The most painful experience of my life happened during a time when I was in leadership at a church.
The most painful experience of my life happened during a time when I was in leadership at a church. My heart was severely wounded by a fellow staff member. Even years later as I write this, I have to be careful not to let bitterness creep back in.
What happened? Long story short, I opened up to a staff member. I shared my dreams, and he discounted them. I shared my weaknesses, and he exposed and exaggerated almost every one of them inappropriately to several other staff members. He lied and manipulated people on my team, sometimes plotting to turn us against each other. He set me, and others, up to fail.
After being wounded, I wanted to throw in my ministry towel. Every reason I had for avoiding the church had been confirmed. My husband and I tried to remain involved in that church, but it was too painful. Some of our dearest friends were involved in ministry there. They had questions about what happened, and in order to preserve some sort of unity, we wouldn’t answer them specifically. We left. And that was painful too.The process of healing from this experience is ongoing. It’s taken several years so far, and I’m guessing it’s something I’ll always have to deal with from time to time. And if you’ve been hurt, you know the range of emotions you walk through.
It’s almost impossible to trust again.
So, what happens now? Maybe you were hurt yesterday, or perhaps it was twenty years ago. I don’t pretend to have all the answers. But I will share with you some parts of my own journey that God has certainly redeemed.
One of the mistakes a lot of people make when they’ve been hurt is to lash out. I made this mistake frequently. Once, I was literally trembling with anger after a meeting with the aforementioned staff member. As soon as it was over, I went into my friend’s office and exploded, completely tearing my adversary apart. I trashed his leadership, his motives, and his authority. My friend, older and wiser than I am, calmly let me empty all my barrels. After I tearfully finished, he shared an experience he had gone through at another church. He had been unjustly let go. But he and his wife decided to take the high road. They had plenty of opportunities to trash-talk their former church, but they refused to do so. Before talking to my friend, I thought my only option was to lash out and expose this staff member for who he really was. The world needed to know. Or so I thought. But now, I was presented with the clear alternative—to keep quiet about the things that upset me, and move on.
It isn’t easy to keep your mouth shut when someone unfairly betrays you. But except in rare occasions — when someone’s health or immediate well-being is at stake, for example — it’s necessary for the sake of unity.
Some of the greatest leaders I know have been severely hurt in ministry. I interviewed several for this book, and I discovered this consistent insight: the leaders who were the healthiest were the ones who never disrespected the people who hurt them. Did they admit their hurt? Did they tell me their stories? Absolutely. But they also preserved unity. Being hurt is extremely painful. But we can’t let our emotions dictate our actions.
Talking about It
Even though it’s unwise to react emotionally and dishonor someone who has hurt you, it’s extremely unhealthy not to discuss it. The key to doing this in an honoring manner is to find a mature and wise person who will look at the situation objectively.
What “talking about it” doesn’t mean is fueling gossip with your friends. You may need to find someone outside of your church to talk to. My own process led me to get counseling at a faith-based counseling center on the other side of town. Because my counselor was board certified, she was required by law to keep what I said confidential. It was an extremely safe place to unload, at times emotionally, about the pain. And since she was outside of the church’s circle, her objectiveness encouraged me to look differently at facets of my situation. One of the most striking things I learned by talking to an objective person was that the person who was hurting me was clearly also hurting as well. Recognizing this commonality somehow allowed me to see his humanity and brokenness instead of only the pain he caused me.
Praying about It
Working with a counselor also helped me pray for the person who was hurting me, which wasn’t an easy task. But doing so was necessary for my growth. Praying for this person was literally a life-changing experience. It not only helped me by taking the focus off myself but also brought me closer to the heart of God — which is exactly where I needed to be in order to truly love someone I considered an enemy.
Finding Strength to Forgive
For me, the hardest part of this process has been forgiveness. It’s not a onetime decision. In a way, it’s like marriage. It’s a commitment you make for the rest of your life, because, chances are, you’re going to remember significant pain indefinitely. I wasn’t sure how to forgive this man, but I knew it was something I had to do because I wanted to follow Jesus’ example of ultimate forgiveness. I no longer wanted to be a slave to the negative emotions in my spirit.
And choosing to forgive him meant abandoning the myths and learning the truth about forgiveness.
(This is an excerpt from Mad Church Disease: Overcoming the Burnout Epidemic, by Anne Jackson. Used by permission of Zondervan)