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.

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?

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?

Facing our Humanity

“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.” Peter said, “Master, I’m ready for anything with you. I’d go to jail for you. I’d die for you!”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.” (Luke 22:31-34, The Message)

Some time ago, I was introduced to an insightful TED talk by Kathryn Schultz, entitled “On Being Wrong.” In the course of her talk, Schultz offers this quote by St. Augustine: “Fallor Ergo Sum,” meaning “I err, therefore I am.” I had never seen that quote before, but it reminded me of a key idea that is often overlooked in all our discussions of the Christian life, especially as it relates to pastoral work. Being wrong – failing – is part of being human! Forgetting we are human can be the source of so many troubles. We want to run from it, hide it, compensate for it any way we can; yet it remains a nagging truth: we are human beings. The surprising aspect is that our humanness is ok.

There are several things about this encounter between Peter and Jesus that cause me to pause and look a little deeper. If I understand how the conversation played out…

  • Peter was about to be overwhelmed by the depths of what it meant to be human and sinful and wrong, yet Jesus was not surprised. The impending revelation of his humanity would threaten to sweep Peter away, to shipwreck his faith, and cause him to “give in or give out.” But Jesus anticipated the struggle that was about to take place in Peter’s life. It is the acknowledgment of our humanity in this story that often eludes me.
  • It would be a lesson hard learned, through great failure and shame. Peter says what we all say: “It will never happen to me!”
  • The beauty of what Jesus tells Peter is that He intends for this event to be an asset, not a liability. Certainly, Jesus did not tell Peter to go out and deny Him, just so that some good could come from it. What he did do was express the concurrent realities of our humanness and God’s grace. God’s grace runs rampant through this whole story – as it does throughout the Word.
  • Jesus prayed for Peter and all the disciples (John 17), and His prayer would carry them through their time of testing. It wasn’t that they wouldn’t fail and somehow avoid the mess. Rather, Peter would survive the onslaught and come through learning that he was loved without strings.
  • This experience would ultimately become the foundation of one of Peter’s greatest accomplishments – helping to restore his brothers. This was actually the first task that Jesus gave to Peter, and it came long before Peter became the beacon of gospel-preaching in the early days of the church.

Why are we still surprised that we bump up against our humanity? We don’t like it, don’t account for it and readily dismiss our limitations and finiteness. Our sense of living in a broken world remains a theological abstraction – except when it happens to someone else! However, there are no exceptions to this rule; we are all human. It is a lesson learned slowly and quietly by some; loudly and publicly by others.

Think of Satan’s purpose: “…to separate all of you from me….” And then think of those who have forgotten that they are human and end up burned out, forced out or fallen. A sense of unrelenting failure seeps into their bones. Doubt of any good coming to them or through them ever again clouds their minds. Close to half of pastors who are leave ministry in this condition never return. But that doesn’t have to be the final word.

The end result of Peter’s adventure into his own humanity was an opportunity to take what he experienced of the grace of God and make it available to his fellow disciples. “Strengthen your brothers.” “Turn to your companions and give them a fresh start.” Confirm – make firm again – those who are vacillating because they, like you, suddenly realize they are human and bent toward self-preservation. How was Peter to do this? I think there are at least a couple of things he might have done immediately:

  • Having been deeply changed, he would have shared his own story of how God’s grace was never absent from his experience. It was, and is, as close as the Savior’s breath on our hearts as He prays for us.
  • He would have told them that they didn’t need to be afraid of their brokenness, that grace refuses to be surprised by our humanity. It is a grace that was changing him from Peter, the “super” man, to Peter, the one who could identify with and offer hope and help to his brothers. He could firm up their faith in a God who loves them even when they run.

Like many others, I have lived this part of the story of Peter’s life. In fact, this passage forms the core of my personal mission statement. Having come through a time of severe testing, I want to be able to “confirm” or strengthen those who have seen their expectations of life in ministry shot down, crushed or dealt a lethal blow by their own hand. That is why I started this blog and why I am involved in a ministry of hope and restoration.

When Henry Nouwen was being ordained, Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche Communities, prayed the following prayer over him:

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.

Could it be that the very things that make up so much of our humanity – our frustrated expectations, thwarted plans, and withered desires – are the very things God uses to restore hope and offer grace?

“On Being Wrong”- TED talk by Kathryn Schultz

Three bears and a ladder – a parable of grace

This video recently appeared on Facebook, and while I rarely click on any of the hundreds of video links posted, this one caught my attention. So, I clicked, and was rewarded with a 1 minute visual parable.

Let me start by saying that, just like with any parable or metaphor, the part of your brain that wants to dissect every detail needs to take a coffee break. The story here speaks loudly to one big idea: grace! Grace is a term we regularly toss around church settings and conversations, but like many of the terms we use, it is sometimes a difficult concept to wrap our hearts and minds around. God’s grace is magnificent, powerful, overwhelming, vast…but, left in the abstract, its power in our lives is minimized. Not until grace takes shape in the physical world and is demonstrated right in front of us does it have its intended effect.

In the video, the little bears are in desperate need. Without intervention, there is no hope of rescue from what appeared to be a fine lunch, but turned out to be a death trap (sound familiar?) So here it is…The Cross is a ladder and God is a couple of people in a pickup truck. And sometimes in our lives, that is EXACTLY what we see and experience. Our rescue from the garbage dumpster we have made of our lives comes from someone in a pickup, with a ladder, who represents the living extension of that grace that first appeared on Calvary. Pastors, Christian workers, staff members at churches, and missionaries are not immune to the dumpster’s allure. Like anyone else, our appetites may overcome our ability to weigh the consequences and we dive in for that tasty morsel that we think we cannot live without. Lives are ruined, our shiny coats are covered in last week’s rancid potato salad and hope vanishes. For some, a ladder appears: people – who themselves have caught a glimpse of God’s grace – back their truck up and extend a hand, a place at the table, a warm and knowing smile  (Colossians 3:12-14).

Sometimes we get caught up in trying to figure out how the little bears got into the mess in the first place, or why the momma bear didn’t take more care. None of that speculation matters when the only outcome without grace is death. There will be time to learn a different way. Some fear that extending grace and forgiveness condones what the offender has done, thinking “They should have known better than to go climbing in after nasty leftovers!” If that was God’s perspective, we would all be rotting at the bottom of the dumpster with the bananas. As my wife is often fond of saying, forgiveness is precisely for things that never should have happened. It doesn’t mean that it never happened… it did.

The little bears were in real trouble, and someone brought a ladder. Is there someone in your life who could use a ladder today?