By Gabriele Rienas
Q: I am ready to walk away from all of this. I wonder what the point is of all the sacrifice and effort of ministry. We have pastored our church for 8 years and, with God’s blessing, built it up from nothing. Last month one of our leaders and a group of families left to start another church across town. We had invested in this leader over the years, and now he is leading this group in criticizing our ministry and bad-mouthing us around town. I am shocked to hear that they believe that God is leading them. I am devastated. How can Christians behave this way? I know I am supposed to forgive, but I do not even know where to begin.
A: I am so with you in wondering, What’s up with Christians and church politics? It is easy to see why you would be devastated, angry, and confused. However, staying in that place in the long run is not an option if you desire to live abundantly.
The most important thing to do is to process this in a way that allows you to move forward with your life without getting stuck in the pain of it. Grief is inevitable, but progress comes when you move through it with a commitment to right thinking and forgiveness.
The first thing is to minimize the power the “leavers” have over your self-concept. Their opinion represents one group’s opinion (and most likely one or two individuals’ opinion) and cannot possibly be the defining assessment of your life and ministry. Come back to some basic, foundational truths. Constantly remind yourself and your husband:
- God is still God. He loves you, He approves of you, and He has a plan for your lives and ministry.
- God’s agenda for your life is intact — no man can interfere with that.
- God is not walking away from you like those who have chosen to leave.
- When God addresses your shortcomings, it may be uncomfortable, but it is never demeaning or punitive.
- This group, no matter how many in number, does not represent the opinion of the whole world nor is the group a reliable measuring stick of your success in ministry.
You will feel the pain of this loss for a while. Allow yourself to grieve and express your sadness in appropriate ways. While you are in that difficult emotional place, take things one day at a time. When you wake up in the morning, trust God to walk with you through that day and thank Him for doing so at the end of it. Depend on Him to make clear His plan for your life moment-by-moment and day-by-day.
Along with the pain will come feelings of insecurity, vulnerability in other relationships, and wondering what might happen next. You may feel insecure about those who seem to be staying with you. This is normal. As a word of caution, resist the urge to draw people who are associated with your church into the middle by discussing this with them. When it comes to other leaders and staff people, it should be a need-to-know basis only.
Avoid endless conversations and obsessive thoughts designed to analyze the situation and sort it out. Unfortunately, over-thinking only prolongs the pain because it keeps the offenses fresh in your mind. In time you will most likely be able to find greater clarity about everybody’s contribution. But in the initial pain of the break, over-analyzing it will only lead you to go around in circles mentally. Do not let your whole life become consumed with this, no matter how big it seems.
Having said that, process your perceptions and feelings with one or two safe people in your life. Your spouse will most likely be one of them, but it would also be helpful to find someone outside your church. This should be a person who has some wisdom and possibly some experience in church life. Sharing your story in a safe, affirming setting can be a powerful, healing tool.
When it comes to moving forward without bitterness, remind yourself that all people are utterly in need of God’s grace. This includes the Christian community: prone to selfishness, lack of grace, and wisdom. Commit to an ongoing journey of forgiveness. You will certainly need God’s grace. There are days where it may seem impossible but take a stance that says, “With God’s help, I am committed to pursuing forgiveness no matter how difficult it is or how resistant I feel to it at this moment.” Then walk it out.
At one time or another, those of us in ministry will eventually ask the question you have, “Is it worth it?” My first response would be a resounding yes, pointing out all the ways your ministry has been effective in large and small ways in spite of the current situation. On further thought, I begin to wonder about asking the question in the first place. It implies that visible results validate the effort of serving Christ. However, if your efforts are out of obedience to God’s call on your life, then the results are ultimately His problem. In other words, God looks at your obedience to His call and measures effectiveness by a whole different measuring stick. The fact you have served this congregation for 8 years is success in itself. Take comfort in this.
Even though it may seem doubtful at the moment, it is likely that in time you will bounce back from this experience. Let yourself grieve, pursue God’s perspective with your whole heart, and avoid letting bitterness take root. Most likely you will never be the same. In the end good things can come of it if you emerge with greater compassion, grace, and wisdom.