Landing On Your Feet After A Bad Church Experience

May 26, 2016

Kara Barnette | Pastor’s Wife
Faith Baptist Church, Faith, NC

Most pastors’ families don’t invent a holiday to commemorate their first Sunday at their church.  But mine did.  We created “Faith Day” this past Tuesday to celebrate the first anniversary of our first day at Faith Baptist Church in Faith, North Carolina.

You see, my family experienced several dark years in ministry before we came to Faith Baptist in 2015.   First, a church we dearly loved simply tired of us.  Things seemed to be going great: people were learning God’s Word and record numbers were being baptized.  But that church on-average calls a new pastor every six years, so I guess we simply out-stayed our welcome by remaining there eight.  Through growing criticism and congregational lethargy it became clear that folks were itching for a shiny new pastor’s family.  Right before we made our decision to go, I was instructed in a private meeting to move out of the parsonage that we had originally been promised would be our home as long as we wanted it.  My heart still hurts when I remember how harshly I (the mother of three young children at the time) was told in that meeting, “It’s time for you to get out of that house.”

So we did.

With high hopes of finding a church home where we could stay, we moved ten hours away to a congregation which seemed like a great fit.  Within weeks of our arrival, though, my husband Tim and I discovered that its search committee had “cooked the books” and lied about important information to get us to come.  The five of us found ourselves in a dying, mean-spirited church resistant to change, which was located in a closed, rural community which lacked ethics.  The 23 months Tim pastored there were plagued by he and I being yelled at while at church, harassed about how we spent our free time, and our ideas being completely ignored.  But our tenure there was especially difficult for our kids, who were treated so unkindly by the congregation that Tim and I eventually couldn’t even let our then-six-year-old daughter out of our sight when she was in the church building…not  even to go to Sunday School.

Throughout those challenging few years at the end of one church and the beginning of another, I often wondered what on Earth the Lord was doing to us.  Only later would I realize He was using that time to graciously and lovingly refine my family so that we could serve and enjoy Him better.  I now appreciate that I have a church that is honest, welcomes our ideas, keeps its promises, loves our children, encourages us, and tells us that they want us to stay with them.

There was a time I would have taken those blessings for granted.

The fact that after ministerial hardship Tim and I are still joyfully, excitedly serving in ministry and that our children are thriving can only be attributed to the grace of God.  Whether as someone in vocational ministry or simply an active layperson in your church, you, too, can survive your own “you won’t believe what happened to me” ordeal.  These are the lessons my family learned about how to harness God’s grace and land on your feet after a bad church experience.

DO allow yourself time to heal.  Expecting to bounce-back quickly after major church catastrophe is unrealistic.  Take time at your new church to build relationships and learn to trust again.

DO trust God.  The Lord has not forgotten you.  Believe that He has a plan and that He cares about and empathizes with your pain.  Jesus, after all, had His own bad experiences with so-called-religious folks.

DO find a time and place to relax.  If you’re starting a new vocational ministerial position, you will typically throw yourself whole-heartedly into your new work.  But if you’ve just left a damaging church situation, it might be necessary to rest and unwind from what just happened.  Leaving a church in a bad way can be surprisingly exhausting.  In fact, even though it’s unorthodox, you might choose to take some of your newly-allotted vacation time sooner rather than later.

DO forgive. It can be the toughest verb in the English language.  But forgiveness is absolutely necessary to finding solace and moving on after you have been wronged.  It might not taste good at the time, but the best medicine for emotional church turmoil is forgiveness; and I can personally attest that if you ask Him, Jesus will help you pardon those who have sinned against you.  As the great theologian Steve Perry accurately expressed in Journey’s 1986 album Raised On Radio

Looking back with no regrets
To forgive is to forget
I want a little peace of mind to turn to
Be good to yourself when
Nobody else will

DON’T expect others to understand.  Well-meaning loved-ones sometimes want to minimize what you’ve gone through by saying things like, “Every church has problems,” or comparing your horrific experience to something small that happened at their church.  During a trial by fire, kindhearted folks want to console us by assuring us that the flames don’t really burn that badly.  My husband and I had to resolve during our tough times that we hadn’t done anything wrong to deserve what was happening to us, that the Lord was the only One who could understand how much we were hurting, and that He would be the only one who could comfort us.

DON’T coddle your children.  That might sound harsh, but allowing your kids to stop faithfully attending and being active in church, or permitting them to slacken in their relationship with God after ministerial hardship is catastrophic to their well-being.  Too many well-intentioned parents spend the rest of their child’s life making excuses for his/her spiritual apathy. “You have to understand that we had a bad church experience, and our son/daughter has never gotten over it…” are sweet words in Satan’s ears.  Wise parents remember that Jesus allows every bad thing that happens to our child to draw her closer to – not push her further away from – Him.

DON’T keep mementos.  If you own a gift that was given by a person who has become a bad memory or a souvenir from a place/time you’d rather forget…get rid of it.  Even if it was expensive.  Even if it was hand-made.   Donate the item to charity or sell it in a yard sale and give the money to missions.  Whatever you have to do to remove the item from your sight and its painful sting from your mind, do it.

DON’T dwell. When leaving a damaging church experience, consider the story of Sodom and Gomorrah from Genesis 19.  In verse 17 an angel instructs Lot and his family not to look back at the sinful city going up in flames from which Lot’s family was running.  Similarly, don’t replay painful events from the past in your mind, talk about hurtful people around the dinner table, or flip through photos or scan Facebook walls that jog bad memories.  Instead, rejoice that God has rescued you from an unpleasant situation and look only to the bright and optimistic future that lies ahead.

My family was blessed to land on our feet in an amazing congregation full of prayer warriors, encouragers, and saints sold-out to God and His Word.  The five of us have been loved this past year in a way that a pastor’s family would only dream of, and even after a year of serving here I would still choose this over any other congregation in the world!

But I am realistic that what happened during those previous difficult few years has left scars, maybe even permanent ones.  There are days when I find myself reacting to a situation out of the anger and sadness from that former time of tribulation.  Nonetheless, I have accepted that although I continuously strive to heal, it’s alright to be scarred… because my Savior has been permanently scarred, too.  As my husband sometimes points-out from the pulpit, the only man-made thing that will ever be in Heaven are the scars in Jesus’ body.

So ultimately, the scars I’ve acquired in ministry make me more like Jesus. And that makes everything bad that has happened worth celebrating.