I started generalizing a few weeks ago about my journey of deconstruction, and how it is ultimately a path toward healing, and how healing really should be the goal of anyone following a similar path. I decided to turn this into a series of posts, for two reasons: 1) I’m on the threshold of a lot of new things personally, and I think it is a good time to stop and take inventory of where I’ve been and how I got here; and 2) I know a lot of people reading this blog are on a similar journey, and I feel that documenting what I’ve learned in this process could be helpful. Ironically, while I mentioned in the last post that the path toward healing is a progression from looking backward to looking forward, initially in this series there will be a bit of looking back. I say this because coming to grips with the past (so far as it depends on me) has been a key to my ability to embrace my future. Hope that makes sense.
If you think of this as a journey, any journey requires leaving a place to go toward another place. That means there are usually people we leave behind in the process. I wrote a post a few months ago about goodbyes, and how in my experience they are usually a lot messier than we want them to be–things we left unsaid, people we walked away from (or who walked away from us), hurt inflicted on both sides, often without the explanations and reconciliations we refer to as “closure.” I’ve found that a huge part of my own journey has been about how to come to grips with these messy goodbyes. How to forgive, whether or not to reconcile, and how to move forward.
Like many of you, my journey begins with a “church left behind” (CLB, for short)–although, unlike many, I didn’t leave church because I was hurt and disillusioned, but I actually left a staff position and moved out of state to start my own church. My journey out of institutional Christianity really started fleshing out while I was a pastor in my own right. However, the departure from the CLB was extremely impacting, and extremely painful, and I look back at it as a marking moment that eventually led me down this path. I have purposefully left out a lot of specifics about my CLB over the years writing this blog, simply because I didn’t want to use this space as a place to expose my brethren, and because I saw my experience there as only part of a bigger picture. Indeed, I still have no real desire to air anyone’s dirty laundry, since I have had plenty of my own and have no right to judge. But I have to say that a lot of my views of institutional Christianity have come as a direct result of the six years I spent in the “inner circles” of that church, and certain wrong views from that mentality bleeding over into my own role as pastor. So for that reason alone, I’ve decided to break my silence a little, and share just a brief recap of our experience.
A lot of what I’ve discerned about institutional church in general–the show-must-go-on mentality, the pressure to keep up appearances, the pressure to get warm bodies in the seats, the pressure in general to keep an organization running–all of these were present in my CLB. But the hurt we encountered came mostly from a toxic relationship with the pastor. We were repeatedly hurt during that period of time, and each time we tried to work things out with the pastor, we came away feeling that he didn’t really take any real ownership of what he was doing to cause that pain. Eventually, we just gave up and suffered in silence. Even so, we didn’t leave because we were angry or hurt. We stayed because we felt God had placed us in that place on assignment for His own reasons, and we determined not to leave until we felt He was sending us elsewhere.
I have to say that God blessed the works of our hands there, even in that toxic environment. We gave ourselves 150% to the vision of the church, and laid down our lives for those six years, and we had a lot of favor for a long time. But when we felt God had given us the assignment to move to Tulsa and start a church, and when I told my pastor–apparently, he took it personally. And all that toxicity was suddenly directed at us full-force in multiple ways.
I had given four months notice of our intention to leave. As it turned out, we lasted six weeks, and that was five weeks too long. It would be unproductive to give details, but I should tell you that the entire time period was swirling with misinformation, accusation, gossip, lies and sabotage, all aimed at us. My best guess as to why it was happening was that my pastor simply refused to accept that God was leading us to go, so he began looking for something or someone else to blame for our departure.
We experienced more pain in that six weeks than in the entire six years previous. Everything in me wanted to stand up and fight back, but instead we bit our lips and just tried to get out of there as fast as we could. Our last Sunday there should have been a celebration, and to the average churchgoer who wasn’t “in the loop,” that’s actually what it was made to look like. They didn’t see how we snuck out early out the back door, weeping, tails between our legs.
But that wasn’t the end of it. Eventually, after we’d left, friends from the church stopped reaching out to us. Other pastors who were mutual acquaintances called to cancel ministry engagements I’d booked with them, or flatly refused to let me come minister in their churches, on the grounds that I was reportedly harboring ill will with my former pastor, and I needed to reconcile with him or face being blackballed. Although I’d been fairly tight-lipped about the rift between us and the pastor, apparently, the pastor was not. As a result, the eyes of the bystanders turned away from the pastor and toward us, as we began to be pegged as unforgiving and bitter.
The thing is, when you go on a journey like this, it is likely to involve broken relationships–people who are alienated from you for one reason or another. A Church Left Behind, a vindictive pastor, family members, whoever. And like I’ve said before, good-byes are frequently rife with misunderstandings on all sides, and those can’t always be cleaned up easily. It can’t be denied that the Bible puts a high premium on reconciliation between brethren, and absolutely mandates forgiveness. So what do you do?
Hindsight isn’t always 20/20. I often second-guessed whether I should have confronted or exposed the pastor, because I knew I wasn’t the only one he’d hurt. I know a few others who have “gone public” about the ills of their CLB, and I respect them for that. For me, even though I understood the injustice of what had happened, I still had a sense it was not my assignment to confront the man, and that if I’d taken matters into my own hands, I felt God would not have honored it–even though I knew that genuine wrongdoing had taken place. We felt that we were to seek our own personal healing, move forward with what God had for us, and leave our reputations and ultimate vindication in His hands–as well as whatever discipline He might have in store for the pastor. That was His business, not ours.
Other than a brief email exchange, I have not spoken to this pastor since my last Sunday at the CLB. I’ve often second-guessed that choice, as well. At one point, the pastor sent me a generic email saying he was sorry “things didn’t work out between us”, but because once again he took no real ownership of any wrongdoing, I simply didn’t know how to respond. I wasn’t opposed to reconciling as a matter of principle, but I somehow knew that unless both parties were willing to come to the table and be honest, nothing more than a political handshake was going to be possible, and I didn’t see the point of doing that just to make other people more comfortable. Such as it was, my choice not to seek reconciliation was interpreted by many as unforgiveness or bitterness.
I wished with all my heart that things had gone differently, but it wasn’t in my control. Still–was I being unforgiving? I’m not the judge of anyone’s heart, and I hope you won’t be the judge of mine; but here’s how I chose to handle this question.
“Forgiveness” in Scripture refers to releasing a person from a debt owed. When we are wronged, it is a debt for which we naturally feel restitution must be made. When we determine not to exact that restitution or to require that it be made right–that is forgiveness. Reconciliation, however, may be a different matter entirely. While we can hope forgiveness leads to reconciliation, the fact remains that some people are just plain not safe for us. Whether the person in question is predatory, or whether the bond between you is naturally toxic, with some people, it’s just healthier that you not walk together.
I can tell you with certainty that I have forgiven this man. He owes me nothing. If we met on the street, I could be congenial with him. I mean him no harm, and I don’t want my “pound of flesh.” But that isn’t really the point. Based on what little information I’ve ascertained in the years since, from all appearances there has been no change in his attitude or outlook. If I reconciled with him, I believe it would inevitably invite more pain. He is forgiven, but he is not a safe person for me or my family. Thus, I’ve had to make the choice to keep him out of our lives, and accept the consequences for all the other relationships that choice has affected.
I share this story now because after 13 years keeping it pretty much to myself, I think no one could accuse me of being vindictive now–and most of the people who know this man have long since stopped looking for stuff on me on the Internet. I think it’s helpful to share my experience because I’ve had to live through the reality of messy goodbyes, for which “closure” as we think of it is fairly impossible. All you can do is come to grips with it yourself, and deal with it before God honestly and with forgiveness as a goal. In my view, reconciliation isn’t always possible, but forgiveness is a requirement for healing. I don’t think I would be where I am today if I had not been willing to forgive, even though the pain lingered for many years. At the same time, I honestly don’t think I could have continued on the path to healing if I had succumbed to the pressure to reconcile an unhealthy relationship, especially when all signs pointed to the fact that it would have continued to be unhealthy.
The thing is, the pastor who hurt us is also the pastor who taught me to pastor. In the years that followed as we launched our little church in Tulsa, unfortunately, there were times when I acted much the same way I’d seen our pastor do, and hurt some people in the process. There are some from our past who have chosen not to continue relationships with us, just as we made that choice with the CLB. I do not blame them. Having now been in that position, and knowing what is at stake for so many pastors, and what rides on their shoulders in the institutional system, I recognize how easy it is to create pain in that environment. As I eventually began dealing with my own codependency and insecurities (and changing my leadership style as a result), I could see much more clearly how the structure invites dysfunctional relationships between pastors and their congregations. This has a lot to do with why I have chosen to work outside that framework.
I can’t erase the past–either the hurt that was done to me, or the hurt I’ve done to others. But I can learn from it. I can forgive, I can choose emotional/spiritual health, and I can move forward. It has taken time to do this, but it is happening.
Let me finish this looong post with this: I am probably not the only one who has experienced something like this and struggled with questions of forgiveness and reconciliation afterward. I can’t say the choices I made should be the same as yours, but I can say I’ve done the best I could with what I know. I believe that forgiveness is essential to healing, but reconciliation as we know it is not always up to us, because we cannot control what the other person is going to do. We can only make the healthiest choices possible for our own hearts and souls before God. This is the path toward healing.