Uncovering the Trauma of Forced Ministry Exits

We see it time and again.

Whether you have been blindsided by a leadership decision or experienced a slow “death spiral” in a ministry role, the spiritual and emotional toll of a forced exit is great. Trauma is not too drastic of a word to use to describe what ministers and their families encounter when they are fired, forced to resign or find themselves at the mercy of a leadership coup.

By definition, trauma is a deeply distressing experience or event that overwhelms a person’s ability to cope. It is often accompanied by a constant reliving of the event, anger, anxiety, loss of self-esteem and fatigue. These are the very symptoms we observe when we sit down to talk with those who have been exited.

  • Trust is deeply wounded – “Why would people do this?” “Where was God?”
  • Doubt colors the sense of calling, giftedness and worth. Pastors begin to see themselves as “damaged goods.”
  • Anger and fear begin to dominate relationships; and show up in unexpected ways.

And the ministers spouse and children? Many consider walking back through the doors of a church unthinkable.

In many ways, a forced exit from a ministry role may not seem much different from any other job loss. But the differences are real and can be dramatic. There is a deep spiritual and emotional connection that exists between pastors and their calling. There is also a deep connection that can, and should, grow between ministers and the fellowship of people they serve. This is, perhaps, one of the most significant differences. When a minister is forced out of their role it goes beyond merely losing a job. The typical support relationships that would help someone through any job transition are suddenly and traumatically ended for ministers and their families. Where can ministry leaders go, and who can they talk with to process the loss and grief when an exit occurs?

It is vital that we acknowledge the reality of spiritual and emotional trauma in cases of forced ministry exit. Otherwise, we can be tempted to minimize or even deny the long-term effects this kind of experience creates. In the introduction to her book Moving On – Surviving the Grief of Forced Termination, Deanna Harrison recounts her own experience with this kind of trauma.

“For reasons beyond our comprehension, our 30+ years of pastoral ministry came to an abrupt halt. I was still married to the same godly man of integrity but he was no longer a pastor. I was no longer a pastor’s wife. Within days of learning anything was wrong, it was all over. We had been terminated. Our lives shattered as we plunged into a grief so deep I wondered if we would survive.”

For the pastoral family, a particularly traumatic exit can create an emotional and spiritual “toxicity” that is carried into the next role if left unattended. Churches begin to see themselves as “employers,” making arm’s length business decisions without understanding how such exits not only change the life of a pastoral family, but also the very fabric of the church culture. Every time a pastor or ministry leader leaves or is let go, there is a measure of grief and loss for all involved. Forced exits come packed with a level of trauma that can feel like a tsunami.

Studies have shown that most ministers who experience a forced exit take a minimum of 18 months to return to an active role – and 40% never return. In every case, the first step in healing hearts wounded by an exit is accepting the reality of the spiritual and emotional trauma. The next step is to connect with those who have the tools and processes to help ministry families navigate through the dark waters after an exit. These people and ministries exist, and are equipped to offer hope when all seems lost.

If you, or someone you know, is in the midst of a season of grief following a forced termination, it is important to take these two steps as soon as possible. The trauma is real. But so is Hope. You can begin by contacting us at info@pirministries.org.

Another Reason Pastors don’t ask for help – Fear!

“We are not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us; we are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be.” –  C.S. Lewis

It’s been a long week since my last posting. (I think I have to give up on putting myself in a “time” box.) Before we take a look at the next reason why pastors are reluctant to ask for help, it might be good to ask “When IS a pastor in need of help?”

A pastor, or any ministry leader, is likely to need help when

  • They are leading on empty. (compassion fatigue has set in)
  •  The fit isn’t right between who they are, their strengths, and the role they are in.
  •  They are struggling with unresolved issues – patterns of behavior that could put them “at risk”.
  •  A conflict among staff or in the congregation is beyond them to resolve.
  •  They are isolated, and without significant friendships.
  •  Their own expectations exceed their grasp.
  •  Their family is in turmoil – over ministry boundaries and schedule, or just life.
  •  Self-care is lacking – there is no time for their own souls.
  • Their strengths do not cover all the bases.
  •  They feel they are not doing anything significant.
  • Depression has overwhelmed them.

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One of the big reasons that keeps pastors from asking for help when these situations arise is fear!

 

I have been doing a lot of thinking about this; since this reason and I are good friends. If you are a Bloom County fan, then you will recall the “Snorkelwacker.” This is the monster in Binkley’s “closet of anxiety”, and is the representative of all his fears. I am convinced that each of us have a closet of anxiety where all our fears live and breed. It would be nice if they just remained there. But as Binkley learns, they will often reach out of the closet and “grab you” – unbidden and unwanted.

This is a partial list of the fears that may be familiar to some of us. (Names withheld to protect the author) When the closet door opens, these can keep us from asking for help.

What if they don’t need me?

What if someone does it better than me?

I might lose my job.

I will be a disappointment to others and myself and the shame will be too much.

It will all fall apart.

What will people think?

I might be found out that I struggle with the same issues that others do…and I should be above it.

I will look inadequate and weak.

Others will question my faith…even while I question my own.

Fear causes us to do things that keep the help we need distant from us – to cover and spin and control. From the time of our first parents we have been hiding from God and each other. There are pastors I have spent time with whose fear of the loss of prestige and significance they envision will happen cannot be overcome. They are paralyzed, and so unable to humbly ask for help.

Now, not all fears are unreasonable. Some are very good and very healthy. Even in the Garden, I doubt that Adam and Eve were doing un-netted trapeze work or experimenting with sharp objects. What is most troubling is that today, in the Church, it may not be unreasonable to fear that there will be those who will pounce on any sign of weakness, default to maintaining appearances rather than extending grace, and generally make it difficult to ask for help. At this point we may have to work through the risk/reward equation. Is the risk of suffering at the hands of my fears, whether reasonable or not, greater than the reward of authenticity?

I think there is a simple way to start cleaning out the closet of our anxieties that may allow us the joy of asking (and receiving!) the help we need.

Own them! Denying our fears uses up a lot of energy that could be saved for the real challenges of ministry life. Self-awareness is our friend. Naming our fears, and acknowledging that they are a part of us, is another step toward integrity.

Speak them to another! In the light of day, many of our fears tend to assume their proper proportions – or disappear completely. I think James 5:13-19 covers the struggles we have with fears as well. One of the biggest lies we are led to believe is the if people really knew us, they wouldn’t like us; and would probably run away. It just isn’t true! God knows; and He doesn’t. Others can know; and they won’t. Friends will extend grace and understanding. Not all church members are out to get us. They can be amazingly kind if we help them understand what it can mean to be a human being who is also a ministry leader.

Trust God with the outcomes! When Joshua took over the leadership of God’s people, I am certain there was a whole lot of fear happening in his heart. I know this because of how many times God tells him to have courage. But God wasn’t asking Joshua to face his fears on his own and simply “man up.” God’s final word to Joshua is a true word for those of us who battle great fears that can keep us from asking for the help we need.

 “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:9)

I Can Manage on My Own… Part 2 of “5 Reasons Pastors Don’t Ask for Help – and what can happen if you do!”

In my last blog, I began to explore what I think are the top five reasons pastors (and probably quite a few of the rest of us) don’t ask for help. I know that in my own life, I am constantly amazed at how often these tendencies crop up. The daily challenge is to lean into a different way of living, one where the surprises come from what happens when I DO ask for help.

My spiritual director (who’s in addition to my therapist!) said that “ask and you will receive” is a marker of spiritual maturity. I’ve never really considered asking for help as a strength or sign of maturity. In fact, I think our culture promotes the opposite.” – April Diaz

Number 1: Help requires others… but self-sufficiency is our motto.

No matter how many times we may publiclyimages (1) declare the Scriptural truth of our neediness and dependence, we believe that we are more than enough for what we face. We can manage all by ourselves. This management approach dominates in our culture, and pastors are not immune. I know I battle with my inner cowboy – the rough and ready, independent character, self-sufficient in every way. It shows up in simple things, like projects around the house (I have a long list of my own making!), where it never occurs to me to ask others to help. And it extends to the deep and lasting spiritual battles I fight. Regardless of the situation, my inner monologue is, “I can manage it, my thinking is the best, my strength of will can see me through!”

Only humans, this side of the fall, have the audacity to attempt self-sufficiency. Everything in nature is interdependent.

 I watch the barley my son-in-law is growing in our backyard and it shouts this truth. The seed cannot go it alone. Sun, water, soil and the watchful tending of another all play a part. But we are taught early and long that the only one we can really depend on is ourselves. This runs strong in us. I have watched the elderly struggle with being dependent, or interdependent, on others even when it is clear that they cannot care for themselves.

For pastors, this tendency is often reinforced by the expectations that come with the role – both internal and external. Internally, our training, skills and personal need to succeed can lead us to believe that we are sufficient for anything the job can throw at us, if we just manage it better. In our actions, we quite simply say to Jesus, “I’ve got this!” Sometimes the disappointment of having others not follow through can reinforce the feeling that it is just better to go it alone. Externally, pastors are expected to be the one with all the answers to life’s deepest questions. They obviously have their act together; their degree says so… and the illusion of self-sufficiency grows stronger.

We don’t ask for help because asking for help will shatter the illusion and will require that we invite others into our lives and ministries.

“So when you have forgotten who you are, when you assign to yourself more maturity than you actually have, and when you think you are more capable than you really are, you leave yourself little reason to seek the ongoing help of your Savior” – Paul Tripp from Dangerous Calling

What if we were less “…so self-assured,” as the song goes?

In an interview published by the Alban Institute, Eugene Peterson reflected on his own efforts to avoid the trap of self-sufficiency. In seeking to develop a culture of mutuality in life and ministry, he made this bold statement to his congregation:

“Help me. I have needs. I can’t function well without help from you. We’re in this together, we’re doing the same thing, we’re worshiping together, we’re living the Christian life together. You’ve asked me to do certain things to help you do it—to lead you in worship on Sunday, to visit you when you’re sick, to help administer the church. But I need help in all of this.”

If all we have is ourselves, it robs us of intimacy and closes the door on getting the help we desperately need. I find that, in always encouraging others, pastors rarely share their own needs. They challenge their congregations to build community, yet are often sorely lacking in the communal aspect of their own journey.

But if we can step away from our do-it-yourself tendencies for a moment we might find:

  • That we have peace instead of anxiety. Keeping all the plates spinning, being the sole fixer for people’s lives takes a lot of energy; and usually leaves me grouchy and far from the peace that Jesus offered. Taking the risk and asking for help has a mysterious way of renewing my spirit – I don’t have to do it all by myself.
  • That we remember who we really are (because we can forget). Pastors need to find their place among the rest of the human race. We need others who can speak God’s truth and grace into our lives and take us back to the Gospel FOR US! There is a grace that can only flow to us through others – a grace that reminds us that we still need a Savior, as well as the rest of His Body.
  •  That we are healed. James 5:16 is a powerful antidote to the poison of our self-sufficiency, yet we rarely apply it. When we confess our faults to each other and allow ourselves to be prayed for regarding our true needs, we are admitting that we cannot manage on our own – we need help. It does a lot to ruin our sense of being capable for all things. And the healing that comes may be the healing from our own deep independence.

What happens when you do ask for help? You find yourself actually living in the “community” that we all talk about, program for, and so desperately need.

Next week: “There are very few monsters who warrant the fear we have of them.” – Andre Gide

The Surprising Grace of Disappointment – Book Review

Surprising GraceI just finished reading this extremely thought provoking book by Dr. John Koessler, and I highly recommend it for everyone – but especially for the exited pastors among us. The title was what first drew me to purchase the book. It was a mind grabber. However, Dr. Koessler’s ability to be both pastor and theologian while unpacking this important topic made it deeply practical while stimulating my thinking.

Many of us who follow Jesus and are in ministry leadership struggle with disappointment. Beyond trying to comfort others who are in the crisis of wondering why God “didn’t show up,” we ourselves are deeply disappointed in Him. We find it difficult to reconcile the Jesus we have learned in church and school with the Jesus we have to live with each day.

What do we do when our experience of life collides with our expectations of the same – and of God?

“The point of this book is that you can expect to meet Jesus in the most unlikely place – at the intersection of Expectation and Disappointment. The Jesus you meet there is not the Jesus of your dreams. Nor is He the airbrushed Christ of popular Christianity. He is the enigmatic and unpredictable Jesus of the Bible. You will not forget Him.” – from the introduction to The Surprising Grace of Disappointment.

Dr. Koessler asserts that our good theology regarding the reliability of God has taken a left turn and become the bad practice of expecting Him to be predictable.

The subtitle of the book is “Finding Hope When God Seems to Fail Us,” and there is hope to be found in these pages. Let me suggest that you pick up a copy for yourself and discover the grace that is born out of disappointment – the grace of a deeper understanding of His faithfulness.

Dr. John Koessler is the Chair of the Pastoral Theology department at Moody Bible Institute, and pastor in the Chicago area.

Hope Behind the Headlines

Starting up the blog again in this new year has been a bit of a challenge. As we all know, life can get in the way of our best laid plans. Anyway, I wanted to begin the new year on a positive note. I hope this little installment gives you hope!

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I really miss Paul Harvey’s “The Rest of the Story.” I used to listen to it daily on the radio, and loved the backstory he would slowly unravel. Behind what we all thought we knew were the details that surprised us. I often found myself wanting to dig deeper into those stories after listening to his broadcasts.

“…we evangelicals now talk about brothers and sisters and our own stories with an eye roll or quick dismissal. We have come to believe that the experiences of exclusion and infighting that dominate the American religious landscape are the norm, rather than the exception, in our faith. Evangelicals have long been painted with a broad brush: moralistic, right-wing, uneducated, and unable to appreciate the earth or beauty, fearful and not a little bit strange. That picture is not accurate or full;” – Laura Turner (Christianity Today, 12/2013)

Laura Turner’s quote above suggests that there is a “Rest of the Story” to the condition of the evangelical church in America – that the ugly truth is not the whole truth.

newspaper I read the headlines, and I meet with pastors who share heartbreaking stories of being wounded by the church. I hear about the “clergy-killer” churches, and the clergy who, being human, add to the mess. All of this exists. It’s real. But it’s not all there is.

Just as real are the stories of deep grace, mercy and courage among churches today. There are believers who are writing the rest of the story. Behind the headlines, churches are becoming “Refuge Churches,” places of healing for wounded pastors and their families. I am working with 7 of these courageous congregations right now. They are the ones who, when a hard working pastor of a small congregation desperately needed a vacation for his family, pitched in generously and made that happen. These are the churches that understand that these are our brothers and sisters in Christ, broken human beings on the same journey of grace and are willing to open their hearts and lives to them.

Recently, I met with a pastor who has been repeatedly run over. At this stage, he is pretty convinced that there are no loving, gracious Christians or churches. All is bad and lost. Unfortunately, the statistics about pastoral exits would be in his favor. I was so grateful that I could fill in the rest of the story for him and assure him that there is hope! It exists as surely as the shortcomings and failures we constantly hear about. The opportunity to point him in the direction of one of those gracious, loving churches of refuge was another line in the rest of his story.

return of prodigal 1There is no question that we have our work cut out for us, and that the stories being told most loudly about the Church are the ones that paint a less-than-flattering picture. But for each headline that makes us shake our heads and groan, we need to hear the “Rest of the Story!” Thought it may never make the 11 o’clock news, in small but real ways, quietly and deliberately, there is evidence that there are disciples of Jesus in this world (John 13:35). Behind the scenes, His grace is writing new headlines.

The Daily Grind

clean upAs pastors, laboring among broken people (and being broken ourselves!) there’s a lot of mess.

Sometimes it feels like all you do is clean up the mess: “Clean-up on aisle 10!” So much work and effort, and it is most often unnoticed and unrewarding.

I recently concluded teaching a class called “When God Hands You the Impossible.” It was a study of the book of Nehemiah, and we were trying to learn from Nehemiah’s example as we face our own impossible tasks. During a session a few weeks ago, one of the class members brought up a detail that I had completely overlooked in our study. He pointed out that those who were rebuilding the wall had to spend time and energy hauling the debris away, cleaning up the rubble; and at the end of the day, tidying up the work site. Huh…hadn’t thought about that! (Being an electrician, and spending a lot of years on construction sites, it seemed pretty obvious to him!)

It’s one of those little details in Scripture that can end up speaking volumes into our lives.

I was immediately reminded of the times when, trying to supplement my income with part-time work, I took on the task of cleaning up worksites for my Dad – who was involved in commercial construction, installing acoustical ceilings in new office buildings. There were a lot of hours spent picking up the junk left behind the installers. It was dusty, dirty work. But somebody had to do it!

Somebody has to clean up the mess.
It matters.
It’s inglorious.
It’s sweaty, hard work.

This got me to thinking about how much of life is actually the daily grind – simple, direct, repetitive and ordinary tasks without which it would be impossible to build the good things we envision. Cleaning up the messiness around us is dull and often thankless work – certainly not what we signed up for in ministry. It is made even more difficult when the cultural noise around us literally shouts that life is all about the exciting, the evident, the big results.

I must have missed the conferences that were titled “I Want to Pastor an Ordinary Small Church with Consistent Clean-Up Required.”

wall rebuildThe need for cleanup was not the only thing that emerged from our discussion of this lost detail in the story of how the Israelites rebuilt their city. We discovered that one of the keys to the success of rebuilding the wall was the “next to each other” principle. As each person worked on their section of the mess, they had the opportunity to look over and see that everyone else was doing similar work. Side by side, they could shout encouragement, laugh together and share tips over a coffee break. And, it allowed them to be ready to defend each other.

They had each other’s back, sharing the load if necessary – jumping in rather than sniping or criticizing each other’s work. The main point was the main point: rebuild the wall.

Their hearts were all in, at least in part because they were all in together.

The sense and experience of isolation kills! The daily grind of cleaning up the mess can grind a heart to dust without the knowledge that it matters. It’s important. It is an experience shared by everyone else. And that someone takes note.

One other neat idea that jumped out at me from looking more closely at the experience of rebuilding the wall occurred to me as a question: “Why all the names?”

Why bother with mentioning all the people who were showing up every day for 50 days, hauling broken stones away, dressing the usable ones and then repairing one broken section after another?

It mattered. They mattered, and the record of their names is God’s “Thank you!”

thank you 2The writer to Hebrews encourages us with these words, “God is not unjust; He will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them.” (Hebrews 6:10)

So when you are mopping up yet another spilled cup of hurt feelings or repairing yet another hole of misunderstanding, or just setting another table of weekly worship, remember that there were plenty of “in between” days in Jesus’ earthly ministry; it’s quite likely that Jesus learned to clean his room and sweep the stable. If you find yourself in the midst of working on the wall, remember that we are working alongside you – with Him – to build His church, His kingdom. Take heart in that you are not alone, and that God remembers His people!

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.