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Posts Tagged ‘Healing After Leaving a Church’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stage 1: Shock

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

I was shocked that:

*the board had been plotting while I was overseas.

*two board members who had been supporters were involved.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do I mean by “unjust?”

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

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

The shock lingers on … for months … sometimes years.

The more sensitive you are, the longer it lasts.

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

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

Stage 2: Searching

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

*Who was in on this plot?

*What are they saying that I did wrong?

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

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

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

So who wanted me gone?

I pretty much knew the answer to that question:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What did they say I did wrong?

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

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

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

What did they want?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And some claimed that was 100% my fault.

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

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

Faultless?  No.  Flawed?  Yes.

But guilty?  No.

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

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

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

Stage 3: Panic

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

*Emotional panic

*Economic panic

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

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

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

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

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

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

But how that must have devastated Jesus!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why do terminated pastors feel such panic?

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

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

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

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

I will share the next three stages next time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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While cleaning out some boxes kept in storage yesterday, I ran across a photo taken of me at an event from my last church … and I instantly felt a twinge of pain inside.

Then I started to feel sadness behind my eyes … like I wanted to cry but couldn’t.  That feeling lasted for about half an hour.

I’ve had these feelings for years now, and I don’t like them.  They come upon me at unexpected times, especially when I focus too much on the conflict that propelled me out of church ministry seven years ago.

Even though I’ve written extensively about pastoral termination and church conflict over the past six years – having written nearly 525 articles – I haven’t written much about the feelings that a pastor has after he’s been forced out of office.

While I can’t speak for every pastor who goes through this horrendous experience, maybe it would be helpful to describe what’s healthy … and unhealthy … after a pastor undergoes termination.

So offering up my own experiences as a model, let me share five emotions that I experienced in the aftermath of my departure from ministry in 2009:

First, I was shocked by the viciousness some people demonstrated to get rid of me. 

Some people I served as pastor did everything in their power to destroy my position as pastor as well as my reputation.

And I mean destroy.

There is no way to sugarcoat what they did or said.  These professing Christians intended harm toward me, their pastor.

It was revenge … and personal.

Only I didn’t know then … and don’t know today … what I did or didn’t do to illicit such hatred from them.

That shock lasts a long time.  In many ways, I’m still not over it.

I never preached with a hateful tone nor a hateful manner, so those feelings did not originate with me.  They either came from an internal or external source.  My guess is that they came from someone outside the church who fanned the flames of anger inside the church.

The attitude of these people was not, “We disagree with your views on several subjects,” nor, “We think you’ve lost effectiveness and should go.”

No, their attitude was, “We hate you, Jim, and we want you to leave and never come back.”

These were people who professed to love Jesus, His Word, and His people … so how could they demonstrate such rage against their pastor who had served them faithfully for 10 1/2 years?

I have no idea.

When I was nineteen years old, I became a youth pastor.  One night, after finding out that two of my former Sunday School teachers were involved in sexual immorality, my pastor told me, “Jim, don’t ever be shocked by what Christians do.”

Over the years, I’ve tried not to be.

But sometimes, I still am.  Sometimes, the whole conflict invades my soul without warning, and I shake my head and say to myself, “I could never, ever treat a pastor the way I was treated.”

If I’m shocked at anything today, it’s that not even one person responsible for pushing me out has ever apologized for their actions.

Second, I engaged in a lot of self-reproach.

I have this really unhealthy habit of believing bad things people say about me while ignoring the good things.

It’s not so much a self-esteem issue as it is blaming myself for not being perfect.

So when the church board attacked me privately … and their allies attacked me publicly … I figured that I must be who they said I am: a horrible person and pastor.

Nearly every charge made against me was a partial or complete falsehood, and I knew that at the time, but I still blamed myself for not being everything they wanted in a pastor.

Whenever someone severely criticized me, I used to tell myself, “How arrogant of me to think that I can please all 400 adults in this church.  I can’t, and nobody else can, either.”

That’s a healthy way to view criticism.  But when your critics all align together, and pool their complaints, and fire them off into the ether, it’s natural to think, “They must be right.  I must be a colossal bozo.”

That’s why going to counseling was so important for both me and my wife.  We needed an outside, objective, different perspective.

We saw two counselors: one who practiced a few miles from that church, and another who practiced in another state.

Both told me the same thing: the way you were treated was wrong, and your critics failed to demonstrate any love or redemption, the tip-off that your opponents were not very spiritual.

Let me quote from Dennis Murray in his book Healing For Pastors & People Following a Sheep Attack:

“The attack on you is not information about you.  It is information about the handful of ringleaders who organized the battle…. Healing begins by recognizing that you did the right thing.  You were blessed with an incredible ‘manure detector’ that allowed you to see exactly what was happening.  You have been blessed with a perceptive intelligence that allows you to distinguish truth from lies.  Your intuition is highly developed and you were able to separate fact from fiction.”

Although I still don’t know why my attackers hated me so much, I no longer blame myself for the conflict, and realize that while I made mistakes in ministry, nothing I did justified the way I was treated.

Third, I experienced a normal amount of depression.

Dr. Archibald Hart is the best teacher I’ve ever had.  He taught “The Pastor’s Personal Life” class in Fuller Seminary’s Doctor of Ministry program.  (And he told me that he would put my book Church Coup on his reading list.)

Dr. Hart believes that whenever you’re depressed, you need to find the core loss, and only then will you start to recover.

My wife and I lost so much after my resignation: my position, my income, my reputation, our house (it was underwater and was sold in a short sale), our church family, our credit rating, and worst of all, most of our friends.

That’s a formula for depression.

When my wife and I attended a Wellness Retreat sponsored by The Ministering to Minister’s Foundation the month after our departure, Dr. Charles Chandler and his colleagues stressed the importance of both going to counseling and taking antidepressants to aid in recovery.

Fortunately, my wife and I were both already doing those things.

After we left our last ministry, we moved to another state 750 miles away.  For months, I could either explode in anger or break into tears at the drop of a hat.  I spent weeks just walking around the neighborhood where we lived, wondering how I could ever pastor a church again.

My core loss?  In my view, I had lost my identity as a person … and in a very real sense, was lost both vocationally and personally.

Which means that to go forward, I would have to reinvent myself vocationally.

Here’s what I’ve learned about depression after a forced departure:

*Whenever I returned to the community where my previous church was located, I would become increasingly anxious and afraid.  I can no longer get anywhere near it.  It’s poison to my soul.

*Whenever I took a trip out-of-state, my depression lifted, probably because I felt safe.

*Whenever I’ve talked about my situation in public – like in a workshop for Christian leaders – I feel fine.

*Whenever I write a blog, I rarely feel sad because I’m trying to help others by engaging in something redemptive.

*When I wrote my book Church Coup, and had to look at documents that were created during the conflict, I could feel my intestines tie into knots.  If it’s a difficult book to read, imagine how painful it was to write.  (This is probably why there are very few books written by pastors about their own forced terminations.)

*When I became an interim pastor three years after leaving my last ministry, I felt great most of the time … except when I was drawn into several conflicts.

I’ve been asked if I’m willing to do any more interim work, but right now, the answer is “no.”  Whenever I even imagine myself serving at a church, the pressure behind my eyes builds again, and I start feeling a large degree of anxiety.

For me, healing involves working, and being involved in ministry … just not church ministry.

Fourth, I am completely open about every aspect of the conflict.

Years ago, I determined that I would be a pastor who would express his humanity and describe his feelings if it would be redemptive.  I grew up with pastors who never let us know who they were or what they felt strongly about, and I didn’t want to be like them.

So when the Lord allowed me to go through a 50-day conflict of which I was the focus, I resolved that I was going to make things redemptive by sharing what happened to me so that I could help others.

Many pastors have who been pushed out of their churches don’t want to talk about what happened to them with anyone.  They keep it all inside … for whatever reason.

Maybe they don’t want to relive it.  Maybe they don’t want to dwell on the past.  Maybe they figure they can’t change what happened.

Or maybe it’s all just too painful.

My ministry mentors are leaders like Archibald Hart, Bill Hybels, and Stephen Brown … men who are authentic and transparent about their feelings and failures.

So if someone wants to talk about our conflict, I’m glad to engage.  If someone wants to steer away from the topic, I’ll follow their lead.

Several months ago, I learned that someone who had supported my ministry during the entire time I was at my last church turned against me after I left … and she surely wasn’t the only one.

It hurt me for a moment, but then I figured, “Why should this bother me?  I can’t straighten out everybody.  Besides, the next time we’ll see each other is in heaven, so she can only hurt me if I let her.”

But I felt that sadness behind the eyes again, and had to wait for it to subside.

To write my book, I had to engage in hours of personal ruminating as well as many interpersonal conversations.  My hope was that by writing a complete account of what happened … with commentary from conflict experts … I could put the entire situation behind me.

Writing the book did help a great deal.  I don’t have to revisit any major events mentally because I’ve already recorded them.

I would say this: being open about what happened to me probably wrecked any chance I have of returning to church ministry someday, but it’s made me much more empathetic and effective in helping pastors who have undergone this horrendous experience.

And I think that’s a great trade-off.

Finally, I have felt a strong sense of isolation.

I love Sherlock Holmes, whether it’s Doyle’s original stories, the episodes filmed for Masterpiece Theatre in the 1980s, or Benedict Cumberbatch’s current take on Holmes.

Holmes was a consulting detective which means that people who wanted help with a problem had to seek Holmes out directly.  They came to him … he didn’t go to them.

When I was a pastor, people emailed and called me for help during the week. They made appointments for my counsel.  They sought me before and after services.  As an introvert, I loved it when people came to me for help.

I was a somebody at church.

But when you’re no longer a pastor, you suddenly feel like a nobody at every church you visit.  And God help you if you tell the pastor that you’re an ex-pastor who would like to use his spiritual gifts to make a difference.  Most of the time, you will be perceived as a threat and shunned just for saying that much.

The Christian community simply does not know what to do with its former pastors.

My wife and I live in a desert community.  We have many business clients but no real friends in the area.  We are not only each other’s best friends … we are each other’s only friends.

We do have some family around: 60 miles away … 75 miles away … 330 miles away … and 490 miles away.

And we do have some good friends we see several times a year.

But it’s not the same as when you have church friends that you see several times a week because they live in your community.  We’ve tried going that route, but so far, it hasn’t worked.

In case you’re wondering, I love my life right now.  The Lord retired me early, and I enjoy working with my wife, seeing our grandsons, watching sports, and going to concerts and ballgames.

It hasn’t been an easy road, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

This Monday marks seven years since the beginning of the conflict that pushed me out of church ministry.  As I do every year, I’ll be writing a special blog about that experience and including some things I’ve never shared before.

If I can help you or a loved one who has undergone a church attack, please let me know.  Either leave a comment on this blog or write me at jim@restoringkingdombuilders.org

Sometimes reaching out to someone who understands is the best way to start your recovery.

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