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Listening, Healing, Walking

March 29, 2014

abandoned-churchIt’s been a painful season since I left the church. More than I would have believed. The wounds were deeper than I thought. It still hurts. But time will heal all wounds. And I know, whether they believe differently or not, that I left when the Spirit of God instructed me.

I recently talked to an aunt. Her question was pretty straightforward and probing: So what did you learn in all of this? Wow. That’s a pretty deep question and one I’ve been thinking a lot about. What did I learn in this whole process. A lot.

I learned to trust the Holy Spirit more and to listen more intently. I have always had thoughts of how things should be done; church government, approaches to areas of ministry, and aspects of outreach. But coming into a church that was completely dysfunctional, nearing foreclosure, and only a handful of church members remaining was something I never would have anticipated.

When my wife and I arrived the members that had remained were hurt, bitter, and distrusting of everyone but themselves. Their church motto was “the church that love built”. It may have built it, but love left a long, long time ago. What remained was an arrogant and contentious spirit that still exists in the few that remain since my departure. I watched argument after argument during my entire time there. I taught on having a teachable spirit. I taught loving and mercy were more important than being right. I led by example in being patient and long-suffering with those whom I knew were wounded — because hurt people hurt people.

Coming into that situation threw everything I thought I knew about ministry out the window. It wasn’t just a good suggestion to listen to the Holy Spirit, but an absolute necessity. Each week I was desperate for His leading and guiding. I was desperate to have self-control; to bite my tongue when needed and speak His words when directed. Each week I wondered what wrinkle I would face that will become the next monumental challenge. Each week I was disappointingly right.

You can speak the right words the right way at the right time. Unless people are willing to move from self to selfless nothing will change. Not all were this way, I’m delighted to say. Many came to a place where they wanted to move forward. They saw the need in the church and in their own lives to let go of past hurts, disappointments, and failures. They moved from a place of distrust to placing their trust and hope in the Lord again. And when they did, they saw His blessings and His mercy in so many areas of their lives. It was like refreshing water to thirsty souls. You could see tremendous growth occur in their lives.

Not everyone made those steps. The ones who held the power for years fought for ongoing control. I’ve said this before, but it’s worth saying again, “you cannot move forward if you’re handcuffed to your past.” And they were. So many times I was confronted with, “That’s now how we do things around here” or “We don’t like change and we didn’t bring you here to make changes” or “I haven’t seen you clean any toilets”. The last statement was about how I couldn’t be trusted after five months of ministry because this person hadn’t seen me clean a toilet yet. I’m not quite sure what that had to do with being a pastor.

I was able to hone some skills that come somewhat natural to me. In our current church, in my role there, I have the opportunity to preach 4-6 times a year. I’m always grateful for the opportunities. During my pastorate in that small church an hour away, I preached three sermons a week every week. Hopefully the more you do something the better you get at it. From the responses I received both then and now, I did.

My biggest challenge was interpersonal skills. I had many opportunities to counsel, teach, and discuss biblical matters while I was there. I still am inept at dealing with contentious and problematic people. Maybe I was too soft in my approach, however when I asked the Lord about it, He gave me different direction. I wanted to confront the major problem, though I dreaded the thought of it. Instead God had me continue on without the confrontation. His words to me were, “They’re either going to go forward or I will close their doors. You just keep preaching the Word.”

A couple of Sundays before we were removed as pastors, I witnessed two family members who are key people in that church argue for 10 minutes during a Sunday school class. The daughter was teaching the class and her father (the former pastor and founder of the church) argued over a reference note in a bible regarding a period between the old and new testaments. It was silly, trivial, and embarrassing. I watched in disbelief. It became apparent to me they had brought their typical home life into their church because that is what I had been seeing for months.

Recently someone who is still a member there told me, “Never in my life could I believe that a family that says they love each other be so dysfunctional,” and “I try to keep my distance from everyone. I’ve had enough drama to last me a lifetime.” Sad. That’s not how life in Christ is supposed to be, but it so often is.

I knew this already, but this situation reaffirmed the reason why you we should be genuine and loving. When it was all over, my wife and I had our old church welcoming us back with open arms. They still, after being back for three months, tell us how deeply they missed us during our six month excursion south. They tell us repeatedly they cannot understand how a church could not want us as their pastors. They’re sweet and its nice to hear, but what they’re really saying to us is “we love you and we don’t like it when you’re not here.” Never burn bridges. Especially as a Christian. Our walk is to be genuine, loving, filled with grace and mercy, selfless, and Spirit led.

The last thing I think I learned in all of this is rather silly when I try to articulate it. I am not above being deeply hurt. Many times leaders develop a hard exterior so they can speak the truth without having to worry about who’s toes we may be stepping on. When you remove the worry of ‘how they’ll receive this’, it takes the sting out of delivering difficult words. I had said many times while there, “If they decide they don’t want us here, fine! We’ve got a good church home we can go back to and I know they’ll receive us with open arms.” Then the reality of it occurred and I found myself with a gaping, bleeding wound. I had poured my heart and soul into the people at that church. I cared for them. I loved them – even the trouble makers. So when it happened, I was shocked to go through the emotions of anger, frustration, and pain. I knew I couldn’t hang on to the anger and frustration and forgave quickly. But the pain is still there. It still hurts when I think of what should have been and, except for God’s mercy, what the future is for that church.

Half the congregation left after we did. They didn’t follow us, but they knew those remaining were not the leaders they wanted to follow. Accusations continue to be thrown, but I chose not to get into the quagmire of defending and accusing. Instead I’ve tried to continue encouraging, exhorting, building, speaking life, extending mercy, and loving people who want to move forward with God.

The night everything happened, I was driving home and asked the Lord, “Why?” I never got a definitive answer, but I had a peace in my heart and reminders that none of this caught Him by surprise. He knew it was all going to happen. And He led me there for a purpose. Those that sought Him, grew in Him, and desired Him more than position received His ministry that came through my being there.

Not everyone will want to move forward. Not everyone will turn to the Lord. Not everyone who calls themselves a Christian will be loveable. That doesn’t mean they’re not saved, but it means until they are willing to lay down everything to be His anything they won’t see the bountiful blessings He desires for them.

Over and over again the Lord keeps taking me back to the book of John:

John 13:34-3534 So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. 35 Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.” (NLT)

—Pastor Rick

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2 Comments
  1. jonnie.steed@thomsonreuters.com permalink

    Very well written, Rick.

    Your previous post also.

    You might consider an online church blog. Hehe. I don’t know how many followers you have, but if you put your marketing gifts to work, I’ll bet you could have a large ministry following with financial support too.

    Thank you,
    Jonnie

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