Into and Out of the “Deeps”
Ever hit bottom with nowhere to go? If you’re trying to change the world and live long enough sooner or later you will hit bottom. And it won’t feel good.
Almost every exceptionally effective pastor I know will tell you his or her story of hitting bottom. Some describe it as “hitting the wall;” Others talk about the Dark Night of the Soul.[i] All those who hit bottom will tell you it doesn’t matter what you call it, the result is the same- a deep, empty, aching, hole in your gut. But it’s in that moment that God’s power can be experienced the most.
In 1981, I plunged into one of the darkest periods of my life. The mission I felt I received from God was not happening anymore. The church was at a standstill. No matter how many staff we added, individuals were not becoming more like Christ. The church was growing but the people weren’t. My soul was crushed and I plunged into what Annie Dillard calls the “deeps” where we meet our own personal demons.[ii] I would soon learn that it would be the same mission that drove me to despair that would also save my soul. I would also learn it was my own personal demon that was in the way of God’s dream for my life.
I’ve told the following story many times, but it is worth repeating because I’m seeing more and more pastors “hit bottom” with nowhere to hide or run. If your story collides with my story, take heart – there is a way forward.
Is My Story Your Story?
I sat across from a good friend blubbering my soul out. I had come to his office because I had no other place to turn. I was breaking down. Reality and allusion were running together. After graciously listening to me, he suggested I check into a hospital and get a complete physical to make sure my problem wasn’t physical. He was being kind. We both knew my problem was in my soul. But to be sure, I checked in and went through the drill. The diagnosis . . . I needed to get my act together.
Returning home I called together a group of trusted leaders of the church and told them I was resigning as their pastor. To my surprise, they wouldn’t accept my resignation. Instead they suggested I take next three months off to sort things out. I took their advice and my wife and our two dogs set out for our beach house.
Over the next three months, I took a journey into hell. The more I examined my vision from God and where I was with it personally, the more depressed I became. The deeper I went into what some call the “inner journey,” the more I realized the impossibility of what I felt God had called me to do. Perhaps I had led the church into an impossible mission.
The vision under which the church and I had been ministering the past eleven years was “Every person is a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ.” We thought it was God’s vision for our church. We thought it was a mission worth dying for. But it wasn’t happening, and we didn’t know why. I soon discovered that I was the reason. As long as I kept doing ministry, people would rely on me to do the ministry on their behalf. That realization was intolerable to me and immoral to the God I worshiped.
What would it take for the mission to go forward? The answer seemed clear. We needed a pastor for every ten to fifteen people. I arrived at this conclusion from observing where most personal conversions and life-changing experiences had happened in my ministry . . . small groups of ten to fifteen people. But there was no way we could afford a pastor for every ten to fifteen people. My depression deepened.
What if we didn’t have to pay these pastors? Ever seen a pastor work for nothing? My depression deepened again. Then it dawned on me . . . what if we trained lay people to function as unpaid pastors? We had talked about unpaid leaders for years, but no one had applied that to the pastors.
I was now at the deepest point of my journey inward. Could lay people really be trusted with ”the” ministry? If they really could be trusted, and if they were adequately equipped, they wouldn’t need me anymore. Could I live with that?
Now I was at the heart of why we were not achieving our mission. I was the problem. I was co-dependent on their need of me. I was the one robbing the laity of the joy of ministering to one another in the name of Jesus. The very thought made me sick to my stomach. I was a fraud. My depression deepened.
It was time to fish or cut bait. Either, I had to give up my need to be needed or I had to give up the vision, my very reason for living. The latter was not an acceptable option. It was time to grow up and give up control and trust God.
For the first time in my life, I knew God’s solution to my dilemma . . . humble myself; realize that ordination does not give me some extra special ability to do ministry; and get with equipping lay people to be the pastors of the church. It seemed so simple. Why hadn’t I seen that before? You know why- I was relying on my power to achieve the vision, not God’s power.
I returned home and told the Board the way forward – I had to give up control of ministry and we had to equip a pastor for every ten to fifteen people. They looked at me like I had really jumped off the deep end. Then I walked them through the same steps I had taken in my journey . . . from paid pastors to unpaid lay pastors. And they understood. Before the end of the evening, two leaders volunteered to be the first lay pastors. And over the next few years the church exploded with growth.
If it is possible, God is Not in It
If it is truly God’s dream, there is always a way forward. We just have to stop long enough to find the path. If my lay leaders hadn’t believed in the dream and hadn’t been wise enough to know what I needed, the dream would have ended and so would my spiritual life.
My experience with the “deeps” has taught me much about myself and how God works.
· What really separates those leaders who soar from those who do not is a vision or mission worth dying for. Those who have this kind of vision or mission are able to go on in the face of impossible odds. They are able to focus on the goal so fully that it must happen.
· God’s true power is found when we are faced with an impossible situation where our ministry can’t survive without God. We learn this lesson only when we are willing to push through the limits of our possibility to the impossible. It’s in the darkest, most impossible moment, we truly experience the awesome power of God.
· My “deeps” have taught me that my little successes in life have little to do with me and a lot to do with the gracious gift of a mission from God. The mission is what saves us and drives us on . . . not our ability. The mission is what both drives us down and brings us up.
Somewhere in his writings, Edwin Freidman says that all one needs to do to be effective in ministry is take their Bible and go off until they get a vision. Folks, people with a vision from God worth dying for don’t burn out, but like the energizer bunny they just keep on going and going and going in spite of it all.