The Perfect Storm

When you are in the midst of the storm, it is not time for microanalysis. It is time to hold on. Here are important steps to follow that will help you weather the storms in your life.

by Ray Gemme

A monster storm raged off the Eastern Seaboard on October 30, 1999. The National Weather Service described it as the “perfect storm.”

This perfect storm came together when a strong cold front moving south from Canada collided with what was left of Hurricane Grace making a northern trek from the Carolinas. The nor’easter, combined with an extratropical low, joined to make a devastating storm that claimed lives and inflicted damage measured in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Satellite imagery and Doppler radar allowed the world to witness the amazing formation of this superstorm, but experiencing it on the ground was completely different than watching it on The Weather Channel.

Those of us who did not live in the path of that momentous storm certainly felt sympathy, but without personally enduring it, we may have lacked empathy.

For years, I had similar emotions for pastors experiencing horrendous “storms” in their churches. I sincerely felt sorry for them and their families. But it wasn’t until I went through my own storm that I could fully relate to them and understand what they had endured.

My Perfect Storm

My perfect storm occurred when two politically powerful forces, the church staff and the church board, joined together in united opposition to my leadership. If only some kind of satellite imagery or Doppler radar could have enabled me to measure and predict the intense drop in the church’s barometric pressure, I would have moved out of the way before the storm hit.

In retrospect, I can see that I contributed to the formation of this storm in three ways.

The first was by overlooking red flags that spoke of character flaws in a staff member. Everyone has a reputation (the way they are perceived) and character (the way they truly are). As leaders of those who lead, it is our responsibility not only to pay attention to reputations but also to be sensitive to character issues. If a staff member speaks ill of lead pastors they have served in the past, that is a character issue we cannot ignore. Other areas we can’t dismiss are honesty, confidentiality, gossiping, and divisiveness. As a person who likes to believe the best about people, I gave grace to this individual in ways that were detrimental to him and the church.

The second way I contributed to the formation of the storm was by failing to participate proactively in the board member nomination process. There are individuals who desire to gain positions of power to be able to further their own or another’s undisclosed agenda. We must ask questions regarding motivation. It also warrants evaluation if a majority of those nominated come from, or have deep connections to, one ministry of the church. It is possible for a staff member to stack the board in his or her favor.

Finally, I contributed to the formation of this storm in my life by overlooking an important character issue when a potential board member openly opposed a lead pastor from the past. We are often flattered that we are able to gain cooperation from people the previous pastor was unable to work with, but quite often that is a short-lived honeymoon.

If you find yourself in the path of a perfect storm, you will be amazed at the intensity and the organization behind it. The inevitable result of such an occurrence will be the death of your ministry in that church. Not only will your ministry there not survive the storm, the tempest will not blow over in a few days. You will have to endure it. You will have to listen to rumors and accusations with no public platform from which to respond. You will have to read hateful e-mails. You will have to struggle with questions that don’t have easy or immediate answers: What do I do now? Where do I go from here?

Unfortunately, you will discover that there are no shortcuts out of this type of storm.

On the day my storm hit, my wife and I had just disembarked from an 11-night cruise in celebration of our 30th wedding anniversary. The first call I made was to my son, who had interviewed with a large company for a career position two days earlier. He told me about the interview and about the opportunity offered upon his graduation from college. Then I received an incoming call from a board member informing me that I was not welcome back to the church — ever.

I am not one of those people who lightly uses the phrase, “God spoke to me.” I am much more partial to phrases like, “I feel impressed … ” or, “I sense God is saying …” Yet on this day God spoke one sentence to me as clearly as He had ever spoken before: “Keep your heart pure and your hands clean.”

At a time when I had no idea how things would turn out, He simply asked me to be godly in my attitude and my actions. Those words became my touchstone for the days, weeks, and months that followed.

Keeping a Pure Heart

God places a great emphasis on pureness of heart — so much so that Jesus mentioned it in one of His first sermons: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Matthew 5:8).

I have found that there are three steps to maintaining a pure heart.

  1. Make a conscious effort not to let the circumstances embitter you. The antiseptic that cleanses our wounds and protects us from the infection of bitterness is forgiveness. Why did Jesus ask the Father to forgive those who were crucifying Him? Why did Stephen ask God to have mercy on those throwing stones? They both demonstrated the process by which we keep our hearts pure.

    We cannot equate forgiveness with reconciliation, and it certainly never alleviates the need for restitution, a true sign of repentance. Yet it does something miraculous inside of us. Jesus explained to us that forgiveness is a matter of the heart. In the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant, Jesus concluded with these words, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (Matthew 18:35).

    Forgiveness is more than simply ignoring what was done. We must also expunge the record. The danger of not forgiving is that it enables the growth of bitterness, which is a spiritual heart disease that is neither harmless nor benign. The writer of Hebrews made an interesting statement about bitterness: “See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defiled many” (Hebrews 12:15).

    Bitterness is epidemic in nature; it spreads by carriers who have fallen short in extending grace to others. Forgiving others is the greatest gift we can give ourselves because it releases us from anger, vengeance, and that strong desire we possess to balance the scales.
  2. Realize that a pure heart is not visible. The strangest phenomenon I discovered in this storm was that I endured it in isolation. I was shocked that none of my friends called to check on me. I soon realized that fellow ministers distanced themselves because they were not sure they ever really knew me, and they worried about the personal cost of associating with me. Even though you know the sincerity of your own heart, there is a good possibility that others will not perceive it.
  3. Don’t portray yourself as a victim, which makes anyone who has opposed you appear inherently evil. The danger of a victim mentality is twofold. First, it allows an event that happened in the past to follow you into the future, forever defining you. Second, you will live in anticipation of victimization, believing it is only a matter of time until it happens again.

Maintaining Clean Hands

“Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place? The one who has clean hands and a pure heart” (Psalm 24:3,4).

Keeping our hearts pure involves minding our attitudes, and keeping our hands clean means keeping our actions in check. There are some steps I discovered to maintaining clean hands.

  1. Make sure you don’t behave in a way that will cause you embarrassment years from now. Because of your position, you are privy to much personal and private information. You know about struggles individuals have had with their spouses, their children, and other areas of their lives. Let’s face it, as a pastor you have dirt on people. As tempted as you may be to throw mud back at those who are throwing it at you, doing so will forever stain your hands.

    Though Jesus knew the one who would betray Him from the beginning, He never used it against Judas. Never once do we read about Him saying something disrespectful to Judas, or treating him differently than the other disciples. Even on the last night they were together, Jesus washed His betrayer’s feet just as He washed the feet of His other, faithful disciples.
  2. Bear in mind that people act and speak differently when they are part of a mob than they ever would speak or act individually. When people are part of a crowd, there is a perceived sense of anonymity. They believe that there are no personal consequences for saying what everyone else is saying, whether true, false, or exaggerated. When God designed man, He placed ears on opposite sides of his head. This should always remind us that there are two — often diametrically opposed — sides to every story. We should extend grace to good people who react after hearing only one side of the story.

    Likewise, it is possible for us to use our side of the story to poison people to take up our offense. When we are the offended party, we can count on God’s comfort and grace. Yet I have never seen that grace and comfort extended to someone who has a secondhand offense.
  3. Know that the ones who are watching your actions the closest during your storm are your children. As part of a ministry family, your children are eyewitnesses and active participants to times of joy and sorrow.

    When our storm hit, two of our children were away at college, and our oldest was married and living out of state. Fortunately, none of them attended the church during this time. The storm afforded my wife and me one of the greatest teaching opportunities we ever had with our children. The lessons in perseverance, optimism, faith, forgiveness, obedience, and trust abounded during this time. We had regularly told our children we believed in them and were proud of them, and it was comforting to hear them return the compliments.

Paul’s Perfect Storm

The Bible contains an account of a “perfect storm” the apostle Paul endured. We usually read Acts 27 chronologically. Yet if we read it from the perspective of God’s planning, it makes much more sense.

Chronologically, we see Paul, as a prisoner, transported to Rome to make his appeal at Caesar’s judgment seat. During the journey, the ship and its passengers encounter a massive storm lasting two weeks and driving them hundreds of miles eastwardly across the Mediterranean Sea. The ship crashes and sinks off the island of Malta, and everyone on board must swim to shore.

Let’s not look at this account chronologically, but purposefully. God had compassion on the people who lived on the island of Malta. He wanted them to hear the message of Jesus and witness His power in action. He decided to send the apostle Paul to minister to them.

Previously, when God sent Paul various places it was a matter of Paul simply being obedient. When the Lord showed Paul a vision of a man from Macedonia calling for help, Paul immediately went to Macedonia. The circumstances in Acts 27 were greatly different. Even if God had given Paul a vision of someone from Malta calling out, Paul could not have gone since he was traveling in the custody of soldiers. So God used a storm — a perfect storm — to move Paul to a place he couldn’t otherwise reach.

If you look at a map of Paul’s journey, you’ll see it was a miracle that this tiny ship found this small island in the vast Mediterranean Sea. Throughout the account, God’s hand is evident. But only at the end of the storm, only when the weather clears, is God’s purpose clear.

If you find yourself in the midst of a storm, don’t waste your time trying to understand the purpose. Even in Paul’s journey, everyone was too busy undergirding the ship, lightening the load, and just hanging on to contemplate the purpose of the storm. It wasn’t until the end that the Lord sent an angel to inform Paul that everyone on the ship would survive, and they would crash on an island. When you are in the midst of the storm, it is not time for microanalysis. It is just time to hold on.

The apostle Paul and everyone else who has been through a perfect storm have learned this lesson: A miserable journey frequently leads to a fruitful destination.