It was the year 2020 during the dog days of summer.
We were a few months into this online-only church thing and we were all feeling like fish out of water. Racial tensions were high, there was literal pandemonium over a virus that was sweeping the nation, and with all the bad news headlines, it seemed like nobody was listening to the church anymore.
We tried our absolute best to hold it together. We wanted people to feel loved and cared for in the middle of the craziness. We delivered food, we made phone calls, we gave gifts and bought school supplies. We paid past due water bills, we did church wide emails and online “live stream” services. We did all the pandemic things a church can do, but I never felt like it was enough.
Personally, considering the circumstances, I was trying to be as “authentic” as I could in my preaching. I tried to participate in the nuanced conversations about race, helping people see how the gospel is anti-racist, and the good news of Jesus is one of inclusion and love. I tried to wade into the political conversations and bridge the gaps with the gospel. I tried to preach messages of faith over fear, and encourage people to live their life to the fullest. I also preached the harder messages about holiness and Godliness, sanctification and repentance of sin.
Meanwhile, I was simply getting blasted. It felt like the only people listening were those who disagreed. One day I was sitting quietly in my office and I overheard a toxic conversation about me. They didn’t know I was within earshot. I wasn’t sure if I should crawl under my desk and hide, or if I should storm out with guns blazing. I was wasting away emotionally. I was truly starting to feel like I had no purpose, and maybe God was preparing me to do something different with my life. By the end of that summer, I didn’t feel motivated. I didn’t feel equipped. It was the first time in my life that I truly believed I was a terrible leader and a bad pastor.
Before throwing in the towel, I got on the phone with my pastor, Bill Gross. I was expressing all my feelings of discouragement about life and ministry. I told him I was tempted to just give it all up and shared that I was experiencing some odd suspicions and paranoia. I was certain that if I quit, my staff and other leaders of the church would have privately celebrated…they would have said to their spouses “It’s about time, we’ve always wanted a different pastor. He should have given up years ago.” At one point, I thought they had already selected the next pastor and were just waiting for an opportunity to get me out of the way. This is just the tip of the iceberg of things I was feeling and believing. I’m only sharing about 30% of it because if I was completely transparent right now you’d struggle to read it or even believe it.
Truth is, I had swallowed a whole host of lies about myself, my calling, and what people around me believed about me. It does weird things to a pastors psyche when half the church quits attending, and the other half just acts disappointed all the time. I tried telling a few people how I was feeling but most of the time I was met with arguments like “you shouldn’t feel that way” or “well it’s your fault because…”
Pastor Bill listened. I won’t go into the details of our conversation but I will say he didn’t blow smoke up my butt or tell me anything extreme to persuade my thinking. He simply listened, he affirmed truth when he heard it, and he exposed lies when I spoke them. He encouraged me to rest and to turn the volume of the world down a little. I had lost confidence in God, and in myself, and I needed a reboot.
I gave the month of September to an associate, Jack Garrell, and he preached 4 weeks. Then I gave the next month to Aaron Calhoun and he preached 4 weeks. I never stopped working, I just stepped out of the spotlight. I turned off Facebook. I skipped the daily news cycle. At one point my friend Daniel Weeks randomly texted me and asked, “hey are you okay? God put you on my heart and I just wanted to check on you.” WOAH. I went and spent a day with him on his farm. We walked around and looked at cows, pigs and barns while I cried and told him how I was feeling inside. He listened, cared, gave great advice, and encouraged me. He gave me some perspective on life and ministry that I didn’t have. It was powerful.
Looking back, I can see that I was emotionally unhealthy. The emotional demands of leading through that season took a toll, and I didn’t know exactly where to turn. My pastor and my friend were a great help, and they were both really encouraging, but I didn’t feel comfortable calling them or bugging them on a weekly basis for who know how long. Plus, I needed more than an occasional breakfast + venting session. I needed something more focused and intentional. That’s when a friend texted me and invited me to sign up for a cohort called the “Emotionally Healthy Leader” with Trey Abney. I paid the small fee and joined in with a group of like minded leaders who connected virtually for 8 weeks. The contents of the book, and the conversations that followed radically changed my view of myself, ministry, calling, my purpose. It has and still is transforming the way I view leadership, shepherding, and local church ministry. Because of EHL, I was able to identify and grapple with my shadow (the thing about myself that haunts me, and the person I become when I’m paying enough attention to myself). I am completely content with who I am and how God made me. I am confident and bold in the areas of sabbath, boundary setting, and embracing limitations. I’m free from worldly expectations and societies view of “success.”
Looking back over the past 18 months, I can see how all the breaking, the tearing, and the weakening of my spirit was necessary so that God could rebuild, restore and renew me. The EHL Cohort carved out space in my life so that Psalm 51:10 could happen for me, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”As I look forward into the future of my ministry leadership, I do so with joy, faith, and confidence again.