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Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Almost Perfect Church: Chapter 8- September Blow Up

I have much, much more to say about evangelism and outreach and the meaning of truly following Jesus and the mission of the church.  But I have already jumped ahead in time and to keep the narrative flowing I will move on to the big blow up of late 2009.  This is not as important as the previous topic so I'll try to keep it as short as I can without sacrificing clarity.

Every senior pastor lives in a bubble of pressure that few people can comprehend.  You are being pulled by hundreds of different, and often incompatible, voices in your own congregation.  You have both a board and a staff to deal with in various ways.  You feel constantly accountable to God, always comparing your church and ministry to the NT ideal.  You always feel like neither you nor your church are living up to your initial hopes and expectations.  You know that everyone judges your "success" by the number of people attending your church and are heartbroken to see church-goers rotating steadily through the churches in your town, always looking for something no pastor can give them, yet secretly relieved when some of them find your church and praise your ministry because there are always others who have just left, feeling dissatisfied again.  You hate this Church-Game and Church-Business but you don't know how to get out from under it.  You have crises of life and death and the various emotional traumas of life that people go through and bring to their pastor.  You have your perpetual critics who don't do much themselves but always want to let you know where they feel you fall short.  You have your own life to live with the same pressures and challenges that everyone else faces.

In May 2010 I went to my last district conference and was talking to two pastors, both about my age with about the same amount of time in their current churches.  I gave them the sanitized version and both stated emphatically how much they felt they needed long sabbaticals.  One of their wives was present and she agreed with tears in her eyes.  Yet they both viewed it as impossible.  Would they still have a job when it was over?  Would they still want to re-enter the pressure cooker when the sabbatical was over.  They loved being pastors but were worn down by the pressure.

I didn't realize how great the pressure was until after it was done.  We get used to the conditions we live in and God gives grace to bear up.  In addition to the normal pressures I had an assistant pastor who did not share my vision and approach and I struggled to find a way to use him effectively.  He obviously could not be in charge of evangelism, he hadn't done much with assimilation, he didn't want to do missions, he frequently avoided monthly prayer meetings and didn't want to be in charge of that ministry, he didn't want to lead a small group anymore much less be in charge of small groups.    So all of these things, which are usually responsibilities of an assistant, fell on me.  He was a good man in the wrong situation.  I had hired him and had tried to make it work long after I should have just faced the fact that it would not and dealt with it.  The fault was mine but so was the increased pressure.

In addition there was the simmering conflict with the board mentioned earlier and the realization that it would have to come to a head sooner or later.  One of the elders had also been holding meetings with the other lay elders, that I was not invited to, in which they discussed their ideas of what the church and pastors should be doing and how to get there.  They told me that it had been our District Superintendent's idea but when he found out he said, "No!" and they were finally halted but by that time the elder in question had developed the habit of referring to TA as a "board-led" church and every time I made a decision of any kind about the church without first getting their unanimous approval they would get upset.  I had no authority but anything that went wrong in the church was seen as my responsibility.

What was going visibly wrong in the spring of 2009 was that three families had left TA to go to another church in town, The Stirring.  The Stirring was already doing a lot of things I wished we would do (though not exactly the same way we would have) and was missional and focused on previously unchurched and disillusioned young adults.  Some of our teens started going to their evening service and in 2009 some of them were joined by their parents.  I found this stressful as I feared we would become a church of old people with a missing generation that had all gone over to more contemporary churches.  Elder D said that during the summer he wanted to interview the people who had left for the Stirring and report back what they said.  I was very happy about this as it offered hope for change.  I had talked to all three families, I knew why they had left and the reasons all pointed in the direction of change I wanted for TA.

In late July Jeanie and I went to Ohio to meet our new grandson, then I was immediately put on jury duty for two weeks when I got back, then I went on a long-planned one-week sabbatical.  During that time in Utah I spent several days witnessing to a young woman who had been my waitress in Park City and I literally sat on several mountain tops seeking the Lord about direction for TA.  After being away in one sense or another for about six weeks I felt disconnected and discouraged.  I did receive what I thought was the beginning of a plan to spend the next 20 months (until our 20th anniversary) reviewing with staff, board and congregation all that we did, all the Bible called us to do as a church and then re-starting on our 20th anniversary with an updated strategy based on our original vision and calling.  I shared this with our staff as soon as I got back and they were enthused.  Then I went to the board meeting and shared with them and was greeted by silence.

Elder D broke the silence by literally waving his finger at me and saying, "This church is going to be dead in three months..."  In a few moments Elder A spoke the exact same words.  2 or 3 more times during the meeting they each repeated the saying and each time they left the sentence unfinished (unless what?) but ominous.  The message was clear: the church was dying and it was my fault.

Elder D gave his report and none of it was about why the three families preferred The Stirring to TA. Instead he had apparently talked to anyone who had left TA in recent years or was still there but unhappy.  I was later told that he had said that his purpose was "to break Mark".  He later denied that he meant it "that way" but the fact is, he and the others broke me.  All the pressures came to a head that night and I broke down, emotionally wasted and virtually unable to function.  The next few months are a blur in my memory (except for the meetings which I kept notes of).  Apart from preparing sermons I mostly sat and stared.  If I didn't literally "curl up in a fetal position for six months" as one pastor told me was his reaction to a similar situation (LOTS of pastors, I've since learned, have been through similar or worse!), I did so metaphorically.

Instead of becoming more like the Stirring in a missional sense, the elders wanted to become less like it, more traditional, more focused inward.  They didn't want me to have either the authority or the kind of job description Pastor Nate add but something far different, something under their control and focused solely on the nice people in the church who pay all the bills.  The only thing that was really obvious was that they felt that the church was dying and it was all my fault and could only be fixed if I did exactly as they told me.  They wanted me to be less of a leader (since my leadership was heading in the opposite direction they wanted to go) and more of a Board employee.  They wanted me to do more home visitation (I already did more than any of the other 3 CMA senior pastors in town).  They wanted me to spend more time in the office (like the other 3 I spent as little time as possible in the church office, preferring to work in coffee shops and other places as much as possible where divine appointments could occur much more frequently).

They wanted me to spend Saturday mornings at the men's meeting at the church.  I would have liked to but it was the only morning that my wife and I could spend together each week (she is a teacher).  Saturday afternoons and evenings I was preparing for, and obsessed with, Sunday morning; Sunday afternoon and evening (if there were no church meetings) I was exhausted.

If I did all these things then maybe the church would not "die in three months".  I had no freedom to lead the church in the direction I always had felt God wanted it to go but it would be all on me when it failed.

As I said I was entirely demoralized, crushed and yes, broken.  I entered into a deep depression and emotional breakdown that I probably didn't fully come out of until this past year.  Pastor B was not present but the next day Pastor J sent me an email encouraging me and stating that he felt he thought this was a satanic attack on me.  That helped, a little.  But the reality that was staring me in the face though I didn't want to admit to it was that my ministry at TA was over.  I wasn't going to follow their agenda and they weren't going to do anything but fight mine.  I went into shock.

Like anyone who feels battered and depressed I cried out for empathy and understanding. I sent a long letter to the board five days later pouring out my heart and laying out my pain for all to see.  No one responded.

Chapter 9: They say they didn't force me out.

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