I am a product of the first generation to be immersed in television and television advertising. I cannot even imagine trying to count the number of ads that have passed before my eyes – from the sublime to the ridiculous to the downright annoying. Some are disturbing only after you think about the messages they have communicated without our awareness. Many of us have watched as an elderly man in a retirement home discards the menu provided by the home and places a call for fast food to be delivered. Before he can even speak his order, there is a knock on the door, and his order has arrived. His response? “What took you so long?” The bar has been set to a new level of expectation regarding delivery. But the subtle message is how it describes the world around us – a world of speed, rapid response, and adrenaline rushes.
It would be nice to believe that those of us in the Church, and in leadership roles specifically, are immune to the pull of the culture. Yet such is not the case. Our ‘need for speed’ extends even into those times when a pastor and his family encounter the heart-wrenching experience of being exited from ministry. Often, the immediate response is to want to get back in the saddle as quickly as possible, to put this behind us, or to sweep it under the rug. It is an understandable response in some ways, since there are significant losses that come when an exit occurs: loss of income, loss of dignity, and loss of significant relationships.
However, the damage suffered in these times can be deep – and the effects unclear – to the one who has been exited. We must also be aware of the danger of repeating the same mistakes or continuing the same behaviors that may have contributed to the exit. At the very least, unresolved anger and fear will follow us into the next ministry opportunity, if not carefully addressed.
Counter to the tendency of our times, more thought needs to be given to the big picture. I have become an advocate of “time” when it comes to any process of restoration to ministry after an exit or fall. Instead of rushing on to the next call, or desperately trying to cobble together a quick way back, perhaps a different approach is needed. A time for healing and reassessment, to get our heads and hearts in the right place again, may be a better way. With time, and the right environment, the pastor and his family can experience the kind of restoration that leads to wholeness and healthy ministry for the future.
Jesus is the one who has, and is, restoring all things in Himself. He has called us to a ministry of restoration where, through us, His grace flows to others, bringing healing and hope. For the exited or fallen pastor, and his family, three key relationships must be restored. These follow a pattern and they take time!
The primary relationships: God and family. Those who are exited from ministry can feel betrayed by God while at the same time feeling that they have failed Him miserably. In many cases, the pastor has spent more time preparing sermons and for business meetings than attending to his own relationship with Christ. Spouses and families are often more angry and hurt than the pastor, as they have had to watch the downward spiral toward termination. These are the relationships that must be restored before all else.
Learning to be human, to be a follower of Christ, to be a healthy spouse and parent with healthy boundaries and margins, is of critical importance. As I have become fond of saying lately, “God is far more concerned with WHO you are, than WHAT you will ever do for Him!”
Community relationships: the church and community at large. Exited pastors and their families are often mad at the church! The sense of betrayal by the Body is keen, and trust has been broken. The isolation that many pastors experience while in ministry is intensified once they find themselves on the outside looking in; many pastors cannot name five friends, and only a handful might list anyone outside of the pastoral ranks. The discovery that people really do care, and that the church can heal its own wounded, is a monumental one for the exited pastor. Experiencing life in the Body of Christ, outside of the official role of leadership, can renew an exited pastor’s confidence, trust, and appreciation of the grace of God. The opportunity to see the church for what it really is – not as an identity, but as God’s own flock that He ultimately shepherds – can be life changing. Finding friendships, both in and outside of the walls of the church, moves us from a place of isolation to an engagement with life and all it offers.
Leadership relationships: ministry roles. The last relationship needing restoration is the one we often want to put first. It is last because, deep down, we know that this relationships stands or falls on the shoulders of the previous two, by God’s grace. When a pastor is exited, there can be a great deal of confusion about the sense of call. With time and encouragement, some important questions can be asked and answered honestly. Do I belong in full time ministry or a lead role in the church? Is it healthy for me? Why did I enter ministry? Are there other ways to express God’s call on my life? By taking time to assess truthfully, that call may take on a new shape – one that is better suited for particular gifts, passions and styles. If returning to full-time ministry or leadership, exited pastors need a better understanding of a pastor’s true role in the church, including the expectations and boundaries that contribute to healthy, fruitful, and long-term ministries.
Most importantly, we cannot continue to sacrifice the best for the expedient. Fear and panic will never produce the results we hope for – we must give God the time to make us whole.
I have also felt the pull to rush God. Although my exit from ministry 21 years ago was due to personal failure, the intervening years of restoration have followed the same pattern outlined above. Those years were not wasted, and God has proven His grace time and again, as I have walked the slow track. This is why serving His Church through a ministry of hope and grace like PIR Ministries is such a great role for me now.
There may be those who are unaware that PIR’s primary purpose is to help pastors walk through the pain of transition, to the hope and healing available in Christ. Send them our way, so that we can start them on the steady and sure track to restoration.