The Journey from Suffering to Sufficient Grace
All pastors deal with challenges in the ministry. Peter, the great ministering apostle of the Early Church, reminded believers they should not be surprised at the painful trial they are suffering, as though some strange thing has happened to them (1 Peter 4:12). But we tend to associate much of the suffering Peter referenced with attacks from the enemy who hunts us like a lion seeking whom he may devour (1 Peter 5:8). When the source of our wounds is someone we love and serve sacrificially, the injury becomes especially painful. Unfortunately, some ministers never recover from those wounds.
I am grateful for three ministers — whom I will call John, Tim, and William — who candidly spoke with me about their wounds and what it took to survive and heal and continue in ministry. May these shared stories prove instructive and healing.
John served as a senior pastor in two states prior to extensive service as an associate pastor. He then traveled with his wife in evangelistic ministry until retirement. Tim served as an associate in two assignments before becoming involved in a church plant. William served as a youth pastor, then as a solo pastor in two churches before becoming a senior pastor and then serving at a Christian college. He now directs a citywide ministry and serves on the pastoral staff at a local church.
Tim: “I never dreamed that attitude still existed.”
Tim was just out of Bible college when he accepted a youth pastorate. He believed his passion for reaching all the youth in his community would soon catch on among the families he served.
“I ran into some racial prejudice that was very shocking,” he remembers. “I never dreamed that, in a Pentecostal church, that attitude still existed.”
The church was in a community of shifting racial demographics. In response to perceived white flight, the remaining families treated the church like a refuge from their surroundings. Any attempt to reach out to those outside the white community would not be tolerated.
In the ensuing months as Tim tried to bring new young people into the church, he heard racial epithets from staff, pastors, and pastors’ wives. Board members demanded he minister to white children only. When Tim brought his concerns to his pastor, he received no support. He eventually resigned.
“When I left,” he says, “my disillusionment was so painful I could not shut my eyes to pray. The ideas and ideals I had were shattered so completely it was difficult to pray without feeling the overwhelming pain of the situation we just went through.”
Growing up, Tim had been a part of a successful church. “I had sat under solid teaching,” he says. “Right was right and wrong was wrong.”
In contrast, Tim found himself as a young, idealistic minister facing an organized front of self-justification for blatantly unbiblical attitudes. “They supported their behavior by taking Scripture completely out of context and falling back on local tradition. It was so shocking. Again, I was idealistic. I was 23 or 24 — just out of college.”
John: “I was under investigation for heresy.”
John admits his own inexperience contributed to peripheral problems he experienced early in his ministry. “To be honest, I suffered from self-inflicted injuries,” he says. “I graduated from college and seminary and was ready to grab the theological world by the tail. I came into my first pastorate majoring in issues and minoring in people. I was intent on implementing my vision rather than winning the people’s trust. A lot of needless exaggerated conflicts took place as a result. As the saying goes, live and learn.”
John was living and learning, and growing in effective ministry, thanks to the Holy Spirit’s touch. Yet he served in a denomination that did not embrace the full ministry of the Spirit.
“We were brought up in a fellowship that believed pastors were employees of the congregation,” he says, “not divinely appointed shepherds to lead the flock in the vision God gave the shepherd. The elders and the deacons were kind of the hit men for the church. They were the mediators between the critics and the pastor.”
In virtually every board meeting, John endured a listing of criticisms from elders and deacons on behalf of disgruntled members.
“I felt like a failure. Many times, they would not tell me who said these things, so I was always shadowboxing phantoms. I bounced off the ropes of that denominational structure for many years.”
The crisis reached a head when John and his wife were baptized in the Holy Spirit with the evidence of speaking in tongues. They soon embraced all the gifts of the Spirit.
“We grew in the Lord as never before,” he says. “We must have sounded differently, acted differently, and I guess I preached differently.”
Their church grew rapidly and attracted the attention of regional leadership. The board vice president invited John’s family over for Sunday dinner and afterward asked John and his wife whether they were Pentecostals and spoke in tongues.
“I shared with him that our congregation was not in that place where they could process such information,” John recalls, “and I asked him to keep my answers to his questions confidential. He promised us he would not tell anyone. We then shared our renewal and the blessings of the Holy Spirit in our lives.”
The following Saturday night the call came. The church board had taken John’s pulpit from him. He was put on leave until such time as his theology would be investigated.
“The board made our family sit on the front pew the next Sunday morning in front of an overflowing church as that vice president announced to the entire congregation that my doctrine was under investigation for heresy,” John says. “I felt in that moment something horrible happening within me.”
Eventually, John had a complete breakdown and spent time in a mental institution in deep depression.
“I had nothing but darkness in me and around me,” he says.
William: “People left without even saying goodbye.”
William does not identify any specific crisis in his ministry as life changing. Rather, his general understanding of what it means to minister to a fallible flock and with fallible ministry partners grew to painful depths.
“I made the mistake of assuming that all high-profile leaders are fair,” he says of the latter side of that equation. “When I raised a question on a denominational policy, I felt I was rejected from being used again. There was the pain from feeling punished, and to add to the pain, the issues were never discussed with me directly.”
William’s expectations of ministry life were so high, he admits he set himself up to a degree for disappointment.
“I entered into the ministry naively thinking people were much more spiritually and emotionally mature than they really were,” he says. “I had hoped when disappointments and divisions would arise among us in the church or in denominational work that we were big enough people to practice the Matthew 18 principle and speak the truth in love.”
William is concerned that many times congregations and pastors relate more institutionally and politically than they do spiritually or relationally.
“The unwillingness to resolve conflict or misunderstanding for whatever reason has given many permission to mimic the proverbial alcoholic’s home,” he says. “Everyone walks around the elephant in the room and acts like nothing has happened. The truth is something has been done or said that is never addressed.”
People William believed he was close to allowed unspoken hurts to take root and grow. Instead of communicating their issues with him directly, they simply left his church.
“People who were dear to me,” he says, “people I had married, whose loved ones I had baptized and buried, left the church without saying goodbye or thank you. I had assumed my investment in their lives was greater than that.”
Every shepherd is imperfect, he points out. Those imperfections show up in the daily ministry routine. He thought his congregants could look beyond his faults to his heart for ministry. Instead, people withdrew completely. And the pattern repeated itself with fellow ministers.
“Unfortunately,” he says, “I have experienced a Paul and Barnabas separation with colleagues in ministry where there was an unwillingness or inability as mature brothers to confront the issue and be healed.”
Responding to People
People are the heart of ministry. People — with their myriad suspicions and resentments and doubts and other sinful tendencies — are the reason the minister pursues his or her calling. Thus, the very reason for being in ministry also becomes the very source of ministry’s pain. The minister who is going to continue serving as a shepherd must be able to get over the pain inflicted by sheep.
“At the time, I felt deeply disappointed and incredibly surprised,” William remembers. “It was a sickening feeling. In some cases, it involved my wife, and the impact upon her intensified my own pain.”
But he knew he had to process his pain and work to restore relationships.
“For the most part,” he says, “I have been able to either resolve the situation with the individual or have been able to reason in my mind that most people are broken people. There is a lot of brokenness, and people often respond out of their pain. I have tried to give the same benefit of the doubt to those who have hurt me that I would want people to give me.”
That benefit of the doubt has had to be bolstered by proactive spiritual discipline.
“I have been able to really lay it at the altar and recognize that we are to live at peace with everyone as much as possible,” he says. “There are levels of control we have and levels of control we do not have.”
Looking over the array of broken relationships, William is grateful for every opportunity for restoration and realistic when those opportunities do not arise.
“I feel more positive toward those who were willing to have a spiritual conversation,” he says. “For the others who have not been willing or were unable to address the issues that separate us the Lord has given me special grace. The Lord spoke to me after I had experienced a deep hurt and pointed me to Paul’s words in Romans 14:4: ‘Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls.’ Those who have hurt me are not my servants. There is a level of judgment I just have to lay at the Cross.”
Tim’s injuries early in ministry forced him to confront his own harsher emotions.
“The two words that came to my mind are anger and betrayal,” he says. “As a staff member, I was dragged into a room by a board member and told in no uncertain terms what my job was. Literally, he took me by the arm, dragged me into a room, shut the door, and let loose with about a half hour of ranting and raving.”
When Tim was finally able to break free and talk to his senior pastor, he received no support.
“Because of the political things going on within the church, he did not feel he wanted to deal with that,” he says.
Tim’s anger, sense of betrayal, and disillusionment were only compounded by the lack of support. And those emotions would follow him into later ministry and flare up under stress.
“In retrospect,” he says, “the anger issue I dealt with in later ministries and had to seek counseling for probably had some of its roots in my first ministry assignment.”
A period of calm followed Tim’s first assignment. His ministry developed, and he and his wife felt confident they could accept a church-planting assignment. But he discovered the continued roots of his anger when the church plant began to unravel.
“Halfway through the assignment,” he says, “things started to completely fall apart. Much of it was out of our control, and the anger all of a sudden started manifesting against my wife and my children. I had a complete lack of patience.
The outbursts and sense of stifled rage reached the point where Tim sought professional help.
“To this day,” he says, “my wife and I are reticent for future ministry, simply because we know the pressure that comes with ministry. You can say that you are healed and feel that you are healed, but it is understandable to avoid putting yourself back in the position where you are under that pressure 7 days a week, 24 hours a day.”
But Tim also sees the long-term good God has brought out of his pain.
“I have a much greater understanding that God truly does work things out for your good,” he says. “I have such a deeper understanding of grace and mercy. I know it sounds trite and I know it sounds cliché, but God has been able to melt that hurt away through His grace and mercy. Now when I think about those people, I do not think about them in anger. I think about them as flawed just as I am.”
John’s eventual emotional breakdown was far more severe than the reactions William and Tim exhibited. But it had common roots.
“I would echo much of what has just been said,” he admits. “I felt a sense of complete betrayal. At the time that I was receiving help, none of my fellow pastors, colleagues, friends, or the leadership of my previous fellowship called on me or sent a card or expressed in any way that they cared. I guess I felt like the Psalmist in Psalm 88:8: ‘Thou hast put away mine acquaintance far from me; thou hast made me an abomination unto them: I am shut up, and I cannot come forth’ ” (KJV).
That sense of deep isolation permeated every level of his relationships.
“Not only could I not soar with the Holy Spirit,” he remembers, “I could not even go for a walk with my wife. I felt completely alone. I am so glad to say that God is a healing God.”
But before the healing came seasons of deep darkness.
“I lost my identity,” John says of those days. “I thought what I had lost would never be restored. I could not see myself as a minister anymore. That caused a great deal of panic that lasted quite a while. This is not the upbeat side of the story. It was a very dark day. The light had gone out in my life.”
Partners in Pain, Sources of Healing
The family suffers when a minister comes under attack. The issues of betrayal and disillusionment impact spouses and children. But as damaging as these experiences can be, pain shared can help diffuse what would be unbearable alone.
“It impacted my wife,” William says, “because she was part of our leadership team. It affected her not only emotionally, but it affected her job. In my case, there was essentially a dismissal for really no explained reason. It affected our finances.
“When you are kicked to the curb with no place to go, it makes you feel like a man without a country. Definitely, it tapped into my predisposition toward depression. So it impacted me on emotional, financial and relational levels. My wife and I took that stress and directed it at each other.”
“The hardest part for me,” Tim remembers, “was when up became down, and down became up. Everything I thought was right apparently was wrong. It became difficult to determine my worth when the people around me were saying the exact opposite of what I knew to be true, and yet enough people were saying it that I began to question myself. Maybe I am the one who is living upside down, and everybody else has not told me yet. And that sense of confusion absolutely fed over to our family. We were near the precipice.”
John looks back on the radical shift in his family’s life and the sudden transition from a sense of wholeness and steady growth in their church to spiritual and emotional disarray.
“I know it certainly impacted people in the church,” he says. “There was such confusion. It was a growing church and people were coming to Christ, then suddenly and unexpectedly they were thrown into total disorientation and confusion.
“My children were ripped from their schools and their young people’s church group. My wife, of course, though still so strong and faithful in the Lord, was deeply hurt and disoriented. The departure took its toll. After some time, one of my children turned against me. He counted me as the villain. I am thankful to God that is all healed, though it took some years. Those were dark, difficult days in my family.”
Shared pain can also become shared recovery. For John, the people who stood with him in the darkest moments accelerated his own path to wholeness.
“When I was hospitalized in those dark days, I had a wonderful physician/psychiatrist,” he says. “I became good friends with him. I will never forget the dramatic moment when I was sharing with him the depth of my experience, and all of a sudden he began to weep. He said, ‘John, I want you to know I feel everything you say, because I have been there. I want you to know what God did for me He will do for you.’ We embraced. That was the beginning of my healing.”
Then came the day John was allowed to leave the hospital for a ride in the car with his wife.
“I do not remember the day or the month or anything specific,” he admits. “I just remember the experience that on that day, after many months of darkness, I saw the sunshine for the first time. I remember the sun in the sky. The Lord broke through with the new light of His love, and I had hope again.
After John was released from the hospital, he says God sent three “angels.” Three men from his original denomination called and offered him a job. He accepted a position at a computer brokerage.
“I did not know a computer from a washing machine,” he admits, “but I learned it, and I was able to earn a wage and support my family. My wife got a job, too.”
At first, the return to a church appeared impossible.
“I felt that all church people were my enemies and they were not to be trusted,” John says. “So we did not go. But one of the employees where my wife worked invited us to a church that was growing and powerfully anointed of the Holy Spirit.”
After months of staying away from any church, John and his wife finally went to a service one night.
“We sat at the back and I wept through the whole thing,” he remembers. “Toward the end of the service, the pastor asked people to bow their heads. He had a word of knowledge from the Holy Spirit and said, ‘There is a family in this church — a pastor and his family — who have been kicked out of their denomination. He is broken, and I want him to come forward for prayer and for us to put our love on him.’
“I was hoping it was someone else, but I saw it was not. So I took the gum out of my mouth and stuck it in my wife’s hand and went down to the front. I wept my brains out. The elders and the deacons gathered around me, laid hands on me in prayer, and my healing began in earnest. That pastor told me later that God also told him that very moment that I would be on his staff one day. I was wounded as a senior pastor, and I was healed as an associate.”
John looks at his life and ministry today and is convinced he has gained much more than he lost.
“I can say that I love those hurtful people today with an overflowing love,” he says. “I have grown in that wonderful godly agape that the Holy Spirit sheds abroad in our hearts. That is a godly agape that covers a multitude of sins. It has covered theirs and it has covered mine. The darkness never came back.”
Tim’s healing came in stages. His next months of ministry felt like two steps of progress only to be met by a step of regression. After he left his first assignment, the next church he attended went through a church split. His disillusionment was compounded.
“Then we went to another church,” he says, “and began to experience a move of God. The people there were a source of healing, but what brought me the greatest healing was an incredible move of the Holy Spirit in my life. We were able to spend several months there before we went back into full-time ministry.”
Tim points to that divine intervention as a key need in every injured minister’s life. “The Holy Spirit did a work no person could have even begun, he says.
“The healing that happened during that period of time was so deep and so amazing I could feel the healing happen. Yes, there were people who were able to breathe objectivity into my life and that was beneficial. But for me, it was almost exclusively a move of God in my heart and in my life.”
Healing can come in stages. And sometimes the final stage seems elusive.
“I would be less than honest,” William says, “if I claimed I was completely healed. I am being healed. Time does have a way of helping me gain a better perspective on things and to feel better about things.”
William says his wife remains one of the keys to that continued progress. They celebrated 35 years of marriage last August. William also encountered colleagues he did not have to perform for.
“They truly do accept me for who I am and not what I bring to the table,” he says. “My greatest gifts that have been given to me in the ministry are relationships I have built with trusted friends. They have been a great part of my healing.”
In what ways can pain make a minister more effective? How can betrayal and the resulting disillusionment be turned into resources for greater influence in people’s lives? Some lessons expose weaknesses of the past to be avoided.
“I would not have been so naÃ¯ve,” William says of his early years. “I do not mean this in an unkind or cynical way, but there is a level of toughness that has to come. Being hurt has a way of toughening you. Not that you become hardened, but you begin to recognize that not everyone who says, ‘Lord, Lord,’ is your friend. People have agendas. If I could do it differently, I would be a little slower to jump in and make assumptions about trust levels and would allow relationships perhaps to be tested a little more before I put much weight on them.”
“I would love to be able to undo some of the things I did,” John says. “I would love to have been wiser in dealing with people. But at the same time, you can ‘what if’ yourself to death. There is some benefit in thinking about what you would do differently, but by the same token you cannot deny what God did through it all. I thank God that He is taken my goofball personality and my shortcomings, my lack of wisdom, and turned it all into triumph. He delivered me from the ‘what if, if only’ hand-wringing stuff.”
Tim points to the mysteries behind the reality of God’s sovereignty, to the depth of the statement that “God works all things together for good.” That Romans 8:28 philosophy has taught him that “nothing that happens in your life catches God by surprise. He is always faithful to not only work with you in grace and mercy, but work with the people you feel have failed you or you have failed. He never takes somebody out of your life that is not important for your future destiny. The complete control that God has as you are walking through — if anything, that would be the greatest lesson. You can trust Him.”
John, who describes the greatest season of emotional darkness of the three, also believes it is darkest just before dawn.
“When things seem bleakest,” he says, “God is at His best. I can say this without it sounding like a cliché, because that indeed is the God whom I have discovered. I think that is the biggest lesson of my life — that I have discovered God to be all that He promises us to be. That He does heal the brokenhearted, does bind up all their wounds in His way, in His time. That is the biggest thing that has come to me — I can take God at His Word.”
John contrasts his current level of ministry with his pre-pain years as primarily a difference in vital experience.
“I recall the first funeral I had in my rookie pastorate,” he says. “This couple, senior citizens, were so madly in love they would come into church holding hands. They would sit in the pew holding hands. When I visited them, they would hold hands. He was the first one to pass away in that pastorate. I went to comfort the widow. She looked at me and said, ‘Yes, Pastor, but you do not understand. You have not walked in my shoes.’ I had to say to her, ‘That is correct, I have not.’ But now, after living so much more of life, I can say I have walked in some very difficult shoes myself. I agree with my brother that God does work all things for good. We have got to sink our teeth into that. That is the greatest lesson of my Christian life.”
William also expresses a greater grasp of God’s sovereignty.
“When I went through this,” he says, “I had a statement I used: ‘Man in his humanity, carnality, or stupidity can never trump God’s sovereignty.’ God is sovereignly at work, and He is working to perfect and refine us. What others may have meant for evil, He meant it for good.”
Each man shared from his heart a desire to encourage others enduring a similar path of pain.
“First, the Lord did not make a mistake when He called you,” William insists. “In the midst of that calling, you have to apply the wisdom of taking care of yourself with proper worship, proper rest, proper play or recreation, and a proper work ethic if you are to stay healthy in the ministry. And you must have a close circle of people with whom you can truly be who you are, and they love you in spite of that. Those three things: God has called you, take good care of yourself, and stay in touch with people who have sat where you sit and have not quit.”
“You need to be able to put in place a set of checks and balances,” Tim says. “Ministry almost cost me my family. I did not see it until it was almost too late. When you are hurting, and it is because of other people, sometimes it can become difficult to see your way through, to become objective about when to move on for your own sake and the sake of your family.
“You need to put into place some benchmarks — signposts that say you are heading in the wrong direction. If you are starting to see strife at home, you need to be able to be healthy enough and strong enough to say, ‘This is not about my call. It is about my particular assignment. Something about my assignment is not working for me and my family.’ You have to understand you are not forsaking the call by laying down a destructive assignment.”
“To those who are in that darkness and cannot see anything hopeful,” John says, “who cannot see light at the end of the tunnel — I say, ‘I love you. I am praying for you. I, too, was in that place where I could not believe, I could not pray, I could not read the Word. But others did pray, others did believe for me, and others did read the Word to me. What God has done for me, He will do for you. God has a greater good in store for you. He will bring it to pass. Leave it in His hands. God will do it in His time. Above all, Jesus is there with you, because He said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.’ ”