Yesterday, I shared the first half of this fictional story about a once-powerful head pastor who lost his job in an ugly game of church politics. (Click here to read it.) While this story is based in the stories I’ve heard from those who’ve been beat up in ministry, it also contains the reason I have hope for those who’ve built a church or organizational culture around their big personalities and ambitions. When all of the artifice is stripped away – and stripping away is indeed the only way most of these leaders can ever let go of all they built in the name of God – only then can a real conversation happen about what God really requires of them.
When it does, the whole body of Christ gets a little healthier.
* * * * * * *
The board put the PR machine in high gear – the machine Jeff had painstakingly assembled in the name of Excellent Communication – to massage the message they’d be giving the congregation about Jeff’s impending departure. Frank made sure Jeff understood that his generous severance package was tied to Jeff’s flawless performance of the leaving rituals they’d choreographed for him to execute.
“We’d prefer to tell the congregation that you and Joanna believe God is calling you both at this time in your lives to step out in faith and explore some new ministry opportunities,” Frank said.
Instead of what, Jeff wondered. The truth? That he’d been forced out?
“You’ve gone a lot recently, traveling and speaking at other churches, anyway,” Frank continued. “We want to minimize any disruption to the church life here. If you think you can handle it, we’ll call you up front so you can make a brief announcement at the end of each service this weekend. We’ll want to see the text of what you’re going to say before then. You understand.”
Jeff already knew the answer, but had to hear Frank say it. “Who’s going to preach this Sunday?”
He saw a muscle twitch in Frank’s jaw. “Chris, of course. The board is praying he’ll accept the call to become our next senior pastor.”
Oh, he’ll accept it, Jeff thought. It’s what that Judas has been working toward since I brought him here as my associate 4 years ago.
* * * * * * *
“How could they do this to me?”
Joanna was standing at the doorway of the kitchen. He hadn’t heard her come in, but she’d obviously heard his voice. “Jeff?”
He turned to face her.
“I’ve felt the same way for a long time,” she said slowly, taking a couple of steps into the room. “Years, maybe. I hated the way things were the last few years when it seemed like everyone was turning against you. Against us. I am glad our kids are gone, living on their own out of this town. Going through this would have been unbearable for them.”
He nodded. He’d had the same thought hundreds of times.
“How was your morning?” he asked.
She shrugged off her coat, tossing it over the back of a kitchen chair. Joanna had been attending a church in a town about 45 minutes from their home the last couple of months, hoping the ritual would help her heal in relative anonymity. He’d tried visiting with her, but after their second visit, he told her it was excruciating for him to sit like an uncooked pot roast in the pew, watching the show.
All he could think about were the endless meetings he and his staffers had to “produce a quality Sunday morning experience” for the people filling the padded chairs in his own…former…church each weekend. He, of course, was the main course, tasked with crafting a clever and relevant message the people would talk about with their co-workers on Monday mornings – evangelizing them with the gospel of “come to our church”. Jeff now wondered if maybe all he and the staff had been doing was repackaging little bits of the Bible into 100-calorie snack packets. “You can go if you want,” he’d told Joanna. “I need some time. Can’t handle it right now.”
He hadn’t noticed until she sat down heavily at the kitchen table that Joanna’s face was blotched and swollen and her eyes were red. “Fine. Not fine,” she said. “You know what, Jeff? You ask how they could do this to you? These last few months, I’d been asking God why he let them get away with it. I wondered why they seemed to thrive after they betrayed us the way they did,” she said.
“You used the past tense, JoJo. ‘Been asking.’ Like it’s over.”
“A lot of bad stuff has happened to us, Jeff. But I’m beginning to think we’re not just victims in this.”
He straddled the chair across the table from her. “How can you say that? After the way they screwed us…”
“I’ve been listening to people interact before and after the church service these last few weeks. No one really knows me, and it’s a great big church. I just listen…” She swallowed hard. “I hear too many of their conversations focused on the same things we’ve been consumed with the last few years. The building, the staff, the programs. I hear constant striving for position, and endless silly politics. Such a waste…”
Hackles raised, Jeff leaned across the table. “What are you saying? That nothing we did had any value? That we’ve wasted our time in ministry?”
Her voice broke. “I wanted to yell at them: All of you people want the same things we wanted at…at…” She paused, reaching for the right word. “From…our old church. They all want the same things we wanted. Frank, Chris, the rest of them… I think we’ve wasted a lot of energy trying to get something from other people that didn’t belong to any of us in the first place.” She buried her head in her folded arms.
The truth in her words flicked lightly across his pain like a whip, goading him…where? Jeff wanted to scream “You’re wrong! They did this to us!” but tried…and failed…to form a less-visceral response. The protest inside of him slowly dissipated until finally, his soul fell silent as he sat at the kitchen table with her, the only sound, the steady ticking of the kitchen clock.