Starting Over

April 26, 2012 — 1 Comment

It seems like there are too many local church stories that don’t have an “and they lived happily ever after” ending. Pastors tell me their story and it’s no wonder why so many leave the local church in pursuit of secular jobs.

It seems like these stories shouldn’t be so common in the church. I’m not naive, people are people, but it’s still hard to hear. Stuff happens. I know. The local church is not immune to unhappy endings.

“John”, pastored in a suburb of a large city and stood up against a wealthy member who tithed to the church. The member had recently made a significant pledge during a building campaign. The pastor wanted chairs in the new building and this member wanted pews. The member said he would pull his pledge if chairs were purchased for the new worship auditorium. The battle got ugly. The financial pressures were huge. They were in too deep to get out. The board felt they “needed” the member’s money. Pews were selected. The pastor was encouraged to leave, and was gone in three months with next to no severance. How could this happen?!

There is no end to the variety of these sad stories. I’m sure you know some tragic stories too. No one can predict great endings, but starting over with wisdom, will make a significant difference how the next chapter ends.

  • To the best of your ability – leave well.

This is easier said than done, but nonetheless important.  Even if you feel you’ve been wronged, don’t burn your bridges. You may have been treated terribly, but take the high road anyway. I’m not suggesting that you become a voiceless doormat, but turning the other cheek is Christ’s example to us. And candidly, fighting these situations is usually a losing battle. Humanly speaking you may never be rewarded for your suffering, but God will honor you if you leave well.

When you are gone, be gone. Don’t take calls from those you once shepherded, at least for several months. You are not their pastor any longer. Say your goodbyes, let them know it was your privilege to serve them, and tell them they must look to the next pastor. You are not abandoning them. You are leaving well and helping the church have a chance to succeed. Your close friends will always be with you.

  • Take time to thoughtfully assess the damage.

It’s important for you to know the real damage.  Do you have a bruised ego or a broken heart? Do you feel betrayed? Do you feel someone owes you something? Has your faith been challenged? How did this impact your family? Are you angry with God? Do you feel disenfranchised from the local church?  Have you lost your confidence? The answers to these kinds of questions will help you make sure you are headed down the right road of re-entry to ministry.  Don’t tackle these questions on your own. I encourage you to take some time with a couple of close friends or possibly a trusted counselor and walk through these questions.

  • Take sufficient time to heal.

If you’re hurting, face the hurt and move toward healing, don’t bury yourself in more work.  Don’t rush into the next church. You may need to take a short sabbatical from church work. A time frame as limited as 30-90 days, can make a big difference. The healing process won’t be complete in that length of time, but enough can take place that full healing can come.

If you go to the next church too soon, you will find great tension between needing to heal and needing to lead. While it’s not impossible, it’s very difficult to fully engage in both at the same time. A pastor doesn’t need to be “perfect” (who is?) to move to the next church. There is always some baggage from a difficult situation – my caution is to do what you can so that the baggage is light.

Pastor, remember that God does not love you because you are valuable. You are valuable because He loves you. If God’s love is based on our own merit, we are all in trouble. You are valuable because of God’s incredible and unconditional love for you. Your healing is based upon this simple yet profound concept.

  • Learn from your mistakes.

Let’s establish a generous benefit of the doubt. It may have been 95% those who opposed you and 5% you, but no matter how you slice it you were part of the equation. It’s like a marriage, sometimes a divorce truly can be attributed largely to one person, but there is always at least a little of the issue that the other person must own. The healthiest and most productive thing to do is to courageously accept responsibility for your contribution to what happened and learn from your mistakes. Don’t blame yourself for everything that took place, just take responsibility for your stuff. Don’t dwell on what is in the past, but learn for the future. It’s part of healing and getting ready to lead again.

  • Test your Personal Readiness Factor.

There is something I call the “Personal Readiness Factor”, and it’s a valuable process for you to work through before saying yes to your next church. It’s essential in times of a difficult transition. It’s as simple (not easy) as honestly working through some tough questions, such as the following:

Can I let the past go? (Are you ready to stop talking about it?) Have I forgiven those who hurt me? Is my family ready for me to lead another church?  Is my energy level sufficient to lead a local church?  Am I more confident than cautious?  Am I more like a caged tiger than a whipped puppy?  Am I ready to give more than I receive? What is my dream or vision for the future?  How have I grown – How am I different? Has God given me a green light?

Take these questions seriously. And again, I recommend that you meet with a couple of friends to answer these questions. They will help you with perspective and encourage you in the process.

  • Ask the next church key questions.

Part of what you may have learned is to do a better job of prayerfully selecting the right church. As I’ve said, no one can predict the future, and sometimes it just doesn’t work, but doing your homework is helpful in discerning God’s wisdom.

Ask questions like: Is the primary leadership unified? Are they willing to change?  How are decisions made? What are they willing to do to accomplish the desired results? Is the primary leadership supportive?  What is the full financial picture? What would prevent them from realizing the next step in pursuit of the mission?  Discern things like: How solid are the relationships? Are there any unaddressed “elephants” in the room? Is there unresolved conflict? Is the culture healthy? What do they really want to accomplish?

  • Listen to your heart, take a risk, and go full throttle.

When it’s time, jump back in with your full heart and mind in gear. Don’t hold back and don’t self-protect to avoid being hurt again. Don’t “ease in”, be yourself and go for it.

Don’t choose a safe and easy church. Go where God directs and you know you need Him to make it.  Dream again and dream big. God is with you, and there are more people than you know, in the larger body of Christ, who really care and believe that what you do matters.