Turn Your Flashlight On, Goofy

The dark figure crouched silently next to my neighbor’s house.  Bella and I halted, her brown nose twitching, sniffing.  Our silent approach was undetected.  Recent break-ins throughout the neighborhood made people edgy.  Some malfunctioning street lights created unusually shadowed corners in some of our cull de sacs.  “Good hiding places for criminals,” I had said to Ken just the morning before.

 Bella squared off her ears. Her happily wagging tail pointed straight up as she stared at the dark shape. Ken’s strict instructions about imminent danger marched through my mind.  1.  Run away, if you can.  2.  Hide, if you can’t run away.  3. Use anything available to fight if you can’t run or hide.  I know the right things to do but feisty rose in me.   I’ll bet this is one of the creeps who’s been stealing stuff these past few weeks. Well, isn’t he a bold one out here at this hour. 

A strong wind covered the sound of our footsteps.  He doesn’t know we’re here.  I just needed to back us out of the cul-de-sac and call 911.   What am I gonna say?  I saw a person-shaped shadow by my neighbor’s house?   While the voices in my head argued, The Voice, I had been communing with just seconds earlier, clearly said, “Turn on your flashlight, goofy.”

My neighbor’s bags of leaves leaned harmlessly against their house.  My stomach unclenched and I forced myself to take some deep calming breaths.  If only I’d turned my flashlight on sooner.

God grabbed that teachable moment and said, “This is what I’m talking about when I said that the Bible is a light for you.  In this life, you’ll always be surrounded with spiritual darkness and shadows that want to frighten you or just get you all worked up. If you will fill your heart and mind with My words you won’t get so freaked out so fast.”  We talked for quite a bit after that.  Here’s the summary of what He shared with me.

He reminded me of Psalm 27:1, “The Lord is my light and my salvation-whom shall I fear?”   Many Americans are currently living in a chronic state of fear, or one of its close cousins like dread or anxiety. These emotions thrive in the darkness of worldly living, but Jesus overcame the world.  THE light lives inside every believer.  THE light also makes His character and plans known in His word.

The more of God’s word I hold inside me, the greater the size of my spiritual flashlight.   Small time in Bible study provides me with a penlight.  Disciplined, in-depth study gives me one of those tactical security flashlights like you see advertised on TV.

So, when someone messes with me, I can be armed with true thoughts like, “No weapon formed against you shall prosper and you will refute every tongue that accuses you.” (Isaiah 54:17).  Sickness or disease attempt to ruin me and I can shine all kinds of brightness with verses like, “My light shall break forth like the morning, and my healing spring up speedily,” (Isaiah 58:8) and “Praise the Lord O my soul…who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases.” (Psalm 103:1,3).

The Word is the light for every black situation, but it’s only a light for me when I know it and speak it.     

My prayer is that you will fall in love with God’s Word and treasure it more dearly than your favorite book, TV show or hobby.  Darkness and deception will only increase until the end of days.  Our Sword of the Spirit separates fact from fiction, right from wrong.

What are you currently doing for Bible study?  How do you commit verses to memory?  Share your thoughts and comments and I’ll post them.

 

A Solitary Place

I joined in my family’s belly laughs but felt the sting of truth behind their laughter.  Our Chevy Tahoe was filled with Ken and I, our daughter, son-in-law and their kids.  Our road trip discussion focused on the difficulty of ministering grace to people who hold their cards close to the chest.  If you don’t know that someone is in pain, it’s hard to empathize, right?

During that conversation, I jokingly said, “Well, you know me.  I like to suffer in silence.” I said it knowing full well that I struggle fiercely with verbal negativity when I am sick or angry.  I did not expect their laughter to burst out as forcefully as it did.  They laughed hard.  For a long time.  They snickered about it several times later in the trip.

I laughed too. I also recognized a wakeup call to come up much higher.  My family’s response spoke volumes.  They are the frontline recipients of my reactions to illness, conflict and life’s setbacks.

I remembered this conversation when I read Matthew 14 yesterday.  I celebrated the growth God has worked in this area of my life in the years since.   The recognition of how far I still must go became obvious as I considered Jesus’ response to the death of John the Baptist.  Remember, John wasn’t just a fearless prophet preparing people for Christ’s earthly ministry.  He was family.

John languished in prison under the wicked reign of Herod.  Abruptly, Herod orders his beheading so the king won’t lose face with dinner guests.  After his disciples bury John’s body, they immediately run to Jesus to share the tragic news.

“When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place.” Matt. 14:13 (NIV) The death of a loved one, especially a murder or unexpected death is a shock to our system.  We are not surprised when people scream, pass out or go into shock when this kind of news hits. News outlets prominently feature people who are behaving irrationally and violently due to real or perceived injustices.  Jesus responded quite differently.

He didn’t incite his massive following into an uprising against Herod.  He didn’t preach about cruelty and injustice.  He retreated to a place without people to spend time with His Father, the one who will ultimately right all wrongs.

Dear ones, may I encourage you to do the same?  Loss is shocking.  The demise of a marriage, job termination, catastrophic illness, death of a loved one and other cataclysmic life events can reduce us to rubble quickly.  We struggle to form thoughts in a linear fashion.  Our stomachs hurt, our heads pound, our hands shake.  The seas of our emotions roil and curl inside us.  What do we do?

Isaiah 30:15 says “In quietness and trust is your strength.”  These aren’t just pretty words for a Facebook post.  Quietness before the Lord and trusting Him will bring strength more than anything any human can offer.  This attitude does not mean we are islands of stoicism, separating ourselves from the body of Christ.  God sends companions to walk through life’s valleys with us, but true comfort originates with Him.

Our primary go to resource is the overflowing fountain of God’s sustaining grace and mercy.  He is the keeper of our hearts, the master of our destinies.  His plans are always meant to prosper us not to harm us.  When we seek refuge, He is our strong tower and shield.  Broken hearts and shattered lives can rest safely in His arms.

Whatever troubles you today, pour out your heart to the One whose mercies are new every day.

 

 

 

Halloween Headaches

In my childhood, during the sixties, Halloweens were more fun than fright.  My brothers and I only did trick or treating on our own street.  Parents sat on porches or right inside their front doors waiting to fill our bags with homemade treats like Rice Krispy treats, caramel apples, popcorn balls and M&M cookies.  A few folks handed out giant candy bars.  Up and down Cherry Street lights and laughter filled the sidewalks.  For weeks after, schoolchildren brought Halloween treats in their lunch bags.  Thoughts of razor blades or poison in our treats didn’t exist.  Strategies for dangerous predators weren’t part of our childhood knowledge.

Many years later when I became a mother, I looked forward to celebrating the fun of dress up and treats with my child.  Instead, the Holy Spirit intervened.  He spoke to Ken’s heart and mine about the pervading darkness behind Halloween.  I’m sure most of you know that many of our holiday traditions began as pagan rituals.  Christmas trees originated with Druids and their tree burning ceremonies, for example.  For believers, pagan traditions morphed into Christ-centered celebrations.  For us, Easter represents new life through Christ’s resurrection, not new life through the fertility of some goddess.

This became a sticking point between us and the Holy Spirit.  We tried to find redeeming qualities in Halloween.  Over time we realized that the dark and fear-based aspects overshadowed the fun. Do some research as I did.  You will discover that to those who follow the Wicca religion, Halloween is one of two high, holy days.  It is a special day of worship for Samhain (the lord of death) and his release of demonic spirits to torment humans.  There are dark forces moving at ramped up speed on this holiday.

So, what did we do during our daughter’s childhood?  Well, we didn’t hide in our basement and ignore the front doorbell.   We provided a light and fun-filled alternative.  We invited some of our daughter’s friends and enjoyed a dress up Harvest party, way back before churches started doing large ones. By her high school days, we were attending our current church who sponsored large Harvest parties in our facility.  All three of us helped with carnival games and such for many years.

When we became empty nesters, we started hanging out at the end of our driveway on Halloween nights. Handing out hot chocolate and coffee to weary parents wandering the neighborhood, sparked conversations and shared light into the dark.

Please don’t take this post as a judgement on what you do or don’t do on Halloween.  Instead, please hear it as an opportunity to examine what you are doing as a family, and why.  The darkness is already cursed; we don’t need to curse it any further by sitting in judgement of our friends and neighbors who are celebrating the fearful aspects of Halloween.  Believe me, I get it.  Our neighborhood is decorated with sound and light, moving Halloween decorations that scare the spit out of Bella, the dog, and me some mornings.  Nevertheless, I want relationship and opportunity with those neighbors.

What can you do to spread light and grace on this upcoming day when our enemy thinks he’s got the edge? Ask our creative Creator to place ideas in your mind and resources in your hands. Get out of the salt shaker and put some flavor in the world around you.

 

The Hounds of Hell

My dog, Bella, and I sprinted down our shadowed street trying to escape the growling pursuit of another neighborhood dog somewhere behind us.  Our malfunctioning streetlights created profound early morning darkness.  I couldn’t see the pony-sized beast tracking us but his baying came closer and closer.  We ducked into a cull- de- sac and stood quietly in the shadow of a large burning bush.  Within a minute, the out of control Great Dane flew by on the main street, dragging its owner behind.

I felt flustered and frustrated at the disruption of our peaceful walk. This is my prayer time. Few folks are out and about in our neighborhood between 5:30 and 6:30 a.m.  While Bella hummed a low growl of her own, I worked to slow my breathing. Memories of times I felt this same way in ministry or teaching came to mind.

That same feeling of being knocked off my pins used to be common fare.   I thought of snarly church folk barking about my song selections. Parents chewed on me when I wouldn’t change a low grade their student earned with missing homework and poor work habits.  I thought of the lady who stuck her finger in my face and scolded me for missing a funeral for a member I never met.  (I was nine months pregnant and couldn’t walk without pain.)

While Bella and I continued our walk I recalled the circumstances surrounding these times. Music complaints came after powerful, life-changing worship services.  Biting parental criticism landed on me shortly after a glowing evaluation by my principal.    I could see a link between successes and encounters with “barking dogs,” shortly thereafter.   Prior to being chased down my street by an out of control dog, I had been interceding for some tragic and serious circumstances in various friend’s lives.    Was it just coincidence that dog showed up in right then?

I know that when God uses me to move His kingdom forward, Satan will protest and contest.  Most believers understand that dynamic, yet we are often caught flat-footed when it happens.  When the enemy observes our impact and victories against his strongholds, I believe he releases the hounds of hell and says, “Git em.”

Do you feel that way sometimes, like people or circumstances chased you down, grabbed you by the throat and shook you?  I sure do.   Satan’s hounds take many forms, besides criticism and opposition.  Cancer may invade your world, or divorce, job loss, rebellious children, maybe financial setbacks or job loss.  Whatever it is, know that just as that dog probably wanted to sink its teeth into my little beagle’s skin, Satan wants to bite you hard enough to make you quit.  If he can’t take you all the way down, he wants to keep you shaking in the shadows like I did that dark morning.

King David knew the fear of being hunted by bloodthirsty killers.  Saul tried to murder him for years.  In Psalm 5 David cries out to God, about His perils, probably from some hiding place.  After detailing the wickedness of his pursuers and God’s view of them, he says, “Surely Lord, you bless the righteous; you surround them with your favor as with a shield.” (Psalm 5:12 NIV)

Child of God, whatever hounds from hell pursue you, you are under the favor and blessing of God.  Will we be knocked down? Yes. Will we feel the pain of the enemy’s bite?  Yes, just like Jesus felt every whip and nail.  Down doesn’t mean out. This battle you face now isn’t the end of your story.  It’s only a chapter.  As one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s characters says so eloquently in the book “The Two Towers,”

It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end… because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing… this shadow. Even darkness must pass.” 

Darkness WILL pass. Faith in Jesus Christ changes us from conquered to conquerors. Jesus’ death on Friday was merely the prelude to His resurrection on Sunday.  We are destined for victory in this life and glory in the next.

What verses strengthen you when the hounds are hot on your heels?  Can you share them on my Facebook page and encourage others?  Here’s a couple of mine:

“Contend with those who contend with me; fight against those who fight against me.” Psalm 35:1

“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?  The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”  Psalm 27:1

 

 

 

Sailing Through Changing Seas

Numbly, I stared again at the revised education standards for 10th grade English.  In August I  designed my classroom bulletin boards and made syllabus copies.  Instead, on this sweltering summer day I scrambled to rearrange my entire teaching schedule.  I slashed lesson plans, to make room for new ones from the state board of education. If I wanted my students to perform well on mandated tests which would include this new material, there was no other choice.

During Spring, I worked long hours, after a day’s grading, to craft the calendar for the next year. After new state standards arrived in June, I spent that month and July, working 3-4 hours most mornings, to revise existing lesson plans and create new ones. I tried to squash the new stuff into my existing calendar.  Finally, in August, I recognized my folly.  I must delete some old material to accommodate the state board’s new expectations.  Muttering words like “Philistines” and “Barbarians,” under my breath, I pulled out student favorites like, “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” by Dylan Thomas, and “The Gift of the Magi,” by O. Henry.

When outside forces push us to change, our response is often to clench the familiar even more tightly.  Currently, American culture is changing at a speed that makes many people respond by tethering themselves to things whose relevancy and efficiency are greatly reduced.  Rotary phones, print newspapers, checkbooks, videos and sets of encyclopedias are just a few of the things on a long list of items replaced by improved technology.

Most churches no longer use flannel story boards for Sunday School or overhead projectors to display worship song lyrics.  We’ve embraced fresh ideas.  Nevertheless, many local bodies still resource programs which have long outlived their kingdom usefulness.  Once leaders determine what those are, (see previous post) how do we lead our people through the sea of change, without losing folks overboard?

Allow things to die naturally.   I kept a dying VBS on life support for several years by jumping in and taking over as director when NO ONE else showed any interest.  When we announced its ending, some complained and criticized but still, no one offered to run it.  When people refuse to serve, do not play the hero.  Let it be.  One of two things will happen.  Either the program ends due to lack of support, or people previously hardhearted to God’s voice, will step up.   It’s a win either way.

Invite people to be part of the change.  No one likes a dictator.  Changing something or issuing its death certificate without including key leaders in the process, is very unwise. You can make a decision alone that might initiate sweeping change but you cannot force people to accept or support it. Your process screeches to a halt and you lose trust chips and possibly some people.    Rolling out edicts from a leadership post works great in the armed forces, not so much in churches.

For example, if your Wednesday night children’s ministries are experiencing low attendance I advise you to gather a small team from several classes of people:  1.  Parents who bring their children who can speak about what’s working. (without their input you might throw out the baby with the bath water) 2. Parents of children who do not participate. (Brace yourself for some hard truths.) 3.  Educators, psychologists or others with experience or expertise in the area of educating youngsters.  “Plans go wrong for lack of advice; many advisers bring success.”  Proverbs 15:22 (NLT)

Share information.   As your team begins to research and plan, let your congregation know that change is on the horizon.  They already know the children’s Wednesday night programs, adult choir, Sunday School, youth group or whatever it is in your church, is not flourishing.  Many feel guilty that they no longer support it. What they do know is that right now, it’s not making the cut to be on their time and energy list.  So they passively vote by staying away.

Lack of participation does not mean lack of interest!   Just because a parent doesn’t bring their child to your event does not mean they don’t care about their child’s spiritual growth. This is why you invite them on your team, to discover the participation obstacles. Once a decision is made about whether you will be replacing or repairing a particular ministry, share the knowledge, the what, why, where, when and how of the change.

Brace for impact.   The first wave over your bow is criticism.  “My grace (My favor and loving-kindness and mercy) is enough for you (sufficient against any danger and enables you to bear trouble manfully)..2 Cor. 12:9 (Ampl.)  School your team, your “new idea” ambassadors, on how to receive, handle and re-direct criticisms. Basically, you listen to the complaint, affirm the feelings behind it, but indicate that the change WILL be happening and encourage them to support it.

The second wave will be the rolling out of the new or revised ministry.  There will be bumps and hitches, probably some confusion and misunderstandings, as people shift from one paradigm to another.

The third wave will be another pounding of criticism concerning the first roll out of the new ministry transpired.  Just remember all the guff Jesus received and ask Him to help you stand strong.

It’s for each ministry leader to decide whether they will continue to pour life support into dying ministries or gird their loins for the adventure change brings.

     

How to Know When to Let Go

My sweaty legs stuck to the piano bench in the heat of a late August Sunday evening while I led the congregation in a song before the sermon.   When I finished up the worship time, I peeled myself off the damp wood and turned towards my spot in the front pew.  23 folks, out of a congregation of over three hundred, looked back at me.  They appeared to be stuck to their pews also, and were feverishly fanning themselves with bulletins.  I drooped into my pew, discouraged, while Ken began a sermon for another poorly attended Sunday evening service.

This type of scenario is repeated in thousands of churches across America regularly.  I’m not sure lay people can fully grasp how disheartening it is for church staff when they are required to pour piles of personal resources into services or programs which are poorly attended or supported.  Unfortunately, attempts to discuss change or even cessation of floundering programs, is often met with hostility by congregations.

Jesus embodied radical change to the church of his day.  He didn’t fit their distorted paradigm of a Messiah.  Worse yet, he showed scant respect for their traditions and publicly ignored some of their rules.  To say the relationship between Jesus and the religious rulers was strained might be politically correct but is grossly inaccurate.  They wanted him dead and actively conspired to accomplish that. Pastors and ministry leaders should not expect hugs and homemade cookies when God calls them to be instruments of change.   

“See, I am doing a new thing!  Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.”  Isaiah 43:19 (NLT) Our creative God longs to plant new crops in fallow fields, to generate streams of water in dry places.  Ministries and programs that suck down precious resources while producing little fruit, are not pleasing to Him. He challenges every believer, personally and corporately, to make the most of what He’s given us.  We must be lashed tightly to the gospel message yet keep open hands and minds concerning our methods.

God is love and He is orderly, not chaotic, therefore his processes of change will be in keeping with His character.  We must initiate transitions courageously with kindness.  Step one is identifying areas in your ministry which need updating or possibly, retirement.  How do you determine what to hold onto or change and what should be let go?  There are some telltale signs that indicate endeavors once blessed and favored by God are now simply historical landmarks of how God moved in the past.

  • Attendance matters because people vote with their feet. When felt needs are met, people show up.  Needs change from generation to generation and evolve just as society evolves.  For example, in my childhood, daytime women’s Bible studies dominated since the number of women in the workforce was much lower than today.  Now, evening or lunch hour studies are just as prevalent because working women still long to crack the Word open together.  In fact, some churches leave behind the daytime women’s study completely because, in their neighborhoods, the vast majority of women are at work during the day.
  • People will work sacrificially and passionately for something they believe makes a difference. In the midst of an election cycle we see passions running high for candidates and causes which people believe will make a difference in their lives and families.  The same is true in the church.  Please don’t make the mistake of assuming that everyone who says no to your current volunteer vacancies is flakey, uncommitted, selfish, etc. etc.  You might be trying to run too many ministries based on the number of willing volunteers.  People might also be withholding themselves for two reasons.
  1. Your ministry IS making a difference and producing fruit but you are not effectively communicating and demonstrating that to your congregation. Announcements off the pulpit aren’t the be all and end all, folks.  More on this in future posts.
  2. Your ministry used to produce great harvests but it did not evolve to meet today’s generations or recognize its time is complete and step aside for new ideas to take the stage. Often, church members see this truth before ministry leaders who remember the days God used to move mightily in this particular area.

Some people passionately resist changing or retiring a program that played a significant role in their lives or the greater life of the church in the past.  Their lonely daughter found lifelong friends and became a believer through a Pioneer Girl ministry. A prodigal brother returned to the Lord during a Sunday evening service.  Families bonded with other families at the church’s monthly roller skating night.   They fear they will not see this kind of fruit again if you make updates.  The job of pastors and church leaders is to teach them otherwise.  Did Christ come to abolish the law as the Pharisees feared?  No! He came to fulfill it and make access to the Father greater than ever before.

Our role is the same.  The purpose of any changes or retirements should be to make the Father more accessible to the lost and engage His children in ministry with increasingly larger significance.   In the next post I’ll talk more about the nitty gritty process of leading people through change.

Giving Up or Letting Go?

Songs, games, Bible stories, treats and an all-around great time is the way I remember my childhood Vacation Bible Schools.  With my creative mother as director, each year presented a different themed adventure in which we played roles like jungle explorers, astronauts or pirates.  Our family arrived at church, with a battalion of other volunteers, an hour early each day to refill glue bottles, mix up Kool-Aid, set up the registration tables and care for all the other details which made the VBS machine wheel roll.

Fast forward 25 years and I’m a young pastor’s wife and VBS director, spending hours on the phone pleading with people to serve in the summer VBS program.  I’m not even asking them to perform the huge task my home church did of running a two week, 9 to noon program, which meant volunteers donated about 5 hours a day.  I’m asking people to spend 2 to 2 ½ hours for five evenings, and I can’t fill half the slots.

“Well, that’s today’s generation, no commitment. Selfish with their time.”  Many more comments like these floated my way when the older generation of my church heard about the VBS struggles.  The funny thing is, many of them were retired, healthy, with flexible schedules and more available free time than our young church families.  However, they didn’t want to serve either, saying things like, “I did my time,” as if they were describing a prison sentence.  Ultimately, the younger families, who I arm-wrestled into serving, ironically complained about their elder’s low participation rate. “They are so selfish with their time.”  Yikes!!

A few years and several more exhausting VBS ordeals later, our church formed a task group to examine all of our children’s education ministries and decide what worked and what didn’t.  Our goals were two-fold: spiritual education for the church’s children and outreach to unchurched children.  VBS went under the microscope with every other ministry and we discovered some surprising things.

First, the program attracted very few unbelievers.  At least ten other churches in our area did VBS at the beginning of the summer, just like us. Through conversations and a community survey we discovered that the majority of those from outside our church who participated, were regular attenders or members of other fellowships.

Secondly, because most VBS material at that time was designed to be evangelistic, our own church children were not challenged spiritually.  They enjoyed the crafts, games and skits but we were spending quite a bit of financial and people resource without achieving either of our goals.

We voted unanimously to allow VBS to be part of our treasured past but to channel future resources towards different ideas.  We invited unchurched families to join us on Wednesday evenings for free dinners and our Wednesday night classes.  In the summer we equipped families with resources to host backyard Bible clubs in their own backyards for children in their neighborhoods.  Both of these programs met with solid success.

Our critics expressed shock and disappointment that we “gave up” on VBS. How could we let this time honored tradition fall to the ground?  Ironically, much of the criticism came from folks who hadn’t volunteered for VBS for years.

At times, we in church leadership spend our resources on ministries that once produced great fruit but are no longer.  We are afraid of critics who will condemn our decisions or worse yet, we’ve made ourselves so busy “running programs,” we don’t leave time to evaluate or notice the effectiveness of what we are doing. The sign of a healthy church, fulfilling its God-ordained purpose, to reach the lost and make disciples of Christ, cannot be measured by how many different ministries you advertise on your website.

As my pastor, Sam Rijfkogel says, “The message of the gospel never changes, but our methods must.”   In some churches, VBS still engages the lost while educating kingdom children.  Many churches enjoy vibrant, fruit-bearing choir ministries while others have shifted to strictly worship teams.  Wednesday night prayer services are well attended and powerful in some local bodies while others chose to shift to a format offering various classes for the ages.

The question each church must face is this:  Are we investing our resources in fulfilling the vision God has placed before our church?  Are our ministries bearing fruit which lines up with our mission?  The people in your church’s neighborhood are very different from mine.  A rousing success in your congregation could be a major flop in mine.  Each local body must discover the reason God has placed them where they are, geographically and culturally.

In the next post I’ll share a few warning signs which indicate your ministry might be maintaining traditions at the price of fulfilling your God-given destiny.

 

 

Too Many Good-Byes

 

The loneliness and grief of leaving my home church, at age thirteen, made for a miserable car trip when my family moved from Pennsylvania to Michigan. My grandparents created a sad picture, framed by our car’s rear window, waving as our car and U-haul drove away towards our new life. Normally, my family enjoyed trips, but this time, my sulky, dark attitude made the atmosphere in our 57 Chevy strained and gloomy.  In Pennsylvania, my grandfather pastored our smaller church where my family enjoyed special status and showered regularly with gifts, privileges and special attention.  I knew that our larger, new church would be glad to welcome my family but we would just be another family, nobody special.   I would be nobody special.

 

When I recall that experience I wonder what it was like for my friends Sheila and Bridgette when they and their children left churches under heartbreaking circumstances. My family moved to our new home and church together, to a better job for my Dad and a larger house for our family.  These women and their children, and many others like them, not only lose their churches and often their homes but all of that damage is heaped onto the greatest loss of all, their nuclear family.

 

Here is part two of Sheila’s story (Part one in previous post) in which she shares specific ideas for churches on how to help men, women and children experiencing a pastoral divorce.  Brothers and sisters, we must prioritize the feelings and needs of devastated ministry families over our own sense of sorrow, anger and disbelief whenever a pastoral family implodes.  Surely, we can do better, right?

 

Being There Through Divorce- Part 2

 

It took the love and acceptance by another church for me to finally forgive and move on.  Galatians 6:2 says, “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”

 

I’ve often wondered, what could the church have provided for my family during that difficult time?

  • An environment of love, understanding and acceptance by the pastoral staff and the church members.
  • The same kind of care a grieving person receives when going through a tough life situation.
  • A phone call, offer to have coffee or a meal to make the struggle less lonely.
  • Support and encouragement for my children.

 

Sadly, due to the way our leadership handled my situation, my children no longer wanted to be involved in their church.

 

What can church leaders do to help local bodies minister to divorced families?

  • Create a safe place. Allow compassion, rather than condemnation, to be the first reaction to a struggling family.
  • Be genuine and compassionate remembering there are no perfect families.
  • Think outside of the “family” paradigm when designing ministries and events. Plan for singles and odd numbers of people at church functions. Involve singles in leadership so that different perspectives are taken into consideration.

 

Jesus said in John 16:33, ““I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

 God clearly provides a way to help and restore His people when terrible things happen. He wants us to share that peace.

 

These are great and much appreciated suggestions from Sheila.  The particulars of what these would look like in your church should be pondered if you are in pastoral or lay leadership.  I pictured myself walking through Sheila and Bridgette’s circumstances and came up with a few ideas of how I would like to be treated if this happened to me.

 

  • Please be patient with me. I’m in shock so what I’m doing and saying might not always be the most Christ-like.
  • Speak the Word to me for comfort, strength and encouragement but don’t hit me over the head with it. I feel like enough of a failure already.
  • Help me with the logistics of finding a job to support myself and possibly children, and finding new housing.
  • If I still want to attend your church, don’t treat me like a leper. I might be trying to keep something familiar and safe for my life and my children. Yes, I will need to step down from ministry for a time, but my husband’s failings should not affect my ability to still feel welcome in your midst.
  • Remember, I am still me. All the qualities you loved about me are still here.  Although they may hide underneath my grief for a bit, every gift God has entrusted to me is still inside me. Let me use them again.

 

As the sorrows of this world continue to creep into the church, we must revise our paradigms and continually seek the counsel of God to treat people in crisis with wisdom and compassion.

 

 

 

 

 

 

One IS a Lonely Number

“What?!? Moving to Michigan? Now?”  Anger and joy crashed together in my thirteen-year-old heart. I adored my father’s family in Michigan but the pain of leaving my mother’s people and all that I knew in Pennsylvania stunned me.  My entrance into adolescence created a rocky 7th grade year already and this piled on more agony.  The problem? Although my brain grew up, my body stalled, somewhere around 5th grade. My friends “developed” earlier and became goofy about boys, like all the time.  I struggled all year to maintain my position in the group.

 

My birthday coincided with the end of school. In light of our upcoming move, my mother thought a surprise birthday and farewell party to be a great idea.  Unfortunately, and unknown to my mother, in the true tradition of mean girls, by the month of May, my friends effectively culled me from their herd. Our friendships stretched all the way back to kindergarten but I no longer fit with them and that was that. Three mothers forced their daughters to come to my party. Oh yay. We limped through a couple of hours of pretending to still be friends, mostly for my mother’s sake.

 

The scar I bear from that rejection is miniscule compared to the losses my friend, “Sheila,” experienced when she lost her entire support system, due to divorce.  If you’ve not experienced divorce, try to remember a time of loss, similar to my story, then multiply that by about a hundred.  You might then imagine some of the sorrow “Sheila” and “Bridgette” (see previous two posts for Bridgette’s story), and many other former pastor’s wives experience.

 

Here is part one of Sheila’s story.

 

Being There Through Divorce

 

“Do you think his diabetes could be causing his mood swings?” asked a medical friend of mine. My husband’s unusual behavior caused me so much concern I sought out the advice of a friend on our church staff.  

 

My husband served as a pastor at our church. He didn’t seek a ministry position, in fact, it was my life ambition more than his. Since his business experience was financial and the mission department needed his skill set, he agreed to take a pastoral job.

 

 We worked and prayed together, and watched the department grow. Early on though, his focus on ministry drifted and I noticed his eyes following other women around the sanctuary. Eventually, someone caught him looking at pornography on his computer, but at that time, he only received a warning.

 

 Deeply troubled, I met with the friend, who suggested diabetes could be the culprit. Soon after, two elders ushered me into the church’s board room, shutting the door firmly behind them. The men sat at a table with notebooks opened. One did most of the talking, questioning me as I shared my concern and fear about what was happening at home between my husband and I.  In return, the Elder’s questions to me were mysterious: “Did anyone else witness this? Can you prove that this happened? Can we question your children?”

 

 I felt judged. These men offered no help unless I could prove that what I was saying was true, citing 2 Corinthians 13:1 which states, “Every matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.”

 

Eventually, my husband “retired” early from the church, complete with pomp and circumstance. Two weeks later, he handed me divorce papers and said he wished to marry someone else.  I called the church to tell them the horrific news, but they already knew.  When I asked if anything could be done to help us, I was told, “This is between you and your husband.”  I asked for help, again, from the Elder who questioned me earlier. His response was, “We don’t do that.”

 

I struggled for years with pain, a sense of failure, anger, grief, feelings of betrayal, and a desire to seek revenge. During those years, I remember hearing a well-known pastor say, “It’s easier to forgive those who have hurt you when you have the love and support of others.” I had none.

 

One of the awful things about divorce is that friends and family are forced to choose sides.  An acquaintance of mine, who experienced divorce and the death of a second spouse, told me that the divorce was far more devastating to walk through.  In both circumstances someone dearly loved disappeared from their life but with the divorce, a number of relationships with friends and family were also lost.

 

So, what can you and I do, if a situation like Sheila’s or Bridgette’s occurs within your world?  In the next post, Sheila offers some specific strategies to help churches and individuals who are walking through the nightmare of a pastoral marriage dissolving.