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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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!

Healing Our Own!

What a beautiful thing it is when the Church – perceived by many to be a place where we shoot our wounded – becomes the means of healing and restoration for its own! This last weekend I had the privilege of observing, firsthand, how a small suburban church has welcomed a burned-out pastor and his family into their midst and walked with them through the PIR process, finding the hope they so desperately needed. Pastor B had been trying to plant an inner city church for 7½ years. Early last year, he and his family came to the place where they were discouraged and ready to quit – burned out in every way. A call to PIR Ministries resulted in a story with a much happier ending.

Pastor B is in the final stages of completing the Pastor in Residence (PIR) program. It was a delight to meet with him and his wife, as well as the pastor and members of the congregation who make up his support team. Even as a part of this great ministry, I often wonder if the Body of Christ will ever catch on to the importance of offering grace to pastors who have exited the ministry. My hope was renewed as our staff had the opportunity to interact with this couple and the church. Here were a pastor and wife who had gone from feeling like they were dropping into an abyss, to being at a place of growing spiritually and emotionally healthy. Here was an example of how God’s grace, extended in simple but meaningful ways can restore a fellow believer and servant to a renewed relationship to Jesus, the church, and ministry.

Some things that I took away:

The Senior Pastor leads the way – The pastor of the Refuge Church exuded a spirit of compassion and encouragement. There was a total lack of territorialism. Rather, there was an open invitation to the exited pastor to enter into the life and ministries of the church. It was evident that this same spirit was a way of living that, naturally expressed in daily ministry, had become the ethos of the church. The process of healing starts on a solid foundation when this kind of attitude is extended to a wounded fellow pastor.

people make the diffThe people make a difference – As we interviewed the members of the support team, they were actually surprised about the extent of the impact they had on this couple. But their willingness to show up – to be real and present with this hurting couple – made all the difference. Mel Lawrenz, in his new book Spiritual Influence, says “We must put out of our minds any feeling that ‘being there’ is pitifully inadequate. If you have ever been in a crisis, you understand how important the presence of others is.” The process didn’t require a theological education on their part, just the willingness to love and walk alongside a brother in need. Meeting with these folks on a regular basis allowed Pastor B and his wife to be real again: dropping the “pastoral persona” and re-engaging with life.

The program works if you work it – I am borrowing from AA here, but it is the truth. Having been trained and prepared, the pastor and support team followed the PIR process laid out for them, adapting it here and there as needed. In the end, Pastor B and his family avoided the risk of remaining in unhealthy patterns of life and ministry and potentially drifting far from God and the church. The safety net that Pastor B and his family experienced, though far too often lacking in the church world, is what PIR Ministries is all about.

I am greatly encouraged today. Tomorrow, I may see another example of the carnage and pain that results from a pastor exiting ministry. But today I have hope – a hope I can confidently declare – that the church can truly heal its own.

If you know pastors like Pastor B, burned out and on the verge of abandoning their calling, let them know there is hope. To the ones who have been forced out, the fallen, the wounded and discouraged, let them know that the church really does care. Put them in touch with us. Our calling is to do all we can to create the same opportunity that Pastor B had: to experience the grace of God through the lives of His people.

Pastor B is on a path that will likely see him move into a different aspect of ministry – and that’s OK. That option may not even have existed apart from a faithful and loving band of believers who took up the call of Jesus to love one another, and applied that to a hurting pastor and his family. We can truly heal our own!Hope

Fresh Start

Everyone would like a fresh start! At some point in our lives, we all would like the opportunity to begin again. Whether in something as complex as rebuilding a broken relationship or as simple as a “do-over” in a child’s game, getting a fresh start is an experience we long for. And it is always an act of grace. Extending a fresh start to someone mimics the work of God when he offers us the biggest fresh start of our lives: stepping in and re-setting the whole game.

This is a brand new blog, a “fresh start” of sorts. The inspiration for the title, and the motivation for the effort, is born out of Jesus’ words to Peter in anticipation of his massive failure. I like it best as phrased in the Message...”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.” (Luke 22:31-32) Jesus committed Peter to the work of restoration and strengthening his broken and struggling brothers. The work of giving a fresh start to others would come out of his own experience, where failure and the redemptive grace of God met.

The thoughts and ideas expressed here come from the heart of one who has similarly experienced both fall and grace, and has been given a new opportunity to help those who also need a fresh start. The intent is that what is shared here will strike a chord with the more than 1500 pastors a month who are exited or terminated from churches across America. I hope it is a chord of hope.

Every story of those exited is unique and filled with its own measure of pain, personal responsibility and consequences. Some pastors are terminated for good reason; many are not. Regardless of the reason, the grace of God calls us to walk with them in understanding, prayer and love.  The goal is always restoration… maybe not to what was, but always to what can be because of Christ.

The Church needs to know about these lost and hurting shepherds. We must find real and appropriate ways to strengthen these servants of God once again that the church may grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ. God grant us the courage!

“Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.” – C. S. Lewis