells me in front of others, “I’m making some changes in this ministry, and you’re out.  That’s it.”

How would you feel?

Angry?  Probably.  Hurt?  Definitely.

Would you stay in the church?  Maybe … or maybe not.

Most likely, you’d be bitter initially.  You wouldn’t feel like forgiving the supervisor, or supporting the church’s capital campaign financially.

In fact, you might even feel like getting even with the supervisor, like writing him a nasty letter, or putting some derogatory comments on Facebook, or blasting him to your friends.

Many Christians feel bitter when they are mistreated by another believer … and we have to allow them to feel this way.

But in most cases, that initial bitterness will probably subside over time … and may very well change into woundedness.

Second, a bitter Christian focuses on the injustice, while the wounded believer focuses on God’s sovereignty.

If I’m a bitter Christian, I’ll say to myself, “I was doing such a great job at my church!  I was there all the time … really cared about people … and this is the thanks I get?”

And I’ll say that Sunday after Sunday after Sunday.

I’ll keep recalling the words of the supervisor and ruminating about the way I felt on that Sunday so long ago … and I won’t be able to put it out of my mind.

For the bitter Christian, yesterday’s injustices are just as fresh today as the day they occurred.

But the wounded Christian says, “Yes, I was hurt, and had every right to be.  My supervisor handled matters poorly, demeaning and devaluing me.  But although I couldn’t see it at the time, God used that incident to let me know that I was overloaded and overwhelmed in my life, and that I needed to spend more time with the Lord and with my family.”

Focus on the injustice, and you’ll stay bitter.  Focus on God’s good plan, and your bitterness will subside … but not necessarily your woundedness.

Third, the bitter Christian won’t forgive his assailant, while the wounded believer will.

We Christians spend a lot of time excusing people who have hurt us.  We don’t want to admit that someone has penetrated our emotional defenses enough to harm us.

The only way to handle some situations is to say, “So-and-So really hurt me … and maybe they meant to hurt me.  What they did was inexcusable … and very, very wrong.”

We only need to forgive those who have wronged us.  There’s no need to forgive anybody who hurt us without wronging us.

The bitter Christian holds on to his or her anger because it makes them feel alive … and more powerful than their attacker.

And the bitter Christian continues to hope that something awful happens to the person who hurt them.

The wounded Christian eventually forgives the person who hurt them … and lets the bitterness go … because they know that ongoing bitterness will destroy them, much less their relationships with others.

Several days ago, I was listening to the great Irish vocalist Mary Black sing a song from her CD Mary Black Live called “The Poison Tree.”  Black and Marcia Howard rewrote some of poet William Blake’s original lyrics and they deeply moved me:

I was angry with my friend
I told him so and my wrath did end
I was angry with my foe
Told him not and my wrath did grow

And I watered it in fears
Night and morning with my tears
And I sunned it with smiles
And with soft deceitful wiles

And it grew both day and night
Till it bore an apple bright
And my foe beheld it shine
And he knew that it was mine

Was a poison tree
Beware of a Poison Tree
Poison Tree
Growing inside of me

And into my garden stole
When the night had veiled the pole
In the morning glad I see
My foe outstretched
Beneath that tree

Was a Poison Tree
Beware of a Poison Tree
Poison Tree
Growing inside of me

Poison Tree
Beware of a Poison Tree
Poison Tree

What happened to you
And me

I don’t want a poison tree growing inside of me … and my guess is that you don’t, either.

And the only way to stop the poison tree is to forgive those who have hurt us.

But even after we forgive, we may still feel wounded … but being wounded does not mean that we are still bitter.

Over the past five years, I have lost many things I once held as precious: a career, a job, a house, Christian friends, and so much more.

Those losses have created wounds that won’t easily go away.  How could they?

But I don’t wish any harm on those who hurt me.  I don’t wish … or plot … that they will lose their careers, or houses, or friends.

I’m not bitter.

I am wounded.

There’s a difference.

And I’m trying to take those wounds to prevent and resolve conflicts in churches … especially those that involve pastors.

I guess, in the words of Henri Nouwen, I am a wounded healer.

And that’s the best thing to do with our wounds: heal others.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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