When I got home from a short-term mission trip to Africa, the board members of my church asked me to meet with them. They weren’t throwing me a “Welcome Home” party. Instead, they were throwing me out of the church.
They made it clear that there was no moral failure on my part, nor did I lack competency or giftedness. It was an attitude issue. My dislike for the senior pastor’s decisions were well known across the staff. My attitude was toxic, and a reason for me to leave. I’ll admit that I didn’t care very much for the senior pastor’s leadership style.
I guess John Maxwell is right. Attitude really is everything.
In the months following my termination, I took my toxicity to the blogs, only worsening the relational oil spill. I see now that in the months following my firing I only proved what the pastor had been saying all along. I did have trouble with authority and an insistence upon doing things my way.
I dug my own grave. I’m reminded of a quote that my mom posted on the wall when I was kid. It read, “It’s better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak up and remove all doubt.”
I’ll be completely honest. The transition from the pulpit to the pew was rough, rough on my soul, rough on my ego, and rough on our finances. My salary package as a Pastor of Discipleship had been $78,000. At 29, I felt as if I had “made it” in ministry. I was preaching regularly at a church that was larger than average. My wife and I owned two homes in two different states. But all of those material things could never have prepared us for the season that would come to us next. In fact, looking back on my life now I think those things in my life made me just the opposite—comfortable and unprepared for the turmoil that was coming.
There are many things that I learned through walking in this “land between.” Some of them were very practical. I learned them quickly. I learned that food stamps will pay for food but not for toiletries. I learned that you usually can’t collect unemployment from a church in Pennsylvania. I also learned that you can typically miss three mortgage payments in a row before the bank starts threatening foreclosure. Some of the other lessons were more abstract, and have taken the last couple of years to learn.
For a year or two I didn’t really want much to do with the church. I felt hurt and wounded by people that I had trusted and admired. If “they” were the ones representing the church, then I didn’t want anything to do with it. Besides, showing up in church—even visiting other churches—was humiliating. It was only so long before the inevitable question would come up: “So what led you to visit us this morning?” The last thing I wanted to do was relive my painful experience over again on Sunday mornings. I felt like someone who is going through a divorce and opts out of going to their friend’s wedding because they just can’t deal with the pain.
Knowing the wounded
I’ve met people over the years who once went to church, were wounded by it, and now refuse to go back. I often wondered, “Why can’t they just realize the church isn’t perfect … why can’t they just get over it and move on?” I know why now. I’ve found that there is no wound quite like being wounded by the church. And, if the church isn’t more proactive at draining the wounds of those she’s hurt, the infection will spread. Before you know it, you’ve lost a part of the Body.
Fortunately for me, both my father and father-in-law are pastors—so my wife and I always have a church to return home to. But what do you do when your home church is the one that hurt you? During this time, Lifechurch.tv proved to be an oasis. I could sit at home with my wife and my kids and we could worship as a family and attend church “online” without having to face anyone or explain our journey. For the first time, I could identify with those who just want to sit in the back pew and be left alone.
For years I thought my life was in the right order. You know: (1) God, (2) Ministry, (3) Family. But now I’ve learned how broken that order is. Once ministry was removed from that equation, my relationship with God seemed weak and feeble. For years I thought that my ministry was dependent on God. But this whole experience caused me to realize that my relationship with God was dependent on my ministry.
When you’re a pastor, it’s almost like you are a personal trainer at the gym—part of your job is staying in shape. But in the months following my firing, my veneer of spiritual strength was stripped away, just as completely as my pastoral title. I struggled to find a reason to do my devotions or spend time with God. After all, I wasn’t dependent on him to speak to me that week to craft a sermon message. I didn’t need him to remedy some thorn in the church’s flesh. I didn’t even need to petition him for an upcoming event to have a good turnout. I found myself scrambling to find a reason to spend time with God.
I have had to find a quiet place (my office is gone), become disciplined to have a set time, and even find relevant and interesting devotional material (I no longer can rely on our church’s current sermon series to provide me devotional fodder). I wish now that I would have been more intentional as a pastor about making sure my devotional time didn’t rely so much on my ministry. Instead, my ministry should have relied on my devotional time.
For months I struggled to find work. Even with a master’s degree I found out just how tough the job market really is. Finally I found a job. A friend of mine gave me a job at his utility company. My job? Digging ditches. I made about $15 an hour, with no health insurance and no benefits, digging ditches for high voltage cables and gas lines. I’ll never forget my first day on the new job, when one of the other employees asked me, “So, what were you in for?”
For about a year, I worked for that company doing the back-breaking work that many people do every day, year after year. I remember thinking to myself one night after a long day of work, “No wonder no one wants to come to a 7:00 p.m. mid-week ministry meeting. I’m totally beat!” I heard the “f word” more times on my first day of work then I had heard in my four years of high school, and I learned what Steel Reserve is—it’s a malt beverage sought by many lonely men each night after work. It comes in a 20 oz. can—a cheap buzz for about $1.75.
One day I was standing next to one of my construction co-workers and I asked him, “So, what do you think about the church and Jesus?” He replied, “I don’t think much about them and they don’t think much about me.” He spat on the ground and continued to work his chewing tobacco. I felt a kind of compassion for the man that I had never felt before.
I used to think I had the pattern of my life figured out. I was a pastor’s kid. After that, Bible college, then a life in the ministry, climbing the church ladder, higher and higher. But it didn’t work out that way. Right after I’d been fired, I had a conversation with a professor I’d had in Bible college. I phoned him to let him know what had happened. “That’s great!” he said. I was taken back. “What do you mean, that’s great?” “It sounds like God is getting ready to do something really big in your life.”
Now I see that he was right. Something big was happening. God was taking me from the pulpit to the pew. And it’s where, at least for now, I need to be.
Nathan Kilgore is a registrar at Fortis Institute in Baltimore, Maryland.