It took me seventeen years of ministry and five congregations before I had my heart broken by a church. It is one of the risks of the vocation. When God calls you serve people, to walk alongside them, getting to know their stories, dreams, and fears, when you dare to share dreams together for what a community of people can be, you can have your heart broken. We fall in love with God’s potential for a people and community. I never want to live a ministry that would callously protect me from the heart ache of things not working out. I want to lead from joy and leading from joy means leading with your heart wide open for the potential of what God can do with a specific group of people. It’s vulnerable but totally worth it.
As I have traveled to speak and preach, I’ve connected with lots of my clergy colleagues. They want to know what happened…which is hardly interesting or relevant. I could tell them about pay that was abysmally low compared to the cost of living and childcare in the area or the long hours stretching from day to evening and swallowing up most weekends or the unhealthy systems beyond my ability to shift. I could tell them about the amazing potential the church had and name each beautiful thing God could do without a constant and consistent “no” from leadership. But I have learned to simply say “it’s the first time I’ve had my heart broken by a church” with a shrug. Without exception each of my colleagues has nodded that gesture of deep knowing. “Only one so far?” a veteran colleague asked, “you’re lucky, I’ve had many.” Or as another colleague marveled “I can’t believe you are still in ministry.” Why, yes, yes I still am. This calling is big and beautiful and complex, it can-and does- hold a multitude of truths. So I thought I would share what has helped me make sense of church-heartbreak and make the shift to a new call with a sense of grounding.
Phone a Friend (Or Better Yet Make IRL Plans)
I cannot emphasize enough how valuable friendship is for life in general, but when you have had your heart broken by a church it is essential. Having a friend or group of friends that you can call that know you, can reflect the truth of who you are and your value in the midst of the confusion of heartbreak, is so healing. These are also the people that can nudge you to reflect…maybe you didn’t handle the situation in your church perfectly. Who actually ever does?! If you are lucky, your friends are the people that will gently help you begin a healthy reflection process, while not beating yourself up. It’s even better if you can meet for coffee or lunch and see each other in real life–Jesus was incarnational and we should try to live an incarnational life by having friends that we do life with in person as well as cross-country.
If you can, make sure you have at least one non-churchy friend. The best gift I have ever received was from a friend that said “you get five minutes to rant about this church situation and then we are going to talk about something else we can both enjoy.” You need people that can remind you of your call, but you also need people that can remind you that you are a whole, beloved person outside of this moment of difficulty. People who don’t see the church as the be all and end all of your identity. Friends that remind you there are books and movies and music and activism to discuss over coffee and not just your church.
Get Honest About Your Shit (And Talk to Someone)
When something goes sideways in a call and breaks your heart, it’s a good time to work through what is going on in you. We all have different motivations for being in ministry and serving others. Those motivations shape how we behave in certain situations, particularly stressful situations. Get honest with yourself about your shit–your history, biases, habits, behaviors, trauma and motivations so you can grow from this unexpected situation. You may not have caused the situation but you were a part of it. It can either shape you for the negative or it can help you reflect and grow.
Talk to someone–a counselor, therapist, coach, spiritual director, reiki practitioner, you choose the modality that works for you emotionally and financially. Pick something you will be open to doing because if you show up closed off and unwilling to do the work, the time and money you invest will be fruitless. Don’t think you can afford to talk to a professional? Re-evaluate your budget again, make this a priority. Still can’t? I get it, I’ve been there…go to the library and check out a book on the Enneagram or another book that might help guide your self-reflection. Need some ideas on where to start, check out my list HERE.
Get Clear About Your Calling
One of the things that grounded me in my transition after a heart breaking congregation was being clear about my call. I am crystal clear that God is calling me to serve the world by using my gifts to the fullest. No community or situation can change or draw into question that fundamental truth about how God has called me to live in this world. Being clear about your call can ground you in ways that are so essential. It can also help you think about how to move forward, whether that’s to continue in the same context with a different tack or seek a new community to live out your call in. Being clear about your call is being clear about who God created you to be and what God is calling you to do in light of those beautiful gifts.
Need help clarifying your call? Use your circle of people as conversation partners–mentors, colleagues and friends. Ask them to reflect back to you times when they have seen your shine–a sure glimmer of God’s gifts working in you. Or when they have heard you get really excited about the work that laid before you. Your circle can also reflect to you what you don’t enjoy or thrive doing. Many clergy I know are competent in a multitude of things, but there is a difference between being able to do something well and actually being called to it. Not an extrovert or into group work? Use your prayer and reflection time each day to write out your calling. Start with a simple question and answer it each morning “Who am I and who is God calling me to be?” Over time you might see some patterns emerge that can help you clarify your call.
Take a Walk and Cook Some Veggies
It is a deeply damaging myth we are slowly unraveling that tells us we are minds and bodies, spirit and bone. We are whole and holy beings. Taking care of your body IS taking care of your spirit as you heal and grieve. Yes, you need to go get chips and salsa with friends and laugh. But you also need to take a walk and move your body. Some of the writers and leaders I admire most (Saint Mary Oliver among them) talk about walking as a way to move the body and the mind to imagine new possibilities, to cultivate the practice of noticing (both things in them and in the world) and to harness the ability to listen to what God is saying or doing in their lives. If you have been hurt by a community you loved and prayed for, you also need to tend to the part of you that needs to imagine and dream. Why not get the whole of you moving?
As for the veggies, veggies never killed anyone. In fact, they taste good and make you feel better. Feeding yourself well will give you the physical clarity you need to work through your sense of loss.
Remember Your Joy
Ministers can be some of the most serious people I know. Let’s be honest, we pastor in some dark crises, we bury the dead, we know the intimacies of people’s broken and we often have very dark senses of humor. But as I have said before, joy is not made to be a crumb and neither is your call. As Ross Gay reminded me in an interview I heard “Joy has nothing to do with ease and joy has everything to do with the fact that we are all going to die.” Ross Gay is a poet but I also feel like he would be right at home with clergy. When you have had your heart broken by a church you are at risk of leading from your cynicism, bruised ego, fear of being hurt again, grief or doubts, but God delights in you and your ministry. Joy makes a far better soil to ground your ministry in than heartache or brokenness. It is in light of the mortality of our lives and the impermanence of our calls that we can tap into joy. This call is joyful. Our ability to use our gifts to serve God is a joy, remember that and tend to it as you heal.
We are called to serve a God that loves us deeply and yearns for our health and wholeness. Your ministry will gain a richness and beauty in growing though this challenge and I can’t wait to see what you do next.
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