It’s one of those days that becomes etched in your memory―completely against your will. Try as I might to focus on the chubby legs of my two-year-old toddler scurrying around my ankles as we navigated the petting zoo, my mind was racing. My breath felt short and my heart beat erratically.
I felt the need to scratch a nagging itch―an odd sensation―relentlessly screaming at me, “Check your email!” Against my better judgment, finally, I gave in and scratched. There it was―two sentences from our church treasurer informing me of a meeting to be held with the church board the next day. It was one of those emails that says everything you need to know in everything it does not say.
Within 24 hours, it would become clear a shift had taken place. My fellow co-pastor and I had refused to submit to power players in the congregation. Instead, we persisted in a different―more faithful, we felt―direction for the church. The issue at hand―finances―though truly dire, was but a Trojan horse. Deliberate accusations of poorly managed finances coupled with subtle implications of possible indiscretions were arrows aimed at the heart of our integrity, intent on discrediting us as pastors capable of leading the congregation rightly.
It is not a unique story. Many, if not most, pastors could share a similar story of deep wounds inflicted upon them by a congregation, leadership team, or even a single, cantankerous church member. The issues might vary, but the wounds hurt nonetheless.
The temptation to slip into bitterness is so very real―even alluring at times. There is a sick sweetness to be found in reveling in one’s inflicted wounds and perceived righteous victimhood. However, bitterness begets cynicism and a hardened spirit―a spirit that loses its sensitivity to the voice of the Shepherd.
Forgiveness is the path―we know it is. We preach it week after week, the hallmark of Christian faith and practice. Forgiving 70 times 7. Forgiving even when the offender is not remorseful or apologetic. Forgiving as Christ has forgiven us.
Even as we forgive―forgiving again every time we remember a transgression―another temptation persists: the temptation to embrace victimhood, the temptation to isolate one’s self and assume a self-protective posture. We may have forgiven, but we remain victims.
A New Path Forward
What if there were another way? A way marked by forgiveness, yes, but not a self-pitying forgiveness that leaves us licking our wounds, but rather one that beckons us forward into deeper conformity to Jesus?
In Philippians 2, Paul gives us the image of Jesus practicing kenosis―pouring himself out, divesting himself of all privilege associated with his status as God, and freely choosing to become completely human. Not only that, but once human, Jesus continues in the practice of pouring himself out once again, willingly submitting to a horrific, shameful death on a cross.
We often think of what God did in Jesus, the self-emptying, kenotic self-giving, as just that―a thing God did. A what. An event in time to bring about our salvation. But what if what God did in Jesus, the self-emptying, kenotic self-giving, is also the how. What if God wasn’t just acting on our behalf, but showing us how to act?
What if God wasn’t exclusively pouring out his very self on our behalf, but also showing us how to pour ourselves out for our beloved congregations, even when―or maybe especially when―we are treated unjustly? How might we live unto this call to kenotic ministry, pouring ourselves out for the flock with which we have been entrusted? There are three principles we must put into practice.
1. Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought.
Let’s be honest. Swipes at our integrity hurt. The wounds hurt more deeply and last longer when our ego is wrapped up in others’ opinions of us to an unhealthy degree. It’s more difficult to walk in humility and forgive the wrongdoer when we are preoccupied with an insult made against us. Women in particular seem to be susceptible to this addictive drug―the approval of others. Perhaps this makes us more vulnerable to the temptation to harness our ego to the unpredictable machine that is the opinions of others about us.
Be reminded that Jesus―even though he was God―did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing. So, let’s stop grasping at power, respect, and a great name for ourselves. Such concerns lead us to respond to the wounds inflicted upon us in very un-kenotic ways, and instead spin us toward grasping behaviors. Alternatively, we should develop a trusting relationship with someone who will speak truth into our lives, someone who has permission to say the hard things we need to hear. Loving truth-tellers who have our best interest in mind can help protect us from thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought.
2. Surrender the need to defend yourself, and become obedient to death.
How hard it is to resist the temptation to defend yourself against the unjust―and even inaccurate―accusations made by angry church members! The level of self-control it takes to struggle against the enticement of sending an email to everyone you know itemizing how the accusations are unfair and incorrect is great indeed. Perhaps there is a time to speak, to defend one’s self. I, however, have come to see that the urgent, pressing, all-consuming need to explain myself is most often rooted in feelings of being personally wronged, embarrassed, or threatened rather than in a genuine concern for the truth or for the health of the church body.
What if instead of defending ourselves tooth and nail against every barb of criticism and attack that comes our way, we became obedient to death. And no, I’m not being dramatic. Those mean comments and deceitful schemes from hurtful people are not going to kill you, no matter how much they hurt. The kind of death I am talking about is death to self, death to ego, death to the need to always be seen in the best possible light. It is a death to our need to assert our rights in every situation, and instead submit to suffering for his name’s sake, entrusting our heart, our reputation, our vocation into God’s hands. This can be particularly challenging for those of us who have walked the often long, difficult road to finding a place to serve as a female pastor. It is easy to feel defensive over something for which we might have struggled so deeply and personally to receive.
The imprecatory psalms offer us wisdom in this regard, as they call us to trust in the Lord to bring about justice for the unrighteous, to commit one’s way to the Lord, and to rest in the knowledge that God will make our righteousness shine like the dawn―even if it takes a long time. If you need a physical act to help embody this death to a personal need, take a post-it note, and write down the specific “right” you are surrendering. Pray over it, and either shred it or put a pin through it and keep it in a sacred space for later reflection.
3. Model what it means to pour your life out to your congregation.
In the same manner we are called to pour our lives out as pastors for our people and the world, so too our people are called to pour out their lives for the world―at home, at work, and in the grocery store. As consoling as it is to imagine that pastors are the only ones who are treated unjustly, lied about, and misused, it is a self-serving, self-pitying lie. Your parishioners often experience the same thing in their jobs and even with hurtful family members. What they need from us is not a lesson in martyr-like victimhood, but an example of a Jesus-follower who, when treated unjustly, chooses the self-emptying way of Jesus. One who doesn’t fight for her rights at the expense of others, and who will humble herself even when it is hard and the payoff isn’t immediate.
What our churches need are pastors who not only forgive the wrongdoer, but also persist in love and faithfulness to that person in spite of the wounds. Our churches need pastors who have laid their rights at the foot of the cross and are willing to pour themselves out for their sheep, in conformity to the Good Shepherd. As is appropriate, share your struggle with pouring out your life for others. Don’t break confidences or injure the reputation of the church or an individual, but do not shrink back from honesty in the pulpit. Your confession might be the key to someone else finding freedom and healing in Jesus.
It has been a few years since that painful encounter with the church board. I would like to say time has healed all wounds and I bear nary a scar, but that would not be honest. I still bear the wounds of that season on my heart. But today, I have some perspective on the journey and see the ways in which God has reshaped me through those dark days into a more accurate image of Jesus. I find I am being continually reshaped. As I continue to embrace the truth and challenge, I see how God in Christ acted not only on my behalf, but showed me how to act―to pour myself out for the world and for my church. May it become more true in my life each day.
Stephanie Dyrness Lobdell is a Nazarene pastor, wife, mommy of JoJo and Jack, teacher, lover of learning, and friend. She and her husband, Tommy, have served as co-pastors of several churches. Currently, Stephanie serves as co-lead pastor with Tommy, as well as the worship pastor at Mountain Home Church of the Nazarene, an extraordinary community of believers in Mountain Home, Idaho, and blogs at www.stephanielobdell.com.