Recovering from ministry – one pastor’s journey after closing a dying church.

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Last week I wrote a post with the title; “Are we setting pastors up to fail?“. It was a question that came out of our personal experience pastoring a local church for six years, with all the shame, guilt, frustration and confusion we carried. It was a question that resonated with readers and pastors around the world, including a friend of ours, Gareth Williams, who is currently involved in humanitarian work in Kenya. Gareth wrote this post to share some of the grief, doubt and sense of failure he has struggled with after pastoring a dying church.

Churches aren’t meant to close; they are to stay open, add new people and grow. Yet what do we do when a local expression of the body of Christ is no longer viable or fruitful? That was the choice I was faced with whilst leading a church through the process of closing last year.

This particular church started dramatically in 1925 with a tent mission that led to a property being donated and a building erected in a single day. Depending on whom you spoke to within the church, it had either struggled for most of its history or had its heyday in the 1970’s. However, by the time I arrived on the scene in 2008, the church consisted of 25 people with an average age of 85 years old. I tried my hardest, my wife supported me, we recruited some younger people who gave their all – but ultimately we had to close the church.

As part of our tradition and constitution we needed to hold a vote. Our board had come to an agreement that closing was the best course of action – not a unanimous decision (these things rarely are). Between the vote and the final service some interesting and difficult times ensued. One elder disappeared and has never fully explained why, a deacon disappeared but later resurfaced, we had to call the Police to escort one church member away from our house (one of the downsides of living in the church manse), and we were continually dealing with the sadness and grief from long standing members.

Through this time I was grappling with what I’d done, the emotion from the church (including incredible anger and abuse from said member above) and what my family and I would do next. I was also dealing with my own thoughts and feelings regarding failure. Could I have done more? What if I’d done things differently? What if I were better? These questions struck me hard, and have reappeared at different times in the year since we closed. Many people affirmed me saying that no-one could have done any better -comments that helped but did not fully expunge the feelings of guilt and shame.

There is a great deal of pressure on Pastors to “win” – to grow big churches and become a celebrity. Many of us fall into this trap; I know I did. However I failed spectacularly at these goals. The Bible doesn’t tell us much about success; at least what we normally associate with success. It speaks of faithfulness, something I find hard to define.

Was our church faithful? In some ways yes; people attended services and gave of themselves, yet we weren’t able to produce enough fruit. In order to become a fully-laden tree we needed to change beyond what many could handle – trust me, I tried.

For me, I am learning from this to redefine what failure and success are. I want to be successful, I long to be the Christian guru, the one asked to speak at big events. I struggle going to conferences or events where someone else is the speaker. I want to be the chosen one – I could do so much better than whoever has been picked! But am I the only one who wants that? Do I get a better seat in heaven based on how many events I speak at? Pardon me, you mean I don’t? So why do I want it so bad? Dare I say pride?

I don’t know if I’ll return to pastoring. I don’t know if I can deal with the expectations – those from others, but more importantly my own. I desperately want to abide in Christ more and listen to people’s opinions less. I want to be okay with failing the deadly “ABC test of church success” – Attendances, Buildings and Cash. But I want to live in God’s grace that tells me I am loved as I am.

Gareth has been reading J.R. Brigg’s latest book, “Fail; Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure“, which is helping to bring some healing and closure. Do you have any words of encouragement to share with Gareth and his wife at this time? Do you relate to their experience in any way?

18 thoughts on “Recovering from ministry – one pastor’s journey after closing a dying church.

  1. Gareth –

    Thank you for sharing your story. It was of great encouragement to me. It takes great courage to tells one’s story of pain and heartache, especially in ministry.

    Others have felt and/or are feeling what you have gone through. Be encouraged by the fact that you are not alone – and that in God’s economy he doesn’t operate by the Attendance-Buildings-Cash metric of “success.” He simply wants to say to you, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” Yes, his grace really is sufficient.

    Grace and peace, Gareth.

    J.R. Briggs

  2. Gareth, my heart aches for you. There are no easy formulas or magic words to get through this. But you can get through. I am confident of this because I, too, am a “failure” in the church world. It takes time, but God’s in no hurry. Be gentle with yourself. He actually DOES love you as you are. Right now.

    I pray you can take time to process, time to grieve, time to heal. And that you find hope in remembering that this has not taken God by surprise and that he’s even bigger than you need him to be right now. Big enough to take your doubts, your fears, your anger, your pain.

    And I pray that the “grace that tells me I am loved as I am” will be yours in super-abundance. Standing with you in that!

    Sincerely, your sister.

  3. Being honest and truthful speaks to me in the honest truthful parts of my heart, far more than a well crafted sermon. Thank you for sharing. It is a great comfort that when we ‘fail’ God is there with us, still loving us.
    Much love to you and your family.
    E.x

  4. Thanks everyone for your encouragement and affirmation. I have been blessed to have many supportive people around me, without them this story would be bleaker.
    One of the hurts I’d forgotten to write about was not receiving thanks (apart from one elder) during our final service. No mention of my service or gift. That hurt a lot at the time.
    Writing this has helped me process stuff, I thought at the time of finishing that I was done with it, but it’s going to take time to fully understand all that was going on.

    • No word of thanks is pretty hard to take! But I’m very glad to hear you have supportive friends around you 🙂

      Don’t rush yourself to be “done with it”. You may even find that things you thought were dealt with resurface at times. Don’t beat yourself up over that. It does take time to heal and renew. (As much time as it takes.)

      Bless you as you go 🙂

    • Hi

      I’m not a pastor of a church, but I do lead a music group…one quote about identity which really helped me was from the musician and worship leader Matt Redman. I can’t remember where I found it but it revolved around a time when he damaged his hand and ended up in hospital. He talked about how he was angry with God because he couldn’t see how he was going to continue his music ministry and job without full use of his hand. But at that point he felt God say to him something on the lines of, ‘Worship leaders are expendable – there are plenty more people who could fill your role. But there is one thing that will never be expendable and that is the fact that you are my child.’

      That really helped me when I was feeling like God wasn’t using me in music ministry to remember that the minute we take our eyes of our communion and identity in Jesus and onto other things, we lose track of what we were made for and the blessings that are already ours. I hope this is a blessing to you.

  5. Gareth – well done. You did your best, you led people thru a difficult process and you held true to what you believed was right. Like you I’ve had the dreams and been somewhat smashed by the reality of church life.

    But I can say there is hope. I thought the last time we spoke face to face was in Brisbane after we had been voted out of our church while travelling… We subsequently got invited back and then smashed around by different people… But now 4 years on the tide has turned and we lead a wonderful bunch of people – the church has the same name but the vibe has changed.

    FWIW I’d want you to know that it wasn’t down to your lack of capacity, character etc. My hunch is you may well feel like if you were more like xyz leader then the outcome may have been different. I’m not so sure…

    That you and Karen faithfully led a bunch of people and gave it your best is worth celebrating even if it didn’t finish where you hoped. Much more I could say… I feel your pain but also know there is hope and I don’t think that’s is dependent on what church looks like.

    Savour what you learn from this and begin the next journey stronger and wiser. I’m sure your best is yet to come in whatever you do.

    • Great to hear from you, Hamo. Someone was telling me the other day about the great stuff your church are doing. Blessings, Kathleen 🙂

  6. Two concepts to share with Gareth. “My yoke is easy and My burden is light…” Matt 11:30. ” Where two or three are gathered in My name, there I am in the midst of them…” Matt 18:20.

    We gather to seek Jesus, to experience the manifestation of Jesus in our midst…so that we walk away to our tasks in life filled with His glory and joy. Taking on the responsibility for a large congregation including the handling of money and bills for maintaining a building is nothing in comparison to living in His peace and presence, sharing with one other person if that is all we are available too, the mercies of God in our lives. Ambition can be a path to learning to live in Jesus’ redemptive plan for us humans, but it is a rocky road. Strengthening just one life, your child, your wife, a neighbor or friend…can be so powerful in your own life and theirs. At 71, I can tell you that the fruit grows slowly if it is to be sweet and luscious. If you are looking for big fruit…the kind you get when you force growth, it will not satisfy you truly and I do not believe that is what God is after in a life. Grow trust in Him, not in your ability or the world system. Love whoever is left in your realm even if there is not a church building or scheduled services. He will lead you into all truth and into fullness of joy. Happy trails to you in your new directions.

  7. Gareth, thank you again for sharing your thoughts as you process the past few years. Like you, we’ve been through some rough yards in paid ministry, but I look back now and appreciate the lessons we’ve learned and how it shapes our lives and ministry today. You and Karen are amazing people, and God is at work in and through you. It was a privilege to share your post, and invite others to join in this process with you.

    Blessings,

    – Kathleen

  8. Thank again for the extra comments people.
    Many of your comments hit the nail on the head. So much of it is wrapped in the battle between following God’s beautiful voice and the enemies badness. Much of my struggle for identity and security has been about not seeing God’s work in, through and around me. Writing the article has been a release for me and allowed me to see what’s been happening and understand true success=faithfulness.

  9. Gareth, wow. A well-worn cliche says, “It takes one to know one.” I have walked this path. Emotions are rising to the surface even as I write these words. You did not fail.

    At some point in our journey in Christ we come to a place where we learn to embrace mystery. Why did this happen? Is there some cosmic eternal purpose in it all? We may never know in this life. I have had to come to terms with that.

    Finding resolution takes time. By God’s grace, the memories of betrayals, religious politics and lust for power and position among “godly” leaders in our former movement are beginning to fade. These painful memories are being replaced over time with new memories of what it means to live incarnationally and missionally among people in the “real” world.

    Finding purpose in my new job beyond a paycheck, looking for God’s activity in the marketplace and fulfilling my call to “pastor” people as I go have brought fresh challenges, clarified meaning and new healing.

    It will be the same for you. Life will move forward. If you ever need to talk or correspond with one who has been to hell and back, but doesn’t smell like smoke, I would be glad to visit with you. Anything to help you navigate this season. – Jimmy

    • ditto. I so know the isolation and failure; but realizing ‘pastoring’ on the street in divine appointments going about daily errands has a great testimony, God is still present. …still working through what God’s calling looks like now…. just to Be…

  10. God bless you my brother! I can relate with your frustration,feelings of failure, negative thoughts and bombardments from the enemy!
    I have also been Pastoring a
    Church and have experienced many spiritual casualties that have caused me to examine and reevaluate my life and perspective of the church.
    One thing that really caught my attention was that, the body needs to escape the Serve Me Mentality, and to focus on How we can Serve!
    Matt.20:28 if Jesus came to Serve, we must also do the Same… Follow His Example!
    As for you Pastor, God Loves You Unconditionally!…. Continue to seek Him and His Direction my brother and I’ll agree with you in Prayer!
    Love You and God Bless You!

  11. Gareth,

    If there is one thing about being a pastor is that it can be a lonely life, but it doesn’t have to be. I applaud you for being willing to share your thoughts and feelings.

    I can somewhat understand how you feel. My wife and I came to our current church 9 years ago as the youth/children pastor and as of 2 years ago we became the senior pastor when our Senior pastor and his wife stepped down. It was a hard transition because he was not only the preacher, but the worship leader as well so when he left we didn’t have any instruments for worship leading us to do “canned” worship. We also lost a majority of our sunday school workers and then kids stopped coming. Not for lack of trying to facilitate it.

    Financially we were doing ok, but not great. And for the 1st year and a half we were in the black and we were able to keep paying bills without having to make any adjustments, but then after the holidays this last year the finances started to take a turn and we had to dip into our savings to make it. It has been close to 7 months since then and we are almost to the point where the savings are almost depleted and we contacted our church district about our financial situation. We are in the process of waiting to see what our district wants to do in regards to our church.

    I do understand the feelings of fear and failure and the feeling of being powerless.

    The thing that I struggle with the most is if the church does close where will I go and how will this affect my reputation as a minister.

    I will miss the ministers in the town we are in as I have grown close to a few of them.

    I have resigned myself that if the church were to close, I would find a church that I could be active in. I don’t want to just be a member of the congregation because ministry for me is the one thing that give my life purpose and without it I am nothing.

    I have heard it say that musicians don’t quit until they don’t feel any music left in them and I still feel that I have music left in me.

    The biggest question for me is, “Is this still ministry after closing a church?”

  12. Hi Darryn
    Thanks for commenting. Sorry things are where they’re at for you.
    It’s been four years now since the church closest and it hasn’t always been pretty. I’ve struggled with the notion of failing and rejection. Still do somedays. I’m trying to hold onto God’s promises and be faithful where I’m at. Currently I’m working in retail, not my plan more a necessity, but I’m learning lots and able to minister and encourage people.
    So keep on going, God’s ways are often confusing but ultimately the best.

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