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Posts Tagged ‘recovering from pastoral termination’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stage 1: Shock

Stage 2: Searching

Stage 3: Panic

Let me share the final three stages with you:

Stage 4: Forgiveness

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

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

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

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

These boards must be forgiven.

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

These boards must be forgiven as well.

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

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

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

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

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

He has to settle for unilateral forgiveness instead.

Let me share how this works from my own story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why did it take so long?

I wasn’t ready.

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

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

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

Forgiveness is essential.

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

And then trust Him to do just that.

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

Stage 5: Distancing

What do I mean by distancing?

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

Let me share a mistake I made along this line.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s just too painful.

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

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

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

That’s what I mean by distancing.

To recover, you need to distance yourself:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally, there’s:

Stage 6: Perspective

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

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

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

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

I recommend:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

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While 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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