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The axe fell on my birthday. The night before, three elders had, for three hours, raked me over the coals. They made no charge of malfeasance or immorality, but the power brokers in the pews had made it clear that my theology had grown to be inconsistent with a majority of the congregation's.
I got up that morning, aching from the verbal torture of the night before, and went to work. The secretary brought in a birthday plant with a helium balloon attached. On the balloon were a number of pigs laughing hysterically under the caption, HAPPY BIRTHDAY! I felt I was the butt of a poor joke.
Carrying the thing back, I told the secretary, "I appreciate the plant, but could you get rid of the balloon?" With a short, sharp stroke, she pierced the heart-shaped balloon with a pair of scissors and glared at me. That afternoon, ignoring my apology for my paranoia, she walked off the job and didn't return until I had left for good.
Welcome to the world of the forced-out pastor.
When a pastor resigns willingly, the period between resignation and departure is a time of collecting bouquets for a job well done. But when a pastor is forced out, that time is filled with profound loneliness and stress and the anger of an entire congregation-when one is least prepared for it. This pastor is not a lame duck but a wounded one.
Here are some of the wounds found in forced pastoral exits:
Reduced social contact with fellow clergy, particularly if one is leaving a denomination, as I did. Clergy friends of past years, loyal to the hierarchy, could not identify with my failure, and I quickly was relegated to their "newsletter only" list, and where we had exchanged friendly greetings in the past, now any communication was stiff and formal.
Pressure from the church board to vacate the parsonage or stop receiving a salary. The board wanted us out of the parsonage in two weeks, new church or not. We had just begun the search process, which usually takes six to twelve months. Only the outrage of our friends in the congregation thwarted this move.
Non-person status. Weeks after my resignation, I met on the street an elder who just a year before had praised my ministry. She not only refused to return my greeting, but she also turned her head to avoid eye contact.
Not-so-subtle hints you're crazy or in the wrong profession. A well-intentioned social worker came to the parsonage in my absence to tell my wife, busy with three preschoolers, that I needed psychiatric help. The interim minister who served before my arrival, a friend of the major power broker in the fellowship, mailed me a bibliography on career change.
Threats or insults. During the search process, we came home one evening to find the message light blinking on the answering machine. Eagerly expecting a nibble from a new pulpit committee, we switched it on, only to hear, "Why aren't you gone by now?" The upholstery in one of our cars was slashed, and our home was occasionally under surveillance at odd hours by a retiree with too much time on his hands.
Reduced social contact with friends in the congregation. Once I resigned, the problem, with its pain, tended to dominate our conversations with friends in the fellowship. Slowly, we began to reduce our calls and visits.
Difficulties in the search for a new church. Though I didn't experience much closer scrutiny from pulpit committees or placement officials as a result of my wounded-duck status, I know others who did.
Forced exits are always unplanned and stressful. But I found some strategies helpful in handling the stress, making the transition, and even growing through the experience.
Expect uncomfortable emotions. A forced departure is nothing less than a divorce between pastor and congregation-at best, it's an uneasy, guilt-ridden settlement. The pain of the congregation is allayed by the hope they can "get a better pastor," but the departing pastor may feel betrayed.
The wounded duck alternates between anger and its inward form, depression. It's common to be angry over the apparent injustice and depressed over the pastor's vulnerability to congregational politics. Supporters who promised to fight the forced resignation may have slowly fallen in line with the demands of the pastor's powerful opponents.
I also felt envy and shame-envy of the ministers who have it good and shame over the residual sense I could have done some things differently, even if I didn't know clearly what.
Finally, wounded ducks have a sense of displacement similar to the unemployed or retired person's, particularly if there is a gap between pastorates. One day you get up, but there's no place to go. The study has been vacated, the church keys surrendered.
As wounded ducks, we need to anticipate and identify these feelings so we can take them to God in prayer. Given the temptation to place all the blame on the "dragons" in the congregation, we might do well to begin by praying for ourselves, claiming God's forgiveness for our weakness of the flesh.
Develop a new and temporary network of understanding friends. Clergy in other cities, trusted people from a different church, staff members at retreats or camps, family or close friends-anyone capable of listening and offering sound counsel-can be part of a new, temporary helping network.
I say "new" because preresignation friends and postresignation friends will be different. Many preresignation friends within the congregation may be attached to you as pastor. Your resignation fills them with much of the same pain you experience.
Your network of support will probably also be temporary, as you are drawn to people who can minister to your most immediate needs. The wise counselors who helped my wife, Jeana, and me through our crisis were a colleague who was a son of the congregation I had served (his knowledge of people on both sides of the controversy was invaluable), another colleague who had brought a church through revival but at the cost of half his membership (he could see both sides of the stay-vs.-leave debate), and the elder and pastor of a church that split off from the denomination I was serving.
I marvel at the Lord's provision of those who could both minister to our hurts and discuss realistically options for our future. All knew the emotional impact of church-pastor fights, yet they had an emotional distance from our problem that gave them an analytical perspective.
With the help of such friends, discern between accurate criticisms and unfair blame. Using 1 Peter 2:15-25 and other texts, our friends helped us discern whether we were suffering justly or unjustly. Yes, some of our former members were wrong to use individual tastes rather than the Bible to judge my preaching, but I was wrong to raise my voice at my harshest critic while shaking hands in line after the service. We assessed each hurt and complaint until the personal inventory was complete.
Warren Wiersbe lists some frustration factors of pastors who bring problems upon themselves: setting unreachable goals, creating unmanageable schedules, being hypersensitive or overreactive to criticism, and having a messiah complex. Do some of us load these burdens on the backs of our congregations? I know I did. Granted, it's hard to confess our sins to former members we have offended when they're still angry and won't say hello on the street.
On the other hand, pastor and writer Stephen Bly summarizes some reasons pastors are wrongly criticized: partisanship to a beloved former pastor, seeing the pastor as a lackey of the congregation, jealousy on the part of "frustrated preachers" in the pews, unconfessed sin for which criticism of the pastor is a handy smoke screen, vengeance for a presumed offense, comparison with media super-preachers (somewhat less in vogue lately), using the preacher as an excuse to avoid church, projected guilt (blaming the preacher for not visiting their mother in the nursing home when they don't visit her themselves), and using preacher abuse to get back at God. Recognizing some of these descriptions in my situation, I was able to stop blaming myself for everything and work on forgiving and responding correctly to people.
Discernment helps us avoid the extremes of self-flagellation or a fancy of conspiracy against our ministries. And it sets the stage for honest prayer for our enemies, as Jesus instructed in Matthew 5:43-48. Such prayer dethrones them from their undeserved pedestal of omnipotence over our condition and sets them beside us as fellow, errant human beings.
Remember whom you are serving. I had misinterpreted a unanimous election by the congregation as a mandate to pursue the direction I thought the church should be headed. What the pulpit committee really wanted, however, was an influential personality in the community like the beloved former pastor who served there for thirty years. But the community had quadrupled in size over that period, and the church was no longer the church in town. Hence, its pastor was no longer a de facto community leader.
You can imagine my shock when I learned my presumed mandate was illusory, and the admiration and acceptance I had expected for knowing and doing the right things vanished in volleys of accusation and rumor. Yet the Lord used this shock treatment to direct my attention to him. At the time, nothing less would have worked.
Then, and only then, did I realize my service for him had been tainted by a strong desire for the plaudits of the people. Thus were my motives painfully purified. Without developing a martyr complex, I also remembered that rejection characterized the reaction of humanity to the Savior, even among religious leaders and one of his disciples.
The problem with so many "experts" on pastoral ministry is they presume that following the rules of good public relations and careful listening will always result in majority acceptance of our ministry. It may not, and we may never learn all the reasons why things didn't work out in a particular pastorate. Then it's necessary to follow our Lord's example by trusting ourselves to him who judges righteously.
I also found that I needed to focus specifically on dealing with the damage sustained by my spiritual life. Here were some of the things I found produced healing.
Use music and God's majesty in nature to soothe your raw emotions and help you maintain a sense of God's presence. Anger tramples on the nobler emotions, while depression dulls them. Wounded ducks, like King Saul, need musical food for the soul (1 Sam. 16:23). Our present well-being and our success in a new ministry depend on keeping our spirits healthy no matter how bruised our egos may be. I resigned under pressure in August 1985, and by God's providence, that fall season was the most beautiful I've seen. Marveling at the beauty of God's world took my mind off myself. Musically, I feasted on praise tapes, Andre Crouch's songs, and southern Gospel quartet music. You may prefer Vivaldi or Mozart; no matter, it's important to keep stoking the fire within.
Use the layover period to begin a personal project. The period of winding down after your resignation is meant for more than finding a new church. When the phone stops ringing and you're not yet ready to start packing, fill in the empty moments with rainy-day projects, work-related or not. I used my idle time to begin notes on the Book of Genesis, and a year later I was using them for Wednesday night teaching in a new congregation.
Allow the ravens to feed you. Church conflict polarizes people for you as well as against you, no matter how few your friends seem when compared to the mad majority. Some of these friends will be to you what the ravens were to Elijah in the time of drought (1 Kings 17:1-6): divine helpers whose small but sincere gestures of emotional and material support help maintain the desire to go on with life. Don't refuse them out of pride (or surprise) when they offer a food basket, baked goods, a dinner invitation, or even part of their tax refund as a gesture of support. My wife and I received all of these, and each was a unique and touching gesture from people who really cared.
Attend a new church. This is a necessity if you can't manage to be in a new pulpit the Sunday after your last in the old.
I benefited from the experience of entering a new church as a visitor rather than candidate; I learned what first-time visitors to any new church must feel.
In addition, that new fellowship may become part of your temporary help system. They will pray for you, teach you in Sunday school, and possibly even let you preach. The new church we attended for seven months enlisted couples to serve as nursery attendants. What a pleasure it was for my wife and me to assist fellow Christians in that humble way for the first time! The activities of our new church helped our family fill the emptiness created in our lives by being uprooted from our former church.
Do your best to maintain peaceful relations with your church after your resignation. I alerted our church council to some discouraged and angry members who threatened to leave when I did. I also continued as organizer and recruiter of workers in our capital-fund campaign, working seventy-hour weeks to show good faith and to keep my resignation from hurting the campaign. When the council was haggling over forcing us from the parsonage, my wife and I remained silent and trusted our friends in the congregation to defend our interests. When we moved, we left the parsonage in super-clean condition.
Bear in mind that wounded ducks won't be thanked for gestures like these, but we felt they were part of being faithful in the Lord's sight-and they helped us in our healing process.
No time in ministry is as rife with pitfalls as the time following resignation. For me, the situation is an embodiment of spiritual warfare.
As I put these principles into practice, I found it's possible to steer through such difficult days and "count it all joy" (James 1:2).
None of us does a perfect job of steering, but as time gives me perspective on my forced exit, I have come to appreciate how God blessed me even in the midst of the pain and prepared me for a better ministry in the future.
Copyright © 1989 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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