Healing Your Church Hurt
What to do when you still love God but have been wounded by his people
By STEPHEN MANSFIELD
Copyright © 2010 Stephen Mansfield
All right reserved.
Chapter One The Image of our Folly
ONE OF THE DEFINING IMAGES OF MY LIFE first announced itself when I was twenty-two. At the time I was the director of a dormitory at a major university in the Midwest. My job was to tend the dorm life of several hundred men and to scurry about the campus in response to the many urgent messages that buzzed the pager I carried on my belt. Because this was back in the Dark Ages, the pager was the size of a small house, made a noise like a jet engine each time it went off, and seemed to dominate my life in nearly every way.
One of these urgent messages came on an April morning and sent me rushing to the university's sports complex. The message was followed by a code indicating the matter was serious—paramedics were on the way.
When I arrived, the scene was near madness. My attention was first captured by a dark-haired, attractive woman. I say she was attractive but I have to admit that this was a guess on my part, for the truth is that she was hard to see. She kept bending at the waist, covering her face with her hands, and wailing, "Oh, my God! Oh, my God!" at an ever-increasing volume, as though she had just discovered the presence of evil in the world. I had no sooner taken her in, when a short, balding man charged at me, his finger violently jabbing into my chest, while he yelled that I would suffer the tortures of the damned in court. "I will sue you, your mother, and this university for all you're worth!" the man raged. To this day I'm not sure why he threatened my dear mother, but that is exactly what he did.
Just beyond the wailing woman and the jabbing man was a university security guard. I'm fairly sure that at that moment he was quietly celebrating the university policy that prevented him from dealing with the public. He stared at me blankly, yet with one eyebrow slightly raised as though to say, "It's all yours, bubba. Let's see what you can do."
At the center of this bedlam was Timmy. I knew it was his name because his beanie baseball cap, his matching sweatshirt, and yes, even the socks that rose from his saddle shoes to just below his neatly pressed shorts all sported the word: Timmy. And Timmy was in trouble.
I knew that Timmy was in trouble because he was screaming as loudly as any child ever has. The source of his trouble seemed to be that his right arm had been swallowed by a candy machine. There was Timmy with his shoulder jammed up against a huge machine; from time to time, he would angrily try to pull his arm free but couldn't. Then, too, there were those trickles of blood that were working their way down Timmy's arm, threatening to stain the sleeve of the sweatshirt that bore his name.
It was the blood that seemed to incite the aggrieved cries of the woman, who, I soon understood, was Timmy's mother. She would point at the blood, return her hands to her face, wail with the grief of the ages, and commence bending at the waist. The man, of course, was Timmy's father, and in the time-honored manner of men, he expressed his concern for his son by finding another man and threatening him. The man he chose was me.
As a well-trained college dorm director, I had absolutely no idea what to do. Still, taking stock of the four people in front of me, I decided my best chance was with Timmy. I walked over to him, ran my hand up his arm into the candy machine to determine what was really happening, and tried to be comforting.
It was then that I noticed it. Timmy's arm was taut in a way that suggested perhaps he wasn't really stuck after all. By then the paramedics had arrived, but I waved them off.
I stepped back from the screaming boy, looked him firmly in the eye and said, "Son, let go of the candy bar." The mother stopped her wailing. The father backed away from my right ear, in which he had been screaming for several deafening minutes. The paramedics and the security guard looked at me as though I had just denied Christ on the cross. Everyone went silent, waiting to see what would happen next.
And Timmy, mercifully quiet for the first time, pulled his hand out of that machine.
I can picture an adult Timmy years later telling a crowd at a cocktail party how that machine walked across the room, sucked in his arm, and wouldn't let go. But it didn't happen that way. All of that commotion and fear, all of that screaming and rage, was because Timmy had a death grip on a Snickers bar.
I cannot tell you exactly why, but God has brought that image back to me again and again throughout my life. Maybe because that screaming boy—the one who threw everyone into turmoil because he refused to let go—has often been me. When I have had my seasons of darkness in my otherwise blessed life, God has used Timmy to remind me that nothing can keep my soul in bondage except the forbidden or unclean thing I insist on holding tight.
It is an image that has served me well. When life has bled me dry or friends have failed me or I have fouled my nest through my own folly, I remember that better days always lie ahead if only I will loosen my Timmy Death Grip on what I should have left alone in the first place: my offenses, my bitterness, my need for revenge, my anger, my self-pity, my pride.
Never was this lesson and the image of Timmy more vital to my soul than when I found myself in the middle of a good old-fashioned church fight. For nearly a decade, I had been the pastor of a growing and influential church. It had been a glorious experience and I had loved the life that we shared and the history that we made as this nearly four thousand-member congregation pursued the things of God. But then, for reasons that don't need airing here, it all came to an end amidst conflict and uproar. Oh, it was a classic—complete with a conspiring church board and gossip packaged as "sharing" in prayer meetings and accusations flying fast and loose. Demons danced and angels wept, and I should say quickly that I sinned, too. But for the record, I did not shoot John F. Kennedy, I did not create global warming, and I did not offer Adam and Eve the forbidden fruit.
Frankly, it was a soul-deforming season of hell, and it ended with me leaving the church I had led for more than a decade, suffering all the isolation and suspicion that such departures usually entail. I was stunned by the humiliation, lashed by the loss and the loneliness. Each morning when I awoke, I had to remember what was happening to me, my soul so fractured at the time. And when it was all over, it wasn't over. Though I thought I had gone through all the required horrors and had begun to move on, I soon found that those horrors kept cycling through me.
This is when the real horrors began. The sheer force of what I had experienced and my foolish habit of constantly replaying it all in my mind shoved me off balance and began squeezing me in a vise of pain and hostility. I was becoming a sour, angry, dangerous man. In my agony, I could justify almost any moral choice and in my mind somehow make that choice a jab at my enemies and, yes, at God. He, after all, had allowed all this to happen.
It got worse. I wanted them to die. All of them. The ones who had hurt me, the ones who liked the ones who had hurt me, and the ones who sat silently by while the other ones hurt me. I wanted them to die and die horribly, and I wanted to do it myself.
And when that murderous rage turned inward, I began to plan my own death. In desperation, I had gone to a monastery to pray and try to recover. It was a horrible decision. I had chosen to do this in the dead of winter. Everything was brown and frozen. And the facilities were, well, monastic. It was just after Christmas, no one was around, and since the place was run by Trappist monks bound by a vow of silence, no one would talk to me. It was a depressing experience on top of my already depressing experience. On the drive home, I imagined how peaceful it would be to let my car drift into the path of an oncoming truck.
I was a mess. It had happened not just from the bludgeoning of the initial church fight, but from my ignorant decision afterward to let my soul become a toxic bog. I was spoiled little Timmy and I had a death grip on my own version of the forbidden candy bar—a life-deforming bitterness.
It was at that moment that some men, by the grace of God, stepped forcefully into my life. They were pastors, but pastors of an exceptionally bold and unapologetic kind. I would like to tell you that they sweetly and gently led me to truth. They didn't. They nearly beat me to death. It didn't matter to them that I had pastored a church of thousands. They didn't care. They called me an idiot, told me that I'd better grow up, and then they proceeded to take me apart, one unclean piece at a time. It was torturous, unfair, embarrassing, and rude. And it set me free.
What I learned during that rough season of soul surgery is found on the pages that follow. More important for the moment is what I experienced as I emerged clean and free: adversity, endured righteously, has the power to lift a man to new heights.
Or as George Whitefield said, "A man's suffering times are his best improving times."
Or as Hebrews 12 indicates, hardship is God's discipline in preparation for a better day.
However you say it, the lesson is the same: if you do the hard thing the right way, you become a better person. And by the grace of God, I did.
Shortly after my long, dry season, God opened a new and surprising phase of life for me. He allowed me to begin speaking around the world. He made it possible for me to write books on vital topics and some of those books became international best sellers. He gave me influence in the corridors of power in our nation, and he allowed me to help shape, in very small ways, some of the major events of our time. After more than two decades of pastoring a church, God still allowed me to pastor people, only now I did so from behind the scenes.
I do not recount these opportunities to make myself seem grand. I've already admitted that I'm a knucklehead, and I realize that anything I have achieved has been due to God and others. But it is important that you know who I became so that I can describe to you what I began to see.
It is universally true that the experience of one man exerts a magnetic pull on the similar experience of another man. Pain, I assume, calls to pain. Victory calls to victory. I suppose people who have been abused in some way can sense it in others even if no words are spoken. I imagine the rejected can instantly sense rejection in others, or those who have conquered some fierce moral flaw in themselves can quickly identify those of equal character nearby.
Perhaps because of this truth about the human experience and perhaps because God wanted me to learn what will fill these pages, I began shortly after my dark season to experience what can only be called a grand tour of the religiously wounded. It was inescapable and profound.
My first book as I stepped into my new life was The Faith of George W. Bush, which was a best seller and made me welcome among some of the politically powerful in our country. Time and again, though I would say nothing about the subject, well-known men and women began talking to me about what they had suffered at the hands of their fellow believers and how it had marred their lives. Sometimes the issues were petty. One national leader told me how he had left his Episcopal church in anger over the placement of a bike path. At other times, the issues were a bit more substantial. A very powerful man I came to know well had left his church because the cross on the church wall was replaced by a video screen. The man, known for his angry approach to politics, had clearly been damaged by the experience. And then there were the tales of cruelty and spite. One of the most powerful CEOs in America wept with me in his office as he recounted how fellow church members distanced themselves from him when he was vilified in the press. Another, a handsome white man, married a beautiful black woman but then found his church home of decades alienating them because of the mixed marriage. This man was a visible national leader, but the experience of religious spite has left him distanced from his past, his God, and even parts of himself ever since.
After my book on President Bush's faith, I wrote another called The Faith of the American Soldier, which required that I go to Iraq to find out what was happening in the religious lives of the U.S. troops there. It was a glorious experience for this Army brat, but again, the theme of hurt in church emerged often. There was the brave chaplain who spent an hour telling me how the church he pastored back home had pledged to keep him as their pastor while he was at war only to remove him months later and treat his wife harshly. This chaplain planned to leave the ministry after his tour of duty was done.
There were also stories that circulated among the young soldiers, members of a generation already suspicious of "organized religion," that made them cling to God but hate the church. Again, some of it was petty: disagreements over styles of music, a favorite minister who was fired, or a bitter feud about the building fund. However, some soldiers were the children of clergy who had witnessed bloodlettings over politics in the pulpit, pastors being fired without severances, a leader's family suffering an entire community's ire over a single sermon, and incessant church infighting that ultimately led to heart attacks, divorce, crippled souls, and scuttled churches.
These were weighty matters, and their anger seemed justified. But then, even as I continued to listen compassionately, I also heard these young warriors speak with just as much heat about matters that seemed trivial. One soldier told me how he left a church when the leaders decided to pave the parking lot. An airman told me of his church splitting over the worship team's insistence on wearing jeans, and another spewed rage over his pastor's insistence on using the New International Version of the Bible rather than a version more to his liking.
In time, I became aware that what is important is not so much the cause of the offense, but rather the common characteristics of the offended soul itself. No matter the size or importance of the event that had led to the offense, I encountered a poisoned soul. In each case, a soul was distanced from God. In each case, a leaking toxic bitterness was tainting everything that soul touched. In each case, morality, vision, and love suffered.
These common characteristics of the offended soul knew no bounds. I had the privilege of going to the Vatican and ended up talking to a priest over pasta about his harsh treatment by a superior. I lectured at the United States Military Academy and found a high ranking officer who "loved God but hated his people" and planned to "do my own religious thing" for the rest of his life. While sitting in a Starbucks drinking a chai latte and reading a book, I ended up in a conversation with a young man who took certain scandals among famous preachers so hard you would have thought the wrongdoings were personally directed at him. In each case, no matter the cause, the condition of the soul was the same.
And I remembered Timmy. I remembered the candy machine that held him bound. And I remembered that Snickers bar.
I came to the conclusion that no matter how large or petty the cause, every religiously wounded soul I encountered was in danger of a tainted life of smallness and pain, of missed destinies, and the bitter downward spiral. And every soul I encountered had the power to be free, for each of them, no matter how legitimately, was clenching the very offense or rage or self-pity or vision of vengeance that was making life a microcosm of hell.
I understood. I understood it all. I knew what it was to want to serve God and to be so naive and eager that when the blows came you could not breathe for the pain. I knew what it was like to lay awake all night thinking about the good days and the tender talks and the laughter that promised friendship for a lifetime and to wonder where it all had gone. I too had thought so hard about the harm to my children and the carpet bombing of my life that I sometimes made myself ill.
Excerpted from Healing Your Church Hurt by STEPHEN MANSFIELD Copyright © 2010 by Stephen Mansfield. Excerpted by permission of BARNA. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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