In the Meantime…

clockIt’s been a busy couple of weeks. (I hate ever saying how busy I am, even if it’s the truth.) So I am catching up on my posting and thought I would share a couple of links to some other bloggers that have challenged me over the last few days.

The first one comes from a friend of mine who is speaking powerfully into the lives of pastors who have experienced a moral fall. His blog is full of insights gained through a great deal of pain and the grace of God. Check out his latest:

The second one comes from a blog I follow, written by Brad Lomenick. I appreciate the younger viewpoint that he brings to ministry discussions. In this post, however, he hits on a theme that is timeless. For those of us who struggle with the white space on the pages of our lives, take a look at what Brad has to offer:

I will see you back here in a couple of days with a new post of my own.


Sursum Corda

sursum corda

Finding Hope in the Midst of Conflict – Part 2

In part one of this short series, I talked about the need to be aware that conflict is inevitable in ministry. Another component in finding hope in the midst of conflict is the matter of self-awareness.

baggage claimWe all enter into our walk with Jesus and into our ministry with a baggage claim in hand. Though our guilt and shame is washed away, we still bring with us all of our experiences, character issues, bents in style and behavior – and how we handle conflict is often a result of the baggage we carry. Some of us have learned to resolve conflict in a healthy way, but most of us have not. Conducting some routine self-examination will help us recognize the less than productive ways we approach situations where conflict exists. So, the second key idea to navigating conflict is:

Examine your own styles and the baggage you bring to ministry!

When I sit across the table from a fellow leader in the church, and the dialogue escalates in intensity, when disagreements become deeply entrenched animosities and we are caught in what Eugene Peterson calls the “crosshairs of pastoral expectations,” we often retreat into methods of dealing with conflict that can prove disastrous to finding godly resolution. Here are a few that sound way too familiar to me:

Taking Things Personally (The Defender)

Steven James offers the following advice – dripping with sarcasm –

“If people criticize your work, they are, in essence, attacking you. Criticism of a project you have worked on is a direct assault on your intelligence, personality, and character. As a matter of self-respect, it’s important that you don’t let them get away with that. If you don’t stand up for yourself, you might come across as a pushover. So, show your strength and conviction by defending every idea you have. Rather than “choosing your battles,” remember that if someone criticizes your decisions, actions, or suggestions, they’ve already chosen to attack your personal self-worth. Don’t let them get away with that.” – From Seven Habits of Highly Ineffective Leaders – Time-tested practices to ensure complete and utter failure.

PIR uses an assessment tool called PRO-D. The potential for taking things personally is one of the most consistent themes identified by that tool as an area of concern for pastors and exited pastors. It is the dark side of our desire to care deeply about people: the extreme sensitivity to criticism and the tendency to make agreement a matter of personal acceptance.

Avoidance of Conflict (The Peacekeeper)

In his book, The Sacred Wilderness of Pastoral Ministry, David Rohrer identifies the temptations we face when we try to avoid conflict. We default to either “fight or flight.” Fear (flight) can lead us to become the “fixer upper,” the redeemer of all things negative. We can easily confuse peacekeeping with peace making! People pleasing, which is another way to express this, rarely leads to the place where God wants His church to be.

“If avoidance of controversy and maintenance of the appearance of stability are your highest aim then you will never go far in leading people into the truth.”– David Rohrer, The Sacred Wilderness of Pastoral Ministry (IVP), p.117

Passive-Aggressive Behavior (The Controller)

Pastors sometimes feel themselves at the mercy of church boards, key leaders, or influential groups in the church. A desire to feel in control of something, or anything, especially when you feel powerless, can lead to passive-aggressive behaviors.

“Passive Aggressive behavior is the expression of negative feelings, resentment, and aggression in an unassertive, passive way (such as through procrastination and stubbornness).”

Resentment and anger, like so many other strong emotions, will eventually leak out no matter how hard we try to bury them. They may find their way out through Withdrawal (deliberate procrastination or unwillingness to contribute), the Silent Treatment (making yourself generally “unavailable”), Off-line Criticism (trying to influence opinion through gossip), Sarcasm (targeted humor), and even through Indirect Violence (slamming of doors and kicking the dog).

Winning At All Costs (Narcissism)

According to Rohrer, the “fight” side of avoiding conflict takes on the face of the “warrior.” This requires us to win and establish that we are right. As a result, there can be a slow creep into narcissism – where it’s all about me. Researchers are beginning to see a growing trend in our culture toward narcissism and pastors are not exempt.

“Imagine a person who does what he wants, regardless of how it affects other people. He refuses to take responsibility for his own mistakes, and he believes he’s unbeatable at anything he undertakes, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. Sounds like a textbook narcissist, right? Well, these days, it also sounds a lot like the United States. Narcissism is on the rise in the U.S. It’s likely to get worse before it gets better…” –United States of Narcissism Newsweek (7/17/2011)

feedbackIt may be time to take stock, and get some good, honest feedback about how you engage with conflict. Is your style of handling conflict an obstacle to finding godly resolution? Is it putting you at risk for an exit? Being aware of the way you deal with conflict is not just helpful – it’s a vital examination for anyone wanting to have a healthy ministry.

Finding Hope in the Midst of Conflict – Part 1

If I were to ask you for the most common reason pastors are exited from their churches, what would be your guess? Lousy theology? Bad work habits? Lack of concern for the members?

fired2 Drawing from numerous studies conducted over the last 4 decades, the experts agree that conflict – “the ugly pastor/pew rift over how the life and work of a particular church is to be understood and acted upon” (Chuck Wickman, “Pastors at Risk, p 39) – is the top reason.

Last Fall, I was invited to Grand Rapids Theological Seminary to speak to a class of seminary students studying “Moral Issues in Christian Life and Ministry.” The topic I was asked to comment on was this very one – conflict. Over the next few weeks, I would like to share with you what I shared with them regarding this key issue that divides churches and crushes pastors. Let me begin where I began with them…

We are not sufficiently aware of conditions – In her book Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard observes how the story of early polar exploration can mimic our experience of the church and ministry. She describes, in detail, one of the more memorable failures in attempting to navigate the Artic:

 “In 1845, Sir John Franklin and 138 officers and men embarked from England to find the Northwest Passage across the high Canadian Artic to the Pacific Ocean. They sailed in two three-masted barques. Each sailing vessel carried an auxiliary steam engine and a twelve-day supply of coal for the projected two or three years’ voyage. Instead of additional coal…each ship made room for a 1,200-volume library, “a hand organ, playing fifty tunes,” china place settings for officers and men, cut glass wine goblets, and sterling silver flatware. The officers’ sterling silver knives, forks, and spoons were particularly interesting. The silver was of ornate Victorian design, very heavy at the handles and richly patterned. Engraved on the handles were the individual officers’ initials and family crests. The expedition carried no special clothing for the Artic, only the uniforms of Her Majesty’s Navy.” The last sighting of the expedition was two months after it had set sail.”

sir john Dillard notes that over the next 20 years search parties discovered remains of the expedition – “…life boats dragged across the frozen wilderness containing chocolate, tea and a great deal of table silver. Skeletons were found, silently gripping settings of sterling silver engraved with officers initials and family crests.

Reflecting on the early attempts of polar exploration, Dillard makes this insightful comment, “In the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions.”

(Not) sensible of conditions…unfortunately, this oft-repeated approach to ministry can lead to similar outcomes. Idealistically, many pastors – especially those new to ministry –  believe that conflict will either never happen to them, or will be easily navigated. Here is the first key idea in dealing with conflict –


For countless generations, the idea of conflict as a part of all of life was the norm. But somehow, we have lost this understanding and replaced it with the drive to keep the peace at all costs. More on this later.

If you were to describe conflict in the terms of physics, it is two or more objects trying to occupy the same space – usually you and me! The reasons are multi-faceted, from churches with unresolved issues where factions and power politics are at play, to pastors with personalities and leadership styles that elicit confrontational responses or are unable to navigate troubled waters.

We need to expect conflict because we live in a broken world with broken people, and WE are broken.

BibleConflict runs throughout Scripture: Nehemiah faced it with the exiles who had returned to the land, Jesus had to deal with conflict among his disciples, Paul experienced conflict with both Peter and Barnabus, and the early Church had its encounters with it as well. Gordon MacDonald remarked that, “Adam blamed Eve for his problems, thinking he could wiggle out of conflict. Abraham and Lot split their joint venture because of growing contentiousness among their servants. Brothers Jacob and Esau reached a point of resentment so great that one of them simply skipped town. Joseph had a legitimate case against his brothers but chose to end it in forgiveness. The Israelites constantly drained the spirit of Moses with their complaining. They may have left Egypt, but Egypt never left them. There is Saul angrily chasing David through the wilderness, Ahab expressing antipathy toward the prophet Micaiah, Nehemiah fending off the efforts of saboteurs. In the New Testament, there is frequent squabbling among the disciples, the debates among the early Christians, and the messiness of life in the divisive church in Corinth. Each of these conflicts was different. Many ended badly (David and Absalom). Others ended with great grace, none better than the morning when Jesus made breakfast for the failed disciples and offers them another shot at being on the point of his mission to the world.” – Gordon MacDonald, “When Bad Things Happen to Good Relationships” (Leadership, Winter 2011)

Even the famed colonial pastor Jonathan Edwards ran headlong into conflict – with a less than optimal outcome for him. In 1728, he succeeded his maternal grandfather as pastor at Northampton, Massachusetts, where his preaching brought remarkable religious revivals. But he alienated many of his congregation in 1748 by his proposal to depart from his grandfather’s policy of encouraging all baptized persons to partake of Communion and instead to admit to this sacrament only those who gave satisfactory evidence of being truly converted. He was dismissed in 1750. More recently, in 2009, Tullian Tchividjian, the grandson of Billy Graham, succeeded the late James Kennedy as pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Tchividjian’s church plant, New City, merged with the larger Coral Ridge, but the honeymoon was short-lived. Seven months later a group of church members, headed by Kennedy’s daughter, circulated a petition calling for his removal. On September 20, 2009, Tchividjian survived a vote to remove him from leadership.

So, rather than packing our proverbial pastor’s suitcase with fancy silverware and flip-flops, we need to be aware of the conditions we will likely encounter, and prepare sensibly. The weather in many churches can change from balmy to blizzard in a hurry, and pastors need to expect that snowshoes and winter survival gear may be necessary. The expectation of conflict is the first key to surviving it.polar gear

Christ, Our Hope!

hopelessnessWe are once again coming into the final days of Advent – a time when cards are filled with wishes for hope and good cheer – a time when our anticipation of celebrating goodwill should be at its peak. Yet the events of the past few weeks seem to have cast a pall over these days. A collective hopelessness has rolled over us like a giant, crushing stone. There is great pain; and questions fill our minds. In light of this, I have been driven back to what the Bible has to say about hope. When we experience pain, loss and trauma, the need for hope is critical. But is this “hope” a wish, a dream, and merely our desperate attempt to make sense of painful and chaotic circumstances? In a curious adaptation of one of my favorite lines from the movie “The Princess Bride,” life appears to have issued a challenge, desiring to battle us – not to death, but “to the pain!” The crushed spirits that many exited pastors and their families experience when the Exit sign hangs over their heads cry out for an answer. Daily, I am challenged to find any real hope in what I see and hear around me in this world.

“Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope…” Lamentations 3:21

Our message, as followers of Christ, is one of hope, and so any ministry that grows out of our relationship to Christ is a message of hope. However, it is becoming increasingly clear to me that the hope we offer is not something that resides in us, to be mustered up or dusted off. Our hope is not a positive attitude or wishful thinking. It is Christ Himself: a God who has refused to stay distant from our pain.

incarnationAs I have tried to write for the encouragement and strengthening of my brothers in ministry, I have been reluctant to approach things from a “Five Steps to a Healthier Ministry” point of view. My hesitation comes from the suspicion that this can lead to just another way to manage our sin in its various forms. Without minimizing our responsibilities, what is looming larger for me these days is the true hope that is Christ alone. The Gospel reveals to us that God is in Christ, “…reconciling the world to Himself.” It announces that, through the cross and resurrection of Christ, God is remaking what was broken. “Christ in us” is “the hope of glory”- His very presence in the midst of our mess. We are reminded repeatedly in Scripture that our hope does not come from human manipulation, whether of circumstances, principles, or people. Our hope is in the Lord. Moreover, that hope is not simply in what God might do for us. In His very being, HE IS our hope.

jesus invitingRestoring hope to exited and “at-risk” pastors – or anyone for that matter – is not about creating our own “plan” for patching up hurting people. Any process or method we may use is merely a vehicle by which Christ can reach into lives and become the hope that is needed. Sharing the hope we ourselves experience because of Jesus means pointing our struggling brothers and sisters to the extended arms of a God who has never moved away – even when they are asking, “Where is He?” We can be the nearest evidence someone sees of a God who redeems, remakes and restores. I want to live in hope – to borrow each day from that future reality of “all things new” that Christ has guaranteed by what He has done for us – and radiate that hope to others around me. My only choice in being able to do that is to look away from my clever attempts to remain upbeat, and turn to Jesus – looking “full in His wonderful face,” as the old hymn goes.

EmmanuelFor all who are hoping for some hope in this Christmas season, to all the lonely, hurting pastors and their families, I pray for a renewal of hope through a renewed experience of Emmanuel, ”God WITH us!”

“In him was life, and that life was the light of men” – John 1:4

Sursam Corda!

The Slow Track – a pattern of restoration for exited pastors

rushI 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.

track 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.

CareGivers Forum 2012 – Gathering Together Those Who Serve God’s Shepherds

While the task of ministering to pastors can be daunting for those of us involved, it is encouraging to know that we are not alone. When I began the process of coming on board with PIR Ministries, I shared what God was doing in my life with a friend, Charles Shepson. Dr. Shepson entered my life as a counselor and encourager during a time in my pastoral ministry years ago when the depth of my own personal issues was just beginning to emerge. He is the founder of Fairhaven Ministries in Roan Mountain, Tennessee. Charles and I corresponded with some frequency over the years, and when he heard about the new direction of my life, he immediately said, “You need to go to CareGivers in November!” I had no idea what he was talking about at the time. But, on his recommendation, Deb and I signed up. Afterwards, we discovered that PIR Ministries has been an active part of CareGivers for a number of years.

The 2012 CareGivers Forum was held last week, November 4-8, at the WinShape Retreat Center on the campus of Berry College in Rome, Georgia. Deb and I had the privilege of attending, along with Ed Lochmoeller, the National Director of PIR Ministries. We met with 164 others, representing over 65 different ministries that share in the mission of caring for God’s shepherds. It is an annual gathering of people from across the United States, and “provides opportunity for personal relationships, professional networking and shared learning.” This year’s speaker was H.B. London, formerly the director of Focus on the Family’s Pastoral Care division.

I have been to my fair share of conferences and denominational meetings, where pastors and Christian workers meet together for a variety of purposes. And while there are times at those conferences where true connections are made, it was deeply refreshing to be a part of a gathering where the usual posturing and one-upmanship was completely absent. The willingness to share personal stories, resources and strategies for caring for pastors was remarkable. The work of helping and restoring those in full-time ministry can seem (and really is!) quite overwhelming. Yet we were reminded, through the teaching of H.B. London and the interactions with those who attended, that our ability to serve those who need care begins with our own personal rootedness in Christ. How fitting, since we often advise pastors that taking care of their own soul is the chief component in staying healthy in ministry.

A number of workshops were conducted by several of the members of the Forum, and will prove to be quite helpful as we chart a course through the waters of pastoral care. Deb and I particularly appreciated hearing from other couples who were working together in their ministries, as husband and wife.

Some significant new relationships developed for PIR Ministries during this year’s conference. Among those, we enjoyed getting to know Matthew Parker of the Summit Group in Detroit, and gaining a clearer picture of how to bring the resources of ministries like PIR to the pastors of the inner city. In a clear “God moment,” Deb and I were able to reconnect with a couple we had known and worked with during the years of our ministry in the pastorate. Ken and his wife Bonnie are working in a pastoral care ministry in Grand Rapids; we hope to partner with them and several other ministries in the West Michigan area in the coming months. We recently found out that Ken’s brother, is a pastor that has been in touch with us at PIR, taken the PRO-D, and has found help in dealing with some significant burnout issues.

All of this took place against the backdrop of the amazing hospitality and 5-star facilities of WinShape Retreat, where we were treated royally! This time of refreshment and encouragement is unparalleled in our experience. The fact that this was the largest gathering of attendees the Forum has ever seen is due largely to the generosity of the Cathy family (of Chick-Fil-A), who underwrote the bulk of the cost. We are very grateful for that generosity, and it seems to highlight for us that this ministry we have to ministers is taken seriously by many.

You will continue hear about some of the new ministry partners we met over the coming months. There are rich resources available to bring hope and help to God’s shepherds, and our hearts are joined with others who share the same burden. It is good to know you are not alone!

Who is looking for the lost shepherds?

Recently, as my wife and I were talking about this ministry, I expressed concern about connecting with those who find themselves adrift after being exited from ministry. In the course of that conversation, it occurred to both of us that one of the primary reasons for the difficulty in connecting might be that no one is looking for them! I have often confidently affirmed that every pastor who is currently serving knows at least one other pastor who has been exited. But, sadly, it is equally true that there are few in the church who actively seek out those who have been burned in the line of ministry or forcibly removed. How is it that those who have spent their lives following Jesus’ example of searching for the lost sheep now find themselves among those who are “lost,” with no one mounting a search and rescue for them?

Here is one former pastor’s story as shared with me on LinkedIn –

Funding for my position came to an end, which is why I exited my job. But shortly after that, I exited all ministry and went into secular employment. I kept away from churches and ministries where I was known (because I didn’t want any expectations from anyone) and found myself not getting into fellowship anywhere. I’d say the reason was a combination of disillusionment and burn out resulting in low self-esteem. Looking back, I am stunned that no one from leadership bothered to try to follow me up. (I’m also not sure how I would have responded at the time if they had.) Also, of all the people I had connected with and poured my life into, only one kept in touch in that first year.” – Ian S.

This is one of the deepest disappointments in my own story of crash and burn. It seems that, regardless of the circumstances, if pastors are exited from a ministry, they are seen as damaged goods and are most often left to fend for themselves in a wilderness of hurt, confusion and shame.

 As our conversation unfolded, my wife reminded me of the story of the man healed of his blindness by Jesus, and what happened to him after his sight was restored. After telling everyone about his healing, he was brought to the religious leaders of his day for an examination and was eventually thrown out of the “church” (John 9). The incident is followed by these words in verse 35: “Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, and when He found him, He said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” Did you catch that? Jesus went looking for him! This same spirit of Jesus motivated Barnabas to track down Saul, “the persecutor,” and invite him into the growing ministry of the church plant at Antioch. Even the military will scour the battlefield for those who are wounded, not wanting to leave any behind.

Where do they go, these lost shepherds? Who is looking for them? Who will offer them a second chance? A Google search will yield plenty of advice about how to pick yourself up after a failure, as well as stories of those who, by sheer determination, have navigated times of loss and rejection. But try to find one story of someone who has gone looking to give a second chance to a failure and you will come up empty handed. Those who are willing to come alongside a fallen pastor, who have reached out to a family wounded by a forced exit, are a rare breed.

But, they do exist! Those of us in PIR Ministries have the same “search and rescue” attitude of Jesus and we are linked with other ministries that share a similar purpose. We want to find these lost ones – the exited and fallen pastors among us.

But we need your help. Will you introduce one of these lost shepherds to us? Will you be a Barnabas?

You would not be alone in your endeavor.