Watch out…it’s a bumpy road

So the last couple of weeks have been interesting, to say the least. I thought I would share what the last several weeks have been like in my life, just in case you were thinking about becoming a pastor. If this doesn’t cure you of that itch, then maybe shepherding is for you. Or maybe you need to see a counselor. Or maybe both!
CAUTION: This might sound whiny for a bit. Bear with me, I am not in desperate need of catharsis. There will be a payoff, I promise. 🙂
Ever feel like a boxer that is just getting the stuffing knocked out of you? Like it is some kind of dream but the punches keep on coming, and all you can do is take them on the chin? Yeah, we all have those times in life. I have been the recipient of a fairly decent beat-down over the last month or so, the kind that attack us all from time to time.
We just had to re-roof our church building, and in the process we had a company demand $2000 from us that we didn’t have to cancel a contract that we had canceled within the specified time frame. They threatened to sue us. Since donors had provided the money for the roof, I was really stressed out about handling it well.
Some of our best friends in our church live a good 35-40 minute drive from church, so this summer they decided to look around in their area and see if they might be better served (and serving) with a church in their neighborhood. Nothing wrong with that, but it hurt for me to see them go. They may come back if they don’t find something, but it still hurts for them to be gone.
Then a couple of weeks ago I got an email that a man and his wife were leaving our church. I mentored him for a long time and have seen God work through him to call others to Christ. He said that he had prayed over it and decided to leave our family to pursue ministry in another setting; however, a couple of weeks previously we had a conflict over me helping him in a significant way that, in the end, I couldn’t or wouldn’t (depending on which point of view you look at it from). I “read between the lines” and figured that it had more to do with our personal conflict than with any significant ministerial reasons.

That same week I found out on Sunday morning that another family had left our church. This was not a family that hung around the edges of the church, but one that was in significant ministry. There were more than ministry connections; there were personal ones as well. I found out fifth hand from my wife who was in tears. Not so good. Then after I contacted them and asked to talk, I found out that one of the underlying reasons was me. I was at least a part of the problem. That caused discomfort, so they left. I heard the reasons only after the fact.
This past weekend was fine; it was, though, our worst offering of the year.* Since we are a grace giving church and I don’t look at giving records, I don’t really know what to change or if we even should. However, if things don’t pick up we are looking at either a staff pay cut or laying someone off at some point. I absolutely hate budget stuff; it is the biggest pain I deal with as a pastor. Since I am the shepherd, these decisions lie mostly with me.
Monday was a doozy. My good friend’s father passed away, with grief compounded because they were estranged. We had a toddler rushed to ICU after he stopped breathing during a tonsillectomy. Another friend went in for a biopsy for possible breast cancer. And a friend called for help when an 11-year-old child she knew committed suicide. So I spent the day mostly on my face in prayer, though I had to teach at the seminary on Monday night as well. It’s hard to focus on the formation of the NT canon when all that is happening.
The icing on the cake came Tuesday. I sent out a prayer request via email for the toddler, and had someone email back asking to be removed from the church email prayer chain. That is not in itself a crazy happening, but this came from a person who I knew wasn’t particularly happy with a decision I had made regarding a wedding ceremony for a couple associated in a secondhand way to our church.
In a series of emails, I heard from this person that I am the most disappointing pastor they had ever met. I had single-handedly driven this couple (the couple with the wedding officiating issue) from church, and had completely ruined their church and they had nothing more to say to me. Of course, that email was cc’ed to my elders. (I would have forwarded it anyway) I was, in this person’s mind, the sole source of their not wanting anything to do with church.
Was I at my desk when this email came in? Of course not; if I was I would have been able to collect myself. Instead I got this email on my blackberry while out with my wife shopping to celebrate her birthday. Focus FAIL. (technology FAIL too…) I tried to keep my mind on Laura and her special day, but I admit to being distracted a lot.
Believe it or not, most pastors who are true shepherds absolutely ache inside when they fail their congregation. When things aren’t going well, it hurts. I am one of those. It is hard when someone takes what you have done or said completely wrongly. Our church is a reflection of me and my service, so when it is going haywire that is a reflection in some way of me going haywire. Shepherding is tough work and not for the faint of heart, to put it mildly.
Now this might sound like a good time to consider a new profession. Maybe God is telling me to seek out alternative employment. Or maybe, just maybe, this is all part of the ebb and flow of life.
See, when this started I started asking the Lord for something. I started praying for God to speak clearly to me, and to show me that He was pleased with me and my ministry if He was. He did so in numerous ways:

  • My wife affirmed my decisions and my calling. She is very much intuitive about relationships, and she sees past the situation to the heart very well. She affirmed that I was doing things the right way. She also subsequently pointed out some “rough edges” that could use polishing, which has been very helpful to me.
  • I got a very encouraging email from one of our elders in response to the email that was cc’ed to him. He thanked me for making hard decisions and for shepherding with heart and conviction.
  • I got a RANDOM call from an old friend, one who Laura and I knew way back when I was an Officer Candidate in the Navy. She needed some advice from a pastoral perspective and told me how much our interactions had made her excited to find a church home when she moves soon.
  • I talked to my mentors and filled them in on the details of the situations. Under the GIGO principle, I gave them each the run down on the situations and how things went down without sugar coating. They both affirmed my decisions and told me to hang in there, that these things happen and that every shepherd would have times when things appear to be going in the wrong direction when in reality God is preparing hearts and minds for His plan.
  • God reminded me that someone provided for ALL the funds we needed for the roof, with some more left over besides. And then God reminded me that even if we had to pay the extortion penalty this company demanded, we STILL got the roof done cheaper by going with another company.
  • I got to visit in the hospital today with a lady from our church who is in a ton of physical pain and is ready to be done with it sometimes. She has had one thing after another go wrong physically and feels like she can’t catch a break. She felt mentally, psychologically, and spiritually tired from the battle. In encouraging her to sit quietly at God’s feet and rest in Him when life didn’t make sense, I was encouraged in the same way as well. If she can be still before God in the face of pain and surgery and uncertainty, why can’t I be still before Him in the face of change and challenge?

I can see what I think I needed to learn at this point in this journey. God absolutely, definitely spoke to me through my study of Luke in preparation for my sermon (Particularly in Luke 9:23-27 and Luke 9:46-50) as well as in prayer that I need to be focused on the kingdom of God and not the “kingdom of John.” God’s kingdom wasn’t hurt by a couple of families leaving “my church” (notice, “my church” not “Christ’s local church that I serve”); it was rearranged but not hurt meaningfully, in that those who left will find another church in town to serve Christ in. If they are growing in Christ, serving meaningfully, and experiencing God in authentic ways that they weren’t at my church then where is the bad in their moving?
Add to that some more lessons. When I talked to the first couple that left, it turns out all of my “reading between the lines” was, simply put, wrong. They had been seeking the Lord for some time on where they should serve, and as this was a time of transition in their life anyway (for other reasons) they felt called to serve elsewhere. That is a TOTALLY legitimate decision and had nothing to do with any conflict. It never entered their mind, in fact. So I took something personally that was not personal. (note to self: don’t take things personally. second note to self: get the facts before getting emotionally invested)
When I talked to the second couple, again I was but a small part. There was no animosity, just hurt from something that I wasn’t part of and could never have affected. I was only a secondary issue, and this couple didn’t WANT me to feel like I was the problem so they just left quietly so as not to cause problems and hurt my feelings. I wish the process had been a little less abrupt and the timing better, but again they will be serving Christ in another place that doesn’t have the same hurt attached. God’s kingdom has not been hurt one bit, and my angst was misplaced. (note to self: don’t take things personally)

So I needed to stress less about issues over which I have no control and not all of the facts; instead I need to focus more about making sure I was shepherding all of the other areas of my ministry, taking care of the sick and hurting. I needed to focus on the marriage counseling and hospital visits and sermon preparation and growth of the people in our congregation, and our heart to reach out to those outside of our four walls.
I also realized that, now that I have been in my ministry for two years, that it is a good time for spiritual attack. Real, significant ministry doesn’t start until a pastor has been somewhere for two years, and I just passed that mark at my church. This would be an excellent time for Satan to attack my confidence and commitment to my pastorate, to tear down what God is doing and make me want to quit. Especially after learning that what I was taking personally wasn’t so personal, the spiritual attack (if there was one) was internal to me and not external to our church family.

Once I realized those two big lessons, my whole perspective changed. I have a renewed focus on God’s kingdom instead of my own, and a reminder that this time in my ministry is a critical time for seeing God at work and being part of it. My frustration toward those families is completely reversed, and I have been praying that God would bless them in their new home and with their new service in His kingdom. That alone has been worth the price of the bumpy ride.

Maybe this was a spiritual attack, and if so there is nothing to do but trust God and ask Him for shelter and protection. I am not one to see Satan under every nook and cranny, but if this is, then fortunately for me God made the lesson clear too soon for any real damage to be done. Tailspin averted, ship righted, mission recommitted to.
Maybe you’ve been through similar pains in life recently, whether in ministry or a regular job (pastoring is a highly IRREGULAR job) or with family or other relationships. If so, may this lesson that God taught me encourage you on your journey as well.
*By definition, every year MUST have one week at which the church receives its worst offering. It happens. Welcome to reality. It was just hard being THAT week.