How the pastor can worry himself into an early grave

Why do people do the things they do?

Try to figure that one out and soon your brain will explode from over-exertion.

Why did certain people leave your church? Why did that pastor search committee–that looked so promising, talked so excitedly, and seemed so certain–suddenly disappear without a word of explanation? Why did a friend turn on you and walk out of your life without a word?

People are going to leave your church, pastor.

You ministered to them faithfully, you thought you had a great relationship with them and they were happy under your ministry, then suddenly they were gone. Sometime later, you learn they joined another church a mile down the road. What happened?  Ideally, they will come by your office to explain their actions.

But don’t hold your breath, preacher. Not going to happen.  (This is not an ideal world.)

In nearly six decades of ministry, the number of families that have come to explain why they were leaving, I could count on one hand.

Usually, you learn they left when their new church requests letters of membership.  Or a staff member tells you he heard it from someone in the know. Or the pastor of their new church tells you with slight embarrassment “I thought you might like to know.”

She was a nursing student with a husband and two children.  It was a lovely family and I was pleased to be their pastor. In her schooling, she was having great difficulty mastering certain material and sometimes called to ask for prayer.  A few times we swapped notes back and forth, all of them gracious and kind, with me assuring her of my prayers and pulling for her. When she graduated, I sent her a cartoon note saying how proud we all were of her.

That was the last I heard from them.

Next thing I knew her family had joined the church a mile down the highway.  No word of explanation, no rumor, no friend called to say they were hurt or offended or were seeking something they were not finding in our church.  They were just gone.

That was a number of years ago, and it still hurts.

Honestly, I would like to know why people leave my church.  Over coffee one day, a neighboring pastor–a brother with a church four times the size of mine–said, “Not me. I don’t want to know why people leave my church. I’m insecure. I can’t take it.”

Clearly, not everyone obsesses about this. Maybe it’s just me.

Why did they leave? What did I do wrong? Where did I fail them? Was it the sermon on whatever? Did she misinterpret something in my note?

Give it up, preacher. You will never know.  Hand it to the Lord and get on with your day.

A family said they needed you.  Then, abruptly, they didn’t.

That family used to belong to a church I pastored, and I treasured them. The message said the dad, a wonderful gentleman about my age, had lived some years in a nursing home unaware he was in the world, and they wondered if when the time came, would I be willing to journey to their city and do the funeral. Of course I would.

In fact, once as I was traveling through their city, we met for dinner. We had a great visit, a pleasant time of reminiscing and sharing.  I returned home and expected to hear from the family as the time drew near.

One day on Facebook, I noticed an announcement that the man had died, with the details about the funeral and burial.  No one ever contacted me and I was left wondering what had happened.

I will never know. People have their own lives and their own reasons.

We just have to leave it at that.

Pastor search committees reject  you and never say why.

The committees that glance at your resume’ and toss it aside without ever contacting you, you understand.  That’s not the problem.

The problem is the committee that seemed so promising and looked so inviting. They said they loved your preaching and you really connected with the members of the committee. You found yourself fantasizing about living in their city and leading that exciting church. The higher salary would be nice, also.

Then one day, the committee disappeared. Perhaps they sent a cryptic note saying something as dismissive as “We’ve decided to look elsewhere” or “We feel the Lord leading us to someone else.”  Just as likely, you heard nothing.

You never did learn what happened.

They could have been hijacked by some strong member of their committee with an agenda (and a candidate!) all his own. They could have been hiding some problems within the church or their group. And yes, someone could have told them something about you–true or untrue, half-truth or exaggeration–that scared them off.

You will never know. Close the door, leave it with the Lord, and go forward.

The Lord once told me I was going to a particular church where I had interviewed with their committee. I loved the church, the town, and the committee. Then, not long after, our denominational weekly announced that another pastor had been called there. I said, “Lord? What about this?” He said to me–seriously, He did–“Sit tight. Just wait.”

Five months later, that pastor abruptly resigned over a serious morality issue and moved out in the dead of night. The church elected a new pastor search committee and a few months later, I became their pastor.

You were going to be invited to speak here or minister there. Then, abruptly, you weren’t.

The emails from the church leader indicated that his pastor, a longtime friend, had recommended me to lead a conference of a particular nature in their church.  The layman had heard me speak in their church once before, and was excited.  He would be setting up a conference call with me and one other leader soon.

We had the conference call while my wife and I were in the car, en route somewhere.  It was a good session and everything seemed promising.

Then, nothing.

So, what happened?  Answer: I will probably never know and do not need to know.

Recently, a pastor in another part of this state emailed to ask about me preaching on a particular date.  I replied and waited. Nothing.  I wrote again, two more times in fact, and nothing.

Go forward, pastor.  You will never know.

If I were young and inexperienced, I’d be worrying myself into an early grave wondering what had happened.

You’ll never know and nothing good would come from obsessing about it.

There’s no way to  know what’s going on in the lives of others, what dynamics lie under the surface which we may have triggered, or what happened that has nothing to do with me.

The best thing to do with rejection–or what feels like rejection but could be a thousand other things–is to come away, close the door on it, give it to Jesus for whatever purposes He has, and go forward.  I will be facing challenges and meeting opportunities today which will require my full attention.  I cannot afford the luxury of parceling out a portion of my focus and energy to waste upon yesterday.

There’s no future in the past.  As a country song puts it.

I’m remembering a pastor search committee that had been looking for a new shepherd for two solid years before they worked their way down to us. In our conversations, they admitted they had never brought a candidate to see their church campus. One member said, “When we do that, we’ve found our man.”

After a few visits, they phoned to invite Margaret and me to fly to their city and receive the grand treatment.  I said to her, “This looks like it!”

Since they were the largest church in their state and the major player in the denomination there, we were excited. We made the trip, took their tour, walked over their campus, and met once more with their committee. Everything was looking great.

A week later, the chairman called, “Our committee cannot decide. Can you give us a little more time?” He would call in one week.

The next week he said, “We still can’t decide.” I said, “I think that’s a decision, don’t you?”  He agreed.

Sometime later, I discovered that the previous pastor was calling the shots on that committee. When he learned of an unsatisfying answer I’d given to a question about the Bible, he instructed his two lackeys on the committee to veto me.

The pastor whom they ended up calling to that church endured great opposition and hostility from that bitter old man. Only after a number of his people had left the church and God called the old tyrant home was the new pastor able to pull the congregation together and lead them.

I had dodged a bullet.

The Lord had saved me from great difficulty. Honestly, I was not as strong as the pastor who went there. The hostility, harassment, and inner turmoil I would have endured at that church would have destroyed me.

So, when they walk away without an explanation, pastor, give thanks. God knows, even if you do not. And He’s not telling.  (Well, not yet, anyway.)

Your trust is in Him, not in a committee or any group of church people.

You will dedicate yourself to serving faithfully where the Lord has left you.

However, don’t be surprised if one day someone from that church pulls you aside and whispers, “We made the mistake of our lives in not calling you.”  You smile and give it not another thought.

God knows what He is doing.  Trust Him. He never makes a mistake.

4 thoughts on “How the pastor can worry himself into an early grave

  1. This article is a “Balm in Gilead” for me! Its so comforting and encouraging to know that I am not alone. Thank you, Dr. McKeever for sharing your experiences. I always enjoy reading your candid, unsugar-coated, true-to-life, non-judgmental, articles, that oftentimes have humorous flavor that challenge your readers not to take things so seriously and personal. I am sure many of my fellow pastors who are still out there in the ministry front line are going through similar experiences. Your words of encouragement out of your own personal experiences will surely embolden them to carry on with the battle of what is going on with their ministries, with their family, or with their inner being. “Let’s move on, my fellow-laborers! Its not worth dwelling in the past! Heed the call of the Master: “Come to Me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest….” (Matthew 11:28-30 N KJV)

  2. I once knew I was being considered for a really cool ministry opportunity, speaking at a large conference. Then suddenly the roster of speakers was released, and I wasn’t on it. It hurt me a little, but not much. I quickly put it out of my head. Then I learned that a certain man I knew had shared something false with the decision makers—that he had heard from someone that I might have done something wrong in my previous church (he never said what). He persuaded them that it would be unwise to have me on the agenda with such a cloud of suspicion hanging over me. I wish I hadn’t learned that. I would rather think that they decided on someone else than to think that people have believed (and perhaps repeated) a lie about me. I’d also rather not know what that person did to me. So . . . when we don’t have all the answers, maybe we should be thankful that we don’t.

  3. Garth Brooks, country singer and “theologian” in this case, wrote a song which said “Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers.” Who knows what misery God has allowed us to escape by not allowing these things to materialize? Dr. Malcomb Tolbert, NOBTS professor, told us in class one day : “Men, be careful praying for a large church…you might GET one.” 🙂

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