The Long Road From Ministry Injury to Recovery (Part 2)

Embracing responsibility and forgiveness after injury within the church

Every pastor knows there’s no such thing as a perfect church. From the pulpit and behind-the-scenes, we see the imperfections, the places we need prayer and room for growth—in ourselves and in others. Until it happens, though, most pastors won’t contemplate the potential of being hurt by the church they serve. I didn’t—and it happened to me.

In 1997, Sebastian Junger wrote a book, The Perfect Storm, about the true story of three colliding weather fronts in the North Atlantic during the last days of October 1991. These fronts combined to produce one of the most devastating storms on record.

If I was to overcome this injury and serve as a pastor again, I needed to take action in three areas of responsibility.

Six years into my pastoral tenure, I found myself in the middle of a perfect storm within my own church as three “ministry fronts” collided: 1) a fatigued leadership and congregation that resulted from rapid numerical growth, a multimillion-dollar capital campaign and a two-year construction project; 2) a new facility addition of 80,000 square feet to occupy, utilize and manage; and 3) a poorly handled departure of a long-term youth pastor.

In the wake of this storm, my family and I were injured. And while pastors experience ministry injury to differing degrees, some cases are so damaging they can cause pastors to contemplate leaving their calling—this was the case with my story.

In the first article in this series, I wrote about my initial departure from the church and the ministry injury I experienced. I recounted the three shepherds God provided who helped me stay afloat in the aftermath of the storm following my resignation—but staying afloat wasn’t enough. If I was to overcome this injury and serve as a pastor again, I needed to take action in three areas of responsibility.

Owning my part

During the years leading up to and amid that perfect storm, I was burning out from the rigorous preaching schedule, aggressive capital campaign and facility expansion. I was also a husband and a father to five homeschooled children.

I was doing more and resting less with a growing deficit in my “well-being bank account.”

In his book, Creating a Healthier Church, Ron Richardson warns that leaders will become impaired if they are in an over-functioning position. That was me. My over-functioning was not only driven by congregational expectations and perceived needs, but also by my failure to regulate and pace my own strengths and personality. I was doing more and resting less with a growing deficit in my “well-being bank account.”

For three years as the congregation prepared for facility expansion, we held four services each Sunday morning, and I preached at each one. Several people suggested I record the second service and show it via video in the third and fourth service—this would have significantly reduced stress and fatigue—but I set this idea aside because I thought each service deserved a “live preacher.” In part, the resulting weariness led to emotional, mental and spiritual unpreparedness for the perfect storm and its aftermath.

As I surveyed these realities in the year following my resignation, I had to confront the pride and self-sufficiency evident in my over-functioning. As my contribution to the storm became clear, I confessed my failure to rest properly and my faulty belief that success was dependent on me. In response to these hard realities, I have since committed to new rhythms of rest and leading as a steward, not an owner (see Scott Rodin’s The Steward Leader).

Forgiving my offenders

Once I owned my part, I needed to move toward forgiveness. It’s not easy to forgive those who have hurt us. This is why we are so clearly commanded to do so in both the Gospels and the Epistles (Matt 6:12,14,15; 18:21-35; Eph 4:32; Col 3:13). Ministry injury, I believe, is particularly difficult to forgive because it comes from those we loved and sought to serve.

By not forgiving, I had allowed the offenses of others to become slivers in my mind.

After my resignation, I had to face the fact that, by not forgiving, I had allowed the offenses of others to become slivers in my mind. These slivers, unaddressed, quickly led me toward bitterness in my soul and an alienation from my calling to the local church.

By not forgiving, I thought somehow I was hurting those who had hurt me. I rehearsed their offenses against me like someone pulling a rope that rings a bell over and over. I needed to let go of the rope and forgive my offenders. But how could I do this when I was so emotionally tied to the ways I had been wronged?

Because forgiveness can be an emotional process, I found it helpful to have an objective process to guide me. I found Neil Anderson’s recommendation from Victory Over the Darkness to be both a simple and effective process as I prepared to forgive.

Following the steps of Anderson’s process, I first made a list of those who had injured me. Next, taking one person at a time, I wrote out the specific things they did and/or said—or failed to do/say. The final step involved identifying how the injury made me feel. For most people, including me, this last hurdle proved the most difficult in the process. However, as challenging as this was, it allowed me to access my heart, and understand what the injury did to me emotionally. In doing this, I was able to fulfill Jesus’ command in Matthew 18:35:

"This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” (emphasis mine)

Take, for example, the letter-writing campaign, organized by one long-term church member, to call into question my leadership and preaching to the elders. The elders did their best to respond with a supportive and united voice, but the written accusations still hurt me deeply. But had I processed through, in my heart, what that “hurt” really meant?

Forgiveness is not about forgetting; it’s about healing.

To go beyond “I felt deeply hurt” required time and reflection and willingness to go below the surface. As I explored my emotional responses, I realized I also felt betrayed, angry, hateful, attacked, belittled, misunderstood, helpless, defenseless, powerless, alone and small. In uncovering and addressing this fuller, more comprehensive emotional expression, I could now not only forgive my offenders, but I could do so truly from the heart.

When I was ready to forgive, I followed Anderson’s simple pattern: “Father, I forgive (name the person) for (name the offense) and making me feel (name all feelings the specific injury caused).”

This wasn’t a 30-minute exercise, nor was it a “one-and-done” activity. It took months of prayerful reflection and ruthless honesty. As I wrote these articles, I had to cycle through the forgiveness process again at a few crucial points, as I was reminded of the wounds I incurred. Forgiveness is not about forgetting; it’s about healing. At times, I’ve found it helpful to have a friend or counselor witness my prayers of forgiveness for accountability and encouragement.

“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”

I also needed to remember this was not about reconciliation. Sometimes people are reconciled, and sometimes they are not. In some cases, it may be impossible or unwise to reconcile as the person who injured you may be dead or in jail. What I needed to understand was that my forgiveness of those who hurt me was first and foremost between me and my God. As Lewis B. Smedes writes, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”

Trusting my God again

The last step I needed to take in recovering from ministry injury was to trust God again. I had been deeply hurt—not by the people of the “big, bad world,” but by God’s people. God was the One who called me to serve at that church, and as a result, bad things happened to me and my family.

This takes time to process. Knowing the right answer (e.g. “God is sovereign”) is not the same as embracing the right answer and living in light of that truth. For a season, I wasn’t so sure God had my best interest in mind. Was He really good? Did He really care for me? Could I trust Him? I asked God these questions and to help me trust Him again.

Friendships, ongoing counseling, writing about my experience, hearing the stories of others and staying connected to the Scriptures all helped me to move toward trust. With an increasing awareness of my part in the storm and my willingness to forgive those who hurt me, little by little, my trust in God began to grow.

I often tell people there are classes God enrolls us in because we would never sign up for them on our own.

I remember one morning, about six months after my resignation, when I realized God was not done with me as a pastor. Through a series of unusual circumstances, I found myself in conversation with a local church who had just experienced a congregational split. They were asking God for a seasoned pastor who understood the pain that comes from ministry injury. Six months later, I was serving them as their new pastor. That next season had its own challenges, but it was also filled with the joy of healing and hope that eventually resulted in the planting of a daughter church.

As my trust in God grew, so did my perspective. The words of Genesis 50:20, the climax of the Joseph saga, took on new depth of meaning as I recognized its truth in my life.

“What some had intended for harm, God intended for good.”

I have also seen the testimony and truth of Paul in 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 become a personal reality:

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.”

I often tell people there are classes God enrolls us in because we would never sign up for them on our own. In those classes, we often learn the most. As I look back on this season of ministry injury, I can see how God used it to prepare me for what was next. And on the other side of restoration, I now trust him more than ever before.

The other side of the storm

As time goes by, I can see how God has provided me new insight and understanding about myself, others and himself that I could not have acquired in any other way. I would never ask for a repeat of a ministry injury, but I am now able to see with gratitude what I have gained from them.

By God’s grace, I survived the initial aftermath of ministry injury and embraced the next steps of ownership, forgiveness and trust. While I was well on my path to recovery, my wife and children needed me to bring them along. I was injured not only as a pastor, but also as a husband and a dad. In the next and final article in this series, we’ll look at how God guided me in helping my family also experience this healing process.

This article is part two in a series on dealing with and recovering from ministry injury by James Petersen, executive director of personnel for EFCA ReachGlobal. For part one, read “The Long Road From Ministry Injury to Recovery (Part 1).” Stay tuned for the third and final part in this series.

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