Fired from Ministry
I tried to hold it together as I watched my husband, who had been a pastor for 13 years, sign the lawyer’s papers. This lawyer was also a pastor at our church. And the papers were a termination and nondisclosure agreement saying we’d leave quietly or forfeit our severance package.
It had all begun about a year prior. We’d been faithfully serving the youth ministry for five years when we felt God’s call on our lives to become foster parents. A clear, unmistakable calling we could not ignore, but it didn’t sit well with our senior pastor. He felt foster care and adoption would be a distraction to the real work, growing his church plant. According to him, our three sons were already enough, we didn’t need more kids and needed to focus on real ministry.
We went forward with the foster certifications anyhow, and I felt led in my spirit to pray for twins. One week later at church, a friend introduced us to a man who had twins in foster care, and they were looking for an adoptive home. The timing was supernaturally orchestrated, and despite our pastor’s objections, three months later we became foster parents to one-year-old twin girls.
They were one, but acted more like colicky newborns, wanting to be held and rocked most of the time. It was traumatizing for the whole family, and overwhelming, and honestly it probably was a distraction from youth ministry in some ways. Suddenly after five years of excellent reviews at work, my husband could do nothing right in this pastor’s eyes. This man boasted about working 80 to 90 hours a week and looked down on anyone with work-life boundaries.
We thought we’d outlast this trauma at home and increasing pressure at church/work until one of our twin’s legs and eyes began swelling. After one scary google search, I took her to the ER, where she was admitted to the children’s hospital and diagnosed with kidney disease.
This began a downward spiral of four more hospital admissions in the coming months. My mom stayed with our other kids while my husband worked, and I lived at the hospital. The evening before surgery to do a kidney biopsy and place a port in our foster daughter’s chest, a woman we hardly knew came to visit us with the strangest message.
We were part of a local youth pastor’s support group with ministers from other churches. This woman was from that group and knew nothing of our growing personal pressure at our church. She told us she never does this, but felt God telling her to go to us and give us a message. She said, “God is going to use this situation with your daughter to do a work and ministry change for you.” She had no idea what it meant and neither did we.
The next morning the surgery and my daughter’s deteriorating condition led to a life-threatening double lung collapse that put her in a coma on a ventilator for two weeks. A decision was made during this time about my husband’s employment, but we wouldn’t know it until the day we brought her home.
The day we finally brought our very fragile girl home, after an entire month in the hospital, we were called into the lawyer’s office and let go. They asked us to tell everyone it was our choice to leave. We didn’t feel comfortable lying, but they gave us a severance in exchange for our silence. Being the lowest-paid staff anyhow, we were completely dependent on that severance, so we just didn’t have answers for many very confused people. Then we were asked to leave the church and not come back.
None of the other staff or elders, many of whom disagreed with the decision, could do or say anything out of fear of losing their own jobs too. The church plant was set up in a way that one man could make all these decisions without accountability. We got in the way of him building his kingdom.
For all the pain and heartache we were walking through with our foster adoption and medical crisis, it did not compare to the pain of being ripped from our whole community. A judge gave us clearance to move to a new state near our family and start over as we continued to wait on the court process with our daughters. We were utterly broken.
We found a new church to attend and I cried through every service as my husband became ill with anxiety each week. He doubted everything—himself, his faith, his ability to work, and the church. Did he even believe there was a God anymore? If there was, why would he have allowed this all to happen? He was lost and we were barely surviving through adoption trauma, welfare, and a feeding tube.
Pushing forward, we decided to join a small group for parents and were the only ones to show up other than the leaders. When they heard our story, they knew we needed help, so they came to our house for months after our babies were in bed to disciple us through our church hurt and parenting crisis.
We went through a book on church hurt together, and they challenged my husband to pray for those who had wounded him so deeply. Each week their support was a lifeline. They gave us truth and planted seeds of hope that God could heal and things could improve. They had been through church hurt before, and little did they know they would again in a big way in the future, and God divinely orchestrated their influence in our lives.
Things did slowly improve, but I was more vulnerable than I had ever been and was quickly caught up in a multi level marketing environment that functioned a lot like a cult and promised to love me unconditionally and heal all my wounds. My husband continued to sort through his faith and hurt for years to come. It took about 6 years for us both to really experience deep spiritual healing from the church hurt we had been subject to.
Not If But When
Church hurt is taboo to talk about, but nearly everyone who has been in the church long enough has experienced it. Those who are deeply involved or whose job and ability to put food on the table is tied to their work at church, likely have felt that hurt even more deeply. It’s caused many to walk away from the church, or their relationship with God altogether.
Church hurt is not an if, but a when scenario. After all, the church is a hospital for sinners rather than a haven for fully perfected saints. If you’ve been hurt at a church, you’re in the majority. We are all sinners, and sinners hurt each other.
My husband was not only a pastor but grew up as a pastor’s kid. Spiritual abuse was a thing we had already witnessed in devastating ways. There is something about the pulpit ministry in particular, that can attract narcissistic personalities. They get to make it all about themselves while blaming their workaholism and knocking others down on a passion for God. They look like they are busy building God’s kingdom from the outside, but inside they are building a kingdom for themselves and using spirituality to insulate from accountability.
Pastoring takes a tremendous amount of humility and accountability. Both are hard. Accountability is particularly hard for pastors because if they revealed even an ounce of moral struggle, they could lose their job. Few other professions are like that, and the instinct to protect one’s family and income breeds secrecy. And secrecy breeds deepening sin.
We’ve all heard news stories of prominent pastors’ shocking moral failures particularly in the area of sexual sin. Without excusing their sin, church organizations need to understand the mechanisms that got them there and do better. Pastors need a place where real accountability doesn’t lead to them losing their jobs. And if they do need to leave the ministry to deal with sin, let it be financially supported by the church with the goal of restoring that man.
Thankfully though, there is an abundance of humble, Godly men leading churches around the world. Broken, unhealthy situations are truly the exception. If you’ve been hurt, don’t believe the lie that all churches and leaders are like that. Nothing could be further from the truth.
If you found this article you can likely resonate with being hurt at church. I am sorry for what some Christians wrongly did to you. They are an imperfect reflection of a perfect God who loves you more than you know. But what the enemy intended for evil, God will use for God in your life and to build his church. Let’s walk through eight steps together to heal from church hurt.
How to Cultivate Offense
Opportunities to become offended are easy to find at church. It’s a house full of imperfect followers of Christ, so if you’re looking for something to get offended about, you will find it. But there are also many real instances of spiritual abuse in which the church needs to remove the abuser, or if they are unwilling, the person hurt needs to find a new church home. This is a real situation I have lived through.
I’ve also watched many people become offended and church hop or deconstruct their faith until there is very little left. This is a different scenario than spiritual abuse at a church and Christians need to use discernment.
When I look back on my experience with spiritual abuse, I know what happened was not deserved. But I also need to look at where I did sin and what I could have done differently myself. By doing this I allow God to redeem my pain and make me more like him.
In humility, I can tell you the biggest thing I would change is not cultivating offense in my heart against this pastor before the firing ever happened. I did this through venting with a few safe people in my life. It was gossip and it only made things worse and bred discontentment.
Complaining is usually my default, so I have to listen to the conviction of the Holy Spirit and be really mindful of Phillippians 2:14 which says “Do everything without complaining or arguing.” This is also something I need to model for my kids, who can be prone to complaining too.
What we remind ourselves, our children, and friends when we are struggling with discontentment at church, is that we could leave and find a new church without the problems we are frustrated with, but we would find a whole new set of problems there. We’ve lived enough church life to understand that the grass is greener where you water it with gratitude.
Can there still be times you need to leave and find another church? Absolutely there can be many valid reasons. But don’t leave offended or you will find something new to be offended about at the next church or the next group of imperfect Christians you meet.
Satan’s desire is to kill us, steal from us, and ultimately destroy us. One of his favorite methods is using church hurt to cause us to completely walk away from our faith. 1 Peter 5:8 tells us “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.”
In 2 Corinthians 11:3 it says “But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ.” Notice here it’s Satan who influences our thoughts to lead us astray. Getting mad at God, over what his people do, is a very real temptation.
Jesus knew that this struggle with church hurt could lead us away from his perfect love, so right before he was arrested he prayed for our unity. John 17:20-23 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
Being consumed with our own grievances, even if they are valid, distracts us from pursuing the God who loves us. There is no space to worship when we are nursing a grudge. Our minds won’t be open to receiving wisdom from the sermon if we are mentally rehearsing everything we dislike about the pastor. The Spirit can’t speak to us in those quiet moments if our thoughts are consumed with how we were wronged.
Over and over in his letters to the churches, Paul urges them to be united. It was a problem the early church struggled with as well. 1 Corinthians 1:10 says “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.”
Humbly considering my own sins and the good grace of Jesus for me, and mentally giving thanks in every way possible, is the antidote when my heart begins to get offended or discontent. It is a continual process of needed sanctification in my life. And I can use the difficult Christian’s around me to stay bitter or allow God to use it for my growth and his glory.
Biblical Methods for Reconciliation
When we’ve been hurt by a brother or sister in Christ or a church, the very first thing we need to do is bring it to the Lord in prayer. Let’s allow God to filter our thoughts and feelings before we air them to our friends or the internet.
We need to first let the Holy Spirit help us discern if what we’re feeling hurt over is someone sinning against us, or us not feeling like our needs are being met. Are we putting church leaders in the place of God, expecting them to be perfect, or to provide for all our social, emotional, and spiritual needs? These are false expectations no man or woman can ever meet for us. God certainly uses the body to meet some of our needs, but he is the ultimate source and provider.
I believe the vast majority of what we’re offended over has to do with our unrealistic expectations and placing people where God rightly belongs. But in the case where we are sinned against, or we sin against another believer, it needs to be dealt with biblically or it will get in the way of our worship. Matthew 5:23-24 tells us “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First, be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
In Matthew 8:15-17 the Bible tells us “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
The biblical method for reconciliation includes both us apologizing for our sin and telling another if they have sinned directly against us. If you are only confronting others for their sin, and not ever allowing the Holy Spirit to confront you on yours, you have a pride problem and are in error. The bible also tells us to first go to that person in private with the goal of restoration
A private conversation about hurt, done in humility between two believers, has the potential to be a beautiful conduit of God’s grace. But if the aim is to exact justice and feel vindication, we are taking the place of God as judge and it likely will end in both parties being even more offended. The posture of our hearts matters.
How to Leave Well
If it’s time to leave a church, how you leave is important. People have walked away from the church completely because others were committed to dragging a whole congregation down as they left and caused their church to splinter. It may very well be time to leave, but vindication shouldn’t be your goal as you do so.
There are times when we follow the biblical model and our church or the people who hurt us refuse to take any responsibility and act as though they are entirely above the human propensity to sin. It is human nature to want to seek justice and even be tempted to tear them down.
Leaving well means we leave without airing our grievances to everyone who will listen, and we trust God to convict and judge those involved in his own perfect timing. As Luke 8:17 says “For nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest, nor is anything secret that will not be known and come to light.”
Leaving well also means we fully embrace the reality that the grass isn’t green in another church. If we leave a church with a certain set of problems, we will join another church with a completely different set of problems. I have left churches enough to realize that no perfect one exists, and that’s given my wandering heart the power to stay put and grow roots.
The greatest failure of leaving a church is leaving all churches for good. I understand the temptation intimately. When you’ve been as wounded as my husband and I were, you don’t want to go anywhere near the thing that could reopen your wound. It becomes so easy to justify every reason to stay away. But we forfeit our healing we when stay home.
Healing Happens in Community
As an adoptive parent, one of the lessons I learned is the way our children were harmed and abused, in relationship with their parent, is the same way they will heal, in relationship with their adoptive parents. The way we heal relational hurts is in relationships, and the way we heal church hurt is in the church.
It’s okay to struggle with trust and to take the healing process slowly. Depending on the situation and the level of hurting you experienced, this could take years. You may have also experienced spiritual abuse growing up, so the healing task at hand becomes more layered and complex. It’s worth the fight for wholeness and freedom.
Christians divorcing themselves from the church completely is Satan’s end game for church hurt. Don’t let him have a foothold. Stay in church. The church is the bride of Christ. We can’t claim to love him and hate his bride. We would never do that to a friend.
The longer my husband and I have walked out church life after a horrific church hurt experience, we understand that even in imperfect spaces, God is in the business of redemption. Our new church leaders don’t need to be perfect in order to be safe because God is on his throne.
Our healing has come by God’s working through imperfect people. The couple that God divinely connected us with who counseled us that first year. The accountability partners that God had placed around us. The men’s retreats and worship services and professional counselors that have been pivotal in our healing from church hurt have all come from God’s people.
Praying for Your Enemies
Matthew 5:44 “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” The ability to pray for your enemies, to genuinely ask God for their ultimate good, is the litmus test for forgiveness. Forgiveness doesn’t necessarily mean we’re friends again. Unrepentant people may not be safe or healthy to be around but we can fight for forgiveness through prayer.
Every person reading this can think of a betrayal, abuse, or deep relational wound. It’s part of being human. Harboring unforgiveness is a weapon we think is protecting us, but is actually piercing our own souls. Bitterness often doesn’t hurt the person we’re angry with nearly as much as it hurts ourselves.
Praying for our enemies is the way out. And even as I write this I am convicted again of a relationship I’m harboring hurt and unforgiveness in. I need to pray for that person.
When we place our hearts in a posture of prayer and forgiveness for another, it’s a poignant reminder that God forgives us too. There is a direct correlation in scripture between our prayers for forgiveness for others, and our receiving of forgiveness ourselves.
Ephesians 4:32 “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” and Mark 11:25 “And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.”
To the degree we judge others, we hold judgment against ourselves. And to the degree we can forgive others, we can receive that good grace ourselves. Hurt and unforgiveness act as a mirror to our own soul, revealing the darkness we didn’t know was there. Church hurt can be the greatest single blessing and instrument of our sanctification and growth if we allow it.
Look for the Blessing
When my husband and I were struggling through the dark years following our church hurt, we wrestled with questioning why a good God would allow that to happen to us. We put our entire lives on the line to follow God’s calling to care for orphans and lost nearly everything because of it at the hands of church leaders.
It was an early Tim Keller sermon that transformed the way we viewed our suffering. He explained, “God only allows Satan to accomplish the very opposite of what he wants to accomplish. He only gives Satan enough rope to hang himself…”
It was a fresh understanding of Romans 8:28 which says “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” God doesn’t call everything that happens to us good. And we know from James 1:27 that every good and perfect gift comes from God. So when bad things happen, and they will, as the result of sin and brokenness in our world, we know that God does not cause them. But he promises to use them for our good and his glory.
That is a unique promise we have as believers that God will use the bad stuff for our good. When we changed our thinking and started looking at our hard circumstances through the lens of Romans 8:28, we could very clearly see God’s miraculous work. Whatever we seek we find. And as we looked for the blessings we began to see them everywhere.
This won’t be true for everyone, but for us, we needed to leave ministry to get spiritually healthy. And a swift kick out the door was the only way we would have ever left. Disconnecting our livelihood from our relationship with Christ was the fresh air and light the hidden parts needed to heal. It was a blessing of eternal proportions.
Books and Biblical Counseling
In a season of living in poverty, we weren’t able to pay for biblical counseling, but counseling from older wiser people in our church was a lifeline. In other seasons we have paid for professional biblical counseling. Both have been instrumental in our healing.
There are many great books written on the topic of church hurt that you may find helpful in your journey. The one I can personally speak to is The Bait of Satan: Living Free From the Deadly Trap of Offense by John Bevere. It was given to us by the couple who counseled us in those early years and was enormously helpful. Particularly if you have been in ministry and are experiencing church hurt you will find it spot on.
Applying ourselves to the process of healing from church hurt requires great amounts of humility. It’s honestly easier and feels better to stay offended. Forgiving others always requires that we forgive ourselves, which requires we admit we are in need of forgiveness. This is the essence of the gospel and a stumbling block for many.
Staying offended is a short-term gain and long-term loss. Proverbs 22:4 tells us “The reward for humility and fear of the Lord is riches and honor and life.” Proverbs 11:2 says “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with the humble is wisdom.” And James 4:6 “But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”
Healing from church hurt is worth the work and humility. God will use it in glorious ways if you allow him to.