Normal is a myth

Unready?

walkaway

A DANGEROUS CALLING

I heard that another pastor quit today.

My Twitter feed, my Facebook friends’ list, and even the contact list in my phone is filled with the names of people who refer to their life in ministry in the past tense.  They walked away. Done. Goodbye.

As if stuck in some spiritual Twilight Zone experience, I cannot help think that this is not the way it should have turned out for any of them.

Even in my own ministry, I have felt the pull. It starts as a whisper. A sleepless night. A one-off anxiety attack.

Then it can turn into a roar. Panic, depression, and even fear can reside in the places in your soul where joy, hope, and courage once reigned. What was once a whisper now becomes a scream:

“Get out while you can!”

We thought we were ready.

In some ways, I’ve been involved in ministry my entire life. I was serving on youth councils as a teenager, leading worship in college ministries, and even pursuing ministry in my education. After that, I wound up serving on staff in several different churches over the course of my career.

I do not share this to toot my own horn. I share this because NONE of this experience could prepare me for some things that have been thrown at me.

Of course, I had seen church drama. I knew the pettiness of committees that choked ministries out of a budget. I had seen ministers caught in their sins and forced to resign. I’d seen people walk out of church over very petty things. These experiences helped shape me and serve daily as a reminder that – even in the Body of Christ – people do not always play nice and anyone can fall into sin.

Still…how little I know is often overwhelming.

A little while ago I was reading an article about a megachurch pastor who resigned from his ministry. His reason? Not sin. Not a theological dispute with other leaders. No scandal or whispered possibilities…

He simply burned out. Years of stress finally took their toll on him and his family and it was time – he believed – to step down.

Once again, I found myself aching on the inside. You see, his story is not the first I’ve read. It’s not the second, or third… It’s just the latest chapter in the saga of leaders I’ve seen walk away from ministry.

I’ve seen others removed from their hugely successful ministries when sins were exposed – often because, once again, stress drove them to unhealthy habits or illicit relationships. Some of their books sit on my bookshelves, each filled with wisdom and insight about ministry and church planting. Yet their authors are no longer in ministry. They have tragically fallen, NOT beyond restoration, but at least to a place where trust must be re-earned. Even then, they will remain wrongfully and regrettably the easy targets of naysayers and modern-day Pharisees who will distract and disrupt any healing process to try and impede any future attempts of theirs to re-engage ministry of any sort.

Still, it’s easy to remain unaffected by what happens to “celebrity” authors/pastors/leaders from a distance. We can fall into a complacent mindset that assures us that our vigilance will never allow it to happen close to home.

Until it does…

I have worked side-by-side with great leaders, great ministers, and – above all – great friends. We lived for our tasks in ministry. We have been “in the trenches” together, you might say. We have set up worship environments together, slaved through rehearsals together, studied the Bible together, counseled people through incredibly difficult times together, took on the challenges of retreats and mission projects together… . In those moments – WHICH ARE SO GOOD – you cannot imagine anything ever changing. God feels so present, the work feels so noble, and the privilege of getting to be a part of what God is doing is more than an adrenaline rush – it is FUEL for living and serving.

Fast forward a decade (or less, in some cases)…

“I will never serve in professional ministry again.”

“I want to go back to church, but I no longer trust people in leadership.”

“I do not feel that I need or want to be a part of any ‘organized’ religion again.”

“I’m not sure what I believe in.”

“I just cannot do this anymore.”

These are not tweets published by former megachurch pastors after their experiences. These are the often repeated words from friends and former partners in ministry.

When I hear these words, that aching inside my stomach begins to grow like nothing else. I ache when I no longer see in them the fire that used to drive them to serve Christ in an almost unstoppable capacity.

I feel helpless. I feel discouraged. But the worst part? I know it will continue happening to more and more people.

Leaders – whether staff or volunteer – will continue to burn out, “sin out,” or stomp out of their callings.

So what is happening? More so, WHY is it happening?

WHAT IS THE PROBLEM?

I know part of the problem is the unimaginable pressure put on leaders (staff or otherwise) by their congregations. Though I could pen an entire post on this subject (or just reference many incredible articles on the subject already written by others), I will just summarize here:  Leaders are often expected to do more than they are capable of doing, are held to higher standards than others that leave little room for error, have to work with difficult committees/teams/individuals, and have to do all of this without complaining, confessing, or showing any weakness lest their position or job be brought under threat of discipline or termination. These problems do not exist in every congregation nor always simultaneously where they do exist. However, where they do exist, they are very real issues for a lot of people just trying to serve in the capacity they were called by their Father to serve. Thriving, working, or even surviving in these environments can be enough to make anyone want to walk away.

But congregational pressure is just part of the problem. I also believe there is another problem underneath all this that is far more discouraging in our ministries than just the pressure of “the work.”

To put it bluntly:  Many of us are not really prepared for what could go wrong in ministry.  We are completely unready.

Here is what I believe happens:

When a person receives a calling (whether a shout, a “still small voice,” or a lifelong process of finding one’s place), it is exciting. It is an adrenaline rush. Often, it is emotional. Much like when we first come to Christ, finding our calling to ministry – however it happens for an individual – is enough to cause us to get involved in something or even pursue a lifetime career in serving God in some capacity. Our lives start to revolve around the calling. Suddenly, what we do “matters,” if it did not feel so already. We feel this urgency of sharing the Gospel or being an agent in helping those gifted to do so.

Then, as we start serving, we have these experiences that can reinforce our calling. Maybe we see how our small role played a part in the bigger picture. Maybe we got to see people come to Christ. Maybe it was that summer youth trip where kids were baptized in the ocean. Or that worship night where people who seemed far from God started to praise Him. Or that mission trip that opened our eyes to the plight of many in the world and left a lasting impression on our souls that we should serve in even greater capacities.

Now, multiply that experience by considering the people we serve with:  The people you pray with, work alongside, share joy with, share life with… Now your calling is not just about you. It is also about them and their calling. Collectively, you feel you can do more than you could ever do alone. You are a team. A family. A church, in the very best sense of the word.

As your ministry grows, it seems nothing can discourage. Sure, sometimes people get angry over petty things or the equipment on the stage does not work. Not everyone is as excited as you are, but that is still okay.  It is just fine because you are answering your calling.

You are answering your calling, and life is good.

Until it is not.

When you answer your calling, you have a concept of the hard times that will “come with the job.” However, when life turns into something that is”not good” – and concept becomes reality –  you can all too quickly find out whether you are truly “ready.”

You might think I’m talking about tragic events…

I was not prepared for my own father’s surprising death.  I was not ready for for the death of a young girl in a congregation who died in her sleep. I was not nearly prepared for the time I stood in silence with a friend who just lost his parents in a horrific situation that was literally being broadcast on the news for all to see.

Events like these leave marks on your soul that you can (and should) never forget. Tragedy alone can discourage, but God has a knack for showing up in the heart of any tragedy and moving mightily. In the events above, I saw healing and church families come together stronger than ever before.  Tragedy, in its own way, can actually REINFORCE your calling instead of casting doubt upon it.

So tragedy, alone, is not what we are unready for.

What we are unready for is when the CHURCH – the place where we work out our calling – begins to crack and fall apart at a foundational level.

As ministers, we cling to ideals. We are (1) serving God (2) in the Body of Christ (3) alongside others called to do the same. It should be an ideal setup. We are, after all, sharing the Gospel – the literal “good news” of salvation in Jesus Christ. The church or ministry where we serve is the local embodiment of being the “body of Christ.” Knowing this, there are expectations of community, fairness, forgiveness, unity, hope, working through problems, and – above all – love.  While this may be an oversimplification of the beautiful complex organism that is the church body, when answering a calling to serve in a church there is an implicit trust in God’s calling and in the people you serve alongside. There is a level trust in those that appointed you or hired you. Being a church, the bar of what to expect is set pretty high.

Unfortunately, the church is also made up of broken sinners like you and me. Because of this, the “safe place” that a church should be can morph into something else entirely. The ideal image of the body of Christ begins to show cracks, and our trust is broken. The foundation gives way. When this happens, it becomes hard for us to reconcile the idea of  church as it should be with the reality of what the church has become.

Some examples:

How do you reconcile being torn between your feeling of belonging to a congregation, yet – being employed by that church – you find the work environment too toxic and unhealthy to remain? How do you choose between your incredible church family and your career? Do you just leave the people you love, even though the “job” part is destroying you on the inside? Why do the principles of love, grace, and unity not apply to the career side of being a part of a community?

What do you do when a church covers up the ongoing sin of one of its key ministers? What if it is a sin that is victimizing others, yet the pastor defends his minister, labeling anyone a Pharisee who dares ask that the minister be confronted? What do you do when one of the victims finally chooses to speak up, the truth is exposed, and a congregation of hundreds becomes a congregation of less than a dozen OVERNIGHT? How do you encourage a victim of that minister’s sin to trust God ever again?

How do you handle oddly impossible situations – like one where a minister’s wife had to choose between her spouse’s ministry and her friendships when those friends were compelled to leave the church over a disagreement? How do you reconcile loyalty to your church with your wife’s broken friendships? Would she even had to have to face such an issue were the minister’s employer not, ironically, a church?

What do you do when social media becomes a place of so much venom between congregation members and leaders or other members?  Rumors, misinformation, and pure vitriol no longer have to be delivered face-to-face. It can be a status update that rocks your entire congregation. It can be that good friend who suddenly “unfriends” you and hurts you in a way you didn’t think possible 20 years ago. Why shun in person, when you can shun digitally?

How do you explain to your own kids – being the children of a minister – what is going on when they see the discrepancy between church at its best AND at its worst?

What do you do when fellow ministry leaders are fired from the jobs they loved, yet the congregation is told by the leadership that they simply resigned to pursue other interests? How do you reconcile the truth with a lie forged to maintain an appearance of “grace” and solidarity? Do you defy the leadership, speak the truth, and risk undermining their capacity to lead? Or do you remain loyal by keeping silent so that the “false” sense of unity can be maintained?

Too often, we find ourselves in utterly untenable situations like these where the foundation beneath our feet crumbles, and the walls begin to fall. We see people in the church acting in ways that are contradictory to Scripture, yet we become paralyzed either by fear of “rocking the boat” or – more likely – an impossible desire to hold the broken pieces together in the hope that soon things will change or heal and the church will survive.

When we try to keep it together, we wear out. We may try to surround ourselves with those who encourage and lift us up, but it is merely akin to spraying air freshener over a corpse. We can try to hide in our positions, our cubicles, our work, and wait for the storm to blow over – all the while not seeing how it is destroying us.  The church has become a place of stress, anxiety, and pain. Eventually, these situations always collapse.

Then there are the consequences:

You talk to an old friend who has given up on church and ministry completely because his/her experience has led him to the conclusion that ALL churches are unhealthy and it is simply safer to stay away.

You watch people who have done amazing things in serving Christ evolve into practical atheists. The wounds inflicted on them by people acting “in the name of Christ” have bled their faith dry.

In my own life…

That moment I was knocked off my feet when my wife told me that she is not sure she can be a part of my “calling” anymore because – in her experience – churches are places that cause her pain over and over again. She misses the days before she became the wife of a minister – days of “illusion” before the curtain was pulled back and she could see all the dark places churches go all too often.  (Fortunately, there has been great healing in this area of our lives, but the reality of what ministry might entail still remains a fear that has to be overcome from time to time.)

In 25 years of ministry, I can tell you that situations like this can weigh on you and test you in more ways than you can imagine. Church – the body of Christ, the bride of Christ, the beautiful creation that is the body believers – turns into something not so beautiful. This distortion may only be (and usually is) caused by a handful of people, but all too often they are the loudest or they hold the highest positions of influence. Church “ideal” becomes Church “real.” We cling to the ideals as long as we can until our strength fades and our hope that things will get better wanes.

I now know why people burn out.

I know why people give up on their calling. I know why families break. I know why leaders turn to sin as their idea of the lesser of two evils if it gets him/her out of an unsustainable situation.

We burn out because we are unready. A life of ministry is often far more than we bargained for. I hear and see echoes of these stories in the experience of so many others struggling to answer their calling, yet losing faith in where and how to do so.

SO, NOW WHAT?

Unfortunately, it is all too easy to feel like a victim. As I have been writing this, I fear that my words may convey this “victim” mindset. It is not my intention. Maybe in many situations there is TRUTH that people are victimized by sinners in an angry church. But in a sinful world, it is funny how we are so easily lulled into this sense that nothing can go wrong. And when it does go wrong, it is even funnier how jaded we can become and believe that nothing can go right.

Fortunately, we are not alone in being unready.

The Bible is full of people who were never “ready.” It is Peter never believing he would deny Christ. It is Judas selling out not just his teacher, but his friend. It is Saul’s ego getting in the way of God’s will. It is David nearly losing his throne because of Bathsheba. It is Noah naked and drunk after being saved from the flood. It is Abraham denying Sarah as his wife to save his own skin. It is Jonah, Gideon, Moses, and many more. The Bible is full of people who were not ready for the unspeakable challenges they faced. Some, like Judas or Saul, failed. But the beauty in the Scriptures is that we read about an incredible number of people who did not. In the end, the Messiah came, the Gospel was still spread, and Salvation came to the world.

We have hope because the unready became ready – and God moved through them.

Ministry is such a dangerous calling. It calls us not just into the unknown of the world “out there,” but into the unknown risks in our own hearts and in the hearts of those around us. There is the potential for joy or pain in every decision – and every calling. There is no user guide with step-by-step ways to be prepared. There is no preparedness kit for the local church apocalypse. There are only examples in Scripture of people who faced their own trials when they saw God’s people do unspeakable things, yet pressed on in the task to which God called them.

The truth is, we can never truly BE ready.

Knowing we are never ready is exactly how we press on. When we are not ready, THAT IS THE TIME to believe in the God we follow. Where the church and his people are fallible, He is not. There is no opportunity for Him to fail and be anything less than Who He Is.

I believe with all my heart this situation of people walking (or running) away from ministry can be fixed. But it will require at least FIVE things:

FIRST:  We need to get realistic.

Ministry is not all “kumbaya” and congregational bonding around the campfire. It is not all smiles and testimonies of all the good that is happening in our churches. Though we can and should strive for the ideal, we need to recognize that the nature of our depravity usually runs deeper than we would like to admit. That means that people – even in the body of Christ – are capable of just about anything. Like the aforementioned names of the leaders we read in the Scriptures, people today are capable of making incredible mistakes and people can and do get hurt.

In most cases, we cannot control this. People make their own choices. But we can ready ourselves for the unthinkable so we are less surprised – not IF – but WHEN it happens. Likewise, though we cannot be responsible for the decisions of others, we can be responsible for our own choices. We can choose to strive to make our own interaction with Church to be as close to the IDEAL as possible by embodying love, forgiveness, fairness, justice, and grace in our OWN lives. That is far more realistic of an option than trying to stop others from inflicting wounds. We can strive not to inflict any harm of our own doing. We can strive to let our light shine brighter than those that would do harm.

SECOND:  We need to become optimistic.

FACT: There are fantastic churches and ministries that function very well every day. The people that work in these areas are happy. They are answering their calling and they are making a difference. We should seek them out and be reminded that God’s purpose is still being accomplished. We should never let our own negative or discouraging experience lead us to generalizations that “nothing good” can come out of churches. Rather than project our fears onto other ministries or congregations, we should celebrate what they are doing and let it encourage us. We need to let them remind us that there are healthy situations where the people seek God and serve him. Being ready is not always expecting the worst, but knowing we can also celebrate the best.

THIRD:  We need to get out before we burn out.

If we find ourselves in an unhealthy situation, we need to learn to GET OUT. Immediately. Trust God and move on before it eats away at your soul. Don’t fight it. Don’t give it “just one more chance” after a string of chances. Run. Let no one hijack your calling and your gifts. If that means leaving a group of people you love, we have to learn to trust that God is powerful enough to tend to that flock without you.

It may even mean speaking up and telling the truth, if the situation warrants it.  It may be finding the strength to admit something is wrong even when you do not think it’s possible to do so. If we worried less about our jobs our our ties to our congregations, and more about our integrity and our character, we may lose our positions but maintain our integrity and confidence in our calling.

FOURTH:  We need guardians who know the danger signs.

We all need to remain vigilant. But this step is the hardest for those who have already been wounded. Maybe you feel that you missed the opportunity to make a change before it burned out your passion and your heart for ministry.

But if you have been wounded, and have left the ministry or are simply contemplating it, I hope you find a way to stay or to get back into the game. We can either be victims and whine about what we were not ready for, or we can become paragons – voices in the wilderness, vigilant watchmen determined to protect the beautiful thing that a church can be. Having seen all the filth that can happen, we are uniquely qualified to serve as its guardians. We have the gift of not being naive. Our experiences can lead to wisdom that was forged in fire. We can either turn that experience into resentment of the church and our role in it, or we can wield the wisdom that we learned through it as a weapon against our true Enemy that would destroy the church.

You already know these things, dear friends. So be ON GUARD; then you will not be carried away by the errors of these wicked people and lose your own secure footing. Rather, you must grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” – 2 Peter 3:17-18

FIFTH (AND FINALLY):  We need all the discipleship we can get.

Ironically, we need the very thing that is the most risky:  to enter into relationships with other people where we can teach each other, encourage each other, watch out for each other, and – when necessary – correct each other.

Pouring into one another, learning God’s word together, and equipping each other to FOLLOW it is the way we solidify the foundation so that it does not crack. This is not optional. Pastors, ministers, leaders – people at every level – need to be engaged in some form of discipling others and being discipled themselves. The cracks develop when discipleship disappears. The foundation fails when the church chooses to be something other than a church.

 I will show you what it’s like when someone comes to me, listens to my teaching, and then follows it. It is like a person building a house who digs deep and lays the foundation on solid rock. When the floodwaters rise and break against that house, it stands firm because it is well built. But anyone who hears and doesn’t obey is like a person who builds a house right on the ground, without a foundation. When the floods sweep down against that house, it will collapse into a heap of ruins.” – Luke 6:47-49

***

There is still much to be done.  It is my prayer and hope that those entering ministry will be braced for its realities.  It is my prayer and hope that those in difficult situations will find discernment and strength to find a way to work out their calling before they reach a point of discouragement our burnout.

It is also my prayer that anyone who has left their calling will consider this:  A calling is not merely a job track or career choice. It is a divine appointment. The God who created the heavens and the earth once stirred in your heart a desire to serve Him. When you walk away from a calling, you walk away from something of God’s design.  Now, maybe that calling will lead you to something completely DIFFERENT and unexpected. But a calling is what it is. Let it lead you into new opportunities. Do not run from it.

After Jesus’ crucifixion, a man fled, and in fear for his own life, denied knowing Christ three times. He denied his calling. He ran.

But even after all that, upon that “rock” (for the name “Peter” means “rock”), Jesus built his church.

For God’s gifts and his call can never be withdrawn.” – Romans 11:29

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