Part 2 of Surviving the Fires of Clergy Stress
As I attempted to address these myriad problems, not only I but my family came under vicious attacks from those in the congregation that did not appreciate our efforts. Sin surfaced in the congregation. Marriages were in jeopardy. One estranged wife, a long-time member of the congregation, slept with the husband of a new Christian couple while her children were in a nearby room of the house.
In one service, following a time of people gathering around the altar for prayer, individuals took turns making statements that involved repentance or apologies to the congregation. One member that held a position in the school made no secret of her contempt for me as a leader. While others had made conciliatory statements and at least attempted to show appreciation for what I was trying to do, she took the microphone and said sarcastically, “I don’t love you, Pastor Bill.” You can imagine the impact this had on my fourteen-year-old daughter and ten-year-old son who were sitting in the audience. As I attempted to deal with these mounting issues, I began to have nightmares that people were chasing me, trying to capture me in nets and even kill me. If that was not enough, my wife even mentioned that I seemed to be frowning a lot evidenced by a permanent furrow in my forehead. The joy seemed to be draining from my spirit on a daily basis.
In the midst of all this, my seventy-eight-year-old father underwent triple bypass surgery. My family gathered from out of state in our home for a week while we prayed that God would spare Dad’s life. Thankfully, he survived, but running back and forth to the hospital and a house full of people with a church in disarray took its toll in short order.
In the middle of the school year, the administrator of the school resigned. Within the span of a few months, the church board voted to close the school further polarizing those in the church that had supported the educational effort and those happy to see it eliminated.
I also recommended that the position of one of our staff members be eliminated. Due to the financial strains on the church, his services were a luxury we could no longer afford. When I met with him to tell him that I would be recommending three budgets to the board and two did not include his position, he was undeterred. When I met with him two weeks later to see if he had decided to resign graciously, he said that in prayer he felt that God had not released him from his responsibilities. Unbeknownst to me, he had made appointments with each of the board members to discuss his future. When it came time to vote on his position, it was eliminated but he was given a seven months severance package with full benefits.
Things seemed to settle down for the summer, but then a new conflict came to the fore. It was the last straw. The church board abandoned me publicly over an issue they had initiated. It concerned a very sensitive financial issue tied to the history of the church. One board member offered to be the spokesperson, but when it came time for the public meeting, he apparently decided that either due to unfavorable public opinion or pressure from key board members he declined the role of point man. It fell to me to serve as the spokesman for the controversial topic before the congregation. When it came time for the vote, no board member spoke in favor of the policy change they had recommended. It gave the appearance that I initiated the change. Prior to the meeting, a retired and revered former pastor who attended the church met with me in my office to discuss the import of the policy change. He did not agree with the recommendation from the board, but wanted to express his dissatisfaction to me in private and assured me that he would not say anything in the congregational meeting. That promise was short-lived. One of the first people to speak in the public forum was the retired pastor who stood to express his disagreement with the change in direction. My goose was cooked. You might as well have stuck a fork in me. I was done, “well done.”
I continued to minister as best I could even though my passion was as dry as the chapped beak on a buzzard in the Mojave. When I found my wife in tears because of the hateful things people had said to her after services on two consecutive Sundays, I decided to resign. When your wife states unequivocally, “You can go back to that church, but I’m not” it has a resounding impact on your decision.
Just fourteen months after moving across the country I was unemployed with no direction in life and emotionally spent. I was “well done.” I was burned to a crisp. I felt like a piece of meat left on the grill far too long. Even grill masters will tell you to let a well-done piece of meat sit before serving so the juices from the middle of the portion have a chance to slowly return to the rest of the cut. There were no juices left in me and I did not care. In fact, I was contacted about a church in a nearby state shortly after my resignation but I had no interest in pursuing another congregational opportunity.
Instead, we relocated to another town and I worked as a university administrator. During that time, I decided to pursue my doctorate and delve into the topic of clergy stress. I could not comprehend how I could experience such success at one church and disaster at another, especially when I felt God called me to both places.