March 5, 2018—The pastor talked slowly but deliberately as he responded to a request to tell the group about his experience of being forced from his pastorate several years earlier.
“For decades, I contended that life gets both harder and better, in part as a result of each experience preparing us for the next. Little did I realize that a whole lifetime of experience would be called upon to undergird my wife and me as we faced hostility, uncertainty, and ‘gnawing’ questions we had never encountered previously.”
The pastor continued, ““Two verses of scripture came alive to me during the past ten years. One is, ‘You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good’ (Genesis 50:20). The other is a truth Paul gave to the Christians at Rome, ‘All things work together for good for those who love God’” (Romans 8:28).
“There is a huge difference in memorizing the words of a verse and making that verse a part of your life. The former is an event requiring a clear mind but little time and effort. The latter is a pilgrimage, a struggle in which every word is put to the test. The words and the truths they represent become a constant awareness as the pilgrimage moves across the desert of uncertainty and obstacles before finally arriving exhausted but with a deep sense of peace at a place called hope.”
His jaw quivered as he added, “Perhaps it’s the maturing of faith. Perhaps it’s living by faith because there’s nothing else. Though I would never want to make the journey again, I know my life has a new and deeper dimension as a result of the experience because it was an encounter with God that can happen only when everything else has been stripped away. The stripping is painful, the rebuilding stretches, but the result is peace that passes all understanding.”
“What happened?” someone asked.
He replied, “It was a bombshell. The Gang of Three came to my office, complemented me on my work and then requested my resignation saying they felt the church needed new leadership. They followed the request by stating, ‘It’s nothing personal.’ I’ve since learned that the dynamics in my experience are typical. And it happens to good people who only want to serve God and His church. There’s an epidemic out there.”
I agree! Sixteen hundred Protestant ministers are forced out of their ministry position in the United States each month. That’s over 19,000 per year. According to the Abilene Reporter-News, on average, they received two and a half months of severance pay and were told to move out of a parsonage in two months. There is no federal or state assistance, no unemployment benefits for ministers forced out of their positions. A minister’s feelings of anger, frustration, and helplessness at being forced out are often compounded by feelings of betrayal and guilt. These feelings are often debilitating and can lead to rejecting his or her call. Not only are the ministers affected, but their families suffer as well.
According to the December 14, 2000, issue of the Reporter-News article: 75% of pastoral families had to move to a new residence 66% reported that their children had to change schools 64% of pastors’ spouses had to change jobs 60% of ministers say their family’s ability to trust church leadership was undermined 70% of the pastors surveyed said they did not have a single close friend they could talk with about their problems.
When reflecting on the above pastor’s story and the epidemic that grows around us, many questions come to my mind. How can God bless a church that succumbs to such levels of incivility? And how can ministers and their families who have been hurt so deeply recover, much less point to the experience as a time of spiritual growth?
The Psalmist, perhaps through his own pilgrimage, points to a truth that brings hope. “Weeping may remain for a night, but joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5). Charles H. Spurgeon is reported to have battled depression most of his life. He often preached concerning the hardships of life and their potential for growth in God’s strength and grace. Spurgeon wrote, “Dear believer, if you are in trouble, the voice of that trouble is designed to draw you nearer to extraordinary means of growth in grace. To use Rutherford’s simile, …He has brought you to a sandy desert. Now begin to seek the treasures that are hid in the sand.”(1)
Spurgeon further wrote, “Believe that the deepest afflictions are always neighbors to the highest joys. The greatest possible privileges lie close to the darkest trials. The more bitter your sorrow, the louder your song at the end.”
My pilgrimage in life reveals a truth that Spurgeon also taught out of his experiences: “Our afflictions are the highway that leads us closer to God. Our troubles are a fiery chariot to bring us to God. Our afflictions, wave upon wave, will drive our souls nearer heaven.” I’m convinced that each experience in life can help prepare us for the next if we give that experience to God. That does not mean that God caused the crisis that brought the pain. It does mean, however, that God can bring good from the clutches of evil. Could it be that we are not receptive to the fullness of God’s grace and strength until we have been stripped of our strength?
The pastor whose story I quoted at the beginning referred to Joseph’s statement in Genesis 50:20. He was confident that he was better off now than if he had been allowed to stay at the church that forced him out. Though it had been scary for months, God opened new doors for him. He quickly pointed out that though he is better off, the church that pushed him out could not take any credit for his improved status because they did not act Christ-like, nor have his best interests at heart.
Maybe that’s what the Psalmist meant by the statement, “Joy comes in the morning.” In the Hebrew, the term for joy means “bright” or “shining.” When walking with God, the deep, dark valleys can be followed by a period of brightness in which we shine. This leads me to a truth that I have learned through experience, “God takes care of his children, especially when we have trouble caring for ourselves.” Remember, after Good Friday comes Easter Sunday! And God is still in the business of Resurrection. There really is life after forced termination.
By Charles H. Chandler, Former Executive Director of Ministering to Ministers
(1)Spurgeon, Charles H., Beside Still Waters, edited by Roy H. Clark (Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, 1999. p.16).
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Center for Lifelong Learning has partnered with the Ministering to Ministers Foundation to help address the crises of clergy forced termination. If you have experienced a forced termination from your ministry consider attending the Transitioning Into Wellness Retreat for Ministers and Spouses retreat during October 8-11, 2018 for clergy and their spouses at the Center for Lifelong Learning. Watch for registration details on our Facebook page and on our webpage for course listings.
For more information, and to register for the wellness retreat, contact:
Catherine M. Ralcewicz, Executive Director
Ministering to Ministers Foundation, Inc.
Phone: (804) 594-2556
This program is underwritten by the Ministering to Ministers Foundation, Inc., and the Pastoral Excellence Program of the Center for Lifelong Learning under its Lilly Foundation funded Thriving in Ministry initiative.