A pastor looks back on dealing with difficult issues
I was the pastor of a good church, a growing church, a vibrant church. We had new converts, had just completed our first building project without going into debt, and our worship services were like being in the Holy of Holies. I thanked God I served a congregation who genuinely loved and appreciated me, my ministry, and my family. However, it all began to unravel when it became evident that a couple who were a cornerstone of our church were having marital struggles.Sam and Mary* were faultless in their zeal and faithfulness – traits every pastor values in a church member – but Mary had developed a romantic relationship with a male colleague at work and Sam quickly noticed the secretive phone calls and strange behaviour. Unfortunately, he was powerless to stop it. Of course, as a “good pastor,” I met with Sam and Mary – and I even met with the other guy to ask him to step away – but it all seemed in vain because pretty soon after, Mary moved in with the other guy.
It was heartbreaking for me to watch the vitality drain from Sam as he lost 15 kilograms in a matter of two weeks. In the coming months, a few church ladies decided they would be supportive by preparing Sam meals and helping him with household upkeep. It did not take long, though, for a romantic relationship to develop between Sam and one of these helpful ladies. I was the last to hear about this and, needless to say, it left me and the church board with some difficult meetings and tough decisions to make around church discipline. The outcome was we lost Sam, his estranged wife and the helpful lady along with some sympathizers – mainly Sam’s close friends.
More significantly for me, my inner peace gave way to a deep, disturbing anger towards God for allowing this to happen. Months later, I still questioned God and I questioned myself: Why me? Could I have done more or done something differently? I knew that the Word of God is true, but why in the face of the verses I quoted and prayers I had prayed along with others in the congregation did these people not take heed?
It was incidents like this that led me to pursue a Master’s Degree in Marriage and Family Therapy, but looking back, here is the advice I would give to my younger self:
Use time to gain perspective. It is wise to wait, pray and wait some more before taking any actions that have a lasting impact on the people involved, the church and yourself. Situations like this tend to change and morph into new situations by the day, so for this reason I would say to myself, You should have waited for the dust to settle before acting. I am aware of all kinds of pressures that demand action be taken sooner rather than later, but if you can avoid caving to those pressures, you may limit the risk of compounding the issue.
Make the people more important than the issue. This can be difficult when the issue is a broken marriage, the testimony of Christ in the community, or the unity of the church. Yet when I look back now, the issues are gone and the people remain. Death ends the marital relationship (Matthew 22:30), but the relationship with God goes on. I kick myself because I see now that Sam, Mary and the helpful lady are still in relationship with God but not with our church. I could have done more to let them know how much I value them in spite of what they were going through and doing. I could have exemplified grace to my church board and church as I journeyed with them through their hurt and self-injury.
Try not to personalize the issues. The biggest obstacle to me waiting well and valuing the people involved was me. I had made my health and well-being dependent on the health and well-being of the church. Instead of prioritizing my relationship with God (Matthew 22:37), I had somehow made an idol of my ministry, which resulted in personal and spiritual devastation when the ministry derailed. I see my internal dialogue now as, What are people going to think of my church, my leadership, my members? I was totally self-absorbed as if I owned what God was doing. God, on the other hand, is never caught off guard by the stuff His people get up to; and even though He grieves with us, it does not cloud His perspective or alter His character.
Care for yourself before caring for others. You may think I have just made an error or even that I am propagating selfishness, but let me explain. How I view people’s marital struggles or the quality of care and attention I give to those struggles is largely dependent on my own health – spiritual, physical, emotional and mental. We serve out of what is in us and if it is not in us, then our service could be hypocritical (Matthew 15:8).
Know when to refer. We all have limitations to our skills, abilities and expertise, so it is imperative to know which situations are beyond us. Sam and Mary may have needed help from professionals trained to deal with couples in distress, yet I was clueless and closed to any outside help. Now I see that an awareness of available resourses give us options that could make all the difference.
Resources: Consider Hope Restored Canada when faced with a challenging couple. The Hope Restored marriage intensive program for individual couples and groups is designed to serve couples in distress as well those needing enrichment. Of the couples who were surveyed after attending a Hope Restored intensive retreat, 84 per cent of them are still together two years later. The intensives are a great resource and go beyond a seminar or weekend retreat. It can be a new beginning with real solutions to real marital problems. Learn more and contact us today at HopeRestoredCanada.ca.
*Names changes to protect privacy
Wayne Reed is a marriage intensive therapist with Focus on the Family Canada.