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Archive for the ‘Healing After Leaving a Church’ Category

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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When a pastor is forced to leave a church unjustly, how does he heal?

This is a question that I’m asked a lot … and one I wonder about myself.

Let me handle this in a question and answer format:

How do pastors feel after they’re forced to leave a church?

Abandoned.  Betrayed.  Crushed.  Devastated.  Exiled.  Forsaken.  Grief-stricken.  Hated.  Isolated.  Judged.  Kicked.  Lanced.

I’ll let you fill in the words beginning with M-Z.

Most pastors give everything they have when they serve a church, and when they’re dismissed … or forced to resign … the pain is indescribable.

It feels like your grandparents, parents, siblings, and children have all made a pact that they never want to see you again.

And in the process, you stop trusting people … and that’s understandable.  It takes time to rebuild that trust.

What kind of losses does a terminated pastor experience?

The pastor loses his job … his income … and maybe his home … which will harm his credit rating.

He loses his significance … his self-esteem and confidence … most of his church friends … and possibly his career.

And what hurts most of all is that some “Christians” are determined to ruin the pastor’s reputation through exaggeration and misinterpretation … and the pastor doesn’t know who these people are or what they’re saying.

But when he starts making contacts in the Christian community, he discovers that some Christian leaders have already heard one version of why the pastor left … the wrong version.

Six months after I’d left my previous church, I visited a denominational executive … from another denomination … and he already knew about my departure.

The Christian world is all too small.

How long does it take a pastor to heal?

It takes one to three years, depending upon several factors:

*How much abuse did the pastor receive before he finally left?

*How concerted was the effort to destroy his reputation after he left?

*How much of a severance package was the pastor given?

*How do the pastor and his family handle criticism?  (Can the pastor’s family hold him up, or does he need to hold them up?)

*What kind of a support system does the pastor have?

*What hope does the pastor have of future employment?

Why do pastors hibernate for a while after termination?

They can’t stop thinking about what happened to them.

They can’t believe the people who betrayed them.

They can’t fathom why they weren’t treated in a biblical manner.

They can’t understand how Christians could abuse and forsake their pastor.

After pastors initially experience termination, their thoughts … words … and expressions become toxic.

The pastor figures, “I’m such a wreck that nobody wants to be around me.”

Some people attempt to listen to and love the pastor, but when their efforts aren’t successful, they distance themselves from the pastor.

And the pastor feels rejected all over again.

Why don’t pastors heal more quickly?

Because the grief process works slowly.

This past weekend at Saddleback Church, Pastor Rick Warren gave a message called “How God Blesses Broken Hearts” from Matthew 5:4.  His message greatly ministered to me.  Here’s the link:

http://mediacenter.saddleback.com/mc/archives/

Pastor Rick says:

“Never minimize other’s pain.”

“Never rush people.  Pain and grief takes time.  I can’t tell you what’s the appropriate time to grieve for anything in your life.”

He said that since the suicide of his son Matthew over a year ago, he has cried every single day.

I believe that churchgoers want … and even need … their pastors to be superhuman.  When they discover that their pastor is as frail as they are in the face of loss, they feel let down … and often abandon the pastor altogether.

When I went through this experience 4 1/2 years ago, I believe that I lost friends because I didn’t become “the old Jim” fast enough.  It was painful for friends to see me in pain … but I’ve never been able to fake how I feel.

But I am eternally grateful to those few people who chose to be present … listened to my pain … and loved me anyway.

Those people will always be my real friends.

What steps can a pastor take to accelerate healing?

The following steps all have one thing in common: a pastor must humble himself before God and receive help from others … especially in the body of Christ.

Step 1: Get a physical examination.

See your doctor immediately.  Tell him what happened to you.  Anti-depressants can be a godsend.

Step 2: Contact a Christian counselor.

Only 20% of forced-out pastors seek counseling after they’ve been terminated.

Why only 20%?

Maybe the pastor doesn’t know the right counselor … but it only takes a few phone calls to find someone.

Maybe the pastor is afraid the counselor will blame him for his dismissal … but that’s highly unlikely.

Maybe the pastor is afraid of the cost … but how much is healing your soul worth?  (And most counselors will give a discount to a terminated pastor.)

After I left my last church, I saw two counselors … both women … and they were terrific.  They understood my situation because both women had been in ministry.  They provided valuable insights into congregational life and made positive suggestions for healing.

It’s the right move.

Step 3: Attend church when you feel like it.

Why not every weekend?

Because attending worship can be an incredibly painful experience for a pastor who has undergone termination.

I still have a hard time singing praise and worship songs 53 months later … and I don’t know what to do about it.

And when I listen to preaching, I need to hear someone who acknowledges and understands pain … which is why I’ve been listening to Rick Warren recently.

It’s why I sat under the teaching ministry of Don Wilson in Phoenix for 18 months.

And it’s why it’s difficult to find a church home near the community where I live.

Step 4: Spend lots of time in the Psalms and in 2 Corinthians.

David and the other psalmists openly express their feelings to God in unedited form.  I keep coming back to the Psalms constantly.

And when Paul wrote 2 Corinthians, he was defending his ministry to the church in Corinth, where he was being hypercriticized in an attempt to discredit him as an apostle.

Read these books in different versions.  I love reading them in The Message.

Find a good devotional book that deals with suffering in a realistic way as well.  I recommend Beside Still Waters by Charles Spurgeon.

Step 5: If you’re a pastor, commit your future to God.

He knows you.  He loves you.  He cares about you.

Others may have abandoned and forsaken you.  He never will.

Tell the Lord you’ll do anything He wants and you’ll go anywhere He sends.

Then follow the Spirit’s promptings.

The Spirit led me to a church in New Hampshire … for only three months … but it was just what my wife and I needed at the time.

Can God use a terminated pastor again?

The Lord used Peter in an even greater way after he denied Christ three times.

Paul was chased all over the ancient world but planted churches and wrote half the New Testament.

And Jesus was terminated on the cross … but He had a powerful post-resurrection ministry.

Yes, God can use terminated pastors again … and in an even greater way than before.

I believe the “stain” that a pastor receives after being unjustly terminated is the same stain that Jesus, Paul, Peter, and the other apostles received.

If only church search teams and denominational executives believed this.

What are your thoughts about how terminated pastors can heal?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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My wife and I recently watched a television show where a soldier who had seen combat overseas was experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder back home.

The soldier kept reliving an attack upon an enemy compound, leading him to believe, for example, that a routine thunderstorm outside his house was really caused by enemy fire.

I’ve seen these kinds of shows before, but what struck me during this episode was the real source of the soldier’s pain.

After reenacting events, it came out that the soldier was torn up inside because he saw his commanding officer accidentally kill a fellow soldier … and nothing in his training had prepared him for that moment.

He couldn’t comprehend how a leader on his side could take the life of a colleague.

Only when the truth came out was the soldier finally able to start the healing process …. and sleep through the night.

In churches all across our land, pastors and their family members are suffering emotional and spiritual trauma, even to the point where some have been diagnosed with PTSD.

For example, I recently read an article about a pastor’s son in his early teens.  Because this young man couldn’t handle the attacks upon his father any more, he contemplated suicide by standing above a river … and nearly jumping in.

What causes such trauma for pastors and their family members?

It’s not criticism.  Pastors get used to that.

It’s not having people disagree with you.  Pastors automatically factor that into their ministries.

It’s not watching people leave the church.  Pastors know that they need “blessed subtractions” from time-to-time.

No, what causes trauma is when professing Christians – especially Christian leaders – relentlessly assassinate their pastor’s character, seeking to destroy him at all costs … and the congregation lets it happen.

Why is that traumatizing?

Because pastors teach their congregations to love one another … to work out their differences … to treat each other with dignity and respect … and to realize that we’re all made in God’s image.

But when the pastor is treated like he’s a criminal … or evil … or demonic … there is nothing in his theology or his experience he can draw upon to make sense of things.

Pastors cannot fathom how Christians – including church leaders – can act like non-Christians inside God’s holy church.

When I wrote my book Church Coup, I removed the following quotations because of space, but I thought I’d share them with you now:

__________

Dr. Shelley Rambo is professor of theology at Boston University.  In her recent book, Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining, Dr. Rambo challenges Christian leaders to think about trauma survivors in a theological way.  Citing Dr. Rambo’s work, columnist Anthony Bradley explains:

A traumatic event is not like a death of a loved one or being rejected by a friend.  Instead, it involves activities that were life-threatening, either physically or in one’s perception, creating a sense of unrecognizable fear, utter helplessness, or horror.  Rambo points out that trauma is a wound that ‘remains long after a precipitating event or events are over,’ and it ‘exceeds categories of comprehension’ related to an event.  Trauma is an encounter with death that exceeds the human capacity to take in and process the external world.  In fact, because of trauma, what one knows about the world is shattered.  What is true and safe are ruptured . . . . Life is not the same anymore.  The trauma interprets life for the sufferer.[1]

__________

Did you catch that?  “What one knows about the world is shattered … the trauma interprets life for the sufferer.”

I know pastors who were forced out of their churches who experience similar trauma nearly every day.  They ask me, “When will my suffering end?  When will I be whole enough to serve God again?”

__________

Bradley continues:

Surviving post-trauma is a life of navigating one’s way through a minefield of triggers that remind the sufferer of the traumatic event or events.  Triggers can lead to random bouts of sobbing, irregular and disturbed sleep patterns, outbursts of anger, depression, anxiety, loss of hope, loss of interest in things once loved, thoughts of suicide, self-medicating with drugs or alcohol, as well as running away from thoughts, conversations, people, places that might arouse traumatic memory.  Because trauma survivors re-experience the event in ways outside of one’s control, healing is not a matter of believing the right things about God.  Or getting the gospel right.  Time does not heal traumatic wounds.  Traumatic memory is something only God can heal.  The Holy Spirit must empower trauma sufferers to re-imagine their future . . . . Those limping around in life after experiencing trauma need people who love them enough to realize that they may never ‘get over it’ and that their on-going struggle does not represent weak faith.[2]

__________

In our case, my wife was diagnosed with PTSD by a counselor.  My wife and I are familiar with the triggers:

*Christmas and Easter

*visiting a worship center laid out like our former church

*seeing a random comment on Facebook by a one-time opponent

*running across a photo showing the faces of people who betrayed you

*trying to explain for the umpteenth time why you are no longer in church ministry

*reading our situation into a TV show or movie plot

*noticing what David wrote about his enemies in the Psalms

Several months ago, I gave a copy of my book to a family, who passed it on to a family member who had once been a pastor, but was forced out of his church.

His response after reading the book?  “I am glad to learn that I am not alone.”

It’s one of the most common responses I receive from pastors.

People sometimes ask me, “Are you healed now?”

My answer is always the same: I feel much better, but I will probably never fully get over what happened 52 months ago … and I know I am not alone.

Why not?

Because there is nothing so traumatic as knowing that fellow Christians are intentionally shooting to harm you.

May God forgive each one.

[1] Anthony Bradley, “When Trauma Doesn’t Heal,” World Magazine Online, 4 May 2011; available from http://onlineworldmag.com; Internet.

[2] Ibid.

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I think it’s about forgiveness, forgiveness,

Even if, even if, you don’t love me anymore

-Don Henley, The Heart of the Matter

In my book Church Coup, I related the story of Pastor Guy Greenfield who had been forced into early retirement by a small group of antagonists from his church.

As related in his book The Wounded Minister, Greenfield wrote each person who hurt him a lengthy personal letter detailing how he felt about “what they did to me, my ministry, my marriage, my family, my health, and my future.”

Did anyone answer their former pastor?  Not one.  They didn’t want to make things right with him – they wanted him to disappear.

How can a pastor find closure when he can no longer interact with those who have tried to harm him?

The only remedy is unilateral forgiveness.

Let me write a letter to church antagonists and bullies on behalf of those thousands of pastors who have been forced to leave their previous positions prematurely:

__________

Dear Christian Friend,

You didn’t follow Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 18:15-17 or Paul’s instructions in 1 Timothy 5:19-21 that deal with confronting a believer/leader who has done offended you.  This made me feel violated … but I forgive you anyway.

You failed to speak to me directly about any of my personal shortcomings or ministry mistakes although you freely discussed them with others.  This wounded me to the core … but I forgive you anyway.

You made false accusations against my character which caused churchgoers to distance themselves from me.  Losing those friendships hurts me to this day … but I forgive you anyway.

You did not provide me with a fair forum where I could answer any charges made against me.  Even a serial killer gets his day in court … but I forgive you anyway.

You ignored the section of the church constitution and bylaws that delineates how to remove a pastor, making up the process as you went along.  In my case, I played by the rules … but I forgive you anyway.

You seemed to have no interest in my restoration, using the tactic of “mobbing” to force me to resign.  Being abused by God’s people stings … but I forgive you anyway.

You didn’t know – and probably didn’t care – that when you forced me to resign, you may have ended my pastoral career.  This causes me unspeakable pain … but I forgive you anyway.

You hurt my family deeply – to the point they’re unsure if they want to attend church anymore – even though they viewed you as their spiritual family.  When they hurt, I hurt … but I forgive you anyway.

You have tried to hurt my reputation – some things you’ve said have been reported back to me – and I cannot understand why.  I committed my life to serving you … but I forgive you anyway.

You probably thought you were doing good by removing me from office, but the way you did it was wrong.  I’m still disappointed that you didn’t follow God’s Word … but I forgive you anyway.

Because I have a lot of forgiving to do, it’s going to take me a while.  Only God can forgive those offenses instantly.

I guess the next time we meet will be in heaven.  I look forward to reconciling with you there.

Sincerely,

Your Former Pastor

__________

I have found that when a forced-out pastor takes his last book down from the shelf … stares for the final time at the worship center … and drives away from the church campus forever … he cannot fathom why professing Christians treated him like he was demonic.  There’s nothing in his theology or experience to explain why he was arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced without any kind of process, biblical or otherwise.

But pastors who have been forced out of their congregations can better understand these words of their Master on the cross:

“Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.”

Even though they thought they knew what they were doing, we pastors do know what they were doing.

And to each of them we say, “I forgive you anyway.”

 

 

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Since I left church ministry more than four years ago, I’ve had some good days and some bad days.

Mondays through Saturdays tend to be good days.  Sunday afternoons and evenings are good, too.

But Sunday mornings are rough.

Why?

Because Sunday mornings used to be the highlight of my week.  All my thoughts, energies, and prayers culminated in those two worship services, when I would stand before God’s people and bring them God’s Word.

I lived for Sunday mornings.

But now, Sunday mornings don’t seem so exciting … and like many pastors, I wonder:

Is there life after church ministry?

That’s what many ex-pastors want to know … whether or not they deserved being pushed out of church ministry.

I’ve written extensively on this topic, especially in my book Church Coup: A Cautionary Tale of Congregational Conflict.

Let me share four quick thoughts on this topic:

First, God retires many pastors from church ministry before they’re ready.

Neil Diamond once issued an album called Tap Root Manuscript.  There was a song on there called “Done Too Soon.”

After recounting the names of a host of famous people like Jesus Christ, Mozart, Genghis Khan and Buster Keaton, Diamond sang:

And each one lived, there’s one thing shared

They have sweated beneath the same sun

Looked up in wonder at the same moon

And wept when it was all done

For being done too soon

For being done too soon

Most pastors who have experienced a forced exit thought they would retire from church ministry around age 65 … on their terms … rather than much earlier … on someone else’s terms.

Their careers were definitely “done too soon.”

But as I look back on my situation more than 50 months later, I see that God retired me from church ministry because of His grace … and it takes a long time to accept that.

Jesus had to accept that His ministry was “done too soon” after only 3 years.

But this truth doesn’t mean that God is done with ex-pastors because:

Second, God has moved many ex-pastors into kingdom work.

Who is better qualified to do kingdom work than former pastors?

I have a friend who does conflict mediation for churches … and he went through pastoral termination three times.

I have another friend who trains Christian leaders worldwide … and he went through termination twice.

The list of pastors who were pushed out of their churches includes Jonathan Edwards … Billy Graham … and many well-known leaders and authors whose ministries have become much broader than a local church.

In fact, I’ve learned that most ex-pastors involved in kingdom work went through one or more forced exits … and that God had to fling them out of the church first.

Fourteen years ago, I took a doctoral class at Fuller Seminary taught by Dr. Bob Logan.  During every lunch period, Dr. Logan met with several students and asked us what we wanted to do after we received our doctorate.

I told him that I wanted to minister to pastors and churches that were going through conflict.  (Privately, I also wanted to write.)

There was no known pathway to turn my dreams into reality.  I planned to be a pastor until retirement and then think about conflict ministry … but God had other plans … and I’m glad He did.

Because every time a pastor calls me on the phone or a church leader sends me an email, I say to God, “Thank you, Lord, for calling me to this important work.”

Third, God takes care of His children … especially former pastors.

About 2/3 of the time I served as a pastor, I enjoyed a secure income with benefits.

My wife and I didn’t worry about medical bills … having the money for vacations … or saving money.

But when you suddenly find yourself out of your career field, you have to start practicing all those sermons you gave about “trusting God.”

Over the past 4+ years since leaving church ministry, my wife and I haven’t gone into debt and we’ve met all our obligations.

Sometimes the Lord has provided us with unexpected gifts.  Other times, He’s reduced expenses that we assumed were fixed.

While our income isn’t close to what it was five years ago, God has consistently provided for us, and for that, we praise Him!

The Lord knows how to take care of His servants.

Finally, God rearranges your priorities when you’re away from the church.

When I was a pastor, I wanted my priorities to look like this:

*God

*Family

*Ministry

But all too often, my priorities really looked like this:

*Ministry

*Family

*God

When you’re a pastor, the local church assumes a double identity: it’s both the source of your friendships and the source of your income.

And all too often, it creeps into first place on your priority list.

In fact, there were many times when I missed a family event because it seemed like I was married to my church.

But when you’re no longer a pastor, it’s natural for your priorities to look like this:

*God

*Family

*Ministry

And that can be a very good – and healing – thing.

If you know a pastor who has experienced forced termination, you can encourage him in two primary ways:

*Pray for God to use him mightily again … and to meet all his financial needs.

*Keep in regular contact with him.  (When people stop contacting you, you assume that they’ve turned on you.)

And if you are a pastor who has experienced forced termination, remember this adage I learned from my mentor Charles Chandler:

They can take your job, but they can’t take your calling.

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