Your Stories

Tyler’s story

Tyler (not his real name), while a student in seminary, was hired as pulpit supply in June of 2013 by the elders of Shelby Street Presbyterian Church. The church had been without a pastor for several years and membership steadily declined from its peak of about 500 to just thirty-two, mostly women. The average age of SSPC’s congregants was seventy. Tyler had some training in church revitalization, so the elders encouraged him to develop a renewal plan Depressed womanin addition to preaching each Sunday and visiting church members.

As Tyler’s preaching ministry developed he spent more and more time with the people of Shelby Street Church. He says that it didn’t take long before the congregation fell in love with him. “Many considered me their son or grandson. They invited my wife and me for lunch or dinner in their homes.”

Tyler grew curious about why so many people had left the church. He figured there had to be more to it than the lack of a pastor. He met with members and asked lots of questions. Soon a pattern emerged. While many of the people he spoke to wanted to see the church grow and were willing to make changes, they saw the elders as resistant to change–one elder in particular. His name was Bob.

Bob, age 85, was a founding member of Shelby Street Presbyterian Church. Besides serving on the Session, Bob was also the church historian. Many church members said, “This is Bob’s church.” Everyone knew he was the man in charge, regardless of who bore the title of pastor. At the same time, Bob was extremely generous with his financial gifts to the church. He gave more than anyone else. He once told Tyler, “What matters most to me is that my name be inscribed in stone for all the good things I’ve done for this church.”

Not surprisingly, members of the church had a problem with Bob’s leadership style. He controlled the Session and often took matters into his own hands without the vote of other elders. People knew that “you don’t argue with Bob.” It had been this way for decades. Bob often vetoed new ideas that would have improved the music on Sunday and ministries to children and outsiders. A large Presbyterian church in town even offered to hire a bilingual pastor to help the church reach the area’s growing Hispanic population. But Bob opposed the idea. His temperament rubbed people the wrong way. He was rash, abrasive, and opinionated. Anyone who tried to confront Bob fought a losing battle. Gradually, thanks to Bob (and the Session’s unwillingness to deal with him), the tone of the church became harsh and unloving toward the very people they were supposed to be reaching.

At first, Tyler tried to stay positive about the future of SSPC. “I thought I could sway the rest of the elders to vote as a bloc against Bob for radical change. But they didn’t want to rock the boat.” Tyler could see that the elders were spiritually and theologically immature. Many of them didn’t know the gospel or believe their own statement of faith. One elder told Tyler he never read the Bible and doubted its inspiration.

Finally, Tyler knew he needed to confront Bob or the church would die. He recruited a few people to pray. He even told the other elders of the church what he was planning to do, and asked them to pray. Tyler and Bob met for breakfast. Tyler shared what he’d gathered from observation and his interviews with church members. He said, “Bob, a lot of things have contributed to the decline of Shelby Street Church, but one thing sticks out above everything else: YOU. I love you and respect you as someone who has done a lot for this church. But as I’ve listened to people, two themes have emerged. You have a dominating leadership style, and you have flaunted your giving to the church in order to justify your control. People have left Shelby Street Presbyterian Church over these things. You need to take this seriously.”

Bob was in no mood to take Tyler seriously. “If it weren’t for me,” he said, “nothing would get done at our church. You are right, young man. I do feel entitled to control our church. You add up all the pluses and minuses, and you’ll see the pluses outweigh the minuses. No one in all my 85 years has ever confronted me like this. This is the end of the conversation.”

Tyler didn’t stop. “Bob, this is just the beginning of the conversation. You are the reason this church is declining. If you keep avoiding the issue we’ll need to take it to the next level of Matthew 18.”

“If you do that,” said Bob, “I will show up at church and make a scene and plead my case in front of the whole church. Just you wait. This conversation is over. I’ve never in all my life been so offended. Think of all I’ve done for this church.”

And with that Bob got up and left.

Bob resigned from the Session immediately. The Session responded by calling an emergency meeting. At that meeting the elders turned against Tyler. “What were you thinking?” they asked him. “We never wanted Bob off the Session.”

The elders now defended Bob as a man with a heart of gold. “You’re a young man. What you did was wrong. Bob is an older man and you shouldn’t have talked to him that way.” One elder said to Tyler, “Growing up is a bitch, isn’t it?” Tyler left the meeting in tears. Following the meeting the elders drove over to Bob’s house and reassured him of their love. They asked him to come back on the Session.

In the ensuing weeks, Tyler got the cold shoulder from the elders and their wives. Tyler tried to call Bob to talk things over. Bob’s wife answered the phone. She berated Tyler: “My husband has done so much for this church. You’re not even a good preacher. How dare you. You’re a prideful, arrogant man and you’re going to learn your lesson. We’ll try to forgive you but you better be thankful you still have a job here.” She didn’t let Tyler speak to Bob. The Session said to leave Bob alone. “What’s done is done,” they said.

The elders voted to release Tyler from his contract early. On the Sunday he preached his final sermon, many of the elders didn’t speak to him. By contrast, church members were sad to see Tyler go. One lady even dressed in black on Tyler’s last Sunday. She told him, “I know this is a hard day for you. You have blessed me so much. I’ve grown so much under your teaching.” Other church members spoke in similar terms to him, with tears in their eyes.

Tyler says he is still grieving, months after his dismissal. He is not the same person he was prior to taking the job at Shelby Street Presbyterian Church. He feels like he’s acting like “Mr. Teflon.” A friend told him, “I feel like you still have your armor on.” For some time Tyler didn’t sleep well at night. He would rebuke elders in his sleep.

But Tyler is learning the nature of forgiveness. He’s also learning the truth expressed in words from John Piper: “Occasionally weep deeply over the life you hoped would be. Grieve the losses, then wash your face, trust God, and embrace the life you have.”

A pastor’s wife’s story

The following story was posted on August 3, 2016, on the website ThomRainer.com.

Please allow me to share my feelings about the last many yearlovedepart_couplesad_sadlove_badrelations of being a pastor’s wife. I tried on many occasions to talk to my husband about it (loneliness, neglect, wanting at least one evening a week together, lack of dating, etc.). We’ve gone to
marriage seminars, talked to mentor ministry couples, and, still, things don’t change.

He never schedules time for investing in our marriage and works all week in the office and then up all night on Saturdays getting his sermon ready. He leaves early Sunday mornings for preparations for the service and, by the time he gets home in the afternoon, he’s exhausted and definitely doesn’t feel like doing anything active or fun with the kids and me. He just wants to veg out on the couch.

When I try to talk about my feelings, I’m “complaining” and not “following the call for my life.” I’m so tired of the cycle of neglect, loneliness, rejection, and hurt that I hate going to church, don’t read my Bible anymore, and have to fight thoughts of divorce every single day. The church definitely feels like his mistress. I’m so hopeless and feel that I’m trapped. The one place I should be able to turn to, the church, is what is killing me on the inside.

If anyone has a recommendation for a fair and reasonable counselor…who is used to working discreetly with people in my and my husband’s position, I would greatly appreciate it. I’m down to my last resort before bailing.

James’ story

frustratedPastor James (not his real name) had been at Christ Church for over twenty-four years. You’d think by then his church would be immune to controversy. But when James started introducing changes to boost the church’s outreach, an unseen fault line under Christ Church burst wide open. “We tried to change the culture of the church and it couldn’t be done,” James told me. “It created inherent tension in the body.” Overnight, it seemed, Christ Church took on the air of an intense presidential debate, and James was the political football. The rift unfortunately coincided with the resignations of all five of James’s elders. One elder was having marital problems. Another felt he was too old to continue serving. Another resigned to take care of her ailing husband. A fourth elder was diagnosed with bipolar disease and needed hospitalization. The fifth could not abide the changes James was making. So when things were at their most desperate, James had only one person on the governing board besides himself: his assistant pastor.

An influential family in the church agreed with James that the church needed to turn its focus outward. For too long, they said, Christ Church had ignored the needs of the community. But when they saw a church fight looming, they wanted no part of it; they’d been through that before in another church. So they told James they were leaving. Problem was, that family contributed nearly a third of Christ Church’s offerings. So now, James had not only a congregation in turmoil, but little money. The budget had to be slashed; the assistant pastor had to go.

The tension took its toll on James, emotionally and physically. He caught a cold that he could not shake. His teenage daughter said, “Dad, you’re under stress!” James knew it but didn’t know what to do about it. He managed to recruit three new elders from the congregation. They agreed with James theologically but not philosophically. Every board meeting pitted James on one side against the three elders on the other.

“You’re taking Christ Church in the wrong direction,” they told him.

“You’re not listening to the gospel,” he replied. It was a stalemate.

Finally James told his elders what he’d been thinking for months. “We’re not a team. It’s not good for any of us, and it’s not good for the church. Either you need to step down or I need to. If we stay together things are only going to get worse.” The elders took offense, as though James was accusing them of fomenting division.

“We’re not going anywhere,” they told him. So the following Sunday, James announced his resignation.

Three months later, despite their promise to stay, the three elders also left. Absent leadership and with declining membership, Christ Church fell apart and was dissolved by its denomination.

Ben’s Story

The struggles of missionaries on the foreign field are less recognized and understood than those of church pastors, but they are just as real. Most of us put missionaries on a pedestal and view them as super-Christians. But they are not spared the difficulties that plague pastors in the States. Here is the story of one missionary couple I’ll call Ben and Marlene (not their real names). 

Ben Sloan, his wife Marlene, and their three children were finally in Mali, West Africa. Approved as missionaries by their denomination’s mission board, their path here had not been an easy one. Months of training in the States had been interrupted when their daughter was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder known as selective mutism. She had to have several months of Couplecounseling in another city. Then, just when they thought everything was taken care of, their supervisors in Mali were sent back to the US to recover from burnout. Ben and Marlene had to live in Senegal for two months, where they didn’t speak the language and felt all alone.

Now in Mali, Ben and Marlene immersed themselves in French and Bambara language training. Their kids went to a school for missionary children. For a while, the Sloans loved being in Mali. Not only could they share Christ with the Malians; they met friendly missionaries whose homes were always open to each other. “We would throw mattresses on the floor and have sleepovers for each other’s kids,” Ben says. “You didn’t even think about it.”

But as time went on, Ben realized that relationships with other missionaries went only so deep. There was a kind of competitiveness among the missionaries. Instead of someone asking, “How are you doing?” the questions were always, “How many villages have you visited? How many people have you shared Christ with?” Mission work seemed to be all about results. Ben and Marlene missed their church back home, where pastors and friends formed a support system. Here in Mali that support system was missing. There was support for the physical difficulties of living in Mali, where (for example) the power would often go off for an entire day. But Ben and Marlene felt alone spiritually. They had no one to help address the spiritual impact of living in a third-world country without church community. Sundays offered no respite; that was the day all the missionaries scattered to the villages for Bible storytelling. Ben says he and Marlene learned to suffer in silence. He coped with the lack of community by simply persevering. “That’s what I felt I had to do: give, give, give, and never receive. I wasn’t happy, but I had to keep going for Jesus.” In time Ben concluded that the more miserable and lonely he was, the more he must be doing the work of the Lord.

When war broke out in Mali in 2012, the Sloan family had to relocate to Berkina Faso. Ben became an emotional mess. He would cry easily, get angry and depressed, and fight with Marlene. They two argued a lot. Marlene didn’t understand what was happening to Ben; he didn’t understand it himself. All he knew is that he felt very alone.

A death in Marlene’s family sent the Sloans back to the US. They ended up staying for almost a year. They thought things would improve between them, but they didn’t. They could have reached out and asked for help; they could have gone to counseling. But they were too embarrassed.

Continuing turmoil in Mali led the mission board to send the Sloans to Botswana instead. “As soon as we stepped off the plane, we knew we didn’t belong there,” Ben says. “We hated it from day one.” Fights between Ben and Marlene escalated. Ben continued to feel depressed, lonely, and angry. They stuck it out for two years in Botswana. But at last they notified their mission board that things were bad. “We need help,” Ben said. They went to South Africa for an intensive month of counseling and then returned to the States for good.

While still fragile, things are now going well for the Sloan family. Ben and Marlene are in counseling. Ben is discovering how much identity issues were behind his anger and depression. Marlene has found a full-time job and Ben is considering a youth pastor position. Ben looks back on their years in Africa with gratitude: “I never would have learned these lessons any other way. It was painful but I’m glad I went through it. I’m learning a new way to live, a new way to view myself. I am someone God is redeeming, not just using. I’m a work in progress.”

He’s also learned the value of genuine community. “The church needs to be a place where you don’t have to put on a happy face and act like everything’s fine when it’s not. Things are going to happen in ministry. You need a place to go where you can suffer out loud.”

Brent’s Story

It seemed like such a great idea.

FailureBrent and Mario (not their real names), both in their late twenties, had been friends for the past fifteen years. They both loved the Lord and desired to see the gospel spread in their part of the city. They had talked and prayed about the idea with their wives for a long time. So what if they didn’t have the funding or oversight of a denomination. So what if they had no church planting experience! They were best of friends. They had teaching and preaching gifts. They could plant a church together, no sweat.

So the two found space for rent in a well-traveled part of the city. They contacted other friends who promised to help get the church off the ground. They spread the word and started up a worship service. People came. It looked like this thing would take off. Mario and Brent split up the preaching. Mario, ever the entrepreneur, set his sights on strong, steady growth. Brent, the artistic one, valued strong relationships in the church. It seemed like a complementary team.

But soon, in Brent’s words, “things got strange” between him and Mario. Brent sensed a rift growing between him and his friend. Then one day about six months in, Mario announced, “This is how it’s going to be, Brent. I’m going to be the lead pastor. I’ve been to seminary and you haven’t. I know how to raise funds. You really need more training. So I’m going to get paid by the church and you’re not. I need your help as a volunteer but you’ll need to keep your day job.”

Brent was astonished. Mario had figured all this out without ever talking to Brent. He’d even put together an advisory team that agreed with Mario’s plan. Brent didn’t like it, but he didn’t want to fight his friend. Maybe Mario was right. Maybe Brent did need more training. So he took Mario’s advice and enrolled in a nearby seminary. He continued serving the church in a variety of ways.

Months went by, and Mario hired an associate pastor. Again, Brent had no idea this was happening. The two friends stopped talking altogether. Brent says, “It was painful. Something was way off.”

One day “Terry,” the associate pastor, gave Brent a call. “We need to talk,” he said. “Mario has been plagiarizing other people’s sermons. And it’s been going on for a long time.”

“No way!” Brent said. But Terry got together with Brent and showed him example after example of Mario’s plagiarism. Brent and Terry knew they needed to confront Mario. “It was the worst meeting I’ve ever experienced,” Brent says. Mario was hostile, angry, unwilling to admit his sin. Instead of repenting, he said he would just resign his post and leave the church. Brent and Terry met with the elders and told them what Mario had been doing and how he’d reacted. Hoping for damage control, the elders explained to the congregation that Mario was going to resign for “philosophical differences.” But people knew better. Something more serious had come between two good friends.

The little church was now two years old and without a lead pastor. Because Brent had been there from the beginning, he was asked to step up and lead the church. But one after another, disillusioned people left the church. Even the core group, Brent’s closest friends, decided it was time to go. Brent did his best for the next three years, but attendance and giving went steadily downhill. Outreach efforts went nowhere. The church was down to forty people. It felt like a house church meeting in a big building. Brent grew more and more exhausted. He was working, going to seminary, and trying to lift up a sinking ship all at the same time. Some days he came home so discouraged he wished he were dead. Fortunately his marriage and family were healthy, but his church was a goner.

Brent prayed, “Lord, I feel like a total failure. Is this really what you intend for this church? Do you want it to die—and crush me in the process? I thought this is what I was created to do. Was I wrong?”

12 burdens pastors most frequently carry

Chuck Lawless, Professor of Evangelism and Missions, and Dean of the Graduate School at Southeastern Seminary, says pastors are most often weighed down by the following twelve things:

  1. Declining church growth
  2. Losing the support of friendsCarrying-Burden-e1377548159656
  3. Grieving a fall
  4. Sensing that the sermon went nowhere
  5. Losing vision
  6. Being lonely
  7. Dealing with unsupportive staff
  8. Remembering failures
  9. Dealing with death recurrently
  10. Facing personal jealousies
  11. Balancing family and ministry priorities
  12. Responding to criticism

Yep, twelve for twelve. I’ve experienced all of these things in my 30 years of pastoral ministry. Fortunately, not all at once.

The question is, how do we deal with these burdens?

I’m in the process of writing a book on that very topic. Tentatively titled Surviving Ministry: How to Weather the Storms of Church Leadership, I will share stories and practical, Biblical wisdom for pastors in the trenches. I’d love to hear from you. What have been your greatest struggles as a pastor? What have you learned about God, yourself, the church, and the ministry from those struggles? A personal story illustrating the risks, wounds, and rewards of ministry would be most helpful. Write me at meoupc@gmail.com. I’ll keep your information confidential and change names to protect privacy.

Is this your story?

A pastor who will remain nameless sent me this text message:

Can’t tell you how many times I had to get in pulpit when felt like life was crashing around me and when family seemed to be falling apart. I hold on to the passage that in our weakness He is strong.

What lie about pastoral ministry have we bought into that convinces us our value is determined by how well we entertain in the pulpit, how fast our church is growing, how quickly we get our church out of debt, or how many Twitter followers we have?

When did we decide it’s a bad idea for pastors to have really close friends within their church or to be honest about their failures?

Why must a pastor also be a marketing genius, a fundraiser, a scholar, a motivational speaker, a CEO, a social media guru, and a politician to be considered “effective”?

The stress level on ministers of the gospel today is screaming that it’s time we redefine the work of a pastor. Biblically, here’s the definition:

“Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28, ESV).

 

 

 

 

Darren’s Story

Darren (not his real name) is a steady, humble, compassionate man. A great pastor. A faithful teacher of God’s Word.

in-depression-630x315But one day, he crashed.

Fresh out of seminary nearly thirty years ago, Darren accepted a call to a small church in an Appalachian community. He was the first full-time pastor the church had ever had. The average age of its two-dozen members was sixty-five. But Darren still carries warm memories of his time among them. He and his wife were married while he served in this little town. Their first child was born there too. But it was clear Darren’s gifts could be used in a wider sphere.

Darren moved his young family to a church in Alabama where he was the solo pastor for nearly ten years. They had a second child. The church held steady in membership. It was a happy experience. But a new opportunity presented itself in the spring of 2000. Darren accepted a call to a bigger church in another Southern suburb.

This church, Darren says, was “dysfunctional.” Darren’s predecessor had been asked to leave. He had replaced a man who was highly regarded—not as a great preacher or administrative leader but as a warm, loving pastor. Unfortunately, Darren’s predecessor was the very opposite. He just didn’t fit. So when Darren arrived, he knew he would need to take his time, build trust, and give the church some much-needed stability. And he did just that.

Things went well for several years. Darren led a reorganization of the elder board and faithfully taught the Bible. But Darren found it a tough church to pastor. People were all over the map theologically. Some voiced their opposition to Darren’s Bible teaching. Some of the people had bad attitudes toward church leaders. Members of the worship team wanted control. Previous elders had refused to confront sin in the church. Now, when the elders tried to put policies in place, some members didn’t like it. Disgruntled, a contingent left the church for greener grass. Several of Darren’s key supporters and friends also left because of job changes. Worse yet, Darren’s assistant pastor, who was a close friend, accepted a call to another church. These losses were hard on Darren and his wife.

Two other events pushed Darren over the edge. He had to put his beloved dog to sleep. But much more devastating, his mother was slowly declining into Alzheimer’s disease. Darren knew she could no longer care for herself, so he moved her out of her house many miles away into an assisted living facility near him. She hated her new home. It was far away from everything familiar. She grew increasingly adversarial, begging Darren over and over to take her back home. But there was no way.

Darren’s mom eventually passed in December, 2013. But her mental and emotional decline, on the heels of all the other losses Darren had experienced, took a terrible toll on him. He shut down emotionally and became almost non-functional. The day of the “crash,” Darren’s wife called the elders and said Darren would not be able to preach that weekend…and maybe not for a long while. He couldn’t get out of bed. He could hardly even speak. For weeks, doing anything at all required enormous energy. Night after night he couldn’t sleep. He says he was never suicidal, but he felt overcome with stress, sadness, and fear.

A caring, older couple invited Darren and his wife to move into their home for as long as they needed. Darren took the next two months off. He got counseling and got on an antidepressant. Slowly the darkness began to lift. He eventually felt like doing a bit of church work. The congregation was very understanding, he says. He was honest with them. He told them about his stress, his sadness, his tendency to isolate himself and not depend on the help of others. Being vulnerable and open actually drew him closer to his people. He grew more understanding of people’s pain. He says he learned the value of sighing.

But in the months following his return, Darren realized something had changed inside him. He no longer felt that he “fit” as a senior or solo pastor.

So earlier this year, Darren resigned.

Darren is now asking the questions he says he should have asked a long time ago: “What’s my gift mix? Where does God want me? What was I made for?” Darren is considering teaching, writing, and mentoring younger pastors.

I asked Darren what, if anything, might have prevented him from crashing in ministry. He says, “If I had grasped that God is for me, that would have helped.” Darren also says he’s realized that as a pastor he always felt isolated, like he was living on an island.

“I’m ready for something different now,” he says.

Scott’s Story

(The following story comes from Scott Sauls, Senior Pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Nashville, Tennessee. Thank you, Scott. Read more by Scott on his blog.)

Scott-Sauls-Head-Shot-150x150I am one of those ministers who has endured a handful of seasons of anxiety and depression. Most of the time, thankfully, the affliction has been more low-grade than intense. On one occasion, though, it pretty much flattened me physically, emotionally, and even spiritually. I call this particular season my “living nightmare.”

That season, as well as others, occurred while serving in ministry.

How bad was the living nightmare? I could not fall asleep for two weeks straight. Even sleeping pills could not calm the adrenaline and knock me out, which only made things worse. At night I was terrified of the quiet, knowing I was in for another all-night battle with insomnia that I was likely to lose. The sunrise also terrified me, an unwelcome reminder that another day of impossible struggle was ahead of me. I lost nearly thirty-five pounds in two months. I could not concentrate in conversations with people. I found no comfort in God’s promises from Scripture. I was unable to pray anything but “Help” and “Please end this.”

Why would I tell you this part of my story? Because I believe—no, I am certain—that anxiety and depression hits ministers disproportionately. And a minister who suffers with this affliction, especially in isolation, is a person at risk. When I was in seminary, two pastors committed suicide because they could not imagine going on another day having to face their anxiety and depression. Both suffered with the affliction in silence. One wrote in his suicide note that if a minister tells anyone about his depression, he will lose his ministry, because nobody wants to be pastored by a damaged person.

Or do they?

For those of us in ministry who have suffered (or are suffering) from this affliction, I think we need to do everything we can to discover and embrace an applied theology of weakness. Even the Apostle Paul said that it is in weakness that we discover the glory, power, and grace of God. This is how God works. He is upside-down to our sensibilities. Better said, we are upside-down to his.

Anne Lamott recently said that it’s okay to realize that you are very crazy and very damaged because all of the best people are. Suffering has a way of shaping us as people and as ministers. It has a way of equipping us to lead in ways that are helpful and not harmful. A healer who himself has not been wounded is very limited in his ability to heal.

The “very crazy, very damaged” people in Scripture seem to be the ones through whom God did the greatest things. Hannah experienced bitterness of soul over infertility and a broken domestic situation. Elijah felt so beaten down by ministry that he asked God to take his life. David repeatedly asked his own soul why it was so downcast. Even Jesus, the perfectly divine human, expressed that his soul was overwhelmed with sorrow, even to the point of death. Each of these biblical saints, in her/his own way, was empowered by God to change the world—not in spite of the affliction but because of it and through it.

Charles Spurgeon, the prince of preachers, experienced depression for many years of his ministry. William Cowper, the great hymn writer, had debilitating, paralyzing anxiety for most of his adult life. C. S. Lewis lost his wife to a violent form of cancer. Joni Eareckson Tada became paralyzed from the neck down when she was a teenager. All of these and others were God’s chosen instruments for bringing truth, grace, and hope into the world. The best therapists and counselors have themselves been in therapy and counseling. It’s how God works.

So if anxiety and/or depression is your affliction, I am sharing this part of my story to remind you that there is no shame in having this or any other affliction. In fact, our afflictions may be the key to our fruitfulness as ministers. “Damaged” does not mean “ineffective.” It does not mean “done.”

Anxiety and depression can also, ironically, be a conduit of hope—an opportunity for the foolishness of God to be put on display in our lives. Recently a member in our church (where I have been senior pastor for two years now) told me that he thinks I am a great preacher…and he is entirely unimpressed by this. He told me that the moment he decided to trust me, the moment he decided that I was his pastor, was when I shared openly with the church that I have struggled with anxiety and depression and that I have seen counselors for many years.

As ministers, in the end we may discover that our afflictions had greater impact in people’s lives than our preaching or our vision.

Anxiety and depression are also invitations into Sabbath rest. When you are laid flat and there’s nothing you can do except beg for help, Jesus tends to meet you in that place. It is there that Jesus reminds us that Matthew 11 is for ministers too. He invites weary and heavy laden ministers to come to him and find rest, to learn from him, to experience his humility and gentleness of heart…that we, too, might find rest for our souls. For an anxious, depressed person, there is nothing quite like an easy yoke and a light burden under which to process our pain.

Many times when I have encountered this affliction, it has been through or because of something related to ministry. Usually anxiety and depression have come upon me because I have lost my way temporarily—leaving the easy yoke of Jesus and looking to ministry for self-validation, to make a name for myself, to gain applause and acclaim and respect from the crowds. This is a dead end street, but in moments and seasons of weakness my heart has gone there.

Anxiety and depression have been God’s way of reminding me that I don’t have to be awesome. He has not called me to be awesome, or impressive, or a celebrity pastor, or anything of the sort. He has first and foremost called me to be loved, and to be receptive to that love. He has called me to remember that because of Jesus, I already have a name, I will be remembered even after I am long gone, because he is my God and I am his person. He is my Father and I am his son.

Kierkegaard said that the thorn in his foot enabled him to spring higher than anyone with sound feet. The Apostle Paul said something very similar about the thorn in his flesh. The thorn kept him from becoming cocky. It kept him humble. It kept him fit for God and fit for the people whom God had called him to love and serve. There is glory in weakness. There is a power that is made perfect in that place.

Though I would not wish anxiety or depression on anyone, I am strangely thankful for the unique way that this affliction has led me, time and again, back into the rest of God.

“All the fitness he requireth is to feel your need of him…”

 

Tony’s Story

(The following is based on an interview with a former pastor I’ll call Tony. While the story is true, the names of people have been changed.)

“Tony, you’re a liar. You’re going to have to leave the church.”

Pastor Tony heard the words, but they made no sense. It felt like he’d just been tackled by a 300-lb. linebacker—speared, more like it—and hammered into the ground. The eyes of six deacons seated grimly around the conference table stared blankly at their pastor. Tony grabbed a gulp of air and said, “Excuse me?”

images“You have a pattern of deception in your life, Tony,” said the chairman of the deacon board. “You’re a liar. You’ll need to resign.”

Tony Kendall had been at his church for just three years. The congregation had embraced Tony and his wife Emily with enthusiasm. They loved Pastor Tony’s passion in the pulpit and his knack at connecting Scripture with life. He had hit the ground running. He got the staff pulling in the same direction and sparked renewed vision among the people for blessing the city.

But before long, Tony knew there were problems. In fact, the first sign of an approaching storm appeared the first week he was at the church. One of the trustees took Tony out to lunch and told him the deacons and trustees weren’t on speaking terms. Tony was shocked. This had certainly not come up in the interview process. How could the spiritual leaders of the church allow such a thing?

When the deacons asked Tony to start a contemporary worship service, Tony accepted the challenge but warned them it would not be easy. And Tony was right. It was not easy. Beliefs about worship are about as hard to change as a Long Islander’s accent. But as it turned out, the contemporary worship service was the least of Tony’s problems.

Tony butted heads often with Matthew, his assistant pastor. Matt knew he was on the way out, and made plans to start a church elsewhere in the community. But he would not go quietly. Matt had an ally on the deacon board who was also the board chairman. Matt had often run to Steve whenever he didn’t like something Tony had done or said. Now Matt told him the content of his latest conversation with Tony. He had even recorded the conversation and sent Steve a copy. So several weeks later, at the next board meeting, the chairman asked Tony about something he had told Matt.

“Did you say that or not?”

Tony honestly couldn’t remember. The conversation was several weeks old. “No, I don’t think so. I certainly don’t remember it.”

Steve slammed his fists on the conference table. “Tony, you’re a liar!” He pulled his iPhone out of his pocket and played the recorded conversation for all to hear.

“Well, I guess you’re right. I did say that.”

“You’re going to have to leave the church, Tony,” the deacon said. “There’s a pattern of deception in your life. You can either resign now or we’re going to vote to kick you out of the church.”

Tony was speechless. Yes, he was wrong. He didn’t have his facts straight about a conversation with his assistant pastor. But did this rise to the level of an irreparable breach of trust, a sin that merited dismissal?

What Tony knew that the other deacons sitting around the table that night did not, was that Steve had had a long-running dislike for Tony. He didn’t care for Tony’s preaching. He questioned Tony’s motives for ministry. Whenever Tony looked down at Steve from the pulpit, he would scowl back at him. Matt, the assistant pastor, had totally convinced this fellow leader that Tony was a fraud.

Tony knew it was over. He could fight to stay, but Steve held all the cards. Tony slumped in his chair and said hardly a word the rest of the meeting. His brain was pounding with questions. “What will I do? Where will I go? What will I tell Emily and the kids? How will we sell our home? It’s underwater. How can this be happening?”

As he started his car and pulled out of the church parking lot, Tony knew many tears would fall in the Kendall home that night.