I knew I was in trouble the day Suzy and I moved into our house to begin my work as senior pastor. It was a blazingly hot, humid July day. The house was a fixer-upper, so we were unpacking boxes, painting, hanging wallpaper, cleaning the pool, and a myriad of other things to get the place livable for our family of five. The phone rang. On the line was one of the elders of the church. “We need to talk to you,” he said. So I drove over to the church where two elders were waiting for me.
“We’re concerned about your love of money,” they said.
Huh? What had I done or said that made people think I was greedy? Not that I am 100 percent free of the love of money, but where had this come from? As they explained themselves, it became clear that there’d been a miscommunication about the timing of my first paycheck. But I left that meeting with an uneasy feeling: Was this encounter an early sign of a spirit of suspicion floating around my new church? Indeed it was, as events were soon to demonstrate.
It had been a hard move for my family and me. We loved our former congregation. I’d been their pastor for seven golden years. Suzy and I had poured our hearts and souls into that church, raised our kids through their formative years, built a house, and seen God move in significant ways. The Gospel of grace had gripped me profoundly, and I saw it take root in the hearts of many others.
But here we were in a new place, with a new calling. The drive down the interstate had been an absolute trip from hell. My wife cried all the way. I felt incredibly guilty for uprooting my dear wife and children. Typical of me, I told them to look on the bright side of life in our new city. “We’ll go to the zoo! We’ll go to baseball games! And just think: We’re in one of the fastest-growing towns in the state. What a great opportunity for the Gospel!” It didn’t help.
Within a few short weeks, I was asking myself the questions that trouble every pastor I’ve ever known: Did God really call me here? Was I listening to his voice, or my own? Why did I leave a church where we were all happy?
I’ll never forget my first board meeting. We moved through the agenda and then it was time for my closing prayer. I told the group that I customarily got on my knees to pray with my fellow elders. They could do the same if they wished. As I was getting on my knees, one of the elders stopped me and asked, “Why do you want us to get on our knees? Is there anything in the church constitution about that?”
Now wait a second. How could a spiritual leader object to praying on his knees? I explained that biblically speaking, getting on one’s knees to pray is a sign of humility and earnestness. But I said, “It’s up to you. You don’t have to get on your knees.” I was simply stunned. And worried. Was every suggestion of mine going to be put through the meat grinder of inspection? My worries turned out to be justified. That’s exactly what the next five years felt like: a meat grinder.
We went from one crisis to another. An aggrieved husband sued the church. I had to fire a member of the staff who tried to sabotage the youth ministry. I fired another staff member for being divisive and stubborn. Both firings made me unpopular with segments of the congregation. Our missions director, an apparently healthy man, collapsed and died from a heart attack. We had to discipline a member of the worship team. You’ve heard of congregations that fight over the color of the carpet in the sanctuary? Our church really did.
In the middle of everything else, my father died of leukemia. My daughter was injured in a serious auto accident. My son had to have two very delicate and risky surgical procedures. Two of our kids went off to college for the first time. One got married.
And of course, the normal responsibilities of pastoral ministry didn’t magically stop and wait for those tempests to subside. There were still sermons to preach and expansion plans to discuss. There were still the dying who needed bedside prayers, the hospitalized who needed a pastoral touch, couples who needed counseling, visitors who needed follow-up, staff who needed direction, and lost people who needed redemption.
Other upsetting tragedies struck the congregation during my years there. A couple of beloved ladies lost their battles with cancer. I did funerals for brothers who committed suicide weeks apart, and another funeral for a man—a good friend—who murdered his two sons and then turned the shotgun on himself. Though profoundly disruptive, most pastors can tell similar stories of brokenness and loss.
But then came the Category 5 hurricane that nearly broke me: Worship Wars.
I had figured if we were going to attract a younger demographic, we needed to add a contemporary touch to the worship service. In my former church I had led singing with my guitar. So one Sunday I brought out my guitar and led one of the songs. I kept it up week after week. At first, people welcomed the novelty. Most of the elders were behind me. Some younger families began to visit. Many stayed. Musicians began to come out of the woodwork. We added another guitar player, then a bass player, a couple of vocalists, and finally a drummer.
That’s when the hurricane hit.
It started with little pockets of people gathering in the sanctuary after the worship service. I overheard them critiquing the music. Just the sight of drums in the choir loft made some of the old-timers angry. Several families left the church. Soon whispers turned to organized protest. To respond to the complaints, we started a contemporary service at 8:30 a.m. and kept the traditional service very traditional. It took little time for the early service to outgrow the late service. There were calls from the young crowd to switch the order of the two services. Our music director, who had grown increasingly unhappy with the situation, resigned. My approval rating with the older set sank faster than a concrete canoe. Another colleague left to plant a church. Tension mounted. We had a congregational meeting in which I shared our vision for worship and let people voice their frustrations. One lady criticized me for playing a guitar in the worship service. A man said we were abandoning “true worship.” A young father stood to defend the new contemporary direction. One after another, unhappy people rose to give impassioned speeches. It was plain we were a church divided.
The elders and I knew that a compromise had to be struck. We decided to have just one blended worship service. If the two sides can’t get along, we’ll get everyone together in the same room and make everyone miserable! And that’s exactly what happened.
Eventually I had elders telling me it was time for me to go. Gossip was everywhere. Someone told me what a poor leader I was. Another man told me I was unfit to be a senior pastor. I got anonymous notes and emails of complaint. They all started with words like, “I’m concerned….” Giving plummeted. I was crushed and depressed. My capital was all gone. Things were no better at home. There was an icy coldness developing between my wife and me. Some Sundays she didn’t even go to worship. It was clearly time to get out of there. But where would I go? What would I do? I seriously considered leaving the ministry.
One morning I wrote seven words in my journal: “It wasn’t supposed to be this way.” I had become a minister of the Gospel because I loved Jesus and the Word. I loved administering the sacraments, equipping the saints, shepherding the flock, and helping people grow. Instead of being a pastor, it felt like I was a referee at a Stanley Cup final—or, more accurately, the puck.
I wish I could say that none of this was my fault. I wish I could tell you that I responded to all these crises with the meekness of Moses, the steadiness of Joshua, the wisdom of Solomon, the prayerful spirit of Nehemiah, the courage of Paul, and the love of Christ. But I can’t. The truth is, I was part of the problem. I went into that church naïve and unprepared. I should have listened to my wife, who saw red flags that I did not. I should have asked more questions before accepting the call. I should have taken more time to build trust. I should have been more compassionate when proposing change. When Hurricane Worship Wars hit, I should have been more prayerful, less of a pushover, more loving, patient, and honest. The conflict eventually exploded in a “splant” (a cross between a split and a church plant) that hurt many people, including my family and me. It threatened to end my career as a pastor and seriously damage my marriage.
But through that catastrophe, I learned valuable lessons. I share those lessons elsewhere in my website, http://www.survivingministry.com. By God’s grace I moved on, recovered a love for the church, and eventually assumed the role of lead pastor elsewhere.
My journey has taken me through several years of doubt and fear to joy in ministry. I hope the same outcome for you.
What’s your story?