"I finally understand people who give up on church."
My friend Dee was one of the last people I expected to utter those words. Although she had suffered her share of misunderstandings and wounding criticisms during her decades of ministry in the church, she continued to advocate church attendance and participation. Now her pastor's hurtful treatment had left her dazed and disheartened. She didn't seem to have the motivation to bounce back. Sometimes I think that church involvement should come with a warning label: "Caution: May lead to disappointment, grief, and loss of appetite for church life."
I first grew disillusioned with church 17 years ago when the small church in which myhusband and I were youth directors blew apart due to an irreconcilable conflict betweenour pastors--one of whom was my dad. Through two years of church-wide turmoil, Ispent myself providing moral support to my parents while carrying a full ministry load.I organized youth activities, coordinated weddings, and led a women's Bible study--inaddition to caring for my young family.
By the time the dust settled, many of our friends had moved to other churches, our congregation was a battle-weary shell of its former self, and I was wrung out emotionally and spiritually. Our recovery process was slow and frustrating, but my husband and I assured ourselves that the worst troubles were over.
Then it happened again.
This time, the leadership crisis was even more devastating. Until then, my husband and I had never considered leaving the church in which we had both grown up. But after a long season of prayer, we sensed God directing us to move on.
To our relief, we quickly found a church that seemed the perfect fit. Within months we were both active in leadership. A few years later, I was hired to assist our women's ministry director. I had found my niche. Life was good. Surely our church troubles were history.
Then it happened again.
During my fourth year as a ministry assistant, the church leaders made a series of decisions that shocked me. Doubts and deep sorrow invaded my heart as I observed how those decisions hurt others, including several of my close friends. Church-related woes, Irealized, were neither a one-time fluke nor limited to a particular church--they could hit anywhere, seemingly without warning. That knowledge flattened my enthusiasm for church and ministry, and left me feeling vulnerable. Weekend worship services became exercises in containing my emotions. My job became a list of chores I made myself do. Eventually, the situation grew so painful that I resigned.
For the first time in my life, I felt like giving up on church. Why set myself up for more heartache? I reasoned. I was tired; I wanted to quit.
Deep down, though, I longed for a compelling reason not to quit--something beyond grit-my-teeth obedience to Heb. 10:25: "Let us not give up meeting together." But how could I find the motivation to stay involved in church after such negative experiences?
I haven't found any easy answers, but I can share how God has helped me weather the storms of disillusionment.
How can we have a positive perspective on pain? Read more on page 2 >>
Jesus shows by example how to develop a positive perspective on pain. The writer of Hebrews reminds me to "consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that [I] will not grow weary and lose heart" (12:3). By focusing on "the joy set before him" (v. 2), Jesus walked through worse trials than I--or anyone--will ever encounter. Taking my cues from Him, I'm learning to focus on the reward of becoming stronger and more mature as a result of persevering through the difficult situations I've encountered at church. Through them, God is training me in holiness; the pain they cause will eventually produce "a harvest of righteousness and peace" (v. 11).
For example, God used the debilitating depression I experienced during the first leadership crisis to tear down my critical tendencies. Before, I often disparaged people who skipped Sunday-evening or midweek services or Bible study. They're obviously not as serious about their faith as I am, I thought. And I had little tolerance for those who didn't do their share of cookie baking, kitchen cleanup, or nursery duty.
Then depression drained my energy and fogged my brain. Most days, I could barely get my kids to school and make dinner. The smallest ministry obligation felt overwhelming. Even simple tasks, such as bringing snacks for an upcoming event, seized me with panic. What if I couldn't muster the energy to make--or even buy--something?
Embarrassed by my weakness, I began to skip church as often as I could without raising the curiosity of those who might ask probing questions, make critical comments, or offer pat advice. I could finally sympathize with people who limited their church involvement. I cringed at how quickly I had judged them or doled out simplistic bits of wisdom to solve their pain. God was using adversity to soften my heart. Recognizing this encouraged me to respond in ways that strengthened my character rather than crippled me spiritually.
Strengthening my character does not mean dismissing the pain I experience.