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 you noticed they were gone. Sometime later, you learn they joined another church down the road a mile. What happened?  Ideally, they will make an appointment to explain their actions.

But don’t hold your breath, preacher. This is not an ideal world.

In a half century of ministry, the number of families that have come to explain why they were leaving, I could count on one hand.

Usually, you find it out 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 passing certain tests and 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 she and her family had joined the church a mile from ours.  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 successful 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. I would.

In fact, we made arrangements on one occasion as I was traveling through their city, to meet with them 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 father 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 will 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 serving 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 dismissal as “We’ve decided to look elsewhere” or “We feel the Lord leading us to someone else.”  Or, just as likely, you heard nothing. And 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 state denominational weekly announced that another pastor had been called there. I said, “Lord? What about this?” He said to me–seriously, He really 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 chose a new pastor search committee and almost one year to the day of the first interview, I had a second one. Six weeks later, we began a twelve-year ministry in that church. (Incidentally, the additional year at the previous church proved to be just as necessary for us. God did some wonderful things there, and we were blessed to have spent the additional twelve months with those people.)

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.

If I were young and inexperienced, I’d be worrying myself into an early grave wondering what happened, what they picked up in our conversation that turned them off, what I should have done differently.  And nothing good would come from it.

These things happen.  You never know what’s going on in the lives of those people, what dynamics lie under the surface which we may have uncovered, 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 attention and energy to waste upon yesterday.

I’m remembering a pastor search committee that had been looking for a new shepherd for two solid years before they got to us. In fact, they admitted they had never even gotten to the point of bringing a candidate to see their church. A 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, “Joe, our committee cannot decide. Can you give us a little more time?” We agreed 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?” “Yes,” he said, “I guess so.”

Sometime later, I discovered that the previous pastor was calling the shots on that committee. And because he was told of one particular answer I’d given to a question about the Bible, an answer he did not care for, he instructed the two or three members who were in his pocket to veto me.

The pastor whom they ended up calling there endured great opposition and hostility from that bitter old man. (No exaggeration; that’s what he was.)  Only after a number of his people had left the church and God called the old man home was the new pastor able to pull the congregation together and lead them.

The Lord had saved me from great difficulty. Honestly, I was not as strong as the pastor who went there. That pastorate with its hostility, harassment, and inner turmoil would have been my death.

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

Because your trust is in HIm, not in a committee or a any group of church people, you dedicate yourself to serving faithfully where the Lord has left you.

If my experience is any indication, don’t be surprised if one day some of those people come to you and whisper, “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.



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

  1. It is a sad commentary on people who supposedly trust in God. The last three sentences sums it up, :God knows what He is doing. Trust Him. He never makes a mistake.”
    It took me long time to get that but now I know to do what it is I do by the grace of God. Things happen and we don’t always know why but in the end, God’s plan wins.

  2. We always love getting the reject letters from pastor search committees when they never even bothered to tell us they had asked for or received his resume and we never sent it to them!!!

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