One of the best parts of serving as a Director of Missions for a Baptist association is that churches in trouble call on you for assistance. That’s also one of the worst aspects of the job. Best–because you have a chance to make a difference for the Kingdom; worst–because you get to see the least attractive side of the Lord’s people.
Recently I was meeting with a congregation that is trying its best to self-destruct. They have chosen one of the hardest tasks for themselves I can imagine–to be a mixed congregation in a city where most of our churches are primarily white or mostly black. And they’re not new at this; they’ve been a racially mixed church for at least a generation. The members I talk to say they want to remain such. As one lady said, “If I want to join an all-Black church, there are plenty to choose from. But I drive 25 miles to get here.”
Is it true that the Blacks drove off the former White pastor? Is it true that the Whites are trying to control things? Since the neighborhood is 80% Black, shouldn’t the church have an all-Black leadership team? Who will be deacons? Who will control the finances? Should the interim pastor be White or Black? They are struggling with these and other issues.
Complicating matters is that whenever they try to have a discussion, various members begin bringing charges against one another. Is this person designating his tithe? Did that deacon slander another? Did a small group meet to run off the former pastor? Did someone say, “We’re going to get rid of your man?” What about that petition you circulated? Charges and countercharges fill the air.
I stood off to the side during a recent meeting to which they had invited me while the members engaged in this kind of fruitless banter. Finally, I stepped to the lectern and said, “All right, that’s enough.” When a woman said, “May I say something?” I said, “No, ma’am. We could go on like this all night. You said, I did, he did, she did not.” The members shook their heads in agreement.
Then I told them a story, about the time over a quarter of a century ago when my wife and I engaged in a year of marriage counseling. That got their attention.
Most pastors have probably never received help with their marriage and even if they did, wouldn’t admit it in public. But our story went public long ago.
Margaret and I married in 1962 and found out rather quickly we were not exactly a matched set. We loved each other and loved the Lord, but we each had different expectations and needs from the marriage. As a young pastor, I needed her to keep the home fires going, meals on the table, the kids clean, and–well, you know the routine. She was only 19 when we married and came out of an unhappy home, and wanted her young prince charming to supply the missing pieces to her happiness. Unfortunately, Brother Joe was too busy trying to save the world and attend seminary and pastor a church to hear the cries for help coming from my young wife. I was neglectful; she was frustrated and grew depressed.
We had been married 16 years when Margaret announced that unless we went for marriage counseling, she was leaving. And when a pastor’s wife leaves, she takes with her his children, his ministry, his job–the very things he has devoted himself to all these years.
So we went for counseling–she almost hopelessly and me pretty reluctantly.
Our little Mississippi city had no pastoral counselor, so we chose to drive 90 miles every two weeks and meet for two hours with a chaplain from a state hospital who counseled on his off day at his local associational office.
For a year, we made that trip and endured those long sessions. We brought up old hurts and slights and pains and analyzed them and blamed and apologized and cried. Sometimes we drove home angry and at other times in silence, wrung out and exhausted.
One day we came to a decision. We had delved into our past all we could, had dealt with everything we had found, and had managed to lay a little of it to rest. Some of it, however, would not go away, and we disagreed on everything about it. We were like that divided church where the old hurts and slights and pains dominate every conversation and poison every relationship.
We decided to walk out, close the door on the past, and go forward. We agreed that some of those old matters were beyond fixing, that we were both sinners of the first magnitude, and that we were both hurting so badly we needed to give each other all the grace and mercy and kindness we could muster.
It was the best thing we could have done.
There comes a time when blaming and explaining is fruitless, a time when you both agree that the past is past, and you go forward.
I said to the hurting congregation, “If you want to know who is at fault in this church, look in the mirror. It’s you. As the old spiritual says, ‘Not my brother, not my sister, but it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.'”
We had a prayer time in which people prayed prayers of contrition and intercession for their church. At the end, I said, “Now, I want you to look at each other and say two things. ‘Will you forgive me?’ and ‘I forgive you.'”
As they got up to leave, several turned to neighbors and asked for forgiveness. A few were hugging and several smiling. More than a couple stood to the side with their arms folded. Only time will tell whether this was the start of better times.
The fact is one has to make this kind of decision many times before it “takes.” Old grudges and slights refuse to go quietly, they resist rolling over and playing dead. Bad memories and animosities will rear their ugly heads again and again. Only by daily rejecting anger and resentment and choosing forgiveness and love can God’s people consign those evil spirits to the pit which they deserve.
Three years after Margaret and I went through the counseling, one of our church ministers suggested we take a Sunday night and tell the congregation about our experience. That service ended up taking nearly two hours, and two things came out of it. First, my phone rang off all week with church members wanting help with their troubled marriages. They had decided this minister could sympathize with their situation. Two, we received a phone call from the Office of Communication of the Southern Baptist Convention office in Nashville. One of their employees had been in our Mississippi congregation that night and had heard our story and thought it would be worthy of a news article.
That’s how in May of 1981, our story became the lead article in several Southern Baptist publications for “Christian Home Week.” It was not something we would have chosen, to tell of our troubled marriage, of how we talked of divorce, and of the year of counseling we worked through. But, we thought, perhaps God can use this to help other ministers’ homes.
Not all our pastor friends understood it. Some thought we had sought the publicity, which seemed strange then and does so now. One pastor said we should not have done this, that it brings reproach on the ministry. However, we received over 40 letters from ministers and wives, all of whom said it encouraged them to work their way through difficult times, and a few who said it saved their marriages.
Today, I hope it will help to save a church.