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Archive for the ‘Healing After Leaving a Church’ Category

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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Many interesting events have occurred on October 24 throughout history:

*Jane Seymour, third wife of King Henry VIII of England, died 12 days after childbirth in 1537.

*The 40-hour work week began in the Unites States in 1940.

*The charter of the United Nations officially came into effect in 1945.

*The great Dodger Hall of Famer, Jackie Robinson, died at age 53 in 1972.

*The Toronto Blue Jays defeated the Atlanta Braves, 4-3, in Game 6 to win the 1992 World Series.

But on a more personal note, events that surfaced on October 24, 2009 signified the conclusion of a fruitful church ministry for my wife Kim and me, which I’ve detailed in my book Church Coup: A Cautionary Tale of Congregational Conflict.  (If you don’t have a copy, you can order one by clicking on the picture on the right.)

Since we resigned and left the church in December 2009, I’ve started a blog (303 articles and counting), formed a non-profit ministry, written a book, conducted seminars on addressing conflict biblically, and counseled lay leaders, staff members, and pastors who are undergoing conflict in their churches.

I plan to continue doing this – and much more – as long as God gives me breath.

But I’ve never celebrated online the wonderful ministry that my wife Kim and I enjoyed for nearly that entire 10 1/2-year period.  In all my writing, I’ve never even mentioned the name of the church where we served or the city where it’s located … and that policy will continue.

Most of the time, my memory won’t allow me to mentally navigate to any time before 2009.  But just looking through pictures of happier times evokes a positive emotional reaction for me, which is why I’m glad I took thousands of photos documenting our ministry.

Rather than recount the pain, today I’d like to remember times, events, and people that the Lord blessed … and that once again bring a smile to my face.

____________________

In 1999, the Lord led my wife Kim and me to a church that we didn’t really want to serve.  The church building was invisible from the street and located at the end of a long parking lot (behind the trees in the photo) … and yet perched on a beautiful lagoon.

BFCC Building Pictures August 26, 2005 006IMG_0486

A group of 29 parties banded together and donated funds for us to have a down payment on a house … just 30 seconds from the water.

Bay Farm Bridge & Environs Aug. 17, 2007 066Bay Farm Photos Dec. 14-16, 2009 085

The Lord blessed the ministry to the extent that we became the largest Protestant church in our city and eventually built a worship center on the church’s small, one acre property.

BFCC Building Pictures Oct. 10, 2005 038BFCC Building Pictures Oct. 10, 2005 016BFCC Grand Opening Sunday Nov. 6, 2005 011

Several years later, 785 people attended our two worship services on Easter … more than maximizing the small campus.  That year, the congregation donated nearly a million dollars to the ministry.

BFCC Easter March 23, 2008 034

We hosted many outreach events on our campus, like Summer Bible Camp for kids …

BFCC Summer Bible Camp Finale July 17, 2009 013 BFCC Summer Bible Camp Finale July 13, 2007 085

and Western Fall Fun Fest for families every Halloween.

BFCC Fall Fun Fest October 31, 2007 092 BFCC Fall Fun Fest 2008 120BFCC Fall Fun Fest October 31, 2007 123BFCC Fall Fun Fest 2008 107

We penetrated our community by marching in the city’s annual Fourth of July Parade, passing out literature about our ministry, and even winning several trophies.

IMG_0138 IMG_0152BFCC 4th of July Parade 2008 150BFCC 4th of July Parade 2008 164

Our church also took four mission trips to Moldova.  The first time, I taught a course on Christian marriage – the final course in a 3-year leadership training program – with the graduates pictured below.

IMG_2007IMG_1952

Three years later, I taught pastors and leaders in Moldova how to manage conflict in their ministries … right before walking into my own conflict back home.

Moldova Photos 1 Oct. 2009 490Moldova Photos 1 Oct. 2009 491

Kim also led two teams to Kenya, culminating in generous donations from our congregation and community for the building of a well in a remote village many hours from Nairobi.  Kim led a team for the dedication of the well.  In the photo below, Pastor Peter obtains water from the well, and then …

IMG_0740 IMG_0472

Kim meets Stephen Musyoka, who was then Vice President of Kenya.  He flew into the village via helicopter for the dedication.

IMG_0488IMG_0492

One of the great things about Kim is that she adapts to any situation, whether it’s joking with a VP …

IMG_0499

speaking in front of a village …

IMG_0505

or sharing the gospel using the Wordless Book.

IMG_0524

Throughout the entire 10 1/2 years at the church, Kim and I served as a team.  Our daughter Sarah came around at key times as well.

Easter @ BFCC April 8, 2007 024BFCC Mystery on the Menu Event 001024

In retrospect, it’s good that I left the church when I did.  While I’m still not crazy about how we left, God will handle those things.

My friend and mentor Dr. Charles Chandler says that while a church can take your job, they can never take your calling.   That’s certainly true.

But there’s something else that no person or group can ever take away: the hundreds of lives that were changed through that ministry.

When I first entered Talbot Seminary in 1975, my initial class was with Dr. Charles Feinberg, who was a legend in Christian circles.

Dr. Feinberg told our class, “If you can do anything other than being a pastor, do it.”

I’ve felt that way many times!

But I’m glad for the 36 years that God allowed me to serve him in pastoral ministry.

And I’m grateful that God now allows me to help other pastors and churches navigate their way through conflict situations.

It’s my personality to draw on past experiences to help others … and yet none of us can afford to dwell on the past too much.

As baseball immortal Satchel Paige used to say, “Don’t look back.  Something might be gaining on you.”

And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.  1 Peter 5:10

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It’s tough to say goodbye, isn’t it?

It’s tough saying goodbye to your family after Christmas, or to a friend you may never see again, or to someone who is ready to meet Jesus.

And it’s especially tough saying goodbye to a church family.

In fact, two years ago yesterday, my wife and I said goodbye to a church family we served for 10 1/2 years.  We tried our best to leave in a Christ-honoring way.

Years ago, I learned this adage: “The way you leave is the way you’ll be remembered.”

The following article is written primarily for lay people (rather than pastors and paid staff) who are thinking about leaving their church.

(If you want to think through whether or not you should leave, check out this article: https://blog.restoringkingdombuilders.org/2011/05/09/when-to-leave-your-church/)

Assuming the Lord is leading you to leave, how can you honor Him in the way you do it?

Let me suggest five ways:

First, articulate why you’re leaving.  Put it in clear language.  Examples:

“I cannot support the change in direction from missional to institutional.”

“I can no longer use my spiritual gifts in this church.”

“We need a church closer to home.”

“I need to be in a church that takes community outreach seriously.”

“I simply do not like the pastor.”

Be honest with yourself at this point.  While it’s possible that you’re leaving because of a single issue, the likelihood is that you’re withdrawing because of multiple issues.  Write them all down.

Second, compose a note to the pastor and church leaders.

When they leave a church, most people slip into the night and say virtually nothing to their church’s leaders.

As a pastor, I’d sometimes wonder, “Where has So-and-So gone?  I haven’t seen them around the church for weeks.”  In a smaller church, I’d contact those people myself.  In a larger setting, I’d ask a staff member to do it.

But invariably, the ensuing conversation would be awkward for both parties.  Those missing weren’t honest either with me or the staff member.  We’d hear, “I’m just taking a break” – but what the missing member wouldn’t say is: “I’m checking out other churches on Sundays, and if I find the right one, I’m not coming back.”

Without a letter, the church’s leaders, as well as your friends, will privately speculate as to why you left – and they’ll most likely get it wrong.

They’ll guess it’s your walk with the Lord, or your marriage, or job stress … in other words, they’ll blame you for leaving … and in the process, they won’t stop to ask if there’s something they’re doing wrong that prompted you to go.

Only you can enlighten them.

That’s why once you’ve decided to leave, it’s best to write a letter to the leaders and make a clean break.

You’re still free to visit the church and retain friendships.  But you need to clarify your status so people won’t guess (wrongly) why you’re not around … and so people stop contacting you to join a small group and serve in the nursery.

Third, write and send a classy letter.  Guidelines:

*Address the Senior Pastor, the governing board members, and any staff you’ve worked with closely.  If you send a letter to one person, they may choose not to tell the other leaders you’ve left – or why.  By sending your letter to all the key leaders, the reasons for your leaving will be shared accurately.

Should you send an email?  You can, but you have no idea to whom it will be forwarded.  I’d send hard copies of letters via snail mail to people’s homes (not the church, where lay leaders may not check their mail for weeks) so everyone gets it at the same time.  (And it makes it harder to pass your letter around.)

*Write a one-page letter, but no more.  Be succinct.

*Thank the pastor and the leaders for their service and what they’ve meant to you.  Even if you’re feeling angry or hurt, you can always say something positive about the church and its leaders on paper.  (If you write a nasty letter, the leaders will forget your reasoning and focus on your tone – and you will look bad.)

*Be truthful about why you’re leaving.  If the music director is an alienating egomaniac, then speak the truth in love.  If you feel like a misfit, tell the leaders you’ve tried but can’t seem to fit in.  If you think the church is going liberal theologically, say so.

If your letter is gracious but candid, it will be taken seriously, and may even do some good.  For instance, if three good people leave because of the arrogance of the music director, the leaders may need to look into that matter more closely.

However, my experience is that once you announce that you’re leaving, the chances that anyone from the church will contact you are minimal … except for those people who want to use your departure to make a case against the pastor.  Refuse to play their game!

*Write a first draft and let it sit for a few days.  Then read it again and make appropriate changes.  Ask family or friends to read your letter and offer suggestions.

Fourth, when you leave, LEAVE.

The worst antagonist I ever had in a church left the church … and then returned a year later to lead a rebellion.  It was classless, tasteless, and unambiguously evil.

When some people leave a church, they stop attending services, serving, and giving, but sneak back around to be part of a small group.  While some church leaders may look the other way if you do that, do you realize the signals you’re sending?

Please, find another church and leave your former one behind.  It will cause less heartache for everyone involved.

Finally, leave with your head held high.

God leads us to jobs – then leads us to new ones.

The Lord may call us to live in the West – then call us to live back East.

The Lord leads us to one church for a few years – then He leads us away.

If you’re leaving because you’re bitter, then maybe you should feel guilty when you depart.  But if the Lord is directing your steps, then just obey your Savior – and go.

If people from the church contact you, there’s no need to manufacture reasons for your departure.  You’ve already worked through why you’re leaving in your own mind.  Stick to your story without deviation and people will respect you.

But no matter how nicely you leave, some churchgoers will be hurt and some friends may shun you … and then you’ll learn who your real friends are.

Just realize there are seasons to all of our lives.

The writer of the Book of Ecclesiastes put it this way in 3:1-7:

“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven:

… a time to search and a time to give up,

a time to keep and a time to throw away …

a time to be silent, and a time to speak …”

If you’re happy with your church, great!

If you’re not … maybe it’s time to make a tough decision.

May the Lord grant you the courage you need.

Check out our website at www.restoringkingdombuilders.org  You’ll find Jim’s story, recommended resources on conflict, and a forum where you can ask questions about conflict situations in your church.

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I recently attended a conference for church consultants.

The theme of the conference was how to turn around a church, especially one that’s sick or dying.

We heard presentations from top consultants like Aubrey Malphurs, Paul Borden, and Gary McIntosh.  Gary introduced me to Carl George, a legend in the field.

Some presentations dealt with the recommendations that a consultant might make to turn a church around, especially if the previous pastor left under less than optimal circumstances.

During my time at the conference, I never heard anyone discuss what to do with those Christians who were still in pain after their pastor left.

Here’s a common scenario:

A pastor and the governing board aren’t getting along.  The pastor wants to reach out more into the community and win people to Christ, while the board prefers to focus on building up Christians inside the church.

While a few people in the church are aware of the problem, most can’t tell there’s anything wrong at the top.

Until one day, the low-level conflict explodes into the congregation as a whole.  Some people start accusing the pastor of various misdeeds.  Rumors abound.  Groups huddle together on Sundays.  People begin taking sides.

And suddenly many of the people in this nice, loving church begin to demonize each another.

The pastor becomes so demoralized and battered that he can’t manage the conflict effectively.  He feels rejected and plunges into depression.  Some call for his resignation.  Others mount a campaign to get rid of him.

His sin?  He let the conflict happen – and he hasn’t yet fixed it.

While some people relish this kind of in-fighting, most believers lack the stomach for it.  Some flee the church for good.  Others stay at home and wait for more peaceful times.  Some organize and press the pastor for his resignation and begin dreaming of taking over the church when he finally leaves.

Over on the sidelines, there’s a contingent of the church who are shocked by what’s happening.  Everything they see and hear brings them pain.  They love their pastor.  They love the board and the staff.  They have many friends in the church, and now they see Christians acting unchristian.

It grieves them.  They’re confused, hurt, repulsed, demoralized, paralyzed.

These people watch their pastor resign.  They watch some people rejoice at his departure.  They watch as the church hires a transitional pastor and puts together a search team for a new pastor.

And all the while, nobody ever told them what the conflict was about or why their pastor left.

But they watch from the shadows because they don’t want to say or do anything that will make matters worse.  Let’s call them Shadow Christians.

They just hope that when the transitional pastor comes, he will address their pain.

And they hope that someday, they’ll be able to express their sorrow to opinion-makers inside the church as well.

The interim pastor comes, and he preaches on unity, but he never addresses the concerns of the Shadow Christians, either through his messages or on an individual basis.

Then the transitional pastor leaves, and the new pastor is hired.  Once again, the Shadow Christians hope that their new pastor will address their pain, but he assumes that the transitional pastor did all that, and besides, he’s eager to lead the church into winning new people for Christ.

So the Shadow Christians feel marginalized.

They lose their motivation for serving.  They start finding reasons to miss a Sunday here or there.

And no one seems to notice.

Mind you, these people aren’t troublemakers.  They’re the quiet, faithful people who built the church.

They prayed for the pastor, board, and staff every day.  They discovered their spiritual gifts and used them excitedly.  They gave sacrificially to the building campaign.

But now … they’re relegated to the shadows.

And because they’ve become hidden, they decide to slip away and see if anybody misses them.

And no one does.

So they leave … for good … still in pain.

Maybe, they hope, I will receive healing at my next church.

But they’re not eager to serve, or give, or even attend regularly … because they still hurt so bad.

And here’s the sad part … if someone had noticed them, and sat down with them, and listened to them, and cared about them, they might have experienced healing, and stayed in their church, and continued to be a blessing to others.

But rather than make waves, they slipped quietly out the back door … for the last time.

And by the time anyone noticed, they were long gone.

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I’ve seen it all my life.

Maybe you have, too.

Something ominous happens at work … or inside your family … or at church … but nobody is willing to talk about it openly.

Somebody lost their job … or went to jail … or is no longer attending your church … but everything is hush hush.

Is that wise?

The reason I bring this up is because most church leaders that I know are great at covering up stuff.

Let me explain.

Imagine that some individuals inside a church of 300 attendees band together to change the music during worship.  They don’t like guitars and drums and want the church to use the piano and organ instead.

So they begin making demands of the pastor and governing board, threatening to leave the church – and take their offerings with them – unless the pastor capitulates in their favor.

While there are pastors who would cave in at this point, let’s pretend that the pastor of this church refuses to meet the group’s demands.

So the group – composed of 35 people – all leaves the church together and forms another church at the local high school cafeteria (where they can’t have a piano or organ, but that’s another story).

What should the pastor and governing board tell the congregation about what happened?

Here are some options:

(a) Pretend those people never existed and refuse to talk about them again.

(b) Talk about them only inside the confines of staff and board meetings.

(c) Only talk about them if church attendees ask about them.

(d) Tell the whole church during Sunday worship … or in an all-church letter … or in a public meeting.

Which option above would you prefer?

The vast number of leaders I have known would opt for option “a,” including taking their names off the membership roster, church directory, and newsletter list as soon as possible.

Option “b” is a given.  Only certain churches would opt for option “c.”

And few if any churches would opt for option “d.”

However, congregational consultant Peter Steinke has a different take on this matter in his insightful book Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times:

“A conflict-free congregation is incongruent not only with reality but even more with biblical theology.  Jesus upset many people emotionally.  The life of Jesus takes place against a backdrop of suspicion, opposition, and crucifixion.  The Christian story is underlined with conflict.  Early on, we encounter the emotional reactivity of the religious leaders, who see Jesus as a threat to their authority and belief system.  Eventually the tension between the roaming preacher and the established religious order comes to a dramatic point.  Tension leads to crucifixion.”

Most of us would agree with those seven sentences.

Steinke continues:

“The church has had divisions from its inception.  No doubt, it has fought senseless battles, squandered its resources on frivolous issues, sent negative signals to society, shattered its unity, and forfeited chances to share its goodwill.  Some churches work through the reactive period and emerge stronger.  Others shuffle from crisis to crisis.  What makes the difference in outcomes?”

(By the way, don’t you just love Steinke’s writing?  He’s good.)

And then he says this:

“Nowhere in the Bible is tranquility preferred to truth or harmony to justice.  Certainly reconciliation is the goal of the gospel, yet seldom is reconciliation an immediate result.  If people believe the Holy Spirit is directing the congregation into the truth, wouldn’t this alone encourage Christians who have differing notions to grapple with issues respectfully, lovingly, and responsively?”

Hmm.  Do you agree with the author at this point?

Then how about this question:

“If potent issues are avoided because they might divide the community, what type of witness is the congregation to the pursuit of truth?”

Using the group of 35 people I mentioned earlier as an example, should the pastor and leaders tell the congregation anything about their departure?

Here is one final statement from Steinke:

“In the early stages of a conflict, it is almost impossible to over-inform.  As much information as possible is needed.  Providing information tends to minimize the need for people to create information for themselves through gossip and embellishments of what they have heard from rumor.  By communicating forthrightly, leaders also treat the members as mature adults who can handle whatever information is shared, not as children who need to be protected from bad news.”

I do not pretend to have the final answer concerning this dilemma, but more and more, I lean toward truth over tranquility.

Someone recently told me about a controversy that surfaced in his church.  Within one week, half the people had left.

This stuff happens, and because pastors know how emotionally reactive some people are whenever they share potentially volatile information, most pastors choose not to mention such issues in public.

Where do you stand on this issue?

For example, if a staff pastor suddenly vanished from your church, do you want the leaders to tell the congregation why?  Or do you think such an announcement would be divisive?

Truth or tranquility?

Your call.

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Two years ago today, my world broke apart.

I attended a meeting and was blindsided by people with whom I had clashing agendas.

Over the ensuing weeks, I experienced the presence of evil like never before.  Diabolical spiritual forces were unleashed with the intent of destroying my family and the church I served.

Through much heartache, I eventually left that situation to preserve my soul, sanity, family – and the church I loved.

It has not been an easy journey, but my wife and I have survived.  We have been told it takes up to three years to heal from such an experience.  We trust that in time, we will thrive once more.

Several times each week, I read the thoughts of a famous British pastor who died in 1892 named Charles Spurgeon.  This is what I read today:

“When you wonder why you are being severely tested, remember that the reason does not lie so much with you but with those to whom God will make you useful.  You are being led along a rough road.  You are being tested and instructed in order to help those whom you will find in some of the earth’s dark regions.”

I believe that God is sovereign.  He can take our mistakes and sins – and those of others – and bring something positive from them, although we only sense chaos and confusion at the time.  As Joseph told his rascally brothers, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20).

Joseph was hated by his brothers, tossed into a pit, and sold into captivity.  His brothers lied to their father Jacob, claiming that Joseph had been killed.  But Joseph was very much alive, and God permitted him to be mistreated – and imprisoned – to save his family, the Egyptians, and everyone who visited Egypt for food.

Only he didn’t know it at the time.

Our pastor has just started a series on the life of Joseph, and I’ve been struck how much his situation parallels mine.

Back in 1997, I was the pastor of a church that experienced a traumatic event.  It wasn’t anybody’s fault – it just happened.  One day, while getting dressed for work, I broke into tears because I knew my time at that church was drawing to a close.

Even though I didn’t confide in anyone but my wife, I began to search for a new ministry.  I felt too weary to pastor again, even though several great opportunities came my way.

So I began to explore the possibility of working in the area of church conflict, specificially pastor-congregational issues.  One day, I made an appointment with a leading Christian conflict expert at his home.  He graciously gave me two hours of his time.

But I wasn’t yet ready experientially, emotionally, intellectually, or spiritually to do such a ministry – until that day two years ago.

I’ve spent the past two years getting ready.

Spurgeon again: “You are being trained as a hardy moutaineer to climb after the Lord’s sheep who are lost in the wild, craggy places.  You are being taught to find your way through the country of depression and despair in order to help lost pilgrims find their way to the celestial city.  They frequently fall into the marshy places of fear and doubt, and you will know how to bring them out, set their feet on the rock, and once again establish their goings.”

Even though my wife and I have endured unimaginable losses since that day two years ago, we have also learned unfathomable lessons we couldn’t have learned any other way.

We are both training for different careers now while trying to establish credentials.  While it’s not an easy process, we see the Lord’s hand at work.

To quote that great theologian Bono from U2’s song Mysterious Ways: “One day you’ll look back and you’ll see where you were held out by this love …”

I see it more clearly today than ever.

Because even when your world falls apart, there is Someone who can put you back together again.

May all praise and glory be His!

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Seventeen months ago, my wife and I chose to leave a church that we loved – with a few people trying to push us out the door.  When we left, we knew that it was possible that our careers in church ministry were over.  What kind of steps can a pastoral couple take to heal after such a devastating experience?

Here is an excerpt from the last chapter of my book, which is nearly complete:

I have been told on good authority that it takes pastors one to three years to heal after an involuntarily termination.  As is my nature, there were times when I tried to hurry my healing along.  I discovered that if I experienced the depths of depression on a particular day, I would probably feel better the next day, but if I tried to force myself to feel better one day, I’d pay for it with depression the following day.  While I don’t consider myself an expert in this area – more like a survivor – here are seven steps that helped our healing along:

*We did little that was productive for the first couple months.  (We were both fortunate that we didn’t have to work for the first few months.)  I think I wrote three pages on this book.  Kim spent time reading and sleeping.  Since we didn’t expect much out of ourselves, we didn’t have to worry about expectations.  This time was important for slowing down our bodies and our minds so we could heal.

*We didn’t force ourselves to attend church services initially.  We didn’t have an aversion to church like some pastors and their wives have after leaving a church, but there was still pain involved because Kim wasn’t serving and I wasn’t preaching.  We missed a few Sundays over the first three months or so but have hardly missed any since then.  We needed to be in a church where we felt safe, and to be honest, some of the churches we visited felt anything but safe.  While some churches continue to debate the propriety of reaching seekers in a worship service, many churches do not realize how many Christians in their congregations are in great pain.  It took us six months to find a church because we tried to find a church where we would feel safe and still receive ministry.

*We took the time to grieve.  If Kim felt like getting angry, I let her express herself.  If I felt like crying, she encouraged it.  We both had mini-meltdowns – times when we would go on a rant for three to five minutes – but they never lasted long.  Almost every memorable occasion hurts during the first year: Super Bowl Sunday, Easter, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, birthdays, and Christmas.  If our marriage had already been strained, the ugly emotions that we constantly felt could have ended our relationship, but because we’ve always allowed each other to be human, our relationship grew stronger, not weaker.

*We both saw a counselor.  When you come to a new community, it’s difficult to find a good counselor right away.  We sought referrals from several churches and finally settled on a woman who really cared about us.  She and her husband had been in a parachurch ministry a few years previously and left in an involuntary manner as we had.  The counseling gave us a place to talk about our negative feelings and receive back the assurance that we were normal people who had been through an extraordinary crisis.

*We talked about what happened – a lot.  We never tried to tell each other, “I don’t want to hear about the past anymore!”  One time, we’d be driving to church and Kim would say, “I still can’t believe that this happened.”  Another time, we’d take a walk around our neighborhood and I would share an insight with Kim about what happened in our former ministry.  Rather than hush each other into silence, we allowed each other the freedom to share or not share as we saw fit.  It’s been sixteen months since we left our former church, and although we still refer to matters on occasion, we’re much more focused now on our future ministry.

*I wrote about what happened to us.  I’ve been working on this book for more than a year.  People have asked me, “Isn’t it difficult to rehearse the pain you’ve gone through?”  There are times when my intestines get tied in knots, but on the whole, writing has been very therapeutic for me.  It’s how I figure things out.  I’m able to take events and conversations and perspectives that have crowded into my brain and let go of them through the simple exercise of putting things on paper.  While I’ve had some rough days, I recommend writing as a way of telling your story and clearing out your brain.  There is catharsis through the written word.

One year after we left, I also started writing this blog concerning pastors and conflict.  For years, all these thoughts have been rattling around in my head, and now I have an outlet for sharing them.  And the funny thing is that the more I write, the more ideas are generated.

*We began dreaming about the future.  We went out together every week and reviewed all of our options for the future.  Could I pastor again?  If so, would I be a senior pastor?  An associate?  An interim pastor?  If not, could I teach in a seminary or Bible college?  Would we prefer to go overseas for a year or two?  We came to believe that God was calling us to begin a new ministry designed to help pastors who experience involuntary terminations, but we had no illusions that it would be easy.  We came up with a unique name – Restoring Kingdom Builders – and slowly but surely began assembling various aspects of the ministry.

One day, I asked a man who has counseled many pastors, “How do you know when you’ve been healed?”  He told me to look for three markers: first, you need to grieve your losses; second, you need to forgive your enemies; finally, you need to become involved in a local church once more.  From my experience, this is sound advice – but it’s easier to hear than to live.

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