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!

Finding Hope in the Midst of Conflict – Part 3

I have mentioned this very impressive TED talk before, but it bears repeating here due to its direct impact on how we look at conflict. It opens the door to the final step in finding hope in the middle of strained relationships and sticky situations.

Management expert Margaret Heffernan, in a thought-provoking talk given at TED Global 2012, offered a counterintuitive lesson learned during her years running businesses and organizations: that conflict and opposition are essential for good thinking (“Dare to Disagree,” August 2012). Heffernan shared the story of Dr. Alice Stewart, who in the 1950’s dared to challenge a key component of prenatal care – the use of x-rays on pregnant women. Her research, which linked childhood cancers to this procedure, was not easily accepted.

Alice Stewart“…for 25 years Alice Stewart had a very big fight on her hands. So, how did she know that she was right? Well, she had a fantastic model for thinking. She worked with a statistician named George Kneale, and George was pretty much everything that Alice wasn’t. … But he said this fantastic thing about their working relationship. He said, “My job is to prove Dr. Stewart wrong.” He actively sought disconfirmation – different ways of looking at her models, at her statistics, different ways of crunching the data in order to disprove her. He saw his job as creating conflict around her theories. Because it was only by not being able to prove that she was wrong, that George could give Alice the confidence she needed to know that she was right.
It’s a fantastic model of collaboration — thinking partners who aren’t echo chambers. I wonder how many of us have, or dare to have, such collaborators? Alice and George were very good at conflict. They saw it as thinking. So what does that kind of constructive conflict require? Well, first of all, it requires that we find people who are very different from ourselves.”

To effectively deal with conflict, we need to:

Embrace new behaviors and methods that will help move conflict toward resolution.

The ability to make conflict work FOR us and not against us is one of the most important skills we can learn. The problem is that many of our default methods for handling conflict work directly against this. As pastors and ministry leaders, our tendency can be to believe that simply introducing biblical data into situations of conflict will win the day. And when it doesn’t, we bring more! The likely result is not a healthy resolution to the issue. Scripture needs to inform the process, but a “warriors” approach to its use in conflict will never bring the unity we hope for.

A better approach to conflict may be found in advance preparation. Ken Sande, President of Peacemaker Ministries, offered this insight when asked about putting structures in place to help us navigate difficult situations:

“Right! Do it when everybody’s getting along. Say to your team, “Listen, we may have a falling out some day. If that happens, what will we do? How do we ensure accountability and fairness?” If you wait until you’re in conflict, then anything you suggest will be met with suspicion. Failure to have accountability structures in place before a conflict is the single most frequent issue we deal with in conflicts between leaders—pastors, elders, deacons, people at every level. So put structures in place before a conflict happens.” (Leadership Magazine, 2011)

Rather than avoiding or merely reacting to conflict, we may do well to invite it in.

So where does conflict exist? In the space between people. If we can close that gap in godly ways, then conflict can become the means to new understanding and a more confident ministry. “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” Proverbs 27:17

Jesus and conflictJesus used every conflict as an opportunity to advance the kingdom and deepen his disciples’ understanding of their relationship with Him and each other. Not every godly insight or nugget of wisdom I have received has come as the result of light and easy fellowship. Quite a few have risen out of the ashes of very heated conflicts.

A good question we should always ask, especially when faced with opposition from those who see things differently than us, is, “Why shouldn’t we do it this way?”

 

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

The Illusion of Control

“From life’s first cry, to final breath

Jesus commands my destiny…

Here in the power of Christ I’ll stand.”

– from,” In Christ Alone” by Keith Getty & Stuart Townsend

It is good to be back after taking a bit of a break for the holidays. Spending time with family and a few friends, enjoying the sights, sounds and smells of Christmas, is a joyful experience. Making the celebrations particularly special this year has been sharing with our daughter and son-in-law in the preparations for the birth of our very first grandchild. Needless to say this is a huge life transition for us all. All our anticipation was realized last Saturday with the arrival of a beautiful baby girl (who looks like she might share her grandpa’s red hair)!

While sitting at the hospital, as our daughter was beginning the process of bringing this new life into the world, a line from one of my favorite worship songs suddenly popped into my head. “In Christ Alone” is a song that powerfully communicates the truths of the Gospel. At its core, it exalts the Son of God, as both sovereign Lord and our one true hope. As the lines played across my heart I was reminded that, at all times – whether at birth or death, in peace or in pain, in times of effectiveness or times when plans and dreams are turning to dust – Jesus alone commands the course of our lives. I like the term “commands”, because it creates the image of one who is at the helm-on deck and involved as the ship navigates the seas.

World in Gods hand I have lived much of life with the sense that I am “in control.”  But it is clearly an illusion; albeit, a powerful one. Every day, I believe it is my plans, my strategy, and my savvy that moves my life forward. Even ministry, baptized with the required prayer, can ultimately be viewed from the standpoint of what I am able to pull off. Not until we have the opportunity to be immersed in something as powerful as the birth of a human life does the illusion become crystal clear. There are forces at work every moment of every day that I have little consciousness of – let alone control over – that shape the world and our lives. God has graciously been teaching me through the years that even when I thought control had slipped from my grasp, it was never really mine in the first place. His strong hands guide my destiny.

There is great hope and encouragement in this, I think. To give up the illusion is a scary thing, for it is what I have known and become familiar with. The reward of exchanging that illusion for the truth, however, is a freedom that sets my life at ease, and makes each day a true adventure. A large part of the process is learning to trust His heart, that He is really FOR me. I am trading the self-limiting constraints of being in charge, for the joy of standing with Him as He guides the journey we are on together.

There are times in our lives when the world seems to be coming apart, and moments when we think we are on top of it all. As we battle with all of the emotions – both the pain and the pride-one thing remains. He always commands our destiny.Jesus commands

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!

A Re-shaped Purpose – The Voyager Project and Exited Pastors

In the last couple of months, two significant events occurred in the history of space exploration. While most of us can identify the first one – the landing of the Mars explorer “Curiosity” – it is likely that the second went relatively unnoticed. Early last month, an Associated Press report marked the 35th anniversary of the launch of Voyager 1, one of the earliest unmanned exploratory vehicles sent to investigate the solar system. What particularly interested me about the Voyager 1 report was that, despite being relatively forgotten as a chapter in our efforts to understand the nature of the universe, the craft was still “on mission” long after its original purpose had been served.

The primary goal of the Voyager project, a planned “fly-by” of Jupiter and Saturn, was completed in 1989. However, once that was accomplished, the mission was extended and refocused. It is important to keep in mind that both Voyager 1 and its sister vehicle, Voyager 2, are truly past their prime when compared to all of the bells and whistles that are present on the Mars explorer. The 76-year-old project director (himself somewhat of a relic) excitedly proclaimed, “[Voyager 1 and Voyager 2] are still ticking despite being relics of the early Space Age. Each only has 68 kilobytes of computer memory. To put that in perspective, the smallest iPod — an 8-gigabyte iPod Nano — is 100,000 times more powerful. Each also has an eight-track tape recorder. Today’s spacecraft use digital memory.”

In a remarkable move, NASA decided to extend the mission of these “throwbacks” and give them a new assignment: “the exploration of the solar system beyond the neighborhood of the outer planets to the outer limits of the Sun’s sphere of influence, and possibly beyond” (NASA website).

Apparently, it is possible for relics to have a place in the universe!

How, you ask, does this relate to exited pastors?

In today’s church culture, there is a tremendous emphasis on all things new: new methods, new ideas, newer and younger pastors and leaders. One of the consequences of this focus is that those who are perceived as not being “up with the times” – those who might be old and not in the “optimal” age bracket for drawing new and younger people into the church – are finding themselves sidelined. With miles yet to go and service to the kingdom still possible, many of these servants are exited from churches without any thought given to the next phase of their lives, or to what might be lost in the process of exiting. These pastors, built to last because of the call of Christ, have years of experience, depth of insight, and practical wisdom available for the next generation. Yet many feel like they have been cast adrift into the cold depths of irrelevancy.

It would be the height of hubris to believe there could never be improvements made to methodology or technology, or that changes in “doing church” would never occur. But perhaps we too quickly determine that someone’s “mission” has been accomplished when, in reality, it simply needs reshaping and refocusing. There is a great need for mentoring among leaders of the church today, and for thoughtful succession planning. There are areas of ministry and places of service yet to be explored, and ways to strengthen and encourage the Body that we haven’t even thought of yet. Will we miss the chance to be amazed at how God can re-tool a life for a new purpose, a new chapter?

One of the important tasks for exited pastors who are in the PIR program is to reexamine the call that brought them into full-time ministry in the first place. This is a great opportunity to determine if the shape of that calling needs to change for the future, and to explore a repurposing of the ways in which one’s life mission is carried out. For those who go through a process of restoration, studies have shown that roughly a third return to a pastoral role, while another third finds expression for their call in other forms of  service.

To those who might be feeling the pressure to compare themselves to the young guns, with the fear of a forced retirement looming, is it time to see if mission control has another course available? Rather than try to compete, or worse yet, complain, there may be a new expression of the calling you received that will take you beyond your wildest imaginations.

To those who have experienced an exit, forced or otherwise, from the pastoral role, is it possible that, rather than trying to fit back into the old assignment, God might redirect our course into a new purpose?

If man can redeem the purpose of an out-of-date piece of space equipment, how much more can God, whose Name is Redeemer, do for those whom He has called?

Exited Pastors – Everybody Knows One!

It’s amazing who you might know!

The idea of “six degrees of separation” – where everyone is approximately six steps away, by way of introduction, from any other person in the world – has entered the mainstream of our culture. In the last 10 years, there have been studies conducted to try to validate the concept, with some generally positive conclusions. Certainly, the internet and the rise of social media have narrowed any gap that might have existed.

In the case of exited or terminated pastors, the degrees of separation seem to be much less than six. Everyone knows one! Nearly every conversation I have had regarding my work with exited pastors eventually arrives at the place where someone will say to me, “My former pastor is one!” or “I know of a couple of people who used to be in the ministry,” or “My best friend is a former pastor!” Inevitably, there are even those who say, “I am one!”

Who are these exited pastors, the lost shepherds? They are all around us. They are the pastors and church leaders who:

  • are exited because success benchmarks have not been met (“fire the coach” syndrome)
  • are forced out due to conflict or unfulfilled expectations in role
  • have left because their churches have diminished or dissolved
  • are, quite simply, burned out
  • are recovering from a personal moral or ethical failure
  • have left due to other issues – health, family needs, etc.
  • are returning from service in other cultures, or with military or para-church ministries, and find it hard to re-engage
  • are associate or assistant pastors who have been asked to resign, either because of a change in senior leadership, or because they have come in conflict with the senior pastor or other staff

And the list goes on…

Chuck Wickman, founder of PIR Ministries, has rightly said, “A pastor is a terrible thing to waste!” And yet statistics show that 40% of those who are exited NEVER return to the ministry. Some believe that once you have been exited, you are damaged goods and therefore have lost the right to work in ministry. Does that make you sad?

Those who have been exited from ministry are all around us. Are they being left on their own to grieve? Where can they go if they want to deal with the hurt and shame, the anger, and the disappointment of being asked to leave a church? Who will help them figure out what went wrong? How can they safely reexamine their call and find a path to restoration?

It seems like everybody knows someone in this situation; if you do, I’d like to hear from you. There are options for those who have been exited. There is a way to help them find hope again.

The “Dream” in the Dream Cruise – thoughts on restoring the broken among us.

I am not a “gear head”!  But you can’t live in Detroit and not be impacted by the car industry – especially in mid-August when, in what has become a yearly pilgrimage for many, the “Dream Cruise” descends on the 21 mile route down Woodward Avenue from Pontiac to Detroit. It is the largest one-day automotive event in the world, “…drawing 1.5 million people and 40,000 classic cars each year from around the globe—from as far away as New Zealand, Australia, Japan and the former Soviet Union.” For those of us who live in the neighborhoods surrounding the event, it is a love-hate relationship. On the one hand, there are the detours, too many people and too much noise. On the other – oh, those magnificent cars! Many people begin setting up lawn chairs up and down Woodward weeks in advance as the wonderfully restored muscle cars and vintage automobiles begin to appear in advance of the big day. These cars are beautifully rebuilt, with enormous amounts of time, energy and money poured lovingly into bringing them back to life. Which got me to thinking – why do they do it?

In what many have described as a “throwaway society,” why are people so drawn to fixing up and restoring items from the past? The 1970 Nova SS (my favorite) that roars past us in pristine condition, and takes our breath away, was once like the beat up, rusted out shell that lived in my dad’s garage for years. (He never actually got around to fixing his up, though he wanted to). A table, found at a local garage sale, yellowed and cracked with age, becomes the eye-catching centerpiece in a new living room. What empowers the latest move to “re-purpose” in our culture; and why did the ancient Egyptians bother to become the first people to create prosthetics? What is the real “dream” in the Dream Cruise? Let me offer an idea.

There is a deep, inner desire in us for wholeness. We long for broken things to be restored, even though many times we feel powerless in the face of that brokenness. When we can, there is a passion to re-build. In a world where things, people and relationships are constantly breaking down, investing in restoration expresses a hope that most of us cannot typically put into words. It is the echo of Eden; the gravitational pull of a new heaven and earth to come. It is the promise held out in the resurrection of Christ.

Restoration requires a huge investment. There are always obstacles. But the joy of seeing something – or someone – returned to beauty and usefulness is priceless. I think the Apostle Paul might have experienced this joy when he told Timothy to find Mark and ask him to rejoin Paul, because he had become “useful” to him in the ministry (2 Timothy 4:11). This same Mark caused the falling out between Barnabas and Paul because he bailed out on them on one of their missionary journeys. Mark was a washout, a failure. Yet, after years of tutelage under the gracious and watchful care of Barnabas, Mark reappears – fully restored and ready to serve.

Barnabas is the patron saint of restoration. Paul was a former Pharisee, changed by the grace of God but still held in suspicion by a fledgling church that had experienced his misguided zeal. Yet Barnabas stood with him, as Paul became the great apostle to the Gentiles. We have to wonder how many others Barnabas picked up, dusted off and set back on their feet again. He is the shining example of what the church is meant to be – a workshop of reconciliation and restoration. The dream that calls to us in the garage and the studio, the rehab center and the renovation site is fanned into flame by the grace we find in the Gospel. Jesus is the Great Restorer, and we have the opportunity to apprentice in His business.

It is not just the “sinner outside the doors” that needs us. There are sinners among us – the church –  broken and marred by the consequences of bad choices, lustful desires and hurtful relationships, and they need to be restored as well. Pastors and leaders who were once beautiful and useful servants of God, are chipped and bent, the color washed out and the engine dead. We seem so hesitant, even reluctant to walk through the process of restoration with them. We are content to push these men and women to the back of the garage and cover them with a tarp, never to be thought of again.

However, God has a “dream.” It is the dream that, one day, the sign on our church will read “… Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings” (Isaiah 58:12). It is a dream that should resonant deeply within each of us as His children. Does it?