I’ve been a local church pastor for more than thirty years, but I’ve never had a year like 2018. Honestly, it was brutal, far and away the most difficult season I’ve ever had in ministry. I experienced a church leader’s nightmare. Through a grueling five-month process, we ended up removing a vocational elder from our team due to repeated instances of inappropriate conduct. He ended up losing his job, his ministry, and his church. It was extremely difficult for everyone involved.
This elder had been a friend of mine for forty years. We started the church together. We ministered alongside each other for decades. We teamed up to lead the church and staff together. But one evening, I had to tell him it was over. He was out. After thirty years, he was no longer a pastor here. We were done.
The whole process was excruciating, and that final conversation with my unrepentant friend was weird, awkward, and painful. Many nights I just sat in my study and stared at the ceiling for hours, trying to pray and wondering how in the world our church was going to survive this. But, by God’s grace, we did survive. I survived too, somehow. God was good to us and we’re still here. But it was rough.
As I’ve reflected on this experience several truths have emerged that help me to process the whole ordeal:
1.) God’s Church is beautiful when it is working right. But as long as humans are leading it and participating in it, it will be imperfect at best and will have the potential to cause much heartache and pain.
I love the church. You probably do, too. But let’s just be honest, this thing we love so much has the capacity to bring us moments of great exhilaration and also moments of deep heartache. Sometimes we experience both in the same day. That’s just the nature of a church led by flawed leaders and made up of flawed people.
In my experience, church work is a mixed bag. One day, I rejoice to see a young Muslim man trust Christ for salvation; the next day, I’m mourning as I visit one of our dear members in the hospital who is dying of cancer. One moment, I’m sharing in the heartache of a brother whose marriage is disintegrating; a few days later, I officiate at the wedding of an excited young couple just starting out. In the morning, I receive an email from a member who greatly appreciated Sunday’s sermon. In the afternoon, well, you get the picture.
That’s just the way it is with church work. And it’s important for us to set realistic expectations if we’re going to endure for the long haul. The ideal church isn’t to be found here. The only perfect church family is the one that we’ll be with in heaven.
2.) Whenever human beings let us down, it’s a great reminder to keep our eyes first and foremost fixed on Jesus, the only perfect One.
Whenever I interview someone who is considering membership in our church, I usually say something like this:
I’m really glad you’re enjoying your time with us so far! But I do want you to know something: this is not a perfect church. And believe me, I’m not a perfect pastor either. I just want to forewarn you that it’s likely I’ll let you down at some point. I’ll try not to, but I may anyway. So please don’t put me up on a pedestal. Instead, keep your eyes on Jesus Christ. He’s the only perfect Senior Pastor. He’s the Chief Shepherd who will always keep all of His promises.
That’s good advice, advice I need to heed myself. And so do you. Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus.
Stuff is going to happen. Things will break. People will hurt you. Leaders will disappoint you. But Jesus never fails. Never.
3.) For those who work in the church—especially a church that is trying to keep the gospel of Jesus at the center—learning the ways of spiritual warfare is critical.
Unlike other organizations, the church is targeted for opposition by unseen spiritual forces. The truth is that the Church has an adversary that the local bank doesn’t have to face. We are being targeted for attack in a way that corporate leaders are not.
Bu, even though that is the case, the good news is that we have allies. We have weapons. We have combat gear. We’ve been given armor for the battle. We are not unprotected and vulnerable. We are not helpless and powerless against the attacks. We have the Spirit and the Word, prayer, fellow soldiers, and experienced veterans who can show us the ropes. We are not alone in the battle!
We can take a stand against the evil one and we can fight the good fight of faith, drawing strength from our Lord and from each other. We have all of God’s eternal promises in our arsenal, but we need to equip ourselves for the battle and train our minds to have a wartime mentality, because church work is not for the faint of heart.
And finally, this lesson, which I find myself saying multiple times every day:
4) It’s Jesus’s Church.
No matter what happens, it’s still Jesus’ Church. Regardless of who defects, it’s His Church. When offerings are low, it’s still Jesus’s Church. When there seems to be more needs than resources, it’s ultimately His issue to solve. When people make dumb decisions, when leaders tune out, let’s remember that it’s ultimately Jesus’ issue to deal with.
Listen, Jesus Christ is more vested in His church than we are!
We may think, “Well, I’ve got skin in the game.” But He’s got blood in the game. Jesus purchased the Church with His own precious blood. He suffere, bled, died, and rose again so that He would have an eternal Family to dwell with - a Church. The Church!
It’s Jesus’s Church. It ultimately belongs to Him, and that is such a comforting thought when it seems like things are spinning out of control.
So take heart, my friend! Even if you’ve endured a very difficult season, join me in seeking to walk by faith, not by sight. Trust the Head of the Church to accomplish His purpose. The nightmare will come to an end. By His grace, we will awaken to the dawn of a new day. And Jesus, the Church’s Owner will, lead His people into the future He has planned for them. Praise His Name!