Stepping in as the new pastor of a church is always challenging, but perhaps especially so when the person you are replacing crashed and burned in a public manner. They leave behind a community that feels angry, betrayed and mistrustful, and understandably so.
It’s tempting to want to jump in and either tie a nice, neat bow on the past or bury it, kind of change the scenery and avoid all the hurt. Neither course of action—prematurely assuming everything is OK now, or just ignoring what happened—will really help the church find the healing and wholeness it needs for the future.
Rather than rush ahead with a new vision that might distract people from their pain, I have found it’s important to take the time necessary to walk through a season of restoration and renewal. For a pastor, that requires patience and a willingness to let go of the desire to be seen to be dynamic, and go ahead in favor of tending to people’s hurts.
I knew something of the importance of that slow, steady process from personal pain. Before returning to New Horizons (Grand Junction Foursquare Church) in Grand Junction, Colo.—I’d been associate pastor here back in the 1990s, prior to church planting in Kansas City—I had been out of full-time ministry for almost a decade following my own failure involving sexual brokenness.
You don’t have to have experienced a flameout of your own to be able to walk others through the consequences of one, but it sure helps. The same things I had done to rebuild trust with my wife, Geri, were applicable with the church—humility, honesty, transparency. We established and emphasized clear protocols for ministry practices, such as avoiding one-on-one meetings with someone of the opposite sex. We were open about our financial dealings—we didn’t just provide our own reports, we backed them up with independent bank statements.
I call this approach being maddeningly consistent. It all takes extra time, of course, but it is vital. They say that trust is earned in thimbles and lost in buckets, and it’s true. You can’t blame people for being suspicious or skeptical when they have been misled.
Having said that, it’s important not to get so focused on what happened back then that you lose sight of the future. We don’t live in the past at New Horizons, but we are not afraid of it. Working through Peter Scazzero’s Emotionally Healthy church, leadership and discipleship teachings—which a number of Foursquare churches have embraced—has been a helpful part of the process.
You don’t have to have experienced a flameout of your own to be able to walk others through the consequences of one, but it sure helps. The same things I had done to rebuild trust with my wife, Geri, were applicable with the church—humility, honesty, transparency.
I didn’t broadcast my own past when I came; that wouldn’t have been helpful to a church reeling from a former leader’s fall. But neither did I hide it; Geri and I shared with people personally as appropriate. Being vulnerable like that was very important. Seeing how we have been restored in our relationship offered them hope and encouragement for the church.
Why would anyone take on the challenge of pastoring a church that has experienced a leadership failure, given the additional headaches and heartaches? Sure, there are particular kinds of difficulties to deal with, but for me the rewards are immeasurable. It is so sweet to see God take something that the enemy wanted to use for ill and turn it around for good. He is so redemptive.
We are starting to see signs of new life at New Horizons. Attendance is slightly up, some former members have returned, and our financial losses have been made up. We are planning a church plant in a nearby community. There is a sense of expectancy for the future; we have begun a revisioning process. One of the indicators of our increasing health is a renewed heart for missions; we’re now key supporters of ministry in a closed country in Asia.
All of that reminds me of a promise that was dear to me in my own restoration, in Isaiah 58. There God says that those who truly pursue him in humility and brokenness will “be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail” (NIV). They will be called “Repairer of Broken Walls” (v. 12). There is a healing that comes when you really pursue the Lord.
This article was written with Andy Butcher, a freelancer writer in Santa Rosa Beach, Fla.