You Are Not Alone (Pastor’s Stories)

Hill JuniorNote: I asked each of these men for them to share their story and are included here with their permission.

“When Doing Well Becomes Well Doing”
Evangelist Junior Hill

Several years ago Dr. Hudson Baggett, then editor of The Alabama Baptist, spoke some of the most perceptive words I had ever heard when he said, “I believe there is more discouragement per square inch among pastors than any other single profession.” After having been in the ministry for over 50 years, I have come to believe Dr. Baggett was right.

Anyone who has ever been in the ministry can surely identify with that truth. Dr. Vance Havner put it well when he said, “Let him who sets out to toil in the vineyard of the Lord get ready for both troubles and triumph and may the Lord help him to not be upset by either. Some days he will crawl and some says he will fly and it is hard to say which places him in greater danger.”

Paul alluded to that subtle truth when he wrote, “And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not” (Galatians 6:9). The problem with that verse is that most of today’s religious culture cannot distinguish between “well doing” and “doing well.”

To the casual observer “doing well” is always much more alluring. “Doing well” is when your church is growing, people are being saved, and everyone seems to love you. It is earthly success on display – clearly visible to every inquiring eye.

It is, as Dr. Havner said, “flying.” But not so with “well doing.” “Well doing” is faithfulness in the midst of apparent failure. It is putting your hand to the plow and faithfully moving forward – even when the ground seems hard, the seed unproductive, and the weather adverse for a harvest. It is in fact “crawling” when everyone else around you seems to be “flying.” But surprisingly, “well doing” is the very thing God exhorts His servants to do!

The test of the real man of God is not what he does in triumph but how he responds in tragedy. The burning question every man of God must ask is this:“shall I faint – or shall I finish?” Having been fired from a church I pastored while a seminary student, I surely understand the lure of fainting. But in that darkest hour of my ministry, I rejoice that He stood with me and patiently encouraged me to focus not on what had happened to me – but on what He had planned for me. In the midst of that trying hour I wasn’t “doing well,” but thank God, He taught me how to be faithful in “well doing.”

And to be honest, “crawling” isn’t all that bad when you are headed in the right direction with the right person urging you on!

Lance RickDr. Rick Lance
Executive Director – Alabama Baptist Convention

Joseph Stowell, former president of Moody Bible Institute, was once asked a personal question by a fellow minister who was experiencing a tough time in his own ministry. Stowell’s colleague and friend asked, ” Joe what is the biggest problem you have faced in the ministry?” Thinking the answer would be one related to leading a school as president or serving as a pastor in the past, the minister was surprised somewhat when Joseph Stowell said, ” Me! I am my biggest problem, my greatest challenge.”

Personally, I can identify with that assessment. After forty five plus years of preaching, pastoring several churches and serving in a missionary position for Alabama Baptists, I can safely say I have struggled more with myself than with anything else in ministry. Yes, I have had my share of disagreements with church leadership. I have known the enormous challenges of leading churches through building programs and the ebb and flow of ministry in so many other ways. I have been criticized as a leader in every position I have served, but my basic problem has always been with dealing with my own self.

Some explaining needs to be done for sure or I will be misunderstood in this discussion of the low points in ministry. Bear with me as I seek to flesh out what I mean by this personal self assessment. Like all other people, I deal with what has been described as self talk. It is the inner voice of conversation we have with ourselves. We listen to ourselves more than anyone else and that is the problem in and of itself.

I began my ministry of preaching and serving churches very early, devoid of any real experience as a pastor, except that of observing the pastors who led my home church. I tried hard as a preacher and pastor and people were gracious and kind toward the young upstart who was seeking to lead them. The inner voice of self talk was not always friendly. There were times I felt like a failure but I pressed on.

Years later, following seminary, I served several large churches in urban and small city settings. To a large degree, I was considered to be a success and I hope I was effective in those places of ministry. In retrospect, I would have done some things differently but that is generally true of most people I meet. They seem to say the same thing about the past.

I hit a wall in my mid forties. The inner voice or internal critic was working me over big time. I felt like a failure in so many ways. My children were now teenagers. My church had grown to a size which was demanding more of me than ever before. I was serving my denomination in several specific places of influence but inside I was feeling the vice grip of some serious concerns.

I remember Father’s Day in 1996. I stood before my church family and made a confessional statement which I had not planned to make. “My father had a sixth grade education” I said, ” but he was many times better as a father than I am”. It was a catharsis I needed. I had to make some kind of confession of my own sense of weakness and failure. I had prepared for everything in life, but parenting was my personal struggle. It grew out of a sense of loss I had felt for decades. My father had died when I was eighteen and I had grieved over that loss quietly and internally. That grief had handicapped me as a father and probably in other ways too.

In reflecting over that experience years ago, I believe that morning was a turning point. For the first time since the death of my father I had recognized a father hunger in my life. At this point I began to heal. Sure there were bumps in the road to come. There twists and turns which challenged me but this was a reality check for me.

Since that time, I have been far more aware of my-self talk. I have sought to take the inner lawyer which, at times, tried to prosecute me in the personal court of opinion. Now however, I knew what I was up against and I was better prepared to handle the internalized grief and hurt.

To all ministers and church leaders, I would say please be in touch with what is going on in your life. If there is an unforgiven sin or a grief experience or a personal hang up, do not allow it to go without serious attention. A time for catharsis and cleansing is a time of renewal. Putting aside pride and confessing to significant others what is happening in your life is not only good, it is quite necessary for dedicated service. I have learned that if you show grace to others, they are more prone to show grace to you.

Today I claim Barnabas as my Biblical example for ministry. Barnabas was not the most gifted leader. He was not an apostle Paul. He was not the first string kind of leader, but he had a ministry of encouragement to others. He helped to launch the ministry of Paul. He was instrumental in rehabilitating John Mark. Barnabas was an encourager to early Christians, like those in Antioch. Whatever was going on in his life seemed to be in tune with the Spirit of God. That is the kind of servant of The Lord I want to be for whatever time I have to serve Him.

McLemore Mike“A Journey Through the Valley”
Dr. Mike D. McLemore
Birmingham, Alabama Baptist Association Director of Missions

A few years ago while serving as Pastor of a local church I found myself searching for wisdom and direction in solving a real issue that had developed in my church. While I will not discuss the specific details concerning that issue, I will share how I found the strength, wisdom, support, and above all the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, as I entered this valley experience in my ministry.

This “valley experience” followed a real spiritual “mountain top” experience! While I was rejoicing and praising the Lord for the experience on the mountain top, I soon found myself in a valley of despair and discouragement.

I want to share with you three “spiritual resources” that I found that helped me to put this valley experience in perspective which better prepared me to move forward in faith!

The Lord led me to Matthew 3 & 4. In this passage Matthew shares with us the baptism experience of Jesus at the Jordan where he heard the affirmation and confirmation of God the Father on His ministry. Then the Spirit of God manifested Himself in the form of a dove and spoke these words, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”

What a “mountain top” experience!” But notice that in chapter 4 we read these words, “Then Jesus was led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil.”

Notice the timing! Right after our Lord experienced a great mountain top affirmation from the Father at His baptism, He immediately found Himself being tempted by the devil!! God used this passage to help me see the truth that often times in ministry when things seem to be going so good…all of a sudden we find ourselves in a temptation experience that test our faith and our commitment level to the Lord and His kingdom’s work!!! He helped me to put my experience in perspective!

A second resource that the Lord led me do was Bob Buford’s book entitled, “Half-Time” This book helped me to see that the goal of my ministry and life is not so much that I be successful but rather that my ministry and life be significant!!

So often in ministry we all seek to make a name for ourselves. I believe this is one of the greatest temptations a Pastor faces!! This is all of the flesh!!! We should be focused on making the Name of Jesus known… not ours!!

I plead guilty of this sin in the early part of my ministry. I wanted to be successful! It was only later in my ministry when I went through some trials that the Lord taught me the truth that….”Without Him, I am nothing, and without Him I can do nothing…at least anything of eternal value!” A dear friend said it this way, “Without Him I ain’t nothing going nowhere!”

This is the value of a “valley experience.” The most important lessons that I have learned in ministry have been the times I found myself totally dependent on the Lord!!!

A third resource that was very helpful to me was the counsel of some Godly men that I cultivated a relationship with over the years of my ministry. Some are Pastor’s and some are laymen. Several of them have gone on to be with the Lord, but several remain to this day and I still value their counsel and advice.

Some of the ones who have gone on to be with the Lord were: Rev. Ray Wood (Former Pastor), Dr. Hudson Baggett (Friend and Mentor), Rev. Gene Nail (Pastor friend), Rev. Ray Green (Former Pastor), Rev. David Carpenter (Former Pastor), Mr. Buster Reeves (Layman), Mr. Elmer Guy (Layman).

The counsel of Godly men is always a valuable resource for every Pastor in ministry! I urge every Pastor to enlist a group of men that they have great respect and confidence in and ask them to be their prayer partners and confidants in ministry.

I hope this journey of mine will be of benefit to anyone who reads this account from my own personal experience. May God bless you as you journey through life for the glory of the Lord! There will be mountain tops and there will be valleys to travel through all along the journey in this life. But also remember, “The God of the mountains is also the God of the valleys!” I Cor. 10:13.

JMcKeeBroken Pastor, Broken Church (Joe McKeever) {Follow the link at the end for the whole story!}

(This is our account of a difficult three years in our lives–’ours’ referring to my wife and me–when we pastored a divided church in North Carolina. The article ran in the Winter 2001 issue of “Leadership,” a publication of Christianity Today.  At the conclusion, we have a few postscripts which may be of interest to some.)

How could I lead a congregation that was as hurt as I was?

My calendar for the summer and beyond was blank. I usually planned my preaching schedule for a full year, but beyond the second Sunday in June–nothing. I had no ideas. I sensed no leading from the Spirit. But it was only January, so I decided to try again in a couple of months. Again, nothing. By then, I suspected the Lord was up to something.

A member of my church had told me the year before, “Don’t die in this town.” I knew what she meant. She didn’t envision Columbus as the peak of my ministry. Columbus was a county-seat town with three universities nearby, and, for Mississippi, cosmopolitan. I felt Columbus, First Baptist, and I were a good match. The church grew. We were comfortable together. My family was settled. Our sons and daughter had completed most of their schooling, and after twelve years, they called Columbus home. My wife, Margaret, and I had weathered a few squalls, but life was good–a little quiet, perhaps even stagnant, but good.

And suddenly I could hear the clock ticking. Did God have something more for me?

First Baptist Church of Charlotte, North Carolina, called in March. I ended my ministry at Columbus the second Sunday of June and began in Charlotte one month later.

After I’d been in Charlotte about a month, the man who chaired their search committee phoned. “I have some people I want you to talk with,” he told me. He picked me up and drove me to the impressive home of one of our members. In the living room were a dozen men, all leaders in the church and in the city. Another man appeared in charge.

“We want to offer you some guidance in pastoring the church,” he said. “There are several issues we feel are important, and we want you to know where we stand.” He outlined their position on the battle between conservatives and moderates for control of our denomination and on the role of women in the church. He wanted women elected as deacons, one item in a full slate of changes he wanted made at the church.

Charlotte’s web

I was beginning to see what I had been told: a handful of very strong lay people had called the shots for more than two decades, and this was part of their plan.

My immediate predecessor had run afoul of this little group and after three tough years had moved to another church of his own accord. The pastor before him had stayed over 20 years.

“Those were the 20 most miserable years of my life,” the retired pastor had said to me at a conference while I was preparing to move to Charlotte. “A small group organized against me and fought everything I did. When I proposed something, they would burn up the phone lines to get it killed.” I heard his warning, but I was convinced that this was God’s will for me.

Read the rest of Dr. McKeever’s narrative…

Bush Randy“A Journey To The Backside of the Wilderness”
Randy Bush (Pastor in Alabama)

In the fall of 1999, our family made the decision to move our daughter to Houston, Texas, to train with gymnasts who had experienced national and international success. The decision resulted in our family living apart.

Several months into this lifestyle, distance crept into our family, not only geographically but relationally. The same distance found its way into my life spiritually. Satan seized this opportunity to provide me with temptation that I not only thought about but also pursued. The result was a moral rebellion ( not just a moral failure). This ultimately led to suffering for many, something that at the time was not nearly as important to me as my own self indulgence.

I chose to divorce my wife of 17 years, and marry someone else. Less than one week into the new marriage, we considered divorce. The entire time we were married was a time of constant turmoil for everyone involved. A resemblance of the situation you find in Gen 12, when Abram lies to Pharaoh concerning Sarah. By 2003, we could no longer endure, so we divorced. Again, this caused suffering for all of us.

Hearing the distant voice of God in my life, I began to seek reconciliation with my first wife. She graciously forgave me, and we remarried in July of 2004. The following 6 years I often describe as our time spent on the backside of the wilderness. (See Moses experience in Exodus 2 & 3).

All of us were still hurting from all of the chaos of the recent years, but God provided a great environment for our reconciliation. We moved to Iowa (as I said, the backside of the wilderness) which in essence gave us the opportunity to start over in a brand new place. A place where much of the past was not present. We were able to focus on our relationship with God and also each other. We also worked daily together, which gave us even more time. This was an incredible blessing in our lives.

Those years I really concentrated on two things. My marriage, and my work. God provided me with a new start, and his mercy showered me with the ability to live with the mistakes that I had made. I was certain that full time ministry was no longer in my future, But God gave me complete peace with that. He gave me a passion for my new vocation, and great contentment in it. Our journey to the backside, eased our suffering, and opened our eyes to the wonderful forgiveness of God.

We are so grateful to the Lord for those years in Iowa. They were days of suffering and also great joy! God led us to a small Southern Baptist church where we were able to worship and grow in Christ. We were confident and content that we would live the rest of our lives in that small Iowa setting.

God had other plans. We have now actually moved back to Alabama, our company moved us back in 2010. We were offered the opportunity to come back, and made the decision to do so. We never requested it, but God willed it. We firmly believe that. Our return to home has given us the privilege of serving again in the pastoral ministry, as an interim. We believed it to be the right approach to give our complete testimony before serving, (I had some Godly counsel concerning this), and the church graciously listened, and called us to serve as interim.

What have I learned from the journey?

  • That dependence on God, is essential. He is before all things, and by Him all things hold together. (Col 2:17) ALL THINGS. My self-centeredness, self dependence, was central in what happened in my life.
  • That sin, though very consequential, will NOT lead to ultimate and complete destruction for those who are in Christ. God has all of eternity to make things right, and He will.
  • That God listens to us, and identifies with our suffering. He turned his face away from His own Son. He knows about suffering.
  • That God’s mercy is a great source of hope.
  • That Proverbs 3:5-6 is more than just a nice saying on a wall plaque.
  • That prayer is more about changing my heart than God’s mind.
  • That forgiveness brings great freedom and fullness of joy.

Ethridge Ron“Seven Hooks On Which I Hang My Hat”
Ron Ethridge

Several years ago I found myself in a difficult time in ministry. Among other things, my parents were divorcing after 32 years… one of my children had a potentially fatal disease… I was doing my doctoral work… the church was going through stressful growing pains (Building)… I was straining emotionally… and my family struggled as a result of my own difficulties.

I had little joy as it seemed life was crushing in on me from every direction and I couldn’t do anything about it. I felt as though I had to keep up appearances since I was the pastor, but inside I was spiritually famished. I hate to admit it, but I was doing the work of the ministry in the flesh.

Then I was called into a meeting by some deacons. They told me that my ministry at the church was no longer effective (I didn’t do a good job hiding my emotional struggles.). They told me I was to find another place to serve (They gave me time to look). In that meeting I broke down in weeping.

These men probably thought my emotion was because of what they asked of me, but that was the least of my struggles. My weeping was the result of the first two paragraphs chasing me constantly, that meeting was only a small straw in the big scheme of things.

After telling my wife and family of that night’s events, I decided to back up and seek God as best I knew how. The first thing I did was make a CD of worship songs that were special to me. While listening to those ten songs I would weep… laugh… praise… and worship God. Many times I’d get in my car depressed and after listening to a song or two (Or all of them), I would be refreshed in my spirit by God’s Spirit.

Along with those songs, there were messages I listened to repeatedly while driving. These were by men like Tim Keller, John Piper, John MacArthur, and others. They were messages of hope and encouragement for times of suffering.

Then, most importantly, I did a series of Bible Studies for myself (Not to preach). I used a title from somewhere: Hooks On Which I Hang My Hat. I identified seven truths that I believed at the end of the day… no matter what… that I would not question whatsoever. After each truth I added a personal application. The Seven Hooks were:

  1. God Is Love (2 Cor 1:3-6; 12:9; Ro 8:28): Nothing bad ever has, or ever will, happen to me. Evil, yes. Bad, no.
  2. God Is Good (Ps 73:1; 2 Cor 12:9): It is impossible for me or others to mess up my life past God using for His glory.
  3. God Is In Control (Ro 8:28 {NASB}; Ps 84:11b; Dan 4:35; Is 46:9-10): God only allows into my life what is ultimately good for me.
  4. God Is Just (Ezra 9:15; Job 1-2): Satan can only do what God allows.
  5. All God’s Ways Are Perfect (Gen 18:25; Ja 1:3-5): I rejoice in every circumstance by keeping a heaven theology.
  6. God Is Trustworthy (Ps 62:8; Is 42:3): I have hope & peace, relying upon God alone.
  7. God Does Not Change (Mal 3:6; Ja 1:17b): My salvation & faith in God cannot be lost.

I would like to say that upon completing this study that I immediately found complete peace, but I didn’t. Instead peace, joy, and contentment steadily grew in me. Whenever I found myself slipping into fear or discouragement, I went back to these seven things… read the Scriptures… prayed them to God… and over time God’s comfort grew stronger.

Sometimes it was quick… sometimes it slow… but every time I was encouraged and comforted by God. To this day… over a decade later… I still rely on these truths about God, regardless of how I feel. I still listen to those songs and remember God’s faithfulness… and am comforted.

I pray that these will be of comfort to you as God has comforted me.

One response to You Are Not Alone (Pastor’s Stories)

  1. Those ministers were so open to tell their stories. More of us need to open up to each other. It certainly would help if we could be more open about our own personal struggles, in the place you would think it could be heard in love. I really love to read Redemption Ministries’ blog by Ron Ethridge.

    Rhett Whitley

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