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Archive for the ‘Healing After Leaving a Church’ Category

I once had a conversation with a pastor who had been asked to leave his church by the official board.

His attitude was, “Okay, I’ll resign.”

And according to him, he and his wife then quietly left the church.

The way he told the story, he didn’t ask for any severance … didn’t feel any anger … didn’t tell anyone what happened … and didn’t need any time to recover.

Personally, I think he was either lying to me or greatly exaggerated how well he handled his departure.

Because most pastors who are forced out of their churches don’t recover quickly.  According to my friend and mentor Charles Chandler, founder of the Ministering to Ministers Foundation, it takes the average pastor one to three years to heal from a forced termination.

And in some cases, I believe it can take longer than that.

In my last blog, I wrote about the first three stages that a pastor goes through after being forced to leave a ministry:

Stage 1: Shock

Stage 2: Searching

Stage 3: Panic

Let me share the final three stages with you:

Stage 4: Forgiveness

I’ve heard pastors tell me their stories but try and excuse or explain the behavior of the official board or an antagonistic faction.

If the board wasn’t at fault … if they did everything right … then the pastor should feel little to no anger, and he probably doesn’t have to forgive anyone.

But if the board violated Scripture … and possibly the church’s constitution/bylaws … and lied about the pastor’s offenses … and demonstrated callousness rather than compassion … and offered little to no severance … then the pastor rightfully feels angry, and he will have to forgive his opponents before he can truly recover.

Some boards know that the way they’re treating their pastor is wrong, but they do it anyway.  These are usually boards that are run by bullies and people who are powerful/wealthy in the church or community.  The bullies have sociopathic or narcissistic tendencies and force others to do their bidding.

These boards must be forgiven.

Other boards … maybe most … think that the way they’re treating their pastor is right, but if they asked him … and probably the majority of their congregation … they’d say, “You’re handling matters horribly.”

These boards must be forgiven as well.

Surveying those who crucified Him, Jesus prayed in Luke 23:34, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

Jesus was treated horribly.  He didn’t do anything wrong but was crucified on trumped-up charges.

Yet from His perspective, Jesus granted His enemies unilateral forgiveness.  He forgave them for their sins against the Father and the Son.  He chose not to hang onto personal anger and bitterness.

But He did not offer His enemies bilateral forgiveness … or reconciliation … from the cross.  That offer would come later.

Now here’s the problem with pastors who have undergone termination: what the pastor really wants … and needs … is reconciliation … but it isn’t possible.

He has to settle for unilateral forgiveness instead.

Let me share how this works from my own story.

The board at my former church may have been upset with me over a few issues, but for months, they did not bring them to my attention, nor did they ask me to repent.

Instead, at our final meeting, they brought up an incident where I had already asked for their forgiveness and changed my behavior.

Then they mentioned a second supposed offense which I deny to this day.

In neither case did they allow me to respond to their charges.  They engaged in a scripted monologue that made them feel better but made me feel angry.  The climate in the meeting was, “We’re right, Jim, but you’re wrong.”

It’s hard to defend yourself when it’s six against one.

Yet eight days after our final meeting, all six board members resigned together.

Based upon their resignation letter, they never wanted to see or hear from me again.  In fact, if you read their letter, you would conclude that they hated me … which is how I interpreted what they wrote.

Then a week later, at two public congregational meetings, someone stood up and rattled off a list of charges against me which the board had never shared to my face.  In fact, it was the first time I had heard of all but one charge.

According to the church consultant present at those meetings, I suffered abuse and slander.  He later wrote that the board had acted “extremely and destructively.”

Those six board members chose not to interact with me anymore.  To this day, not one of them has ever tried contacting me for any reason.  Any personal relationships we had were destroyed when our working relationship was severed.

The board is no longer an entity.  I doubt if they have annual reunions.  If I wanted to reconcile with them, what would that look like?

I read a book once about a pastor who tried to do just that.  A year after he left his previous church, he called the board together and tried to reconcile with them.

But they were even more angry and adamant about the pastor than they had been the year before!  Their hearts had hardened toward him, not softened.

I have never heard of a pastor who was able to reconcile with a board or a faction that pushed him out of office.  Maybe it’s happened … I’m just unaware of it.

Individuals from the board or a faction might desire reconciliation, but most of the time, they’d have to initiate contact with the pastor.

I can count on one hand the number of churches that I’ve heard about that brought back a pastor and admitted they sinned against him when they ran him out of town.

But in most of these situations, the board members who sent him packing are no longer on the board … and they probably wouldn’t agree with the church’s decision anyway.

The problem with reconciliation between a pastor and the board that terminated him is that they would have to rehash the story again … both sides would probably end up taking the same stances they took in the past … and the pastor would be hurt all over again.

In my case, I was not guilty of any major offense.  I tried to work with the board, but our value systems were just too different.  One or both of us needed to leave.

Since reconciliation isn’t possible, granting unilateral forgiveness is the only thing a terminated pastor can do.

The timing of genuine forgiveness depends upon two factors: the severity of the injustice and the sensitivity of the pastor.

In my case, it took me six months before I could forgive those who ended my pastoral career.

Why did it take so long?

I wasn’t ready.

This means going to the Lord alone or with family … confessing any sins that the Lord leads you to confess … and then asking the Lord to forgive those who sinned against you, just as Jesus did in Luke 23:34.

If you can pray once and let things go, great.  In my case, I’ve had to forgive some people multiple times as I’ve heard about new offenses they committed against me.

But if you don’t forgive those who hurt you, you will not be able to recover from your termination.

Forgiveness is essential.

When you’re ready, give the Lord your anger … let it go … and ask Him to right any wrongs.

And then trust Him to do just that.

If you want additional help, let me recommend the books on forgiveness by David Augsburger and Lewis Smedes.  Augusburger is more biblical and deeper … Smedes is more practical and shares great stories.

Stage 5: Distancing

What do I mean by distancing?

After you have formally forgiven everyone who attacked and hurt you, you have to put some distance between you and (a) your former congregation as an entity, and (b) nearly everyone in that congregation.

Let me share a mistake I made along this line.

When my wife and I left our last church in December 2009, we not only had to move everything in our house, we both had offices at church as well.

We put everything in two moving pods … including at least two hundred boxes of my books … but we still had to leave some items behind … and we moved nearly 800 miles away.

I left three large filing cabinets full of files in the church office, and wasn’t able to return for them for three months.

When I returned, it took 21 Banker Boxes for all those files.

But it was extremely painful to return to the church.  The interim pastor had set up camp in my former office of ten years … I could see him through the large window … and the church was planning to do a memorial service for a woman who had been one of my biggest supporters … but now I wouldn’t be conducting that service.

One night on that trip, I drove by the church in the rain … and it was the last time I ever saw the sign and the building.

I’ve returned to the city where we lived and worked several times, but I refuse to drive by the church.

It’s just too painful.

On several occasions, I met with friends from the church, but they wanted to talk about the real reasons why I was pushed out … and that was hard as well.

On one of those trips, I invited a good friend out to breakfast, but he never asked me one question about how I was doing, and talked about how much he liked the new pastor instead (even though his family left the church soon afterward).

The last time I visited the city was six years ago, and I promised myself I would never go back.

That’s what I mean by distancing.

To recover, you need to distance yourself:

*from seeing the church campus again.  If you have to remember what it looked like, find some old photos.

*from spending any time with anyone who isn’t 100% your friend.  Eight years later, I probably have 15-20 friends left from my former church … and that’s mostly on Facebook.

*from any of your detractors.  There were people who claimed to be my friends when I left the church who flipped on me a few months or years afterward.  Their disloyalty was so painful that I started pulling away from anyone I couldn’t fully trust.

*from hearing how the church is currently doing.  If you don’t have contact with people who are at the church, you won’t have to hear how things are going.  Most of the time, a church that pushes out their pastor will suffer as far as attendance, giving, volunteers, and morale for the next two to five years.  I have no idea how my previous church is doing in any detail.  I took my hands off the church years ago … and that’s the best gift I can give any successor.

*from the area where the church is located, if possible.  Visit restaurants and stores in the area, and you’re bound to see someone you don’t want to see.

When I was in college, I worked two years for McDonald’s in Anaheim.  While I’ve driven past it a few times since I moved out of Orange County in 1981, I haven’t stopped there for a burger or tried to see if anyone I knew in the early 1970s still works there.

They’ve moved on … as have I.  McDonald’s no longer defines me.

That’s how pastors have to view their former churches.

Finally, there’s:

Stage 6: Perspective

You can’t have perspective on a forced termination until you’ve forgiven those who have hurt you and have put distance between you and your former church so you know they can’t hurt you again.

As long as you’re stressed, depressed, or in pain about your termination, your thinking about what happened to you will be skewed.

And it takes time to gain that perspective … sometimes a lot of time.

While self-reflection in this area is a good thing, you’ll gain far more perspective … and much more quickly … if you ask others for assistance.

I recommend:

*talking with several pastor friends.  My pastor friends let me know that my departure did not change our friendship.  That was their greatest gift to me.  I also had meetings with a lot of prominent pastors, most of whom told me about the conflicts that they went through.  Wounded pastors bond quickly and easily.

*talking with a church consultant or conflict expert.  If you want to know what really happened in your situation, these are the guys you want to speak with.  If I can help you in any way, please email me at jim@restoringkingdombuilders.org  I love to hear new stories about pastoral termination … and I know I can help.

*talking with one or two Christian counselors.  I visited two counselors … both women … and both came highly recommended.  (My wife saw them both as well.)  Both had been in ministry so they understood the dynamics.  Most pastors don’t see a counselor after a forced termination, and that’s a huge mistake.  If a pastor doesn’t see a counselor, he will tend to bleed emotionally all over his wife and children, and after a while, they may not be able to take it anymore.  The right counselor will listen to your story without judgment or condemnation … point out flaws in your thinking … help you discern healthy and unhealthy responses to your termination … and help you move forward.  Make sure you see a Christian counselor who understands people in ministry!  They will also understand spiritual warfare.

*talking with several of your supporters from the church … especially if they know the back story.  Because I wrote a book about what happened to me, I spent hours emailing and calling people who knew what was said and done after I left.  For example, two weeks after our departure, the new board chairman told the congregation that an investigation was done and “there was no evidence of any wrongdoing” on our part.  I would never have known that unless several people told me it had occurred.

I had invested 35 years in pastoral ministry, but my final year was horrible.  The church was landlocked, so I didn’t see any hope for growth, and the board was obsessed with money, even though we had plenty of funds for ministry.

After two bad board meetings in a row, I visited a counselor, who tested me and told me, “You’re severely burned out and headed for a breakdown.”

But I was so committed to ministry … to my church … and to my career that I would never have resigned voluntarily.

Looking back now, I see that the Lord in His mercy removed me from office.  Things at the church were going to get worse with that board … not better … and more conflict was going to be the result.

As I’m fond of saying, I didn’t retire … the Lord retired me.

People sometimes ask me, “Don’t you miss church ministry?”  And I always tell them the same thing, “No, I don’t.  Thirty-five years was enough.”

My wife and I run in a preschool in our house.  It took us nearly four years before we settled on our new career, but it’s gone very well, and we’re nearly always full.

We have nights and weekends free … can go to church with our son’s family and our three grandsons … and lead quiet but fulfilling lives.

I resonate with the words of Joseph, who told his brothers in Genesis 50:20, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good …”

When you focus more on God’s wise and good plan than the hurt and the pain caused by your detractors, you’re well on your way to recovering from your ecclesiastical nightmare.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In my case, I had to pray this prayer on multiple occasions because the board that wanted me gone thought they were clever in the way they handled matters but bungled them so badly I toyed with the idea of calling my book Bungled instead of Church Coup.

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stage 1: Shock

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

I was shocked that:

*the board had been plotting while I was overseas.

*two board members who had been supporters were involved.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do I mean by “unjust?”

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

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

The shock lingers on … for months … sometimes years.

The more sensitive you are, the longer it lasts.

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

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

Stage 2: Searching

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

*Who was in on this plot?

*What are they saying that I did wrong?

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

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

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

So who wanted me gone?

I pretty much knew the answer to that question:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What did they say I did wrong?

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

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

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

What did they want?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And some claimed that was 100% my fault.

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

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

Faultless?  No.  Flawed?  Yes.

But guilty?  No.

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

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

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

Stage 3: Panic

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

*Emotional panic

*Economic panic

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

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

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

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

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

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

But how that must have devastated Jesus!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why do terminated pastors feel such panic?

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

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

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

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

I will share the next three stages next time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I once had a friend who was both a lawyer and a pastor.

He started out as a pastor … became a lawyer … and then returned to pastoring.

A prominent Christian leader criticized my friend when he went into law because, he said, “When God calls a man to ministry, he calls him for life.”

Does this mean that a pastor should stay in ministry until death?

When I pastored a church in Silicon Valley, a pastor in my city dropped dead of a heart attack … while preaching.

John the Baptist died at a young age because of his preaching.

Is that what God desires?  For a man God has called to take his last breath while serving Him?

Billy Graham has famously said that he can’t find a retirement age in the Bible, and yet even Dr. Graham (who is 99 years old) finally retired from preaching a few years ago.

I served eight local churches as a youth pastor, teaching pastor, associate pastor, solo pastor, and senior pastor over a period of 36 years.

My ministry began at age 19 when I worked with youth for the summer at my home church.

The Lord gave me many good years of ministry … but some years were rough.

I wanted to quit at age 32 … but I kept going.

I wanted to quit again at age 35 … but I kept going.

I wanted to quit again at age 44 … but I kept going.

And then the Lord “retired” me at age 56 when I was pushed out of my last and most productive ministry.

It’s been more than eight years since I preached my last sermon as a senior pastor.  Even though I wanted to retire … or die … as a pastor, I realize that I will never pastor a church again.

Why not?

Let me give you five reasons … and I’m going to be brutally honest:

First, I am the wrong age.

Most churches are looking for a pastor between the ages of 30 and 50.  My guess is that the ideal age range is 35 to 45.

Due to exhaustion, I searched for another ministry when I was 44.  One of my mentors told me, “You’ll find a church.  You’re at a good age.”

And he was right.  About a month after putting out my resume, I had an interview with a church in Illinois that really wanted me to be their pastor, although I turned them down.

My credentials didn’t seem to be as important as my age.

In my next and final pastorate, I added to my credentials:

*I earned a Doctor of Ministry degree from Fuller Seminary.

*I pastored the largest Protestant church in our city, averaging 466 in 2008.  (In our part of the Bay Area, that was like a megachurch.)

*Our church grew numerically and had a great reputation throughout the community.

*We built a new worship center.

*We had a staff as large as eleven at one time.

After I left my last church, I applied for several church positions at age 57.

*A church of 100 people rejected me for a solo pastor position within two weeks.

*A slightly larger church was looking for an associate pastor.  They turned me down in five days.

I was probably overqualified for both positions, but my age worked against me.

When a pastor doesn’t have a church, and he’s in his late fifties or early sixties, the best option for him is to become an interim pastor.

Because unless you start a church, almost nobody is going to hire you … unless you are willing to go to the East Coast … where they sometimes lack qualified candidates.

When I realized the reality of the age thing, I decided to look for a position in an older congregation … one in which an experienced 57-year old pastor might seem young.

I found such a church … in Arizona.  They were looking for an associate pastor to do outreach … right up my alley … in a church full of seniors.  I quickly made the top three candidates, but pulled out when they were going to have a beauty contest … bringing all three candidates and their wives to the church over successive weekends.

Besides, they wouldn’t tell me their salary range.

When I sent an email explaining why I was dropping out, I never heard from them again.

Thank God I didn’t end up there.

Second, I can’t put my wife through another church.

My wife Kim served alongside me in every church I pastored.  She was a camp counselor … a youth leader … the Sunday School Superintendent … you name it, she did it.

She became adept at starting ministries … recruiting and training leaders … and then handing a ministry off to them while she started another one.

In our last church, Kim served as our outreach and missions director for eight years.  She made the church go.

BFCC Fall Fun Fest 2008 120

But when she was attacked as a way of attacking me, she suffered greatly … and was diagnosed with post traumatic stress syndrome.

If anyone wants to know what Kim went through, we’re very free and open about it … in person … but I won’t describe the pain she experienced either in writing or online.

Being the trooper that she is, Kim would probably support me if a church called me to be their pastor, but I can’t put her through it again.

I believe that my marriage vows supersede my ordination vows … that God calls people to ministry for a season, but that marriage is for life.

I agree wholeheartedly with the words of Proverbs 5:18:

May your fountain be blessed, and may you rejoice in the wife of your youth.

And I do.

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Third, I couldn’t afford it financially.

I spent many months trying to find a job in the Christian community:

*I applied for the three church positions described above, but nothing worked out.

*I filled out a 13-page application for a major denomination but never heard from them again.

*I spent hundreds of dollars and invested scores of hours training to become a certified church consultant … only to discover that almost nobody became one.  (In my state, out of 34 people who had completed the training, only one had become a certified consultant.)

*I made some contacts with a group of 20 men who did interim pastoring.  I was fully vetted but nothing opened up … and then was told that I would have to pay 50 dollars every week for a one-hour coaching session via the telephone.  (Then I found out that whenever a position opened up, one of the 20 “good old boys” got it instead.  I was number 21 … the odd man out.)

*I applied for an interim position at a church in the mountains.  They called me to preach and the time went so well that a prominent leader told me I had the job.  But because I didn’t want to live in the mountains, they hired someone else.  (The position paid very little.)

*I finally received training from Interim Pastor Ministries and was immediately assigned to a church in New Hampshire.  It was a very loving, outreach-oriented church, and we’re still friends with some of the people five years later.  But my next interim assignment just wouldn’t open up.

*My director asked me if I was willing to go to churches in Louisiana … Canada … South Dakota … or upstate New York.  I finally ended up flying to a church back east, but it was such a mess that I couldn’t envision doing church ministry anymore.

*I spent three hours being grilled by a bunch of lay leaders at another church that was looking for an interim pastor.  They went with someone else as well.

*While I was trying to find a ministry position, my wife heard about a search for a children’s director at the church where I was baptized as a boy.  We visited there one Sunday and then she applied for the position.  Four months later, she finally emerged as a top candidate.  While we were in New Hampshire, the church flew her out to California for three days of intense scrutiny.  The executive pastor assured Kim that she would be hired before she left, but then wrote her and said that because their senior pastor had just resigned, they weren’t going to hire anyone.

The entire time these events were happening, we were living off the funds from my retirement account.

But as the account dwindled, I realized that if I kept applying for Christian jobs, I would probably end up with no job … and no money.

Through a series of divine events, my wife sensed God calling her to start a preschool in our house.  We began in a rented house in August 2013 and bought a house last April.  The preschool is on the first floor while we live upstairs.  It’s a full-time job for both of us but God has blessed us financially.

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When I was a young man, the hiring process in churches and Christian organizations was much simpler and quicker.  It now takes many months to hire someone.

Forgive me if I don’t want to do it anymore.

Fourth, our grandsons trump everything else.

This is our son Ryan with his wife Vanessa.  They have three boys: Jack (far right), Liam (far left), and Henry (middle).

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If I became a pastor again, I’d probably have to move away and wouldn’t be able to see them.

But when you become a grandparent, you understand this simple rule:

Grandchildren trump everything … for me, even church ministry.

Finally, my soul is one conflict away from devastation.

In early 2013, after spending five days at a church back east that was considering me as an interim pastor, I spoke with my ministry mentor.

I quickly told him what had occurred during those days:

*One man … who owned five fast-food restaurants … ran the church.

*The church had a school next door … and the school held great power over the church.

*The church office was located inside the parsonage … and the basement was so trashed and spooky that I’m convinced there were dead bodies down there.

*One man came up to me and kept hitting me on the arm … hard.  I don’t know why.

*One older leader criticized me severely behind my back.  I later found out that he wanted to become the interim pastor.

*The church’s associate had been touching women and girls inappropriately for a long time … and nobody said anything … until he touched a young teenage girl … who did say something.  The pastor knew about the associate’s behavior and did nothing.

*After the associate left, the pastor asked for a vote of confidence … and was voted out.

That was the church that wanted me to come as interim pastor.

When I told my mentor about it, he said, “Jim, if you and Kim go to that church, it will permanently damage your souls.”

I can’t pastor another church because almost every congregation has one or more dysfunctional church bullies … and if I meet just one more of them, I can’t predict how I’ll react.

So rather than ending up in jail … or the funny farm … or some cult … I’d prefer to keep my soul intact and leave the pastoring to others.

Life has a way of chipping at our souls, but ministry does as well.  To become successful in ministry, a pastor has to become a change agent, and the change process inevitably results in personal attacks against the pastor and his family.

And I’ve had enough.

I’m grateful for the 36 years of ministry God gave me, and I wish I could have served as a pastor until the Lord took me home … or allowed me to retire gracefully.

But I have learned that His plan for me now is to support my wife … play with my grandchildren … do some writing … attend our local church … root for the Giants … and stay as far away from dysfunctional church people as possible.

And I’m having a marvelous time doing those things!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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