The goal of this blog series is to motivate people to find redemption in Christ and to believe in the local church again. If you missed them, the first two posts are linked below.
*Key names have been changed for privacy purposes. This post is rated R (if you are a teen, please read with a parent or guardian)
Part 3 - When he toppled over, so did I
The Church as a whole has shined God’s light into the darkness. But what happens when it feels like the church lights go dim?
The pounding of the ball on the pavement sounded louder than normal. It was as if the outside world was tuned out and it was just my mom and I shooting hoops. The nostalgia of playing basketball had a way to slow down time and ease my anxiety. Growing up I would spend hours out there practicing, running drills and working on my free throws. On this particular day I was feeling overwhelmed. I was trying to wrap my head around a conversation my boyfriend Frank and I had a few hours prior. Out of the blue, he told me that his dad got asked to step down from Pastoring our church.
Frank went on to explain the trials of ministry and how leaders are often admired and get hit on. His dad was counseling a woman and she kissed him.
An unreturned kiss killed Pastor Smith’s ministry.
Between dribbles and air balls, I was under the dimly light moon processing this with my mom. “There’s more to the story …” Was the only thing I remember her saying from that night. Her intuition was right.
Have you ever been to a church meeting when they have to attend to “family business”?
It’s gut-wrenching and hard to be apart of. You sit there fearing the worst. Every horrible situation that can happen flashes in your mind like a bad lifetime movie. Did the Pastor steal millions of dollars to support his drug habit and run away with the church secretary? Does the youth pastor have a rare form of blood cancer and only has two days to live ...?
The only saving grace during this “family meeting” was that I wasn’t sitting there speculating. I knew what happened. “It was just a kiss …It was just a kiss” I would tell myself over and over again.
Sitting in the back of the church didn’t bring me any solitude. People starting asking where Pastor Smith and his family were. All I could muster out were the words my boyfriend had coached me to say.
“They are taking time to go on a family vacation.” I wanted to take those ridiculous words and shove them back in my mouth. We all knew they were running away from their reality.
This small town Protestant church handled delivering the news to the congregation the best they could. A member from the board and the NY district Pastor came to make the announcement. As the words hung in the air, the stillness was tangible. It was as if the congregation were holding their breathe, afraid if they exhaled the truth would come crashing down on them.
The district Pastor revealed that Pastor Smith got asked to step down from ministry due to a moral failure.
A collection of whispers hummed throughout the congregation. Time stood still as people gathered their thoughts. A moral failure could mean a trillion of things. I felt a sense of obligation and loyalty towards the Smiths. I wanted to rally the troops and yell "It was just a kiss. We can forgive just a kiss, can’t we?! "
The District Pastor read a note of repentance from Pastor Smith and continued to cast vision for the future of the church. It was an interesting dichotomy, because in that moment church members were responding like there was no future.
When the service was dismissed, I tried to sneak out of there as fast as possible to dodge the slew of questions.
“Do you know EVERYTHING?” a woman asked.
“Yes I know …”
“I can’t believe he slept with prostitutes …”
I made the mistake of calling Frank right after. Confused, bewildering and searching for the truth I blurted out “They are saying your dad was sleeping with prostitutes.”
Frank laughed at the speculation. “Dad, they’re saying something about prostitutes.” He announced to his family, on the way to their “vacation”.
I could hear Pastor Smith stuttering and trying to find the right words. But there just weren’t any. It was as if a mask was slowly be pulled off and the truth was being shown.
As the days went on, more came to the surface and the members of the church were divided. Betrayal and deception had crept it’s way into the church through the senior Pastor and left many wounded people, myself included.
The Smith’s and that church were mixed in my salvation journey, so it was confusing compartmentalizing it all.
I was struggling to separate the church building from the people.
I was struggling separating people’s actions from God.
It was all intertwined and overlapped.
My heart knew God is perfect. I was and am not perfect. And either was Pastor Smith.
The ability to separate leadership, the local church and God comes from a maturity that I just didn’t have yet. There were times when organized religion seemed more of a burden than beauty.
So I stopped going to church. My church wounds needed healing so I spent time just getting to know God’s character.
When you know God, you’ll know what’s NOT God.
I still loved Jesus, read my bible and hung out with my Christian friends. But I went months without stepping foot into any churches and didn’t have any plans to go back. My relationship with Frank was conflicted because of it. His dreams of becoming a youth pastor couldn’t co-exist with my aversion for church leadership.
At the time, I was working on a Christian TV show. Each episode featured a segment where we would go in the community and interview people on the street. We asked faith based questions to strangers. Influenced by the journey I was on, this episode was about God and the church. The host of the show and one of my best friends, Brian, spotted a gray-haired man across the street. Brian was a people-person and connected with this man right away. When Brian told him the topic, he had a resigned look in his eyes. We got his permission to record and Brian asked him if he attends church. This man’s response is forever etched in my mind.
The camera was rolling. It was a medium shot that showed his dirt covered jeans, white t-shirt and saddened face. His eyes welled up with tears as he said “I used to be a Pastor but left the church. My daughter died and I’ve been mad at God ever since.”
God used that man with the broken heart to speak a new life into me. In the days that followed I knew I had to make it work. I had to fight to love the local church again. I believed in the power of God and community in the church.
Time went on and so did life. Frank and I weathered the storm, or so it seemed. We would try out new churches together but we had to avoid the ones that would know about the “scandal”. Pastor Smith ended up working as a used cars salesman. The extravagant Sunday dinners remained for the friends who turned a blind eye to the cheating.
One Sunday a bunch of us were hanging out at Frank's house. Frank was picking up prostitutes while playing Grand Theft Auto on his computer (I wish I was joking). As my friend Rose and I made jokes about how messed up that game was, I overheard Pastor Smith talking. He was sharing his counseling break through with his dinner guests.
“I think it all stems from the fact that my mother wanted a girl so would dress me up in girl clothes …” he said.
I wanted to run over there and flip over the fancy dinner table and get all up in their faces. “You are making excuses for a behavior that is unacceptable. You hurt your wife. You hurt your kids. Your ministry and life is one lie after the next!” Instead, I sat there silently watching as Frank found joy in his creepy video game.
As I caught glimpses of the truth, my bitterness and anger set in. I had trusted this family. I had trusted Pastor Smith to teach me about the foundational truths of God. But there he was creating excuse after excuse for not living a lifestyle built on those truth. There was SO much deception in that family that leaked into the church.
I spiraled into a serious depression that eventually ended my almost three year relationship with Frank. He had called me a hypocrite and broke up with me. Frank was moving on to be a youth pastor and needed a wife who was grounded in her faith.
A STRUGGLE OF DEPRESSION WASN’T SOMETHING HE COULD CONTEND WITH. OUR YEARS OF “I LOVE YOUS” AND NAMING OUR FAKE-FUTURE CHILDREN HAD ENDED.
The night Frank broke up with me was one of the worst and most beautiful moments of my life. I laid on my bed sobbing and comfort was found through my friend Ricky.
A year early, Ricky and I became fast friends and he revealed to me that he was gay. I was the first person he ever trusted his secret to. There was a freedom for him in our friendship. His kind-hearted nature had brought me the same. As he was coming out Ricky had said to me “If your faith can’t accept me for who I am, than we can’t be friends.” He struggled with my Christianity, and I struggled with his “gayness” (for lack of a better term).
In my brokenness, Ricky hugged me as I cried over the erased promises and lost future. He put our differences aside and met me where I was at. Ricky started to sing. “Jesus loves me, this I know …” Everything slipped away and he did the only thing he knew to bring me comfort. He worshipped God. In that moment, I was met with the most beautiful expression of sacrificial love.
Healing can come in a multitude of ways. God can do a miracle and can heal people in an instant. For me, healing was a process. Little by little, step by step God began to repair my heart and mind.
If you are struggling through church wounds or anger towards God, like the man we interviewed for the TV show, you can find healing through it. God redeemed my bitter thoughts about church leadership in such a big way. Now I work with church leaders around the nation creating books. These books draw people into knowing the love of Christ and connect people to the local church. God is good and He restores, and I’m not just saying that because it’s a cool Christian thing to say.
Set healthy boundaries with dysfunctional people. Give yourself space and permission to heal and regain a healthy outlook. Looking back at my relationship with Frank, I missed SO many red flags. I was dating a sex offender and I didn’t even know it. But THAT is another story for next Monday.
Find a way to pursue God in and through your pain. Read your bible, worship, ask God hard questions, be in community. Give yourself space to separate your church experience from your experience with God. They may intertwine but they are still separate. Study scripture and figure out what a healthy church looks like. Then get planted in a healthy church. The first time I met the Senior Pastor at the church we attend he was casting vision over a new church location. He said "Honestly, our main goal right now is to just be a healthy church." I had to hold back my applause and happy dance. Like I said, God redeems.
God IS good, His truth, character and heart for the church will be revealed to you. Don’t give up and chase after the answers. In your pursuit of answers, may you find wholeness and purpose and a healthy local church.
Questions: Have you had to overcome deception from leadership in the church? Ask God to reveal any church wounds that you may have. Hand those over to God and watch as He transforms you from the inside out.
P.S. I'd love to hear any thoughts or comments you may have. Feel free to respond below.
P.P.S. Check back on Monday, as the story continues to unravel.