Burnout isn’t Just a Pastor Thing…

Last week I reposted an article by Ken Sande regarding his first hand experience with a pastor friend who burned out. This week, we hear the story of how easy it is for the spouse of a pastor to get caught in the whirlwind of ministry life and end up toasted as well.  I want to encourage all pastors to read this – and work to protect their spouse. But to the church at large – let’s do a better job of caring for both our pastor AND spouse.

Read here

Pastors’ Wives Can Burn Out Too

 

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!

 ***

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 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.

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!

The Slow Track – a pattern of restoration for exited pastors

rushI am a product of the first generation to be immersed in television and television advertising. I cannot even imagine trying to count the number of ads that have passed before my eyes – from the sublime to the ridiculous to the downright annoying. Some are disturbing only after you think about the messages they have communicated without our awareness. Many of us have watched as an elderly man in a retirement home discards the menu provided by the home and places a call for fast food to be delivered. Before he can even speak his order, there is a knock on the door, and his order has arrived. His response? “What took you so long?” The bar has been set to a new level of expectation regarding delivery. But the subtle message is how it describes the world around us – a world of speed, rapid response, and adrenaline rushes.

It would be nice to believe that those of us in the Church, and in leadership roles specifically, are immune to the pull of the culture. Yet such is not the case. Our ‘need for speed’ extends even into those times when a pastor and his family encounter the heart-wrenching experience of being exited from ministry. Often, the immediate response is to want to get back in the saddle as quickly as possible, to put this behind us, or to sweep it under the rug. It is an understandable response in some ways, since there are significant losses that come when an exit occurs: loss of income, loss of dignity, and loss of significant relationships.

However, the damage suffered in these times can be deep – and the effects unclear – to the one who has been exited. We must also be aware of the danger of repeating the same mistakes or continuing the same behaviors that may have contributed to the exit. At the very least, unresolved anger and fear will follow us into the next ministry opportunity, if not carefully addressed.

Counter to the tendency of our times, more thought needs to be given to the big picture. I have become an advocate of “time” when it comes to any process of restoration to ministry after an exit or fall. Instead of rushing on to the next call, or desperately trying to cobble together a quick way back, perhaps a different approach is needed. A time for healing and reassessment, to get our heads and hearts in the right place again, may be a better way. With time, and the right environment, the pastor and his family can experience the kind of restoration that leads to wholeness and healthy ministry for the future.

Jesus is the one who has, and is, restoring all things in Himself. He has called us to a ministry of restoration where, through us, His grace flows to others, bringing healing and hope. For the exited or fallen pastor, and his family, three key relationships must be restored. These follow a pattern and they take time!

 The primary relationships: God and family. Those who are exited from ministry can feel betrayed by God while at the same time feeling that they have failed Him miserably. In many cases, the pastor has spent more time preparing sermons and for business meetings than attending to his own relationship with Christ. Spouses and families are often more angry and hurt than the pastor, as they have had to watch the downward spiral toward termination. These are the relationships that must be restored before all else.

Learning to be human, to be a follower of Christ, to be a healthy spouse and parent with healthy boundaries and margins, is of critical importance. As I have become fond of saying lately, “God is far more concerned with WHO you are, than WHAT you will ever do for Him!”

Community relationships: the church and community at large. Exited pastors and their families are often mad at the church! The sense of betrayal by the Body is keen, and trust has been broken. The isolation that many pastors experience while in ministry is intensified once they find themselves on the outside looking in; many pastors cannot name five friends, and only a handful might list anyone outside of the pastoral ranks. The discovery that people really do care, and that the church can heal its own wounded, is a monumental one for the exited pastor. Experiencing life in the Body of Christ, outside of the official role of leadership, can renew an exited pastor’s confidence, trust, and appreciation of the grace of God. The opportunity to see the church for what it really is – not as an identity, but as God’s own flock that He ultimately shepherds – can be life changing. Finding friendships, both in and outside of the walls of the church, moves us from a place of isolation to an engagement with life and all it offers.

Leadership relationships: ministry roles. The last relationship needing restoration is the one we often want to put first. It is last because, deep down, we know that this relationships stands or falls on the shoulders of the previous two, by God’s grace. When a pastor is exited, there can be a great deal of confusion about the sense of call. With time and encouragement, some important questions can be asked and answered honestly. Do I belong in full time ministry or a lead role in the church? Is it healthy for me? Why did I enter ministry? Are there other ways to express God’s call on my life? By taking time to assess truthfully, that call may take on a new shape – one that is better suited for particular gifts, passions and styles. If returning to full-time ministry or leadership, exited pastors need a better understanding of a pastor’s true role in the church, including the expectations and boundaries that contribute to healthy, fruitful, and long-term ministries.

Most importantly, we cannot continue to sacrifice the best for the expedient. Fear and panic will never produce the results we hope for – we must give God the time to make us whole.

track I have also felt the pull to rush God. Although my exit from ministry 21 years ago was due to personal failure, the intervening years of restoration have followed the same pattern outlined above. Those years were not wasted, and God has proven His grace time and again, as I have walked the slow track. This is why serving His Church through a ministry of hope and grace like PIR Ministries is such a great role for me now.

There may be those who are unaware that PIR’s primary purpose is to help pastors walk through the pain of transition, to the hope and healing available in Christ. Send them our way, so that we can start them on the steady and sure track to restoration.

Who is looking for the lost shepherds?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You would not be alone in your endeavor.