In many ways my testimony is not that remarkable. I grew up in a stable home with a dad who was in full time ministry and a mom who stayed home to help support me with my learning disability. At the age of 6 I trusted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. I had been asking my parents a lot of questions, and it was time. I felt God calling me.
Following my conversion I was a very normal church kid. I grew up straight and narrow. I didn’t drink, smoke or any even dance, though the dancing thing was because I was terribly shy and because I have no rhythm. Perhaps the extent of my teenage rebellion was a few cuss words and a teenage relationship which got way too serious.
In tenth grade God changed my life. I have always been a people pleaser and truthfully scared of being alone. I often surround myself with people to avoid isolation. The first day of my tenth grade year I showed up to school to find that I did not have a single friend in class… or lunch. Now I know that doesn’t sound like much now, but for a teenager my world seemed to fall apart. That night my parents talked me through my teenage melt down and encouraged me to take my Bible to school.
This single piece of advice changed my life. As I took my Bible to school, I began to read it regularly. Where I depended on others for friendship, Jesus became my friend. My relationship with God grew, and within the year I sensed a calling to ministry.
This is where I want to spend the bulk of my time in sharing with you. Frankly, pastors have the perception that we have our lives together, are always happy, and don’t have any hurts, habits, or hangups. Tonight I am going to burst your bubble.
Fast forward about 10 years from tenth grade. I was serving as a pastor in Duncan, Oklahoma. Pastoring at Western Heights Baptist Church was a challenge. The church had been declining for years, they had attempted to fire 2 of the 3 pastors before me, and there was certainly a group who did not like me.
As a people pleaser it bothered me that people did not like my ideas. They had called me to reach young people, but in reality, my job was to maintain the status quo and cater to the senior portion of the church.
The first major blow up at the church happened when a woman got irritated that our one and two year old children were always around when we were at church. As serious as can be, she looked at me and told me, “The reason this church is dying is because of your children.” Yes, my one and two year old babies. They didn’t misbehave or act out – they were just there.
The second blow up happened a few months later. We had two boys who reluctantly attended the church because our church bus picked them up. They sat on the back row of the church with *gasp* hats on. A deacon walked up to me and told me that those boys would either need to take their hats off or be kicked out of the church. I shared that these boys were the very people we were called to share God’s love with and that their hats were no big deal. That did not bode well for me.
The third blow up at the church happened as our girls started pre-k. Jenn and I did not make enough at the church to afford a car payment and up until that point, we shared our used car. With the girls in school we realized I needed a secondary means of transportation. We went and got what we could afford, a $50 dollar bike from Walmart. I started riding every day to church. Unbeknownst to me, many members of the church began driving by to see whether the pastor was at work. When they drove by and did not see a car in the pastor’s spot, they simply assumed I was lazy and did not show up for work.
Everything came to a head one night at a business meeting. Baptist business meetings many times can be like having 85 bosses show up to gripe at you about your job. This business meeting was different. Where the church ran about 85 folks on a given Sunday, there were at least 150 folks in the meeting. As I passed out the year’s budget and opened it for discussion, the plan revealed itself. Even though my opposition did not have the 2/3rds votes to remove me, they did have the 50% vote to strip my pay package from the church’s budget. Person after person got up to scream at me over hymns, the fact that I preached from an iPad, that I allowed those “punk kids” to come in with their punk hats, and my children. Oh yes, with my kids and wife in the room as they tore apart my four and three year old.
I was in tears. I was broken. We voted, and the opposition lost by two votes. A few weeks later, half the church walked out, and the church split.
I became bitter.
Later that year we moved on, broken, hurting, and wounded from Oklahoma. We moved to Houston believing that a new start would heal our broken bitterness.
At our next church, we faced a new set of challenges, I still attempted to fix my problems through pleasing people, which didn’t work. Truth is, in Houston, we still attempted to just ignore our habits, hangups, and specifically our hurts. Ignoring your hurts makes them go away right?
Fast forward to Vidalia. All the years of ignoring the hurts don’t just go away. They say time heals all, but truthfully, if those hurts are not addressed, time does not heal. It festers, grows, and infects. I remember meeting people in our first weeks here at the church, and the thoughts that went through my mind were… who are going to be the people who hurt us? As we would meet new friends, echoes of former relationships would rise. We would see former church members in them: some good and some bad.
The triggers of grief have gotten greater and greater over the years. A small trigger for me would take that moment and magnify it through the previous pain we never worked through. There are days I come home from a business meeting and feel the deep pain from years ago having reared its head as the new moment unearths the undealt with pain. A few weeks back, a derogatory comment to Jennifer meant to cut brought her to tears as years of church pain found its way back to the surface. I can’t tell you the times I have sworn off Facebook as the pains of criticism get brought into my daily life as people use the platform to express their opinions not only of my work but also of my life.
Two years ago, Jennifer and I began serving in the Landing at Celebrate Recovery. As I served, I would be asked to give announcements which means I had to tell y’all my issues. At first I came up and rattled off food issues or other surface level things. Over time, the constant reminder to own up to my habits, hangups, and hurts made me confront an ocean of hurts which I had not dealt with in my life. My addiction to eating, working out, people pleasing, bitterness, and anger all found roots in hurts that were buried over my lifetime of ministry.
About a year ago, Jennifer and I were at a church conference in Denver, Colorado. At this conference, I proposed to my wife the idea of taking our girls there on vacation but driving the indirect route to visit our church in Oklahoma. We never had closure. We never dealt with our pain. Eight months after that trip I received a call from my former church. Apparently God had laid that idea on the current pastor’s heart as well. They invited me back to preach their revival.
All kinds of emotions flooded my mind and heart at that moment. I said yes. Arriving in Duncan for the revival, my heart pounded and nerves found their way up into my throat. God had a plan. He was working. God knew I needed healing. We saw former friends who loved us. The church loved on us. Talking with the pastor and sharing the road we walked at that church, he apologized for the church. We made amends.
God brought me back to Duncan to confront hurts we had never dealt with. On the third night of the revival, one of our agitators walked in the door. If my heart beat fast when we drove into Duncan, it exploded when this man walked in. I can’t tell you how many times I had dreamed and thought through this moment sadistically. In my dreams I finally got my moment to tell this man off. But God worked in my heart. He softened it. No, the man did not apologize for the torment he brought to my family, but it didn’t matter, God gave me peace. Forgiveness at that moment was not conditional on what he did but instead a gift from God to me.
I am not done in my road of healing. This very week I have ached emotionally as direct cutting words have hurt my heart. Most Saturday nights I struggle still to fall asleep as my worries and heartaches attack me like demons. I still have bitterness, hurt, and pain that I have not given to God. That said, I can see God working in my life to bring healing. I can see how he is leading me to cast all my cares on Him. I can see that greater is He that is in me, that he that is in the world.
Pastors are not perfect people. Behind the smile, most of us are hurting men. We pastors need CR as much as anyone else. As a pastor, I don’t deal with my issues, because frankly I don’t want people to know I struggle and fear that people will use my struggles to come after me. That said. I’m a grateful believer in Jesus Christ who struggles with years of hurt, bitterness, anger, people pleasing, and so much more. My name is Wes.