A Good, Hard Look at Ourselves – for pastors, ex-pastors and other Church leaders.

crackOver the course of the last week, I had the privilege of speaking to two vastly different groups about the urgent need in the church for restorative grace for pastors. The first was a gathering of seminary students in St. Louis, at Covenant Seminary. The second group was mostly made up of seasoned pastors from around Southeast Michigan. In both cases, as we talked about the present challenges of ministry life and as I shared my own journey under God’s restoring grace, a common theme emerged. In the midst of the questions and comments it became apparent to me that there is a fundamental flaw in the way we view ourselves and in the way we understand our roles in life and ministry.

Most of us see ourselves solely as reflections of our calling – our “work” role – and that self-image defines how we relate to the rest of the world. Unfortunately, doing so can lead to many of the difficulties pastors and church leaders face today: the pastoral persona, the need for approval and validation from those we work for, etc. However, based on these recent conversations, I’d like to suggest an alternative, though it might be a complete paradigm shift for both the pastor and those he shepherds.

It’s become clearer to me that the place to begin, is the beginning.

kneeling at crossWe need to see ourselves first as human beings, created in the image of God, who are in need of the gospel every single day. This fundamental reality is inescapable. Pastors are not suddenly exempt because of their calling. Even as pastors, we are as limited, needy and flawed as everyone else – and the object of God’s great love and grace as well. By recalibrating our thinking here, we can avoid a host of troubles in our lives and ministries. Without the sense of ourselves as human, we tend to live separate from the one thing God has put in place to help us all grow back into the fullness of His image: the community of the Church.

Next comes the importance of understanding that we are disciples of Jesus Christ. Our own discipleship precedes anything else we might do “for” Him. I have often said to my fellow servants that God is far more interested in YOU than anything you might do for Him. This translates into reordering our personal priorities and schedules to make room for the care of our own souls first, and the honest working out of our own obedience to His first call on our lives, “Come, follow me!” A critical point shared with the group of seminary students, and confirmed by research done among pastors, was that if the basic disciplines of the spiritual life are not already in place while in seminary, those disciplines will not be present when a newly ordained pastor enters full-time ministry. When Jesus restored Peter, he not only re-commissioned him to teach and feed His sheep, but also set that clearly in the context of Peter’s own need to follow Jesus (John 21).

focusWhen we see ourselves first as human beings in need of grace, and then as disciples of Jesus Christ, our vocational calling can begin to take its proper shape. Pastoral or ministry leadership in the Body of Christ has to grow out of the realities of both our humanity and our discipleship; the sequence is of critical importance. If we reverse the order, or ignore one or the other, the dangers of pride, isolation, need for control, and living a double life are far too tempting. It is humbling to actually live out the understanding that we are human beings that need to experience repentance, confession and forgiveness just like everyone else. It can be difficult to prioritize our lives around our fellowship with Jesus and not around ministry tasks. But, then again, faith is sometimes unsettling.

I am becoming convinced that taking a good, hard look at myself and reorienting the way I see my life is the first step to healthy ministry. It may be the key to living and serving from the heart, rather than simply from our heads. I appreciate this warning to us all from Paul Tripp,

 “…a pastor’s ministry is never just shaped by his knowledge, experience, and skill. It is always shaped by the true condition of his heart.”

Dangerous Calling

How do you see yourself today?

 

The Thankful Pastor – Patterns for Healthy Pastoral Life Pt. 2

Years ago, when I was pastoring, I asked one of the ladies at our church to create a banner around the Latin term “Sursum Corda.” She did a fabulous job, visually depicting the concept of what the term literally means: “Up with Your Heart!” Hanging for all to see at the front of the church, that banner was a weekly reminder to look up, to spiritually take our hearts by the chin and look into the face of a gracious loving God who has provided “everything we need for life and godliness” in Christ.

sursum corda 2

Living under that banner has been a big struggle for me, both in ministry and in life. I spent a lot of time laboring under the shadow of the emotional environment with which I grew up; expectations were never achievable and little time was devoted to truly being thankful. Family members’ constant reminders to send “thank you notes” made that gracious act into an obligation, and not a true expression of my heart.

Entering ministry, I found pastoral work to be a field of land mines that regularly blew any idea of thankfulness or gratitude to smithereens. People were always coming up short, things didn’t happen fast enough or the way I believed they should. It was far too easy to be affected by the spirit of our age, which – like it or not – sees people as products, with efficiency as the master of the system. Certainly, there are tasks that could use a good dose of efficiency. But people are not projects! They will never be subject to efficiency. The more we try to fit them into that mold, the more angry we become – and less thankful. Unfortunately, in this mode, even God can come up short in our eyes. We unconsciously believe He promised things He never did, or didn’t show up when we thought He should – as if somehow He owes us.

We have become production managers when we should be shepherds.

shepherdI am constantly being drawn back to this fundamental idea of pastoral work, that we are indeed shepherds. It flies in the face of our “chronos” (clock) driven culture, and functions in the world of “kairos” (event) time. Sheep, we realize, are not something that function any better or quicker if ‘managed.’ Sheep will indeed produce fleece, in time! If the sheep are healthy, they will naturally repopulate the flock. The shepherd’s job is to protect the sheep, to seek out green pastures for them to feed on and fresh water for them to quench their thirst. The shepherd is called to be faithful to the owner – since that’s whose sheep they are!

Similarly, pastors must also regularly take their places as one of the sheep, finding nourishment for their own souls and health for their own hearts. This is how we become the kind of shepherds that are gracious and wise; without that time for our own hearts to find their proper posture before God, we will be driven instead by anger, impatience, control, and a sense of entitlement. The inner voices that correspond to our own emotional neediness will demand the drug of approval from others – and that is dangerous.

With these images never far from my mind, I am learning to be grateful, to be a thankful person. The results are becoming apparent and the benefits obvious. I smile a lot now! I am finding that my schedule is more flexible around people and, most certainly, God. People even like to be around me – most times. There are still things to get done, and I have my strategy for ministry, but it is daily put on God’s desk for editing and amendment. And each day is a fresh page to be turned.

So, if I were going to try to describe the “thankful pastor,” I would offer a few things that might be helpful. The thankful pastor is:

First and foremost, daily rooted in the understanding and joy of his own redemption;

  • Attentive to his own call to follow Jesus before he worries about others;
  • Aware that life and ministry are gifts from God – undeserved, but lavishly given;
  • Understanding that the people he leads and the church he serves are not his, nor is he serving at their call;
  • A peacemaker in his own heart between the voices of efficiency and the voice of the Spirit of grace;
  • On a daily adventure with God, having been invited into the wonder of spiritual work;
  • Growing in flexibility, faith, and the ability to take joy in the moment.

gratitudeThankfulness and gratitude are the barometer of our heart, a choice regarding how we see the world we live in, the person we are and the calling we have received. If we can begin with the truth of the gospel every day – for our own lives – we will be the healthy pastor people hope for. Sursum Corda is an invitation to pick the eyes of our hearts up from the ground and look full in His wonderful face. And THAT is a privilege we cannot take for granted!

I recently heard a great piece of advice for pastors who are beginning ministry in a new church: when you begin your new role, find anything and everything you can commend and be genuinely thankful for among the people you have come to pastor. I think that is a great way to start! It helps us to recognize that God was there before us, and softens our hearts so that we are less prone to see only those things that are wrong or frustrating.

In his book, Pastors at Risk, Chuck Wickman makes this simple statement that is so true: “Count your blessings. Gratitude is a healer.”

Michael Spencer (The Internet Monk) expresses his own journey toward thankfulness:

“There is discouragement in my world, but if I am honest, most of it is smaller than I make it. I am the one who amplifies it most of the time. As I’ve learned to listen more and more to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, I’m learning that Jesus was very dependable when he taught us that the Kingdom of God is upon is. Right here, right now, close by. I choose to not see it because I am lobbying for that most destructive of emotions: self-pity. Jesus is reminding me that there is sufficiency in the love he extends, and the love he places around us. That love comes in thousands of different ways in a day. The problem is that I don’t expect it, don’t listen or look for it, don’t live in expectation that his gracious love will meet me throughout the day.”

Paul has a lot to say about thankfulness in the book of Colossians, but I have always been drawn particularly to Colossians 2:7. The progression in this passage is noteworthy: rooted in Christ, renewed in the truth of the gospel, which creates a geyser of thankfulness. It reminds us that there is too much wonder in the world to be grumpy. The Gospel is too strong to allow us to remain disappointed.

How have you grown in thankfulness?

sursum corda

“Once Upon A Time…Sabbath!” Patterns for Healthy Pastoral Life Pt. 1

“Patterns for Healthy Pastoral Life” is a series in which I would like to explore some of the key ingredients to living and serving well. I make no claim that these are the exclusive paths towards healthy pastoring, nor do I have the corner on insights in these areas. But I am drawing from what I have observed in my own life, my work in a restorative ministry to pastors, and the ideas of those whom I respect in the world of pastor-care. I invite you to share your thoughts and add to the discussion along the way.

crashing boundariesThe other day, I was asked to name the single most common reason pastors are exited. There is no simple answer; we are quite creative at putting ourselves at risk! It’s like trying to pick the single thread out of a tangled ball of yarn. There are many contributing factors, but I would say that a lack of boundaries is a good place to start. Boundaries include not only what you won’t do, but what you will do. And it includes establishing boundaries regarding time!

Although there has been a good deal written lately on the subject, I would like to begin this series with the thorny subject of Sabbath. I intentionally borrowed the title for this post from the start of many fairy tales, because keeping the Sabbath seems like a fairy tale to most Christians and many pastors. “Rest? Who needs rest? Not this guy!” It is unfortunate that one of the most important patterns for our spiritual health is also one of the most absent.

As I read through the gospels, I am constantly challenged by the pattern of Jesus’ life. With so much at stake, there was a rhythm and easy order to his days. He wasn’t frantic, nor did he arrive at the end of the day restlessly anxious about everything he didn’t get accomplished.

That is so NOT me.

I am constantly bumping my head (and my heart) up against the limits of my humanity. Even technology fails me, providing only an illusion of being able to be more and do more. I am desperately in need of rhythms and patterns where God’s grace becomes apparent to me in ways that I usually miss. (I am indebted to Annie Dillard, who provides a wonderful illustration of this in her book Teaching a Stone to Talk)

I can hear many of you now, “Rest is for the weak!” You might not say that out loud, but what exactly is the message that we communicate with our busyness? Somehow, we think the rules don’t apply to us and that we can exceed our limits without consequence. Unfortunately, if we don’t create boundaries, someone (or something) will. I found this quote from Wayne Muller’s book, Sabbath – Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives, “If we do not allow for a rhythm of rest in our overly busy lives, illness becomes our Sabbath – our pneumonia, our cancer, our heart attack, our accidents create Sabbath for us.”  And, I would add, our burnout and exit from ministry.

familySabbath is a way of ordering our lives. Of creating boundaries in time where we can breathe deeply, sit without any other purpose than to observe, delight and center ourselves in God’s goodness. Where we can reconnect with ourselves, letting our souls catch up to our bodies, and tell our families we love them with our whole-hearted presence.

Trust me – this is hard for me, too! There is not enough time to get done everything I want to get done. There are tasks to be completed: family tasks, house tasks, church tasks, MINISTRY tasks! I find myself spending as much time managing the tools meant to make me more efficient, as doing the work. Sometimes vacations are more like another project than the true rest we seek. Frustration mounts and then you want me to STOP and do NOTHING!?

I am convinced that not having a Sabbath rhythm is a big deal. The creation pattern, re-emphasized by the Law and re-clarified by Jesus, is crucial for maintaining a healthy life for all, but especially pastors. Why? God’s people were told to guard the Sabbath, and even though the warnings in Old Testament became ritualized, we have to ask why God thought this was so important.

Were you aware that the beautiful grass that adorns the greens at Augusta National (or any good golf course, for that matter) grows best if you cut it 6 days a week? Leaving it alone on the 7th day keeps it healthy and ready for optimal play. This was shared with me years ago by a friend who was a Master Greenskeeper.

So, why is rest important?

  • Rest frees us from being the center of the universe. We would never say this, or think this, but our behaviors tell the real story
  • Rest reminds us of Whose story we are a part
  • Rest frees us from the illusion of control
  • Rest roots us in our relationship to God first and foremost
  • Rest gives us perspective, allowing us to see beauty and wonder, opening our souls to a larger vision
  • Rest allows for space to ask the deeper questions. This was particularly meaningful for me as I journeyed on my own path toward restoration.

sabbath fieldsWhen we rest, we can let go. We are less prone to try to control. We can begin to serve, not out of compulsion, drive, or fear, but out of a reciprocal love with the God that renews us.

We preach, counsel and advise those in our congregations to observe a day of rest. Do we practice what we preach? My wife is my best barometer in this regard. While I am getting better at it, I am still not always diligent about keeping to this pattern. Since our small group spent a year studying the Sabbath and its implications in our modern life, we have regularly set aside Sunday to nap, take a drive (though it’s been awhile) or sit on the patio and enjoy our garden.

I confess to still getting antsy from time to time. That is because patterns and rhythms are not one time things; they must become the culture of our heart. As my friend Frank said the other day, a day off can’t merely be a time when I “patch myself up enough to get through another week.” However it may appear to others, it is vital that pastors build into their lives a clear and non-negotiable pattern of keeping the Sabbath. Jesus said the day was made, created, and designed for US! It is God’s weekly gift that frees us from ourselves.

Fortunately, it may actually be a part of your job! Pastoral coach and counselor David Weidis offers this perspective:

“When I coach pastors, they often look at me incredulously when I tell them to include time spent in solitude, recreation, and refreshment as part of their working hours. Why? Because your ‘job’ requires you to be spiritually fit, and you can’t be in good spiritual condition by always being on the go. Jesus often ‘withdrew to a quiet place’ and effectively said ‘no’ to ministry opportunities.”

Questions of who will “cover the bases,” especially for the small church pastor, have to take a back seat to the overarching importance of setting into place healthy patterns that will allow you to be a healthy pastor for many years to come.

How can you make the pattern of Sabbath a reality in your life and ministry?

Sign

 From the blog of a good friend, who has some keen insights into the life of the Spirit:

http://www.farmingtonglenn.net/caught-in-moments-or-lost-in-movement/#comment-446)

 A great primer on helping your leaders help you design a sabbatical:

http://pinmin.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/Sabbatical-Policy-Booklet.pdf

 Tim Keller provides some helpful insights on Sabbath rest:

http://redeemercitytocity.com/content/com.redeemer.digitalContentArchive.LibraryItem/594/Wisdom_and_Sabbath_Rest.pdf

 A wealth of helps here:

http://www.emotionallyhealthy.org/index.php/free-resources/

The Restoration Tree – a Parable for Exited Pastors

Finally, brothers,rejoice. Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.” – 2 Corinthians 13:11 (ESV)

“I love to think of nature as an unlimited broadcasting station, through which God speaks to us every hour, if we will only tune in.” – George Washington Carver

I have found that God occasionally uses His creation to speak into my life. This has happened twice over the past year. The first time was when I was trying to discern if God was really opening the door for me to re-enter ministry after more than 20 years away, as a staff member with PIR Ministries. While on a men’s retreat last spring, I was out walking and praying, asking God to make His call plain. Rightfully so, there was a great deal of fear and trepidation associated with making this decision. Several years before, God had already made it clear that He wouldn’t be mad at me if I entered into certain ministry roles in the church where we were attending. But a return to full-time ministry, of ANY kind, was never a given. I had been restored to God and to the Body, but I needed to know that it was His call that would allow me to be restored to a leadership role again. My prayer was basically, “OK, God, I need to know if this is the real deal. I am afraid and excited. It’s a BIG step and I want to make it in the right direction. Is this what you want me to do?”

And so, He provided a symbol of confirmation. I wasn’t looking for a physical sign, but He couldn’t have made it any plainer when I turned around to walk back to the lodge. What I saw amazed me.

PIR3 image

I wrote about this in my first newsletter to friends and supporters, but the similarities between the tree God put in my path and the logo of PIR Ministries were not lost on me – new life springing from what had been dealt a devastating blow. With a joy I had not known in years, I stepped into this new chapter of my life in Christ.

new logo 4 resize

Fast-forward to a week ago. I’ve been with PIR for a year now, and the uncertainty about “if” and “how” this was going to work out is a distant memory. I have the privilege of serving God’s servants, offering hope, encouragement and help to those exited or “at-risk.” The opportunities to connect with pastors and churches have been God-directed. Laying the groundwork for this vital ministry has started to bear fruit. And so, He steps in again with a symbol of confirmation. Looking out our dining room window, my wife and I noticed some unusual “protrusions” on the redbud tree we have in our front yard.

redbud 2013 3

This tree has always been a favorite for us, for a number of reasons. Not the least of which is that, at one point about a decade ago, it was dead. It had withered and died; all that was left was a stump. We left the stump in the ground over the winter, and were surprised to see a tiny sprout appearing the next spring. Today, it is a healthy tree that delights our hearts every spring with bright red blossoms and heart shaped leaves. What is beyond remarkable is that the protrusions we observed are actually seedpods – the fruit of the redbud tree. It had never done this before and the symbolism was not lost on us. It has been a year, and there are signs that God is at work making my work through PIR fruitful, for His glory. He is the God who restores!

Why am I sharing this? Because there are many exited pastors who struggle to believe that God even remembers their name, let alone has a next chapter for them. I share it with my brothers and sisters who have been wounded, who have fallen, who find it difficult to trust God and His people. I share it for the spouses and families of pastors who have crashed and burned and who wonder if life will ever feel OK again. I want them to know that the God they have served is not done with them yet! The path may be long and painful; the stump may look blasted and dead. The next chapter may not look like the first, but God owns the book. He is the soil in which we are planted, and His grace really never fails.

Back to Jesus Alone

I heard this wonderful piece recited at a recent conference by my friend, Peter Reid. Peter is connected with Lamplighters Ministry, and was the featured speaker. I asked him to send it to me, and I am pleased to share it with you. It reflects the yearning of my heart on many occasions. I trust it will be an encouragement to you. Let us all return to the One who is our life.

jesus at table

 

BACK TO JESUS ALONE

 

When you can’t figure out whether to:

           sit at his feet, walk in a manner worthy of His call, run the race with diligence,

It’s time to get back to Jesus alone…

When you can’t even remember:

            the twenty-two characteristics of a good wife or husband, the seven steps of appeal to authority, the eight things to do when you are worried, or the nine ways of love,

It’s time to get back to Jesus alone…

When the proof of authority is simply “they say”:

and they say, “Have faith, just trust, let go and let God”;  and they say, “just find the sin and repent”; and they say, “just love, have joy, and receive peace, and pray”; and you can’t figure out who “they” are,

It’s time to get back to Jesus alone…

When your Pastor says:

hear the Word, read the Word, mark the Word, memorize the Word, study the Word, and meditate on the Word, and you are lost in the middle of Leviticus or Revelation, and Jeremiah is just too much,

It’s time to get back to Jesus alone…

When you hear:

it’s pre, mid, post, a, or pan, don’t take the “mark”, it is “times, time and half a time”, and you can’t get through the next half hour,

It’s time to get back to Jesus alone…

When you hear testimonies of others:

raising the dead, praying all night, fasting forty days, leading thousands to the Lord, and memorizing the entire Bible, and you hear it through someone who hasn’t done any of it,  and they expect you to do it, and you feel obliged,

It’s time to get back to Jesus alone…

When you hear:

have faith, work hard, repent, conquer, give, suffer, sacrifice, evangelize, make disciples,  wait on Him, walk in Him, pick up your cross, claim your possessions, and pray, and you feel pulled ten different directions on a rack,

It’s time to get back to Jesus alone…

When it is:

            home school, Christian school, public school, the school of hard knocks, or no school, and

            the discussion is heating up,

It’s time to get back to Jesus alone…

When you are getting a multitude of requests and letters to give to:

Wycliffe, Billy Graham, TBN, CBN, CMA, CCC, BOM, LCM, CFNI, CORE, YWAM, IVF, YFC, 700 Club, PTL Club, CBS…ABC…XYZ…,

It’s time to get back to Jesus alone…

When you can’t figure out whether to:

            wash the dishes, do the laundry, have a quiet time, change a diaper, mow the grass, or read,

It’s time to get back to Jesus alone…

When it is running the car to:

soccer, volleyball, softball, basketball, handball, football, or just plain ball, and you feel the road is your home,

It’s time to get back to Jesus alone…

When you are asked, “How’s it going at your church?” and you know it means “Ask me how it’s going at mine. “and you know you are about to hear about:

            a huge explosion of numbers, miracles, tongues, radio broadcasts, and seminars, and you feel a failure,

It’s time to get back to Jesus alone…

When you’re overweight and feel like running past the mirror and people are suggesting:

            Spas, running, jogging, cycling, swimming, weight watchers, triathlons, biathlons, and trampolons, and you are out of breath just thinking,

It’s time to get back to Jesus alone…

When you have gone to another conference this year that claimed “This is it!”:

and you tried “it”, and “it” didn’t work, and the guy left town with your $200 and you can’t get a hold of him to ask why “it” didn’t work,

It’s time to get back to Jesus alone…

When you just heard another:

“thus saith the Lord”; that contradicted the last “word from the Lord”; that was contrary to the previous “the Lord told me”; and you finally get the picture the Lord is being dragged into things He never said,

It’s time to get back to Jesus alone…

It is time to separate His commands from Christian demands,

It is time to hear Him speak the Word.

It is time to simplify.

It is time for one step at a time.

It is time to consider some lilies and birds.

It is time for the secret place with Him alone!

By Jim May(edited)

Isolation and Loneliness – the Danger Zone for Pastors

“It is not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18).

question-friendsWe are all familiar with the typical questions pastors get asked – “How big is your church? What’s your annual budget? How many services do you have?” But there is one question that pastors rarely get asked: “How many true friends do you have?”

Do I hear crickets?

In a culture that encourages a very individualistic approach to life, many people feel a general sense of loneliness every day. That general sense of loneliness is exponentially heightened in the life of the ministry family. In Chapter 5 of his book Pastors at Risk, Dr. Chuck Wickman talks about the impact of isolation and loneliness on the pastor and his family. Pastors often feel a deep sense of isolation from others – an inability to connect in significant relationships that bring balance and health. This is due, at least in part, to the distance between pastor and parishioner that often defines the role. Add to that the care-giving functions of pastoral ministry, and the pastor can be left depleted and unavailable emotionally.

There are times when the isolation that we experience is of our own doing. We allow the pastoral persona to become all that people see of us. We fear that connecting too much or being too real will lead to hurt or doubt. Unfortunately, this can, and does, take its toll. The path of isolation and loneliness winds its way to dark places, where health, spiritual vitality and emotional integrity can be compromised. It is also true that some of us will use this as an opportunity to be “on our own” and unaccountable for our time. This is a dangerous place to be.

Recently, I came across some research linking social isolation with poor health outcomes including depression, heart disease, sleep problems and other disorders. But it has never been clear what it is exactly about being alone that may be so harmful. In a study published by Dr. Carla Perissinotto, an Assistant Professor of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, researchers reported that “…it’s not just living alone, but having actual feelings of loneliness and isolation that matters.” (How Feeling Lonely Can Shorten Your Life, TIME, 6/19/12)

Pastors, and their spouses, often deal with:

  • feelings of abandonment, rejection and the deep sense that no one understands them, or the expectations placed on them
  • the sense of “overload” that can make having significant relationships a chore and therefore easy to avoid
  • difficulty with transparency – you might blow your cover and you will be shown the door
  • feelings of martyrdom – the sense that you alone carry the burden of ministry

lonelinessThere is another component to this as well. Most pastors do not have a pastor that THEY can call on, adding additional stress to the growing list of dangers (Pastors at Risk, p 51)

My own story of crashing and burning is one where, in a deep sense of isolation, I could not risk sharing my guilt, shame and fears – which eventually led to a very public and disgraceful exit from ministry.

What can be done? 

First, pastors need to be reminded that, in addition to being a leader, they are human. They are also a part of the Body of Christ, and need to be connected in significant relationships to others. Having the title of pastor doesn’t come with its own supply of “anti-loneliness” pills. Like any other person in your congregation, you need others in the journey of following Christ. So, it is vital that you:

Acknowledge the need -“It is not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). Why? Wasn’t God enough? If you will let me wax theological for a moment – God Himself is not solitary, but is in eternal relationship. Love, which the Scriptures tell us God is, can only happen in relationship. We were built for relationships. While there are some things that only a relationship with God Himself can supply, He has determined that there are things that He wants us to experience in connection with others like us. We need to “flesh out” the love that we have in relationship with God. You need friends!    

Don’t hide! If nothing else, reach out to other pastors who share the same need. It will take effort, but the benefits are worth it. Find those pastor or ministry leader friends who won’t posture, but are genuinely interested in being there for you – and you for them. And, contrary to popular opinion, it is OK to connect with people in your congregation and build friendships. Accept invitations to ball games and dinner parties. Putting yourself in those situations will give the Holy Spirit opportunity to lead you to those who can become a “Jonathan” to you (1 Samuel 18:1).

Share your heart, not just your head One of the most significant shifts in the way I relate to my wife, that has carried over to other relationships, has been to talk about how I am feeling at any given moment – not just what I am thinking. This is an issue for men who are pastors and leaders. We are far too often in our heads: ideas, visions, concepts, principles, etc. Remember that it is the “feelings” of isolation, identified in the research above, that have the negative impact on our lives. In addition to asking, ”What are you thinking right now,” my wife will ask me what I am feeling. This gives me permission to connect to the current state of my heart. In those significant relationships, sharing our hearts – including the loneliness and weakness we feel – can open the door to spiritual health.

Refuse the shallows Recently, Mike Foster wrote about a new way to view what we have called “accountability” groups. He uses the term “advocacy” to describe the role of key people in our lives who walk the path with us. They are advocates, on God’s behalf, of grace.

 Radical grace is the core engine for any healthy relationship. You cannot have true transparency or confession without it. I encourage people to make verbal commitments to each other and clearly state that they will stand by one another through the best AND the worst.

Most people live with the fear of rejection and allow this fear to dictate how honest they will be with others. In advocacy, we are constantly demonstrating that this relationship is a safe place. Through our response to one another’s failures, our own deep confession, and reminding each other that we are in this for the long haul, we implement radical grace. (ChurchLeaders.com)

friends In general, I am encouraged that the emerging generation of leaders seems to be able to embrace the need for connection to a greater degree than many in my generation. Having learned this lesson the hard way, I have found great joy, comfort and encouragement in the company of great friends who walk with me on this journey.

Who is walking with you?

The Exited Pastor’s Golden Opportunity

“Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.”– 1 Timothy 4:16

studyingAs part of my duties as a ruling elder in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, I regularly witness ordination exams. We gather at our presbytery meetings and grill the new candidates for ordination, asking questions about deep theological and doctrinal issues. Having studied hard in seminary and in preparation for the exam, the nervous future pastors work their way through the answers – mostly to the glad approval of all in attendance. Yet what doesn’t normally come up is how these “soon to be” pastors have studied for the care of their own souls. We seem to read past the first couple of words in the verse above in our ever-vigilant pursuit of right doctrine, never considering that a broken life can be the surer end to a promising ministry.

So, when damage has been done and we find ourselves on the sidelines, God sees an opportunity to help us grow. In transition, we have the chance to examine the more substantial issues of the “life” Paul advises us to watch as closely as we do our theological systems. We can look at who we really are – and where our hearts need to be healed. What do exited pastors have the opportunity to address?

Who are you?

 The question asked by the famous rock band The Who, popularized as the theme song for the long running TV show C.S.I., is the most important one an exited pastor – or any pastor for that matter – should ask. The big question is “Who am I?”

Far too many of us find our identity in the ministry role to which God calls us. We forget that God’s first call on our lives – and the one that matters most – is to an eternal relationship with Himself. I have become very fond of saying (and so I will say it again) God is more interested in WHO you are than anything you will ever do FOR Him.

who The exited pastor is given the rare occasion to discover that his identity does not equal “the call.” He (or she) can move from being a workaholic to someone with realistic personal boundaries. My friend, Ray Carroll (www.FallenPastors.com), has rightly noted “The church is the pastor’s first mistress,” which is a dangerous liaison. Our life is in Christ – remembering our first love is the first step to recovering our sense of self.

I have been inspired, in a counterintuitive way, by the ordination prayer offered over Henri Nouwen by his good friend Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche Communities.

“May all your expectations be frustrated;

May all your plans be thwarted;

May all your desires be withered to nothingness;

That you may experience the powerlessness and poverty of a child

and sing and dance in the love of God the Father, the Son and the Spirit.”

What is your calling?

Being exited provides a wonderful chance to rethink the role God might want you to fill in His Body, the Church. Sometimes we can feel stuck on a path with no other options – I must be a pastor! This notion is unfortunately reinforced constantly, from seminary days through every conference we attend and book we read. We are never encouraged to consider that the shape of the call can, and may need to, change.

I was struck by the statement made by David Rohrer in his book, The Sacred Wilderness of Pastoral Ministry, when he said, “Ministry has a shelf life.” Taking his cue from the life and ministry of John the Baptist, Rohrer presents a window through which to look at our calling to serve in a different way. It may be time to change it up.

Are you sufficiently self-aware?

self examThe onset of an exit from ministry will often result in coming face-to-face with our humanity. Being aware that he is also in-process can escape the pastor who is knee deep in the daily work of ministry. A time to look at some of the following can be a liberating experience.

 Have I tried to be more than I really am? Am I comfortable in my own skin? Can I learn to be transparent and ruthlessly honest about the areas of weakness in my life? Am I clear on the fact that I cannot walk this path alone, in isolation? Is there a growing freedom to express anger, sadness and pain?

 John Piper recently wrote about his own experience in trying to become more self-aware: “Everyone should do this for his own soul. Pastors, you will know your people’s souls best by knowing your own. So try to be ruthlessly honest with yourself. The key here is not professionalism.”

Will you risk trust again?

Since many pastors who are exited sense a deep loss of trust, it is vital that, before resuming ministry, the issue of trust is addressed. The first step of restoration for an exited pastor needs to be a deep restoration to God. Can I trust Him and reframe the past in a new confidence in His faithfulness and sovereignty? The seeming wilderness of an exit can become a place where God shows up in the mundane, and trust in His heart is restored.

 The next step of personal restoration, long before there is restoration to a ministry role, is the rebuilding of trust in the church – the people of God. PIR Ministries believes that churches, acting as refuges to exited pastors, are the place where healing and restored hope must to be found. But the exited pastor has to come to grips with the broken trust that is felt when the church isn’t that kind of place.

If an exited pastor can use this time of being out of the ministry to take a new look at the life God has given them – to rediscover Jesus and themselves – then the return to ministry will be filled with joy and an authenticity not known before.

return thru door

Exited Pastors: The Ruined Landscape

HurricaneI have lived through hurricanes. When I was much younger, growing up in Florida, there were several times when my family huddled together in our boarded-up home, lighting candles when the power went out and listening to the fury of the passing storm. Once the “all clear” was given, we would step outside to survey the damage done to the landscape – tree branches strewn about, water everywhere and the usual debris left behind by the battering winds.

Sometimes, the effects were more serious and long lasting; the residents of the Gulf Coast and eastern seaboard will be living with the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy for years to come.

When a pastor is exited from ministry, it can feel like they have been hit by an emotional and spiritual hurricane. Emerging from the storm, the ruined landscape of life that greets them can be overwhelming – and the impact can last long into the future. Exits occur for many reasons, and regardless of why, the devastation to a pastor and his family is real.

Working on his doctoral dissertation at Covenant Seminary, Dr. Art Hunt studied the occurrence of forced exits among pastors in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. His conclusions are insightful:

“Three significant themes also surfaced: (1) the ongoing, unresolved conflict that often swirls like an unending storm around pastors who experience a forced pastoral exit; (2) the personal, multifaceted impact or “cost” of such a forced exit for the pastor, his wife, his children, and his current/future ministry practice; and (3) what might best be described as the “post-traumatic care” that is desperately needed but often sorely lacking after the pastor is forced to leave the church he once served.” – Dr. Art Hunt (Cornerstone EPC), Doctoral Dissertation, “I Never Expected This Would Happen To Me.”

Exits affect every area of the life of a pastor and his family: physical, social, emotional and spiritual.

When asked, many describe the experience with words like pain, emotional stress, and depression.

From the March 2012 issue of the Review of Religious Research, an online study found 28% of ministers said they had at one time been forced to leave their jobs due to personal attacks and criticism from a small faction of their congregations. The researchers from Texas Tech University and Virginia Tech University also found that the clergy who had been forced out were more likely to report lower levels of self-esteem and higher levels of depression, stress and physical health problems. Months of suffering traumatic and demeaning psychological and emotional abuse as they are slowly being forced out of their pulpits due to congregational conflict, Tanner said, “is a really, really horrible process.” A separate survey by Texas Tech and Virginia Tech researchers of 55 ministers who were forced out of a pastoral position found a significant link with self-reported measures of post-traumatic stress disorder and generalized anxiety disorder.

debris

 

What debris is left behind after a pastor has been exited? Damage shows up most often in these three areas:

 

MISTRUST

A pastoral exit means more than the loss of a job. It is also the loss of significant relationships. Those of us who lose a secular job have our church family to turn to for encouragement and support. Not so, for a pastor and his family. Mistrust of the church sets in and many become ambivalent toward and distant from the church. The house has been leveled – we can’t go back and we wouldn’t want to go back even if we could. The place of healing becomes the pit of hurting and trust has been compromised.

Even more deeply felt is the damage done to a pastor’s trust in God. The loving counsel so easily dispensed to others regarding God’s faithfulness and sovereignty is difficult to recall for the exited pastor.

LOSS OF SELF ESTEEM

The idea that exited, burned out or fallen pastors are “damaged goods” runs deep on both sides of the pew. When a pastor begins to see himself as a failure, shame hangs over every aspect of his life. It is hard to see the difference between I have failed (which we all do, and hopefully learn from) and I am a failure. It doesn’t take long until doubts about one’s call creep in, like rot at the core of the heart.

As a result, there is a growing sense of isolation for the exited pastor and his family – former colleagues move on with life and ministry while the exited pastor feels left behind.

ANGER

No matter how stoically a pastor may try to move through the ruins of an exit, anger bubbles under the surface. This is especially true if the pastor is “blindsided” by church members or leaders when the exit occurs. “How could God’s people do this?” “How could GOD do this to me?” These questions are the seeds of anger that can eventually grow into a life filled with negativity, bitterness and frustration.

The pastor’s spouse and children can be collateral damage in the wake of the storm of an exit. They often hurt the most. They bear not only the pain and disappointment of their loved one, but are often subjected to their own wounding in the process. Add to this the pastor’s desire to protect his family, and an already significant amount of anger can easily be doubled. It is no wonder that 40% of those exited never return to ministry again. It is too hard to rebuild.

THE NEGATIVE IMPACT ON CHURCHES

One additional piece of wreckage that is often overlooked is the impact that forced exits have on the Church.

A great deal of time and effort is spent trying to clean up after the storm of an exit. The resources that might normally be expended in effective ministry and communication of the Gospel are instead spent sorting through the mess left behind. Unfortunately, many churches opt to try to gloss over the issues rather than deal with them – creating a toxicity that builds over time.

“Leaders urge the congregation to ‘put this behind us and move on.’ Emotions and feelings resulting from difficult, significant, painful experiences in the life of the fellowship may be submerged for a while, but these emotions will appear in future events in the church. A suspicious attitude may become characteristic of the congregation. Percentages are high that having once terminated a minister, the congregation will repeat unhealthy methods of dealing with conflict or disagreement.” – David A. Myers, D.Min. (Ministering to Ministers Foundation, 2012)

THE GOD OF HOPE

The ruined landscape that appears after storms like Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy is overwhelming. Pictures take our breath away. The stories of deaths and injury, of the breadth of destruction left behind, of the sheer magnitude of lives changed forever, weigh on our hearts. Yet alongside of these there come evidences of hope.

rebuilding

Though some people just walked away, many didn’t following Hurricane Katrina, and 8 years later, they are still working to reclaim the city from the brink of utter ruin.

Even as the 2013 Super Bowl was ramping up in New Orleans, the rebuilding and restoration of that city continued. I can’t think of a better metaphor for the God who can suddenly appear in the middle of the mess and bring hope, peace and restoration to the broken lives of exited pastors and their families.

Peter’s Story – an encouragment to pastors

burdenIn the course of keeping up with all the blogs, articles and postings on Facebook regarding the state of today’s pastors, I am noticing a trend. Most of what I am reading lately can be summed up into two groups: the “here’s the list of things that a pastor should do (or not do) to be better, faster, smarter” group, and the “here’s everything that’s wrong with pastors today” group. (The latter being primarily a litany of pastors that have fallen, misused their leadership or gone AWOL.) While I think that many of the issues raised are valid and worthy of discussion, I am left feeling that something is missing. I am more weighed down than built up, and I have to think that the same is true for many of those pastors who have been exited or are simply doing their best to fulfill their call.

Reflecting on this, I was drawn back to the very Scripture that capped the process leading me to join the ministry of restoration for pastors. It is the story of Jesus and Peter, on the occasion when Peter announced his untested loyalty to Jesus –  and Jesus’ prophetic response. The passage is in Luke chapter 22:31-34. I like it best in The Message:

31-32 “Simon, stay on your toes. Satan has tried his best to separate all of you from me, like chaff from wheat. Simon, I’ve prayed for you in particular that you not give in or give out. When you have come through the time of testing, turn to your companions and give them a fresh start.”

 33 Peter said, “Master, I’m ready for anything with you. I’d go to jail for you. I’d die for you!”

 34 Jesus said, “I’m sorry to have to tell you this, Peter, but before the rooster crows you will have three times denied that you know me.”

 peter encouragingThis story gave me the inspiration for the name of this blog – and its purpose. It seemed fitting, in this season leading up to the glorious celebration of Jesus’ Resurrection, to revisit this turning point in Peter’s life. To consider it again and wonder, after he experienced both the depths of shame and the heights of restoration, what he might have done to encourage his brothers – to “strengthen” them. What could Peter have said to the other disciples, to the early followers, that would have been a source of strength to them as their own journeys unfolded amid the trials of ministry? Perhaps, from his own story, he would have reminded them:

 “Jesus loves YOU, this I know!”

 This is a message I will never get tired of trying to get across. It is a message that pastors in every generation need to hear again and again: God loves you and wants you, more than anything you will ever do for him. By all accounts, Peter would have failed a performance review. Yet Jesus prayed for Peter, even knowing he would fail. And when Jesus rose from the dead, Peter’s name was prominent among the people that were to be told about His victory over death. Then, on the beach after He had appeared to them, Jesus took the time to confirm His love for Peter in the process of his restoration. Never lose sight of this fact in the middle of the mess of ministry: You are God’s special possession. (1 Peter 2:11)

 “No matter how long or short the path, there is always a way back to Jesus”

 Can’t you imagine Peter, on an early morning many years later, recalling what Jesus said to him –  “WHEN you have turned back…” In that moment, he might have thought of a brother shepherd he knew who felt burned out, washed out or ruined, and needed to hear that there was hope in Christ. In perspective, Peter’s sin was every bit as horrific as any in the Bible – or any in our own experience. Jesus was not surprised by his sin and in fact wove it into the promise of his restoration. The door is always open with Jesus. That is not always apparent to those pastors who fail or fall today. For some it may take a long time to return, but it’s a journey that ends well.

 “There is value in the pain”

 The shame Peter experienced was deep and bitter. His heart was broken, his image of himself as the “mover and shaker” of the twelve was blasted to dust. Peter surely must have felt like Jesus was being cruel when he asked him three times, “Do you love me more than these?” – reminding him of his boasting before his crash and burn. And yet there was great worth in the pain Peter passed through. Later, he would write about the value of the trials we all are called to face as we live out our faith. He came to a clearer understanding of who he really was, his limits and his strengths, through the pain. If encountered today, Peter would likely be saddened by our desire to avoid pain at all cost. He would, no doubt, tell us that in our brokenness and pain we can find our true selves – and a Friend who walks with us.

 “Don’t forget – you are called to this by a Living Savior”

 risen jesus and peterWhen he had turned back, Jesus reaffirmed Peter’s call. In a very direct way, Peter was learning not to trust in himself but in the One who has been raised from the dead. Jesus reminds him at that beachside breakfast that his life was not something he can control anymore. But regardless of how it would look, it would be lived in the presence of the One who was dead, is alive and lives forever more. When doubts would arise, and regret for past mistakes would claw at his heart, Peter could rest in the fact that Jesus’ Call would define him – a daily reality and a sure hope (1 Peter 1:2). I can almost hear Peter reminding us that Jesus has said, “This is MY work for you. This is not your career choice – this is My path for you. And I am with you if you follow Me.”

There were probably many other things Peter could have said to his fellow apostles and disciples to give them the strength they needed to continue on in their faith and work. And I trust I haven’t taken too many liberties with Peter’s words – I am sure he will one day tell me!

It seems to me that Peter’s words can still speak to us as we are bombarded almost daily with everything negative about the Church and those who lead her. I want to believe that in the middle of the stresses and disappointments of ministry, or in the aftermath of an exit or fall, Jesus’ work in Peter’s life can be an anchor and a light. There is hope, and it still resides in the same place today that it did for Peter generations ago.

He is Risen, indeed!

Sursum Corda!