Following the end of the third year of the most difficult pastorate of my life, upon the recommendation of an outside consultant and given the green light by the Holy Spirit, I resigned and walked away from that troubled church. Exactly twelve months later, I began pastoring once more.
During that involuntary interim, had you asked -- as some did -- I would have told you I was fine, that all was well, and that I was eagerly anticipating resuming the ministry to which the Lord had summoned me many years earlier.
I was wrong.
I was not well. In fact, over the first few months in the new ministry, I began noticing signs indicating the healing process was going far more slowly than I ever imagined.
THE FIVE SURPRISES I RECEIVED
1) I was too cautious in my preaching.
In the abusive church experience (ACE), several leaders were constantly criticizing my preaching. Nothing I did pleased them. The Sundays I "hit one out of the park" were the worst ones ever, according to them.
After a 12-month interim and five states away, I still could not turn off the reflexive reaction I had developed from the constant carping over my preaching. It was as though I expected it all the time. As a result, I preached on safe subjects and in the style which the congregation preferred.
2) I cringed when someone asked for an appointment.
In the ACE, matters had come to a head when two leaders asked for a few minutes of my time. After they informed me they were part of a movement to remove me, I said, "To show you how dumb I am, men, I honestly expected that you were coming by to brag on me." The fact that the church was doing better than it had in a generation mattered little to them. They wanted one thing and one thing only -- my head.
In the new church, I dreaded when anyone asked for a few minutes of my time.
3) I hated deacons meetings from the first.
In the ACE, this had all come to a head in a four-hour-long deacons meeting where various ones stood to criticize me, followed by others defending me. All the while, I sat there listening. Even though the Lord bathed me in His presence and an other-worldly peace filled me, it was something I would not choose to endure ever again. In the new church, I would rather have taken a beating than attend another deacons meeting.
4) I ran from conflict.
My new church had come experienced internal division and a split 18 months prior to my arrival. Several members were still carrying wounds -- some of them open and festering -- from that battle. Their anger from what others had done and guilt from their own misdeeds were poisoning the fellowship in our church. And yet, because I was still in recovery from my own beating, I had no appetite for more conflict.
So, I ignored the hostilities, hoping they would go away.
5) My wife and I were suspicious of church members extending friendship.
In the ACE, several to whom we had opened our homes and our hearts had turned against us, for reasons known only to God. We learned the hard way to keep our guard up. It took longer than it should to get us to the point of trusting leaders in this new church.
FIVE POWERFUL HEALERS THAT HELPED ME TO MOVE ON
1) Patient lay leaders.
The new church had its share of problem children and they can be mighty troublesome, but these were offset by the maturity and quiet support of a handful of godly men and women who encouraged me, loved my family, and patiently took the long view of matters. At every turn, they demonstrated that they believed in us.
2) Prayer -- my own and others.
The Lord had not abandoned me, I knew. One of several biblical promises my wife and I had claimed in the depth of the ACE was "you brought us out into a place of abundance" (Psalm 66:12). As we prayed for strength, as we asked for this people to be healthy and this ministry effective, and as we sought the "abundance" the Lord promised, little by little, the Lord showed Himself faithful to His promises.
3) Sheer determination.
Patient leaders and faithful prayers are essential, but nothing can replace the pastor's own commitment to stand tall, show courage, and do the right thing. Toward the end of Deuteronomy and in the first chapter of the book bearing his name, Joshua is told six times to "be strong and of good courage." Clearly, he was struggling to overcome a natural timidity and the hesitation learned over four decades of watching God's people brutalize Moses. I took comfort in God's word to Jeremiah at his call, that he must not fear the ones to whom he was being sent, "lest I humiliate you before them" (Jer. 1:17). The Lord wants His preacher strong and courageous, not timid and cringing.
4) Early successes.
In the championship football game, all players walk onto the field jittery. Everything is on the line. Nothing settles a team down like completing a few passes, making some successful runs, and gaining a few first downs. Team members gain confidence and get into their rhythm.
A new pastor, regardless of circumstances, will want to make some early strides to signal the congregation that "we're on the move now" and assure himself that he can do this, with the Lord's help.
A high attendance day, a successful stewardship drive, a mission project well done, the dedication of a new building -- if done well in the first few months of the new pastorate will help the new minister get his bearings and gain confidence.
Some wounds take time to heal, and the patient has to learn to be patient (sorry!) with himself. There was no little red pill which would end the pain and restore trust. This was a matter of "a long obedience in the same direction," in Eugene Peterson's phrase. I stayed at the new church nearly fourteen years, until my retirement. In retrospect, it became clear that the period divided evenly. The first seven years were a time of healing, followed by seven blessed years of a healthy church relationship.
For those who wonder, it was worth the trouble and well worth the wait.
Pastors trying to leave behind the painful memories of difficult church experience will be greatly helped by intense prayer, steely determination, some early successes, enough time and the support of good people.
But know this, minister of the Lord, God is for you. He wants you well and strong again. So, get up off the mat, weary pilgrim, and get back in the game. You were called to this ministry by the Living God.
Go for it. With His help, you can do this and do it well.